Practicing Empathy: “How Would I Feel If…?”

Slipping into another’s skin comes easier to some than others.

Multicultural environments prepare those who grow up in them to imagine how a person from a different background thinks and feels, imagine another’s experience in this world.

In that person’s experience, multiple worlds exist, so slipping fluidly from one perspective and reality to another is often more familiar; it comes naturally.

But for those of us who live in a monocultural environment – that is a single, homogeneous culture – the change in perspective is not innate.

Despite having no experience or natural instinct to shift perspectives, there is a simple way to practice.

Ask The Question: How Would I Feel If…?

A Walmart CEO is heading up a branch in Germany.

He digs his feet in, declaring English the company language there and forcing his German staff to communicate only in English. He refuses to learn a lick of German.

If this Walmart CEO had taken a moment to ask himself, “How would I feel if the tables were turned?” he might experience a shift in perspective that would reverse this decision.

If he had imagined for a moment a German CEO at BMW in New York forcing his employees to speak German, declaring it the official language of BMW, he might have seen how flat-footed such a decision is.

How would American employees react? How would YOU react?

Asking the simple question, “How would I feel if a foreigner was doing this in my culture/country?” allows the shift in perspective you need to see your own obvious cultural blunders (i.e. “monkey moments“).

You can also take this view when accommodating foreigners in your own country.

For instance, if you have a visiting colleague from Japan and you know something of the Japanese culture, you probably understand that physical contact – and especially touching of the face – is considered intimate and taboo in Japanese culture.

Although it’s part of your own culture and this visitor is in your country, you might consider, “How would I feel…?” And instead of going in for a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or even a handshake, as are customary greetings in many cultures, you might offer your visiting colleague a bow. Doing so is respectful and would make this colleague that much more comfortable and at home in your country.

While your colleague may try to adapt to their host country and greet you as is customary in your culture, they will likely appreciate the empathetic gesture that you’ve extended.

Tommy Thompson & Krushchev

A little understanding and shoe-shifting go a long way in cross-cultural relations.

In politics, you might call it diplomacy, which is defined as:

“the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way.”

An example of this by Psychologist J. E. Sherman in Psychology Today illustrates a rather extreme example of how shifting perspectives can truly facilitate cross-cultural relations – and even save the world from war.

Sherman explains that missiles had been installed by the Soviets 225 miles off the Florida coast in Cuba during the Cold War.

President Kennedy had to show a strong front. He was leaning toward an airstrike, which would, of course, have escalated the situation, but he thought he was boxed in.

However, level-headed senior foreign service officer Tommy Thompson offered some keen advice.

Having lived with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Thompson could adopt his perspective, and he convinced Kennedy to go for a softer front: to make Khrushchev an offer that there would be no U.S. retaliation if the Soviets pulled out.

Of course, we all know the result: Khrushchev took the offer, and the world was saved from nuclear war.

Sherman writes:

“Thompson, a competent shoe-shifter put himself in Khrushchev’s shoes. He recognized that Khrushchev wasn’t expecting the US to find out about the missiles so early and hadn’t foreseen the potential for direct confrontation. He would be looking for a way to save face, to claim that he had saved Cuba from attack.”

You, too, can be a competent shoe-shifter like Tommy Thompson.

All it takes is to ask yourself what your own feelings/reactions might be if the shoe was on the other foot.

The conscious process of shoe-shifting allows you to delve into thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in another’s perspective.

In the end, while practicing empathy and active tolerance, you gain insight into individuals, differing perspectives, and foreign cultures.

Empathy: A Trait That Facilitates Cross-Cultural Relations

What makes good leadership?

Charisma comes to mind. Communication and organizational skills; the ability to influence and delegate; confidence, integrity, accountability, empowerment.

All of these characteristics make for an exceptional leader.

But perhaps one of the most important attributes when working in a cross-cultural environment is empathy.

Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes

Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy regularly emerge as principal attributes of those who facilitate cross-cultural relations.

Empathy is defined as

“the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

When you put yourself in another’s shoes, you start to identify with their beliefs or their actions.

You attempt to understand from multiple perspectives, drawing on different cultural backgrounds and the complex nature of human lives.

How Does Empathy Differ From Sympathy?

Sympathy is sometimes used interchangeably with empathy, but they are not one and the same.

When you sympathize with someone, it means you share their feelings; you commiserate with their grief, sorrow, or misfortune.

Often, you offer compassion and comfort simply by acknowledging the person’s difficulties.

“Thoughts and prayers.”

“Sorry for your loss.”

“Thinking of you.”

These are offerings of sympathy.

Empathy, on the other hand, goes a step beyond.

“In Feeling”

From the Greek, “empatheia,” the word is a combination of the prefix, “en,” and the root, “pathos,” meaning “in” and “feeling.”

So, empathy literally means “in feeling.”

When you empathize, not only are you commiserating with someone else’s hardship, you’re taking their feelings upon yourself, feeling what they feel, assuming the emotional anguish or hardship of said individual.

John Steinbeck described the power of empathy, writing,

“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”

As you can probably recognize, empathy in cross-cultural relations is a powerful tool.

When entering a foreign culture, you must be able and willing to understand your colleagues or staff by feeling them in yourself.

Once you empathize and relate to their experiences, you are better positioned to understand their mentality and behavior.

Understanding will help you better navigate any conflicts that arise with individuals or groups.

And that empathy goes both ways.

As a foreign manager, you are the monkey.

So, you can only hope that your colleagues do you the same courtesy by putting themselves in your shoes and trying to understand your foreign ways.

Thus, both sides will observe the golden rule, “treat others as you would like to be treated,” which is what empathy is all about.

Next week, we’ll offer ways in which you can develop this important trait.

Time as a Measurable Substance: What are Chronemics?

Daily life is dictated by time. And time is dictated by daily life.

Both vary across cultures.

You can set your watch by a Swiss train, but to do so in India may very well put you in a different timezone.

Cross-cultural expectations in the workplace are impacted by how cultures conceptualize time.

A breach of expectations in meeting deadlines or appointments can be detrimental to cross-cultural relations, particularly regarding countries that are time-sensitive.

So, how do you even begin to understand another culture’s time expectations?

You start out with the basics.

Concept of Time

Time is a measurable substance. If you think of time in linear terms, it is portioned in intervals, based on activities.

That’s why “time lines” exist.

At any point along the line, one activity has ended, and another has begun.

But not all cultures measure time with the same yardstick.

And the measurements that they use can influence everything from their lifestyles to the speed of their speech.

This is why a firm understanding of a cross-cultural business partner’s measurement of time will allow managers to account for these differences in expectation.

Knowledge of the culture’s time etiquette enables managers to plan accordingly.

For instance, when you make an appointment, understanding the other culture’s expectations about punctuality or tardiness will direct you to behave according to their concept of time – or at least prepare you to allow for their cultural norms without feeling disrespected.

And these norms are largely dictated by whether the culture is polychronic or monochronic.

Chronemics

Chronemics is the study of time’s role in communication – particularly non-verbal communication.

What does chronemics cover?

It evaluates a culture’s:

  • Perception of time
  • Structure of time
  • Time values (i.e. punctuality)
  • Response to time frames (i.e. patience in waiting)

The perception of time, itself, is like a cultural time capsule. Cultural norms in relation to time encapsulate so many aspects of a culture, you can almost sketch out a general idea of their cultural baobab, simply from their concept of time.

Chronemics is divided into two different time systems: monochronic and polychronic. We’ll discuss both at length next week.