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.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk about next week.