How culture shapes different types of empathy

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It is useful to differentiate between sympathy and empathy as the basis to also understand better how culture itself (amongst other factors) shapes cultural empathy. This is important also to define and assess more subtle aspects of empathy as it becomes increasingly imperative in education and disciplines such as global talent management.


Empathy (like sympathy and compassion) is related to human emotions as a reaction to other individuals’ plights [1]. Empathy is considered crucial in motivating pro-social attitudes and actions as well as moral development and involves research from various interdependent fields such as biology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy (Mason & Bartal, 2010). Science is differentiating affective empathy, i.e., the experience of others’ emotional state, and cognitive empathy, i.e., the apprehension of others’ emotions [3].

Empathy as a concept conflates with similar ideas like ‘sympathy’ [4]. A casual comparison describes sympathy as “to feel with,” while empathy involves “to feel for” others. More specifically, there is no need for a person experiencing sympathy to simulate the other’s state of mind as would be required for practicing empathy [5]. Batson (1991) defined empathy as a category of responses to another “that are more other-focused than self-focused, including feelings of sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like” ([6] p. 86).

Because the emotion of empathy determines, besides reasoning, how ethical decisions are made, it is vital to acknowledge its key role in human development and professions, such as, for example, journalism, which strongly influences how people related to empathy [7]. Despite increased globalization and the ubiquitous of information about others’ plight, a tendency of ‘sympathy-without-empathy’ represents the reality of globalized individualism [8]. Also, how the ability of empathy is individually employed should be assessed as well, as empathy can be for the good or the bad, e.g., not only for help, but for manipulation, bullying, and the exertion of cruelty where it harms others most [9].

Culture shapes how empathy is experienced and communicated as it is true for any emotions, which always are impacted by a culture’s particular social intricacies. Hence, the expression of sympathy and empathy require a language that is sensitive to support the maintenance of both the sender’s own and the receiver’s identity respectfully [10]. For example, it is essential to understand how cultural background moderates empathy. For example, people in East Asian collectivist societies that emphasize interpersonal harmony, tend to show increased empathic accuracy (while the level of empathic concern tends to be lower though) compared to more individualist cultures such as the UK [11]. The communication of distress, as well as sympathy responses, are both stronger when involving narratives of somatic experiences (e.g., fatigue) as compared to cognitive symptoms (e.g., negative thoughts), but only among Korean and not US study participants [12]. In another study, American individuals were found to focus less on negative aspects respectively avoid more negative affect compared to Germans when forming sympathy for other’s negative experience and suffering [13]. Russian people have, as a consequence of how the culture frames empathy, a more apparent preference for experiencing empathy more exclusively for people whom they know personally [1].

Education on cross-cultural empathy for global talent management is essential. However, even within any one nation socio-cultural differences might suggest a need for cosmopolitan education to develop empathy between all co-citizens [14]. The same might, of course, be true for between the employees in a single country too.

References

[1] Gladkova, A. (2010). Sympathy, compassion, and empathy in English and Russian: A linguistic and cultural analysis. Culture And Psychology, 16(2), 267-285. doi:10.1177/1354067X10361396

[2] Mason, P., & Bartal, I. B. (2010). How the social brain experiences empathy: Summary of a gathering. Social Neuroscience, 5(2), 252-256. doi:10.1080/17470911003589085

[3] Wang, Y., Wen, Z., Fu, Y., & Zheng, L. (2017). Psychometric properties of a Chinese version of the Measure of Empathy and Sympathy. Personality & Individual Differences, 119168-174. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.07.019

[4] Haase, F. (2012). Empathy vs. Evidence in Rhetorical Speech: Contrastive Cultural Studies in ‘Empathy’ as Framework of Speech Communication and Its Tradition in Cultural History. Ethos: Felsefe Ve Toplumsal Bilimlerde Diyaloglar (Dialogues In Philosophy And Social Sciences), 5(2), 16-35.

[5] Halpern, F. (2018). Closeness Through Unreliability: Sympathy, Empathy, and Ethics in Narrative Communication. Narrative, 26(2), 125-145.

[6] Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Towards a social social– psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

[7] King, C. (2017). ‘Gays Are the New Jews’: Homophobic Representations in African Media versus Twitterverse Empathy. At The Interface / Probing The Boundaries, (92), 193-216. doi:10.1163/9789004360846_010

[8] James, P., & Scerri, A. (2012). Globalizing Consumption and the Deferral of a Politics of Consequence. Globalizations, 9(2), 225-240. doi:10.1080/14747731.2012.658249

[9] Fairbairn, G. J. (2017). Reflecting On Empathy. At The Interface / Probing The Boundaries, (92), 61-83. doi:10.1163/9789004360846_005

[10] Sheikhan, S. A. (2017). Rapport Management toward Expressing Sympathy in Persian. Linguistik Online, 83(4), 101-114. doi:10.13092/lo.83.378

[11] Atkins, D., Uskul, A. K., & Cooper, N. R. (2016). Culture shapes empathic responses to physical and social pain. Emotion, 16(5), 587-601. doi:10.1037/emo0000162

[12] Choi, E. )., Chentsova-Dutton, Y. )., & Parrott, W. ). (2016). The effectiveness of somatization in communicating distress in Korean and American cultural contexts. Frontiers In Psychology, 7(MAR), doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00383

[13] Koopmann-Holm, B., & Tsai, J. L. (2014). Focusing on the negative: Cultural differences in expressions of sympathy. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 107(6), 1092-1115. doi:10.1037/a0037684

[14] Culp, J. (2018). Internationalizing Nussbaum’s model of cosmopolitan democratic education. Ethics & Education, 13(2), 172-190. doi:10.1080/17449642.2018.1439308

About mathias sager

Independent researcher, artist, social entrepreneur, and leadership and strategy advisor I was born in Zurich in 1975 and grew up in Switzerland. Currently, I’m living in Tokyo. I love open-minded people everywhere and the passion to working relentlessly for developing human potential, which is an overarching theme throughout all his work. I have extensive experience in leadership and management, organizational psychology research, and learning & development practice. I have worked as a teacher, a leadership trainer, as well as a senior manager responsible for client relationships, counseling, and virtual teams around the world. Also, I’m a social entrepreneur and serving as a strategy and leadership advisor in different ways. My goal is to inspire with interdisciplinary, innovative, and cross-cultural approaches to personal and professional development for the people’s individual well-being and common good alike. Continuously learning himself and keen to help, I appreciate any questions or feedback you may have at any time. Please connect here on any social media, as well as per direct email goodthings@mathias-sager.com.
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6 Responses to How culture shapes different types of empathy

  1. Henry Lewis says:

    Sadly, empathy seems to be a very elusive quality in some cultures these days.
    Regarding: […describes sympathy as “to feel with,” while empathy involves “to feel for” others.]
    Considering English collocations, we usually say “to have sympathy for” or “empathy with” someone.
    Your posts are fascinating and very useful.

    • mathias sager says:

      Dear Henry. Indeed, and thanks for the great observation regarding the seeming contradictory link between empathy’s meaning and use in English (as well as in German too, actually). It is helpful to me to re-think empathy’s higher intensity of “feeling for” somebody (i.e., taking the same pain) as compared to ‘only’ “feeling with” in the case of sympathy (i.e., feeling in parallel and therefore not necessarily the same way/with same intensity). Makes me (continuously) think, as language is so essential to transport concepts correctly!

  2. Henry Lewis says:

    That’s so true Mathias.

  3. Patty says:

    Education on cross-cultural empathy for global talent management is essential.
    Not only for global talent management, I think globally in general.

    • mathias sager says:

      I agree, Patty! Cross-Cultural (empathy) education indeed should be for everybody. That’s also why my notion of ‘global talent’ is very inclusive anyway. I guess this might be your approach too?

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