Cultural Empathy: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In a world where different cultures frequently collide, cultural empathy is very important for peaceful and smooth relations. Learn the definition of cultural empathy, factors that influence it, and examples of cultural empathy in this lesson.

What Is Cultural Empathy?

Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy is simply patting a schoolmate on the back and telling them that everything is going to be okay when they are having a bad day. Empathy, on the other hand, is taking the time to actually feel what others are feeling -- like how much it must have hurt to get two failing test scores in one day. Empathy requires putting yourself in another's shoes to truly get a sense of the emotional pain that they are experiencing.

Yet, we are not discussing mere empathy in this lesson. We are speaking about cultural empathy. Culture is the shared customs, beliefs, attitudes, and values of a group of people that have been accumulated over a period of time. Examples of cultures include the Hispanic, Chinese, Jewish, Irish Catholic, and Haitian cultures.

Cultural empathy is simply having an appreciation and consideration of the differences and similarities of another culture in comparison to one's own. People with cultural empathy are more tolerant of the differences of those from other cultures.

For example, a culturally empathetic American who sees a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or burqa (headscarf) will typically not automatically come to the conclusion that this woman is oppressed and controlled by her religion and/or husband. This culturally empathetic American may consider the idea that this woman has chosen to fashion her hijab as a personal choice -- as a symbol of religious and cultural pride and female empowerment rather than gender injustice.

A culturally empathetic individual of non-Muslim origin can see past the stereotype of the hijab as a symbol of religious oppression.
Muslim woman in hijab

Factors Influencing Cultural Empathy

The value of cultural empathy has become increasingly important in the last few decades, mostly due to increases in immigration, globalization, and international business. People of different cultures are having to interact more frequently on a personal and professional level. Cultural empathy makes for smoother and more pleasant interactions and working relationships. For example, a London-based financial consultant based in Israel for an eight-month project is going to have more success in establishing personal and business relationships if he is empathetic and considerate of Jewish norms and customs.

What makes one person more culturally empathetic than another? Let's look at some factors that play a role in cultural empathy:

Socioeconomic Status

Often those in a higher, more dominant, status are less empathetic to those in a lesser status. This applies to individuals who are members to a dominant, more powerful, culture versus individuals who are members of a weaker or less influential culture.


The more exposure one has to those of different cultures, the higher the cultural empathy. For example, an American college student who has studied abroad in Spain might have more cultural empathy towards Spanish customs and values after a five-month immersion in their culture versus an American student who has not had this experience.

Exposure isn't only accomplished through travel. It can also be achieved by watching documentaries, reading academic articles, or asking questions to those of different cultural backgrounds.

Understanding One's Own Culture

The greater the comprehension a person has of their own culture, including stereotypes and generalizations, the more that person can appreciate and understand other cultures. For example, if a person understands that their culture values independence versus interdependence on others, he or she will be able to recognize their own bias when interacting with individuals from cultures that value interdependence.

Personal Gain

For individuals who must interact with those of other cultural backgrounds as a part of their profession, it is in their best interest to be empathetic toward people who are culturally different. A social worker who maintains bias and cultural superiority when counseling those from other cultural backgrounds, for example, will have difficulty establishing rapport and achieving therapeutic success with those clients.

Examples of Cultural Empathy

Let's look at a few examples of cultural empathy:

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