General empathy
Understanding kindness around the world

By Cassie Buttle Charlton | Corey Hatcher | Carl Huang | Jennifer Rambler | Natalie Russell | Sean Treiser | Lauren Turner

Does kindness differ across cultures? 

Kindness is the simple act of helping someone. It can be as simple as paying a compliment, or getting someone a coffee. 

In honor of World Kindness Day (Nov 13th), we talked to people from six different societies to explore the different ways kindness is interpreted and expressed around the world. We found that although kindness is valued everywhere in the world, its specific definition, and the acts that are viewed as kind, sometimes differ from country to country. Here are some specifics:

  • Individual versus group kindness. People from countries that have an individual-focused culture (the US, UK, and Australia in our test) tend to view kindness as a person to person interaction. People from more collective cultures (Brazil, India, and the Philippines) tend to view kindness as part of a communal context.
  • There is a difference in who you express kindness to. In individualist societies, most people prioritize kindness to those they already know (family and friends). In collectivist societies, they show kindness to family, friends, and those that they do not know as a part of their culture. 
  • There are different expectations on how someone should react when they receive kindness. Individualist societies tend to expect a thank you or recognition, but collectivist societies do not. 
  • Kindness as a part of life vs an act that someone does. Individualist societies tend to view kindness as a cognizant act that a person does, but collectivist societies view kindness to all as a way of life that is not thought about much. 
  • How you are kind to yourself differs too. People in individualist societies like to reward themselves through the purchase or consumption of a good/service, while collectivist societies focus on their mental health (drinking water, journaling, etc). 
  • Small acts mean the most. In all countries, small acts of kindness are seen as the most impactful. 

In the videos below, we will share how we came to these conclusions by hearing folks from both individualist and collectivist societies. 

Kindness is everywhere

We asked our contributors what kindness meant to them so that we could understand how different cultures viewed and expected kindness to look.  

We also asked them to write down three words that describe kindness.

Defining your kindness circle

In individualist societies, people focus on doing kind things for family and friends, most leaving out those who they do not know personally.

In collectivist societies, the focus seems to be on universal kindness for everyone, without defined criteria concerning who you should show kindness to. 

Receiving kindness

In individualistic societies, there are certain expectations of gratitude if you do a kindness for someone, such as a verbal “thank you.” Kindness is seen as giving AND receiving to be fully confirmed as a kind act.

Collectivist societies tend to view this differently, focusing more on completing the act of kindness itself rather than focusing on someone else needing to affirm their efforts. 

A one-time act vs a lifestyle

Individualist societies tend to view kindness as an act that they are choosing to do to help someone in need. Kindness is often seen as:

  • Going out of your way to help someone, focusing on self-sacrifice. 
  • Could be taken the wrong way. Worry that their kind act being misinterpreted as something other than being kind has folks second guessing if they should show kindness. 
  • Blend of monetary kindness and physical acts of kindness. There is a blend of how individualistic societies view kindness as giving/supporting someone monetarily and with a physical act of kindness. 

Collectivist societies tend to view kindness as a part of their life, spreading it wherever they go. To them:

  • Kindness starts with the individual. Kindness must have intrinsic motivations that permeate their normal day-to-today lives. This helps build kind and caring communities. 
  • Focus is on physical acts of kindness. People tend to lean more toward physically helping someone if they see that they are struggling, rather than offering monetary support.

Showing yourself kindness

Self-kindness in these societies followed the same pattern as how they show kindness to others. For individualistic societies, their idea of self-kindness was rewarding themselves with tokens or services (candy bars, massages, etc). Collectivist societies tend to marry the idea of self-kindness with self-care:ensuring that they are taking care of their bodies (like drinking water throughout the day) or their minds (for example, journaling). 

Small acts with big impact

In all societies people feel the smallest acts of kindness yielded the biggest impact 

In conclusion

Kindness is a part of all cultures but viewed in very different ways. While there are some similarities and almost everyone agrees that there should be more kindness in the world, we should all be aware that one person’s kindness may not meet the expectations of someone else, especially if you’re interacting across cultures. This can help us all foster a more welcoming environment for any and all acts of kindness. Especially the small ones. 

BACKGROUND: This study was based on 18 self-guided video interviews from six identified societies – Australia, Brazil, India, the Philippeans, United Kingdom, and the United States. 

The authors are all members of UT CARES, which is UserTesting’s employee-led volunteer group, centered around our cultural value of ”Be Kind.”

Photo by imaryamiii on Unsplash

UT Cares
The authors are members of UT Cares, a community service task force consisting of UserTesting employees.
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