Cultural Empathy: The 10 Dimensions of Cultural Value

By Lynn Willis, Curator

cultural empathy

Do you remember the parable of the Prodigal Son? (Luke 15:11-32) Do you remember the famine? In a study done by Lutheran seminary professor Mark Allan Powell, most Americans regardless of their gender, race, age, economic status, or religion think the famine is so insignificant that they don’t mention it at all. He found, though, that in Russia, most people (84%) mention the famine as an important part of the story.

Also, most Americans think the son’s biggest sin is his wasteful spending. On the other hand, most Russians believe his biggest sin was leaving his father’s house – putting a monetary value on the family. In short, the Russians believe his biggest sin is being self-sufficient.

Seminary students in Tanzania hear yet another perspective. They believe that the son was brought to ruin because no one would give him anything (v.16). They say the boy was in a far country. Immigrants often lose their money and they are thought foolish because they don’t understand the customs and ways of that country. The “far country” is a country with no honor because it did not extend hospitality to the immigrant. This is in contrast, the Tanzanian students say, to the Father’s house, which symbolizes the Kingdom of God, where the undeserving are welcomed.

The culture you come from matters.

Eric Law likened culture to an iceberg. The differences we see in each other are the small percent of the iceberg that shows above the water. The real cultural differences reach deep and wide beneath the surface where they have been nurtured from birth and where they are very hard to detect.

People who research culture have determined that there are 10 dimensions of cultural value that are helpful when comparing one culture to another.

  1. Identity: Individualist vs. Collectivist. Do parents in your culture teach their children to be independent? Or are they taught from the beginning that they are first members of a group or family?
  2. Authority: High vs. Low Power Distance. How does your culture teach you to address elders and those with more authority? Do you address your clergy as Father, Pastor, or Doctor? Or do you call them by their first names?
  3. Risk: High vs. Low Uncertainty Avoidance. To what degree does your culture handle uncertainty? Does it pass lots of “what if” laws? Or will you cross that bridge when you get to it?
  4. Achievement: Cooperative vs. Competitive. How much does your culture embrace nurturing, collaborative behavior? Is cooperation put aside in favor of achieving individual results?
  5. Time: Punctuality vs. Relationships. How acceptable would it be if you were late to an appointment because you helped your nephew fix a flat tire? In the U.S., you would probably need a better excuse than that. It would not be a problem in other cultures.
  6. Communication: Direct vs. Indirect. Do you want a straight answer to “does this outfit make me look fat?” Do you want someone to “shoot straight” with you – to clearly say what they mean – or would you rather hear subtle nuance and read between the lines?
  7. Lifestyle: Doing vs. Being. When people meet you, do they ask “what do you do for work?” or “what makes you happy?” The U.S. is a very high doing
  8. Rules: Universalist vs. Particularist. Does your culture say that rules and policies are to be applied to everyone with no exceptions? Or does your culture say that each person and each circumstance is unique and so situations ought to be addressed individually?
  9. Expressiveness: Affective vs. Neutral. Is it okay in your culture to show emotions with great gusto? Or is it better to keep emotions to yourself?
  10. Social Norms: Loose vs. Tight. Does your community feel comfortable allowing other lifestyles?  Or should everyone conform to the same behaviors?

It’s also possible that you will encounter people who belong to your national culture but who have other cultural differences. For example, we welcome all gendered people and people from all economic backgrounds. We welcome those who have just left the military service or those who have been released from prison or a long hospital stay. Each person has a story to tell and has different expectations of how the world works. These expectations will express themselves in different behavior.

The first step to being culturally empathetic is realizing that there are real differences in worldviews. The second is a curiosity and willingness to learn. Congratulations! You are on the path already! The third is to learn all you can and then to practice, with love, what you have learned.

We don’t want you to feel intimidated, but we do want you to realize that not everyone is comfortable being greeted with a big smile, eye-to-eye contact, and hearty handshake. Practice looking for non-verbal cues and try to make your greetings and interactions mesh with what you observe. If you goof up be prepared to apologize and laugh at yourself. Don’t give up. Also, we can learn a lot from other cultures.

Rafael Malpica Padilla says that churches used to send missionaries out as though they were pearl merchants – carrying a valuable gift with them. Now, they are sent as treasure hunters. God is already in the world. Their job (and ours) is to find the God that is already in every person. Happy treasure hunting!

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