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Curiosity Versus Empathy in Productive Cross-Cultural Relationships

Cindy King

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Some recent discussions have brought up a question on developing a good international mind-set.

In my experience empathy is more important than curiosity in productive cross-cultural relationships. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind. A person with more capacity to be empathic with others will create the strongest cross-cultural relationships.

But I stopped in my tracks when someone I respect said that she thought curiosity was the most important element in creating good cross-cultural communication.

Curiosity Opens The Door To Different Cultures

Curiosity does get the ball rolling in many cases. But then so can many cultural definitions of politeness. In some cultures curiosity might be needed more than politeness.

Of course, lack of curiosity is a barrier to effective cross-cultural communication.

  • Someone who has no interest and no curiosity can interact with a different culture and never connect.
  • Someone with some interest but no real curiosity will connect with different cultures, to a certain extent.

Empathy Creates The Cross-Cultural Relationship

I think empathy is what takes you further. Empathy is what helps you to create a real connection with different cultures.

When my natural empathy is stronger than the person I am communicating with, and this person is from a different culture, I feel it when I travel most of the distance to create more meaningful communication.

What is interesting is that I do not notice any extra “effort" on my part if I am communicating with someone from a similar culture. It is the difference in cultures that highlights the “effort".

The “effort" here is not an effort. It is the process of adjusting your own mind-set to meet the other culture outside of your own culture.

Danger In Over Empathizing

When I first came to Europe almost 30 years ago, I did not know anything about this. I was a young adult happy to be in a foreign country, learning a foreign language, and eager to understand everything new around me. And I made the mistake of over empathizing.

The reasons why over empathizing is dangerous is a scientific discussion. You need to read about this in scientific journals if you are interested. I am not qualified to give you details. I just personally lived through the consequences for a while and had to learn how to track back quickly out of there.

The lesson I learned within the first 3-4 years of living in a foreign culture was that you do need to keep your own core culture and identity safe within yourself.

Empathizing with other cultures does not mean changing any of your own personal culture and values. What I can say is that knowledge of my own identity has helped me to adapt to other cultures more easily.

Creating Good Communication

Many years later, I learned that people have different capacities in empathizing with others. Your capacity to empathize with others is influenced through your upbringing and your environment.

When meeting other cultures, I find that having a solid identity and knowing my own limits helps me to stretch go as far as I can in meeting other cultures. Almost like an elastic band.

When other people are not as sure of their own identity, they are not able to meet me half way. This means I have to go a longer distance, if I want to create meaningful communication.

There is also another scenario.

When two people from different cultures connect with the same level of empathy, cross-cultural communication becomes a unique experience. It is a form of pure personal enrichment.

And this is when curiosity often kicks in again and takes the drivers seat. Curiosity then deepens the communication further.

Empathy is a driving factor in all cross-cultural communication.

Curiosity is a driving factor at both ends of good cross-cultural communication and is influenced by culture.

In the end, both curiosity and empathy create good cross-cultural communication.

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Cindy King is a Cross-Cultural eMarketer & International Sales Specialist, aligning businesses with different cultures. She has over 25 years field experience in international business development.


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