(((I am currently studying for a licensure exam & completing an internship. This blog post is intended as a study exercise.)))
“Counselors are aware of – and avoid imposing – their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselors values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.” (American Counseling Association, 2014, p4).
Establishing rapport is an essential skill in building a therapeutic relationship with clients. In today’s diverse culture, doing so requires a great deal of multicultural competency. When you consider how this can mean respecting diverse language styles, understanding different value systems, and even communicating respect or empathy, it becomes clear this skill is as much art as science (Hays, 2008).
In this paper, I will review a research article titled “The Relationship of Culture and Empathy in Cross-Cultural Counseling”, by Chung & Bemak (2002). It is intended to provide a theoretical model upon which to begin understanding how culture influences personality development. While I do have some misgivings about it from a theoretical perspective, I do still believe it has much insight that is applicable to my future counseling practice.
What intrigued me about this particular article is it touched upon a personal insight that has stayed with me, since I began this course. Firstly, I’m amazed at how much culture really does define us. It is actually an essential element in the formation of my own identity, value system, worldview, as well as affective style of emotive expression, (Pedersen, et al, 2008; Hays, 2008). Secondly, I’m struck by how much miscommunication can occur when divergent cultural perspectives aren’t fully recognized. In the subtlest ways, cultural differences define our system of meanings, and modes of emotional and verbal expression. When not put into a proper context, we can unknowingly, misapply our own cultural viewpoint and fail to understand what is being communicated.
The following article provides a theory of how culture and personality together affect our emotional styles in a particular culture. Again while I do have some criticisms about the theory, it is worth sharing.
Empathy & Culture
Empathy is a key element of building an effective therapeutic relationship and establishing a solid rapport with clients. Empathizing with someone means understanding your client as they understand themselves within the context of their own world (Nazir, et al, 2009). In other words, empathy means putting yourself in your client’s shoes. Based on this definition, it is clear that empathy requires an understanding of your client’s viewpoint (Chung & Bemak, 2002). It also becomes quickly clear that knowledge of your client’s culture is implicitly an integral component of empathy and the establishment of rapport. It appears empathy and cultural sensitivity are indeed interconnected (Chung & Bemak, 2002). Despite this fact, empathy has historically been defined in a “Westernized Euro-American context” (Nazir, et al, 2009, p155) in the Psychology field. This paper is aimed at rectifying the problem by providing a theoretically proposed model of how culture affects personality.
Culture consists of a shared system of meanings within society that define modes of expression and communication, (Chung & Bemak, 2002; Nazir, et al, 2009). It influences how we view the world around us and sets the normative standards for behavior (Chung & Bemak, 2002; Nazir, et al, 2009). As a form of “mental programming” (Chung & Bemak, 2002, p282), it defines our value systems and preferred ways of thinking and feeling.
Within this way view of culture, authors Chung & Bemak, (2002) connect culture to personality by stating our mental programming exists at differing levels of uniqueness. Starting with an innate evolutionary set of instincts, we have universal mental programs that exist in all humans (Chung & Bemak, 2002). Culture provides another set of mental programs relevant to a society (Chung & Bemak, 2002). Finally a personality specific to an individual exists as the result of both inherited and learned influences (Chung & Bemak, 2002).
Hofestede’s Dimensions of Cultural Variability.
With some basic conceptual definitions out of the way, this article moves on to a brief overview of a few theories. Together, it is proposed that these theories can help provide some understanding of how culture and personal are interrelated. The first of these theories is a “Hofestede’s Dimensions of Cultural Variability.” (Chung & Bemak, 2002, p283). This theory describes four dimensions of behavioral variations within culture that can be thought of as existing along a continuum, (Chung & Bemak, 2002).
Individualism & Collectivism.
Individualistic and collectivistic cultures vary in terms of the focus of identity on either individuals or community (Chung & Bemak, 2002). Collectivist cultures focus on community and consequently value harmony, tradition, sacrifice, duty (Chung & Bemak, 2002). Individualistic cultures focus on the individual and value personal freedom of expression, responsibility, and independence (Chung & Bemak, 2002). It is interesting to note the varied mental programs in personalities that develop for each type of society. Collectivist societies, for example, would more likely promote emotional suppression and sacrifice for the sake of group harmony. Individualistic societies promoting values such as personal freedom would cultivate personality characteristics of emotional expression, and allow a more open expression of opinions.
Cultures also vary in the degree of uncertainty avoidance. For example, a culture that defines uncertainty as bad would have individuals who are resistant to change in favor of tradition (Chung & Bemak, 2002). Curbing uncertainty with restrictions to personal freedom and rules of behavior is often the solution (Chung & Bemak, 2002).
Cultures also vary in terms of power structure and social status organization (Chung & Bemak, 2002). “High power distance cultures” (Chung & Bemak, 2002, p284) have a more rigid power structure enforced as a basis of society. These societies promote a respect for authority, and its members engage in more formal interaction styles. (Chung & Bemak, 2002). “Lower power distance cultures” tend to have greater social mobility, a larger middle class, and interaction is more informal (Chung & Bemak, 2002).
Masculinity vs. Feminity.
While masculine cultures promote values such as ambition, assertiveness, and performance feminine cultures promote service and caring for others (Chung & Bemak, 2002). Again as with the other cultural dimensions, personality development of individuals these cultures reflects these differences.
Individual Mental Programming
With a discussion of culture out of the way, the article now moves to theories related to the individual. This section focuses on personality as a unique mental programing within the individual resulting from both nature and nurture (Chung & Bemak, 2002). From this perspective, personality can be thought of as a set of emotional, behavioral, and thought patterns unique to the person. (Chung & Bemak, 2002).
PSI Model of Emotions.
The PSI model of emotions discusses how people utilize motivation, thought emotion and action in the context of their lives. On the one hand what I didn’t like about this theory, is individuals appear very Pavlovian in nature. Focusing on concepts such as needs, drives, motivation, and arousal, this theory attempts to depict the mind as a system of action and regulation (Chung & Bemak, 2002). While I feel this is a tad too evolutionary in scope, there are some interesting elements that warrant mention.
Emotions as modulators of action.
This theory rejects the traditional notion of emotions as irrational, stating they play a role in decision-making, self-regulation, and motivation (Chung & Bemak, 2002). Rather than distorting our thoughts, they are thought to direct them. Noting that without emotions, humans become robots, this theory focuses on factors that influence our emotional reasoning. (Chung & Bemak, 2002).
Culture & personality as drivers of motivation.
A second element of this theory, which I appreciated, was how easily it helps show how both culture and personality drive human behavior. With these factors defining our value systems and perceived needs, culture and personality act to drive our motivations (Chung & Bemak, 2002). I would add to this by saying it would be logical to say they also direct our plans and goals in response to these needs, as the filter systems through which intake information.
Big Five Personality Theory.
In concluding this discussion on the individual, this article just briefly mentions the Big Five Model of Personality. While ignoring other personality type theories, it offers this one as a model that works well along the theory culture mentioned earlier. This theory comprises five dimensions of personality which also exist along a continuum: (1) openness to experience, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extraversion, (4) agreeableness, and (5) neuroticism.
I have to admit, I was disappointed more time was not discussed on how these factors might correlate with the cultural dimensions mentioned earlier. It would be interesting to see how cultures promoted the development of personality through the usage of such instruments.
Sadly, there isn’t much research in this area What I’ve read is largely speculative, and informal in books such as “Where In the World Do I Belong” by Brent Massey available at Amazon.
Criticisms & Conclusions.
The Positive Insights.
A Cultural Personality.
This paper concludes by providing a theory that depicts culture as a component of mental programming, alongside personality. In other words, it is internalized within us as a component of our personality (Chung & Bemak, 2002). In this respect it has great value in helping us understand how culture and personality correlate. I would, in fact, be interested in more research that correlates cultural variants discussed with personality development and typology. Having knowledge of in Myers Briggs typology and Jungian psychology, I find this quite interesting.
Emotions Matter & Are Not Illogical.
Based on a theory, which depicts emotions as providing logic that motivates action, it attempts to understand feelings in this context. Understanding our emotions in the context of our decisions, motivations, and forms of reasoning, can only help us understand ourselves and therefore help others more effectively in a therapeutic setting.
Empathy as a Cultural Concept.
A theoretical perspective, that helps us understand empathy as a culturally based notion, is indeed relevant to future practice. If empathy means putting someone in another person’s shoes, cultural considerations are naturally integral to this. Understanding culture as a key factor influencing our personality, (and therefore emotional style), is also very useful.
This article focused too much on a theoretical perspective that depicts individuals as functioning with a set of Pavlovian needs from an evolutionary perspective. Additionally, there was too little time spent understanding the influences of cultural dimensions on personality development. For this reason, it’s potential to provide insights for direct application in a counseling setting aren’t as great as they could be.
Finally, I have some misgivings about one more item mentioned here. This article proposes the development of a theory that can create “affective synthetic characters” which are representative of a cultural personality, (Chung & Bemak, 2002). While potentially beneficial to understand how culture influences personality, I’m not certain what the authors mean by “synthetic characters”. If researchers utilize some caution throughout the research process it could be useful, (much as the cultural variables are), in understanding behavior. On the other hand, if one were to use an evolutionary based theory that depicts individuals in a Pavlovian sense I have my concerns. I would worry about a reductionist and stereotypical depiction of personality under the influence of culture, being the end result.
Overall, while the article did have its shortcomings, I did find many of its insights useful. I am very interested in understanding how culture determines personality and the individual. As stated earlier, it seems this field involves as much art as science. In utilizing insights from this article, the following quote seems most relevant to me:
“….The therapist then engages in ‘a continuous cycle of hypothesis formulation and hypothesis testing about the particular individual. Each item of information…suggests a hypothesis about the person, which will be either confirmed or refuted as other facts are gathered.” (Hays, 2008, 73).
In the end, it seems as if the more I learn in this class, the more I realize I have much to learn. My self-awareness grows, and I become aware that asking the questions is more important than knowing the answer.