Empathy for All: Ethnocultural Empathy (by Jacqueline Peters)

With the recent controversies over immigration, diversity and multiculturalism, a call for empathy is often heard. The ability to understand the feelings of another and to express that understanding is vital in many day-to-day encounters and the importance of empathy’s role in institutional encounters cannot be underestimated.

Multiple studies in psychology, social work, education and medical interactions have shown that the presence or absence of empathy in a professional encounter can affect the degree of compliance and client satisfaction. It is therefore important that institutional representatives keep and/or develop empathic skills in their dealings with clientele.  For example, empathy is a powerful communication skill for health care professionals and is known to facilitate interactions between medical consultants and their patients, as patients feel heard when they exhibit empathic opportunities to their interlocutor. Those openings are then picked up on and responded to, as opposed to missed or ignored by the hearer.  Looking at whether empathy is present or absent in an intercultural encounter is one of the ways to understand problematic interactions between people from different ethnic groups.

Discussions of empathy rarely include instances of intercultural encounters, where not only can linguistic comprehension be threatened, but empathy levels are also affected such that these types of interactions tend to differ greatly from those produced between same-culture interlocutors. The difficulty stems from the notion that empathic skills are not universally applicable, since one’s own cultural background and the quality and quantity of interethnic encounters are known to influence empathy.

In fact, studies show that the more your interlocutor shares with you in terms of culture, ethnicity, gender or age, the higher the level of empathy. In looking at racial and ethnic distinctions, Wang et al. (2003) coined the term ethnocultural empathy, developing the scale of ethnocultural empathy or the SEE to operationalize this relatively new concept. Wang et al.’s (2003) definition of ethnocultural empathy is “empathy directed toward people from racial and ethnic cultural groups, who are different from one’s own ethnocultural group” (p. 221).

The authors developed this method of measuring ethnocultural empathy to add to the Empathy scale that has been in use since the late 60’s. At a time when more attention needs to be paid to people’s attitudes towards other races and ethnic groups, such a measurement was deemed to be essential. This necessity arose from the suggestion that understanding, awareness and acceptance of difference is one solution to intercultural misunderstandings (Wang et al., 2003). The advancement of ethnocultural empathy appears to be one way of encouraging intercultural comprehension.  

As previously mentioned, empathy, both general and ethnocultural, is essential in institutional encounters. In education, working with a diverse racial and ethnic community of staff and students means developing the ability to respond to ethnocultural empathic opportunities when they are presented.

Linguistic and cultural misunderstanding affects learning strategies and performance. The ability of teachers to express concern and to understand the perspective of students of different ethnic and racial groups involves both cognitive and affective domains of empathy (Barr, 2011). Students who feel heard and who perceive empathy on the part of their instructors when empathic opportunities are proffered are more academically motivated (ibid).

When discussing the application of empathy in institutional interactions it has nearly always been controversial whether empathy can be taught; however, some empathy training programs for teachers-in-training have shown success, as has introducing empathy training in medical schools (Decety, 2012; Spiro, 1996; Zembylas, 2012).

Those who are able to perform emotional labor may also be more emotionally expressive when necessary. They become better communicators, and may be perceived as transformational leaders. There is no question of the influence of a positive academic environment on student outcomes or  that we as teachers can influence the changing cultural environments of our classrooms, creating safe and inclusive spaces for learning to all of our students.  Enhancing ethnocultural empathy is one way to improve diverse university classroom cultures. An awareness of cross-cultural issues, that are then attended to, enhances learning opportunities and improves communications in multicultural environments.


Barr, J. J. (2011). The relationship between teachers’ empathy and perceptions of school culture. Educational Studies37(3), 365-369.

Decety, J. (Ed.). (2012). Empathy: From bench to bedside. MIT Press.

Spiro, H., Curnen, M. G. M., Peschel, E., & James, D. S. (Eds.). (1996). Empathy and the practice of medicine: beyond pills and the scalpel. Yale University Press.

Wang, Y. W., Davidson, M. M., Yakushko, O. F., Savoy, H. B., Tan, J. A., & Bleier, J. K. (2003). The scale of ethnocultural empathy: development, validation, and reliability. Journal of Counseling Psychology50(2), 221.

Zembylas, M. (2012). Pedagogies of strategic empathy: Navigating through the emotional complexities of anti-racism in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(2), 113-125.

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