Forget Common Sense: Social Media Communicators Must Have Empathy

by Shannon Paul on January 31, 2010


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

February 1, 2010 Gerard McLean

The same arguments were made about the then budding “customer service” industry in the 1980s, especially when many interactions were through a phone. You could not see the person’s face, but at least the voice was there. Now, you have neither voice nor face (which is why avatars have a ton of value)

Empathy is the most important ingredient in the HEAT formula, but the hardest to execute… so, most people chucked it out the window in favor of a robotic, scripted formula. I hope we learn from this as we develop through social media as an business tool, but I fear the worst.

I now provide you with a link and apologize in advance for the inconvenience the opinion may cause.


February 1, 2010 Eric Brown

Hey Shannon, Hope all is well,
Interesting timing of your post as I want to reach over and strangle hold some folks, so perhaps I need a little work in this area of empathy, it certainly has never been my strong suit.

An ongoing frustration though is dealing with folks and their”theory”, absent any Result to back it up.

Hard to sit still when they have never done anything in the space, albeit they may have garnished some followers, but they have never ran a Social Media Marketing Campaign, never implemented an idea, good or bad, and generally have no scrapes and bruises from trying things that have failed.

But yet they have a “Theory” and Social Media allows them to broadcast that in a manor that we have to listen, as we attempt to extend “empathy”


February 1, 2010 kalalea

Hi Shannon,

I love that you’re exploring the needed awareness of empathy within our on line communications. Learning to be more empathetic in all our communications is a great skill.

Gerard, I appreciate your experience with customer service training turning into a systematized function. The challenge you describe is the opportunity as well. I believe is is more important that ever to embrace the empathy within your heat formula. I believe our culture and business is rapidly seeking new ways to connect and relate. What if we re-image a relationship of meaning within the transaction? What is the value of feeling understood?


February 1, 2010 Gerard McLean

@kalalea you displayed the best empathy of all to me, perhaps without even knowing it. You spelled my name correctly (I get Gerald a lot) and that alone made me interested enough to read your blog. How much is one more reader worth to you?

The larger issue we might be concerned with is seeing non-human entities on par with human beings having human rights (SCOTUS recently.) You are a brand, I am a brand, everyone is a brand and that blurs the line, but also creates opportunities for the stand-outs both culturally and financially. (Zappos) The trick is, as always, to believe in humanity strongly enough and resist the endless cost-cutting long enough to come out at the end alive :-)


February 1, 2010 Peter

Childhood seems often in large measure to solidify cultural and emotional boundaries, although people who have been part of my macro-culture for some years as adults, having been raised elsewhere in childhood, nonetheless typically display a considerable degree of accommodation to my macro-culture, so that their values and expectations are in many ways closer to mine than to that of their parentage.

Nevertheless, those born, bred, and remaining in my macro-culture may display micro-cultural differences as foreign and unexpected to me as behavior from outside my macro-culture.

These polar opposites seem to illustrate the post’s point; we need to keep an ear close to the ground to reduce the possibility that our social intercourse may not be likened to ships passing in the night … or colliding head-to-head. Academic training may enable the tools of the mind, but the application of such tools requires more than a little integrated wisdom and I agree, empathy.

But the picture as always is complex. I subscribe to the notion that market is driven by herd mood: bull markets by what may be termed “positive” mass emotions and bears by “negative” ones (Elliott Wave). If, as I believe, our intermediate future is bearish, and indeed largely global in scope, empathy for cultural outsiders (the lines are multifarious) will be sacrificed in substantial measure. Or we will communicate our negative emotions clearly enough to draw the wagons in protective circles.

Empathy for outsiders is more of a bull market trend. Of course then, those who by empathy succeed in breaking through some of those barriers may find bear market opportunities which the majority find out of reach.


February 1, 2010 eric goldstein

Shannon, you raise a very important point in this post. Whether online or off, I think empathy is the most essential characteristic that enables people to learn from each other. In our every day lives, especially on the web, we constantly encounter people who see and do things differently. Instinctively, it’s easy to assume that we know best…that our ways are right and the ways of others are wrong. But if you can consistently have empathy for others, you can consider why their ways are right for them…why they might be right for other people and why they could be right for you. It’s through these exchanges that the web enables people to constantly learn from each other…even, and perhaps especially, when they don’t agree with one another.

I hope this comment is coherent…fighting falling asleep as i write it, but it’s a topic i feel very strongly about. If I’m babbling, hopefully with a bit of empathy you can appreciate the feeling of wanting to articulate a thought while you’re exhausted :)


February 4, 2010 Nahum Gershon

Having empathy is part of having common sense!!


February 4, 2010 Fayetteville Wedding Video

Not to get OT, but did you use Wordly to make your graphic with the words? cool app!


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