Developing Cultural Empathy: Perspective Taking


This article reflects on example biases that could impact one’s intercultural behavior and decision making and how the role of the media is shaping ideas about cultures. Finally, specifics of the European culture are analyzed as relevant for global talent management issues.

Culture is an unconsciously learned way of thinking and living of a particular group of people that reinforces that worldview through its in-group similarity [1]. To change ‘cultural DNA’ requires time, although the term refers to a psychological instinct built through the adaption of societal norms rather than through a genetic constitution. Different environmental challenges brought up intellectual orientations, which cannot be judged; they are just different. While empathy is considered to allow understanding between people, the bridges built between some may be the boundaries for others. This risks to cement in- and out-group hierarchies [2]. Besides empathy, enhanced critical thinking abilities are necessary to unveil moral subjectivity and contribute to increased cross-cultural understanding [3].

Humans everywhere have the same desires, fears, and motivations [4]. Cultural differences shouldn’t be judged but seen rather relative [5] and therefore not to be blamed [1]. Judgments can unavoidably happen from unconscious biases triggering stereotypical exaggeration, or simplification out of context that result in prejudices. These are not immutable though in the sense that between bias and action critical thinking was not possible [6]. People have a psychological tendency to accredit more humanness to oneself than to others [7] The level of empathy is predictive of the strength of this in-/out-group bias [8]. Research found that more collectivist cultures show stronger empathy for in-group members [9]. If in an individualist culture, an individualistic mindset is activated though, all but the self may be considered as out-group members [10]. Contact with other cultures is the best means to anticipate such bias [11] and relationships with outgroups potentially reduces prejudice [12].

Be it for peace between countries or the functioning of multi-national organizations, intergroup empathy has become an increasingly important global challenge [4]. How balanced the media selects and presents its news is playing a vital role in shaping the cross-cultural understanding of individual, group, and societal identities. Media literacy, therefore, is a key strategy to develop cultural perspective-taking [13].

Despite Europe’s diverse composition of nations, the continent’s genetic base is much less variable than that of many other global regions. Europe is (to stay with the example) characterized by high in-group equality, which, on the other hand, may also degenerate into out-group domination. European leaders tend to be inclusive [4]. Indeed, German SME’s, for example, include all or most of the employees in Talent Management practices, which is in contrast to typical multinational enterprises [14]. Egalitarian attitudes within Europe cause leaders to backup leadership processes with bureaucratic rules that come with a loss in speed compared to other cultures. The European focus on individual rights, creativity and innovation, professional relationships, and the use of evidence-based data (in comparison to more intuitive thinking) might be an asset for fostering objectivity in global talent management practices [4]. This is important for talent-based economies as found in Western Europe [15] to remain competitive in the sourcing of global talent [16].


[1] Williams, T. R. (2013). Examine Your LENS: A Tool for Interpreting Cultural Differences. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal Of Study Abroad, 22148-165.

[2] Hollan, D. (2012). Author reply: The definition and morality of empathy. Emotion Review, 4(1), 83. doi:10.1177/1754073911421396

[3] Murray, J. W. (2015). Critical Thinking Activities and the Enhancement of Ethical Awareness: An Application of a “Rhetoric of Disruption” to the Undergraduate General Education Classroom. Open Review Of Educational Research, 2(1), 240-258.

[4] Bains, G. (2015). Cultural DNA: The psychology of globalization. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

[5] Gareis, E. (2005). Relativism versus Universalism: Developing a Personal Philosophy. Communication Teacher, 19(2), 39-43.

[6] Harris, W. T. (2010). Ending racism starts with accepting bias: bias is inevitable, racism is not. Retrieved from blog/colorstruck/201005/ending-racism-starts-accepting-bias

[7] Park, J., Haslam, N., Kashima, Y., & Norasakkunkit, V. (2016). Empathy, culture and self-humanising: Empathising reduces the attribution of greater humanness to the self more in Japan than Australia. International Journal Of Psychology, 51(4), 301-306.

[8] Krumhuber, E. G., Swiderska, A., Tsankova, E., Kamble, S. V., & Kappas, A. (2015). Real or Artificial? Intergroup Biases in Mind Perception in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. Plos One, 10(9), e0137840. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137840

[9] Chenbo, W., Bing, W., Yi, L., Xinhuai, W., & Shihui, H. (2015). Challenging emotional prejudice by changing self-concept: priming independent self-construal reduces racial in-group bias in neural responses to other. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 10(9), 1195-1201. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv005

[10] Jiang, C., Hou, Y., Han, S., & Varnum, M. W. (2014). Distinct effects of self-construal priming on empathic neural responses in Chinese and Westerners. Social Neuroscience, 9(2), 130-138.

[11] Dopierała, A., Jankowiak-Siuda, K., & Boski, P. (2017). Empathy gap – what do we know about empathizing with others′ pain?. Polish Psychological Bulletin, Vol 48, Iss 1, Pp 111-117 (2017), (1), 111. doi:10.1515/ppb-2017-0014

[12] Inzlicht, M., Gutsell, J. N., & Legault, L. (2012). Mimicry reduces racial prejudice. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 361-365. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.06.007

[13] Cole-Adams, J. (2013). Developing Intercultural Understanding with Difference Differently. Ethos, 21(1), 25-28.

[14] Festing, M., Schaefer, L., & Scullion, H. (2013). Talent management in medium-sized German companies: an explorative study and agenda for future research. International Journal Of Human Resource Management, 24(9), 1872-1893.

[15] Oshri, I., & Ravishankar, M. (2014). On the attractiveness of the UK for outsourcing services. Strategic Outsourcing: An International Journal, (1), 18. doi:10.1108/SO-11-2013-0022

[16] Anil, K. (2006). STRATEGIES FOR GLOBAL R&D. Research Technology Management, (2), 48.

  • Great post! As a life-long student of anthropology, and having lived and worked in a variety of cultures from East Asia to Latin America, I can attest to the difficulty of maintaining a sense of cultural relativity when facing the day to day challenges of living in a culture that may be the polar opposite of the one in which an individual is conditioned from childhood. However, I fully agree that it’s a fundamental key (along with language-learning) in developing empathy for others. As I always when chatting with lesser-traveled Americans while visiting the USA, traveling and living abroad is the best education one can give to themselves and their children.

  • Note sure if this relates directly or tangentially. But in my experience – having lived throughout Latin America – most people want to visit or live in Europe and the United States. They consider those places to be superior.

    Moreover, they consider the behavior of the lower classes (which are ubiquitous in these countries) to be subpar. They have no sympathy for them, nor are they working on any type of trained empathy in that regard.

    Cultural empathy seems to be the burden of rich Westerners. Sometimes I wonder if this is not actually a more strategic form of guilt being supplanted upon the Westerner.

    • Thank you very much for sharing your experience. Interesting point of view. It could be that the relevance and prevalence of cultural empathy also depend on the cross-cultural exposure of individuals. People who are navigating a global world privately and in their work life may benefit from better relationships thanks to cultural empathy. In a global context and between, let’s say equally powerful status’ and businesses, empathy and not domination might be required for cooperation. Reducing power distances through lowering wealth imbalances and improve education for all, I consider crucial to foster empathy, as also your example might be an illustration for. What do you think?

  • “Reducing power distances through lowering wealth imbalances and improve education for all, I consider crucial to foster empathy, as also your example might be an illustration for. What do you think?”

    Perhaps. Yet I’m reminded of what Nietzsche said regarding education: “All beautiful things can never be common property.” So true! The poetry of the ancients is toilet paper in the hands of a savage.

    Today, we see all the greatest information at our fingertips. And yet, most people would prefer to upload dinner photos to Facebook or take selfies and post them to Instagram. The words of Marcus Aurelius or Thomas Carlyle mean nothing to them.

    • Thanks a lot for your interesting comment.

      I don’t agree with Nietzsche as he assumes that things need to be possessed. Things can be used while being shared.
      And, what is a ‘savage?’ 🙂 I don’t believe that it is an immutable natural condition. Instead, it is the lack of education eventually due to wealth imbalances.

      Facebook and co are designed to make people addicted. That’s the kind of ‘education’ big money is spent for. Meaning is a matter of context. If environments (physical and online) were intended to create meaning from (ancient) wisdom to use your example, it could be achieved. But the focus is on the advertisements that need to pay back its investment in the form of consumers spending.

      Would love to hear what you think. Many thanks and all the best.

  • “And, what is a ‘savage?’ ? I don’t believe that it is an immutable natural condition.”

    We disagree on that point then. Luis Guravito, for example, was a savage. He murdered and tortured around 300 children in Colombia during the 1990s. By contrast, Christian Barnaard was a South African doctor that pioneered open heart surgery. To equate these two men as equal, only separated by their access to education, would be disingenuous.

    • Thanks a lot for your comment helping to clarify.
      Our difference may lie in how I interpreted the term “savage.” A savage as an uneducated human being living in the wild don’t have to be barbaric/fierce in the sense of being cruel and lacking empathy. “Uncivilized” individuals can be mentally healthy, and the noble savage may even represent an ideal of human goodness. But you are right, despite education, some people are mentally distorted and as a result brutal. Such extreme mental disorders are, however, relatively rare, why in general I assume education on top of nature the most influential factor for human development.

  • Great article, as always, dear Mathias. I also read the comments and those are also highly interesting. 🙂
    Cultural empathy; I was just pondering this morning ‘what is it, that team-sports, like soccer, make people forget it is in the end ‘just’ a game?’ And in addition: Before the game neighbors don’t even say ‘hello’ and the minute soccer is ‘on’, people become all of the sudden very nationalistic. If the score is in favor or those neighbors, they could even hug each other to congratulate, despite their earlier quarrel. To ignore each other again the next day.
    Oh and now I think of it, while typing, the fact some soccer-players of the national team aren’t originally born in the country, suddenly doesn’t seem to matter any longer, but the next day ‘those outsiders’ should leave the country.
    Is it also conditioned behavior?

    • Hi, Patty. Oh, what a good topic! I agree with your described observations! Love to hook into that:-) Thank you so much!

      To answer the question of how far soccer team “nationalism” is conditioned, I would start by recognizing the general human need to belong (3rd/middle stage of Maslow’s pyramid). Maybe exactly because soccer is “just” a game, people uncritically indulge in feelings of belonging and welcome and enjoy the opportunity for belonging to such a clearly defined in-group. One can feel understood, safe, and supported in the fanship for the common favorite team. To find such commonalities is much more difficult in other areas of life, as your temporary hugging of the neighbor example shows:-). Conditioning comes from the media effects that pronounce the differences (e.g., by stereotyping “all x players are simulants”) between the teams and countries. Unfortunately, into this simple setting further and even unrelated aspects are tried to be packed in as well to ride the wave of group dynamics for political interests too. For example, the quality of a national soccer team doesn’t provide a reasonable link to the quality of other areas of the country (e.g., general education, economy, welfare, etc.) but this is precisely what some reporting and advertising try to imply. Once people are cheering together, they cheer for the sole purpose of cheering along and too easily forget for what exactly they cheer. To overcome bias and uncritical conditioning, I would re-emphasize the importance of having contact with out-groups, media literacy, and individual critical thinking in the article.

      • To overcome bias and uncritical conditioning…yes, indeed; being open to other cultures and belief-systems is not only important, I even feel it is a ‘must’. Individual critical thinking is important, absolutely, I even belief there has grown a misconception that is wrong to be good for and towards yourself first, However, I also think it is important to keep emphasizing ‘yes, think for yourself, don’t follow the flock automatically, but don’t distance yourself from the flock either. Stay open to other belief-systems and by all means; stay connected’.
        Thank you again dear Mathias, for taking the time to connect and providing me more inspiration 🙂

      • I agree. For example, besides reading, traveling, etc., school and work exchanges are known to foster an open mindset effectively. If everyone had to walk in others’ shoes for an extended period, much more tolerance could be achieved. You name it, the ability to establish a balance between distancing and staying connected is vital. Thanks for your valuable input, much appreciated as always!! Take care!