Life on the social web has taught me just how important it is to have a flexible mind — to have empathy for others with little or no context. This requires the ability to imagine a set of unknown circumstances to help explain others’ point of view with little information. Some may come by this trait naturally, but others might need to develop it over time.
Understanding Empathy in Terms of Culture
“Who we are cannot be separated from where we are from — and when we ignore that fact, planes crash.” – Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers
In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Korean Air in the late 1990s. The airline suffered a series of accidents, which after careful study was determined to be caused by vague communication due to a deeply ingrained cultural respect for authority. In other words, those whose duty it was to alert the captain to danger or mistakes in navigation were too intimidated by the captain’s authority to assert themselves in a manner to match the unfolding state of emergency.
The problem was later remedied by the aviation industry’s willingness to consider how a country was related according to its position on the PDI, aka Power Distance Index. The solution didn’t come about as a result of making the culture “wrong” but rather by adjusting roles and responsibilities to accommodate for this perspective.
The Power Distance Index was created by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede whose life’s work has been largely dedicated to helping others understand cross-cultural communication.
Language and (Mis)Communication
Most of us have come to rely on electronic methods of communication — email, IM, blogging, and on social networks, but it’s important to remember that we do so with a lack of context. Having a rigid sense of common sense does little to form a sense of understanding or build relationships here, but empathy does.
Context usually comes in the form of body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. In this sense, we are all cultural outsiders who must rely on a different sort of learned context to interpret the many messages and signals we get from all forms of electronic communication.
As communication becomes more informal we give up two very important things:
- Precision: Formal language evolved out of a need for precise business communication. The social web’s preference for down-to-Earth, informal communication means that we lose our ability to be precise, especially in places like Twitter that also limit the amount of characters you can use in your communication.
- Context: The catch-22 here is that the precise professional communication evolved to compensate for a lack of human context. Maybe it isn’t fair to say we’re giving up context altogether, but that the context is less sensory and more experiential. What I mean by this is that rather than relying on our senses for communication, we rely on several bits of personal details that come together over time to become tacit knowledge of the other person.
Language is also intrinsic to where we are from. I would take Malcolm Gladwell’s statement above one step further: Who we are cannot be separated from where we are from or how we communicate. Language forms the very thoughts that flow through our minds. How would we even form thoughts without language?
Like most other concepts, it helps to understand who we are with respect to our own culture and use of language along the cultural spectrum in order to better understand how others see might see us and how we might see others differently.
Without sensory context in communication, we are all cultural outsiders subject to interpretation we might not ever intend and vice versa.
I first learned about these Hofstede’s cultural dimensions in a college course designed to teach cultural empathy, but I think they help me understand how others might be thinking regardless of nationality or other characteristics that typically define culture. Putting yourself in someone else’s frame of mind is the key to empathy and a necessary skill in social media communications.
Hofstede’s Five Dimensions of Culture
From my perspective and cultural background, the first two dimensions are extremely interesting with respect to the social web.
- Low vs. High Power Distance – The situation outlined above using Korean Airlines as an example was a result of a high power distance. Power distance is defined by how a culture perceives hierarchy and authority.
Not surprisingly, the United States is very low on the power distance index, as is Australia, New Zealand and Denmark; in the U.S. we call our bosses and professors by first name and reserve titles for doctors and the president but hardly anyone else.
One might argue that the social web is causing even more shrinkage to the already low power distance in the U.S. and bringing several other countries along with us.
- Individualism vs. Collectivism – This dimension examines how members of a culture define themselves in relation to groups; i.e. family, community, profession, socio-economic status, etc. People in individualistic cultures are expected to define themselves on their own terms according to personality, etc.
Relatively speaking, the U.S. is a very individualistic culture; our heroes go against the grain of traditional society, we champion exceptions to almost every rule, and we are expected to choose our own career path and spouse. In collectivist cultures, group identities trump individual desires or personalities; a person’s sense of self is closely tied to that of the group.
The social web is having an interesting impact on this dimension as well. While technology enables us to express individual aspirations, desires and opinions, new groups are forming as a result that have more of a collectivist nature. The fact that I am a blogger is more telling than the fact that I am from Detroit.
- Masculinity vs. Femininity also referred to as Quantity vs. Quality of Life – In masculine cultures wealth and material possessions are valued above things like universal access to health care and education. In masculine cultures, gender roles are clearly defined i.e. mothers are expected to stay home with children and men are expected to go to work, whereas in feminine cultures gender roles are more fluid.
- Low vs. High Uncertainty Avoidance – In cultures with high uncertainty avoidance, people tend to expect and appreciate explicit rules and guidelines. Low uncertainty avoidance is expressed with a preference for implicit rules that are flexible. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures like the U.S. tend to champion entrepreneurship while high uncertainty avoidance cultures encourage staying at the same company for the long haul.
- Long vs. Short-Term Orientation – This is also explained as a culture’s time horizon. Some cultures tend to be more future-oriented and think of things with respect to the long-term; concepts of shame and thrift impact behavior much more explicitly. Others are more focused on the present and place more emphasis on current circumstances, attitudes, trends, etc. Others focus on the past in order to clearly understand the course of events that led to the here and now.
These dimensions are not hard and fast rules, but each offers a sort of continuum along a specific detail of cultural identity. It’s also important to understand that while these are generalizations, individuals may or may not ascribe to cultural norms. Plus, individual cultures change and evolve over time.
My hope is that by understanding how each of these concepts shapes our relationship with ourselves and the world, we might be more empathetic communicators. Empathy is difficult to come by genuinely enough when our world lacks sensory context.
Rather than teaching communicators to adhere to a rote sort of netiquette, I think the next generation of communicators would be better served by learning to empathize without the luxury of face-to-face communication.
How important is empathy in online communication? How do we teach empathy in business and communication? If we are truly moving toward a collaborative economy, it would seem our future is dependent on our ability to extend empathy to the social web. What do you think?