Cultural Empathy Requires You to Understand or Accept the Other Person

1 Aug 2018

Cultural Empathy Requires You to Understand or Accept the Other Person

Aug 1, 2018

“It is important to realize that understanding an action is not the same as accepting it.” I read this quote by Arman Alizad in an article in which he was interviewed about many things, including building trust in cultures that have a completely different set of values from your own.

It is important to realize that understanding an action is not the same as accepting it.


The Tweet That Went Viral

It was evident from the article that Alizad had embraced and was able to express the key to establishing interaction – and trust in particular – between cultures. I was so glad about this down-to-earth explanation for cultural interaction that I tweeted it (the quote above).

Because it was the message of a public figure, it spread pretty quickly. Someone replied to it with a tweet that was blogged by Twitter as offensive. I was left to ponder what was so offensive about it.

Cultural Empathy is the capacity, within a person, to identify with the feelings, thoughts and behavior of individuals from different cultural backgrounds.” – Empathic Perspectives 


A Sacred Ritual or a Crime?

I discussed this with my friend, who asked me if I would truly understand if a little girl’s genitals were painfully mutilated. I stopped. I would not understand within my own set of values, within my own cultural frame of reference. Would I accept it? Not in my own world. Then what could I do? Would I order the measure to be stopped and protect the girl? Would I leave? Would I say, with tears in my eyes, that I cannot watch because I hurt for her because of my own set of values?

If I intervened in the ritual, would I be interrupting a sacred ritual in which the girl is protected from being plagued by desires? Would I cause a greater evil, shame, abandonment by society, the manifestation of evil, the death of the girl? Because I cannot understand the big picture, I cannot directly judge. A lack of understanding is the enemy of empathy.

I would say “tell me why you are doing what you are doing; help me understand your action, so that I can accept it.” The explanation may not sit well in your set of values, and it is difficult to make the other person change their way. So accept it. Of course, circumcision and other similar initiation rites are extreme examples. At best, I could save that one girl, but I would not be changing the culture even if I tried preaching as a tribal priestess.


kulttuurinen empatia

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash


Deep-rooted Operating Methods Can Only Be Grasped Through Values and Beliefs

Sometimes you may just about understand some horrible act, even if you do not accept it. Or sometimes it is simply impossible to understand another person, but you have to accept them in order to continue communicating with them. If you are in a new environment, there is no use in preaching that something is “wrong” or “stupid.” You feel like telling your own “right” and “smart” view and blurting out: “Why would you not do this and that?” Would they change the way they do things? No. At best, they might like to hear your views and try to understand you. In some rare cases, if the matter is not deep-rooted in the culture, they might actually accept your proposal.

In order to grasp a hold of empathy, you need to dig deep into values and beliefs.

In order to grasp a hold of empathy, you need to dig deep into values and beliefs. They are not easily changed, unless you can first truly understand the other person. Empathy arises from the effort to understand another person. When the situation involves cultural empathy, you need to be open and dare dive down into beliefs – try to understand them or accept them.

For this reason, I consider the following statement by Mahatma Gandhi to be the foundation of my cultural view:

“Let my house not be walled on four sides, let all the windows be open, let all the cultures blow in but let no culture blow me off my feet.”

In order to operate in another culture, you must be open to new things while still holding on to your values and ideas. Not everything needs to be said out loud. Silence is another form of empathy.


Everyone Is Capable of Empathy if They Want to Be

The same idea is involved in changes in organizational culture. These changes are not made; they occur. In this sense, I want to remind you of the words of Jarkko Rantanen, who said that changing the culture is a difficult and slow process, but it allows you to influence the emotional climate of the company with faster results. The emotional climate is formed by empathy between individuals: understand and/or accept, ask and listen, and contemplate values and beliefs. Find your own and identify those of others. Everyone is capable of empathy if they want to be. This also applies to cultural empathy if you are ready to be open and understand that cultures have deep, inflexible roots.

So begin by understanding and, if you cannot understand, accept if you want to get along.  

Maria Wan

Maria Wan

Service Design Consultant

Maria guides Contribyte's clients towards more interactive teams and coaches organizations to a better customer understanding. Maria has experience in designing and managing services, multicultural and international activities, and developing cross-organizational customer-orientation. On a perfect summer day, Maria can be found biking to a tennis court or observing people in a foreign environment. Maria understands customers from developers to management teams, from teenagers to grandmothers and from Finns to Samoans.

Share This

Jaa tämä kollegoillesi

Jaa tämä postaus verkostoosi!