This essay explores intercultural empathy in terms of prevailing approaches to its articulation in research. Specifically, examination of literature on the topic reveals two opposing theories as to the nature of empathy and its cross-cultural applications. One school of thought conceptualizes empathy as a skill or ability which can be learned and honed. This theory suggests empathy is intrinsically quantifiable and explicit. A second theory holds that empathy is the product of shared meaning in spite of diversity, whereby a “third culture” is created. This relational approach is more progressive and focuses on the value of dialogue in achieving collectivism. This literature review aims to examine both traditional and alternative approaches to intercultural empathy for the purpose of eliciting further research into the applications of each perspective to situation-specific intercultural communication instances. Further, this review endeavors to serve as a launch pad for anyone interested in pursuing preliminary research on pedagogical concepts relevant to the significance of empathy in intercultural communication (including applications of empathy for the purpose of understanding intercultural communication dissonance).
For the purpose of this essay, the term emptying refers to “a state of relaxed awareness…unity and interrelatedness…of unconscious compassion”; contemplation refers to “the letting go of ambition, control, or desire to achieve goals…an increased awareness of one’s essential connectedness to others”; and being present refers to “the experience and refinement of intuition…the paradigmatic experience of consciousness” (Lu, Dane & Gellman, 2005, pp. 94-95).
Empathy as Skill
The roots of the traditional approach—empathy as a skill or competence—can be traced to disciplines under the behavioral science umbrella. From these fields emerged fundamental definitions of empathy: 1) a personality characteristic; 2) accuracy (as to one’s intuition of another’s condition); 3) emotional identification; 4) cognitive role-taking; and 5) communicating a sense of understanding (Broome, 1991). Noted psychologist and writer Carl Rogers played a significant role in promulgating an ideology which closely associates empathy with accuracy (DeTurk, 2001). Rogers explained empathy as “[perception of] the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto…” (DeTurk, 2001, p. 375).
Scholars ascribing to the traditional approach have held that the establishment of similarity during discourse is a key to the development of empathy (Broome, 1991). This view has resulted in the notion that intercultural empathy is extremely difficult, if not impossible to attain, since the lack of familiarity and shared experience will stifle the formation of productive bonding. The Rogerian emphasis on accuracy essentially lays the framework for training behavioral science practitioners. Such training involves “thinking and a verbal response process…Empathy is then synthesized into measurable behaviors that can be observed and evaluated” (Lu, et al., 2005, p. 92). This scientific approach is inherently Western in principle—mastery of empathy is contingent on adherence to formulaic arrangements. Advocates of more holistic, non-Western approaches criticize the traditional view, asserting it undermines the centrality of experience and fails to consider subjective factors such as context, cognitive and emotional traits, and cultural aspects.
Notwithstanding the conventional association of empathy with accuracy (and thus skill), competence as an implication is not entirely scientific in nature. Sorensen (2009) proposes international clinical practice as a viable and effective way for nursing students to hone personal proficiency with particular regard to communication and empathy with patients. Sorensen’s research focuses on the ways nursing students develop personal competence through clinical practice abroad, which suggests that empathy is indeed a skill that can be developed; through international training, students increase their vulnerability to the suffering of others, which leads to the formation of strong emotional and eventually empathic bonds (Sorensen, 2009).
Further, research suggests that engaging in empathy development exercises which replicate cultural and socio-economic health and lifestyle scenarios is effective in fostering heightened awareness of the challenges posed by such scenarios (Trujillo & Hardy, 2009). This would seem to indicate that, contrary to the relational perspective which contends that the achievement of empathy in theory is a misconception (since this view reduces it to mere competence), empathy can, in a sense, be nurtured using a reproduction-of-experience method (Broome, 1991).
A Relational Approach to Empathy
An alternate approach asserts that empathy is a product of interactive, mutual, co-constructed meaning. This perspective is premised on the idea that empathy is part of the communication process and therefore adaptable to the dynamics within the process (Broome, 1991). This holistic approach “goes beyond the individual to the creation of shared meaning during the interpersonal encounter” (Broome, 1991, p. 240). Central to this view is the concept of implicature, which is explained by supporters of the relational approach as the inherent interconnectedness of self and other (DeTurk, 2001). This is not to say that individuality is devalued or taken for granted; rather, this perspective asserts that empathy is possible when one individual genuinely regards another’s individuality, while being mindful of the wholeness that exists when the mind and body work together “in mutual heartfelt connection and identification” (Lu, et al., 2005, p. 92). When participants engage an open approach to communication, authentic dialogue is possible, and a third culture—in essence, a synchronization of shared experience—is created (Broome, 1991).
The relational view is impacting instructional approaches in behavioral science coursework and training programs, particularly the field of social work. In fact, training in this discipline has actually started to include a method which combines scientific and holistic empathic approaches—a concept known as experiential learning (Lu, et al., 2005). Experiential learning is predicated on the idea that learning is most effective when it allows individuals to participate earnestly and constructively in the process (Lu, et al., 2005). Research suggests that engaging this method can favorably influence one’s ability to relinquish power struggle and preconceptions (Lu, et al., 2005). Lu et al.’s (2005) study aimed to assist graduate level social work students in achieving heightened levels of awareness, empathy, and acceptance during the early phase of their careers as practitioners. Students took part in various movement awareness exercises, which included the experiential techniques of emptying, contemplation, and being present. Data was obtained from student discussion groups conducted after each activity. As a result of performing the experiential exercises, students reported being more keenly- tuned empathically toward their partners (Lu, et al., 2005).
Analysis of literature on the concept of empathy as it relates to intercultural communication reveals an apparent divide among scholars. The conventional scientific approach in the Rogerian tradition is grounded in accuracy of intuition and emotional orientation which relies on the isolation of similarities between participants. Conversely, the relational approach rejects the need for accuracy and promotes authentic dialogue through mindfulness of each other’s inherent psychological and physical interconnectedness.
Evidence of agreement among scholars between the two prevailing conceptualizations is found in the general acknowledgement that empathy involves the consideration of another’s point of view (Broome, 1991). Flexibility in theory regarding each approach to intercultural empathy is subtly evident in research, as demonstrated by studies which imply empathy to be a skill, yet employ experiential and social immersion techniques in the holistic, non-Western tradition (Lu, et al., 2005; Trujillo & Hardy, 2009).
In order for scholars to make continued progress in the area of cross-cultural empathy, further research should focus on scenarios where empathy would be useful in the realization of self and other’s marginalizing experiences. Through the interpretation of oppressive experiences, the concept of empathy can be approached openly and thus most effectively.
Broome, B. J. (1991). Building shared meaning: Implication of a relational approach to empathy for teaching intercultural communication. Communication Education, 40(3), 235.
DeTurk, S. (2001). Intercultural empathy: Myth, competency, or possibility for alliance
building? Communication Education, 50(4), 374.
Lu, Y., Dane, B., & Gellman, A. (2005). An experiential model: Teaching empathy and
cultural sensitivity. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 25(3/4), 89-103.
Sørensen, A. (2009). Developing personal competence in nursing students through
international clinical practice: With emphasis on communication and empathy. Journal
of Intercultural Communication, (19), 7.
Trujillo, J. M., & Hardy, Y. (2009). A nutrition journal and diabetes shopping experience to improve pharmacy students' empathy and cultural competence. American Journal of
Pharmaceutical Education, 73(2), 1-10.