I’ve spent years sending donors, volunteers, students, and staff on overseas assignments and I’m keenly interested in what makes people successful in foreign environments. Many of us know someone who didn’t cope well on an international trip, while others surprised us with the ease at which they seemed to adapt just about anywhere. Why is that? What makes some of us successful while others struggle? Social psychologists have been asking this same question and decades of research have revealed some surprising answers.

For many years, we assumed more cultural knowledge was all we needed. If we learned as much as we could about the other country or culture, we’d be fully prepared to engage with them. This is still the false promise of many guidebooks. A visit to the local bookstore or an Internet search in any language will reveal a multitude of “dos and don’ts” lists and information on superficial differences among cultures to guide behavior.

Contrary to these beliefs, the pioneering work of social psychologists Linda Tropp and Thomas Pettigrew revealed that of the three primary factors examined, cultural knowledge was the least important in determining success in intercultural encounters.

It turns out that supplying ample knowledge of another culture is no guarantee that visitors will engage effectively with the local community. Doing a “brain dump” doesn’t work because, 1) we can’t possibly know or remember everything; 2) facts don’t always influence our feelings (like the rise of Islamophobia despite statistics that Muslims are more often the victims of hate crimes than the perpetrators); and 3) there is a disconnect between what we know and how we behave (like how we continue to eat foods that we know are unhealthy). Simply providing new knowledge about a group and expecting people to read and remember it, suspend their pre-existing assumptions, and modify habits and behaviors appropriately, is not plausible.

Having empathy, it turns out, is much more effective than having cultural knowledge. Empathy has been generating a lot of buzz in recent years, but I find people often confuse it with sympathy. Many of us view sympathy as a feeling of pity accompanied by a shade of condescension. According to scholar Milton Bennet, sympathy and empathy have a major difference: sympathy assumes similarity while empathy assumes difference. (Bennet, 2007)

When you exhibit sympathy, you’re thinking about how you would feel in the other person’s situation and then project your feelings on to them. When you exhibit empathy, you suspend your feelings and judgment, allow room for, and accept the other person’s feelings. What you would feel in their situation is irrelevant because you’re a different person. As the metaphor goes, to understand another person, you must walk a mile in their shoes.

If empathy is more important than knowledge, is it then the most important behavior for mastering intercultural encounters?

The surprising answer is no. According to research, the reduction of anxiety is the most important determinant of success in intercultural encounters. When we’re anxious, we’re not very good at doing anything. No matter how much knowledge we possess of where we’re going or how eager we are to relate to the local people, when we experience anxiety it diminishes our ability to engage effectively with others.

We cannot cultivate empathy without reducing our anxiety. Without empathy, others will not trust us to share the critical knowledge we need: how they want us to interact with them. If we treat them how we want to be treated, we are less likely to have a successful encounter (Bennet, 2009).

When I develop trips, I continually think about how to reduce our visitors’ anxiety before they depart, how to create experiences on the trip that cultivate empathy, and how to help our visitors learn something new in every activity.

Instead of believing that a thorough guidebook is all our visitors’ need, we should focus on ways to reduce our travelers’ anxiety before the trip and provide opportunities to cultivate empathy with the people they will soon encounter. All the information we provide should be aligned with these objectives and focus on deepening relations among our visitors and the local community.


Bennett, Milton J. (1979) Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy in Intercultural Communication: Selected Studies in Intercultural Communication. Volume 3: Issue 1: Communication Yearbook 3 Annals of the International Communication Association (pp. 407-422)
Tropp, L. R., & Page-Gould, E. (2014). Contact between groups. In M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, J. F. Dovidio & J. A. Simpson (Eds.),   APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 2: Group Processes (pp. 535-560). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2011). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. New York: Psychology Press.
Tropp, L. R., & Mallett, R. (Eds.) (2011). Moving beyond prejudice reduction: Pathways to positive intergroup relations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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  1. Agree completely I have found that, rather than concentrating that I might do something culturally offensive, I make my self an observer who wants to honor the culture I am in by quickly adapting to how people are behaving. And I have found that a smile and quiet attention wins strangers over anywhere.

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