Fostering Cultural Empathy

The following text is an excerpt from the US Army Red Teaming Manual. Some examples are tailored to military missions. However, it helps to understand how Red Teaming has evolved and why it is essential to understand and respect cultures in a business context. In our globalized world, we cannot do without understanding our environment and the people in it. If you have employees from different parts of the world in your company, you have to consider cultures when making decisions. They also help you to take a different view of problems and challenges. Therefore, a culture analysis is fundamental, and the following part provides a detailed basis for a better understanding.

"Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is. It is a strange science whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based, in which to get somewhere with the matter at hand is to intensify the suspicion, both your own and that of others, that you are not quite getting it right. But that, along with plaguing subtle people with obtuse questions, is what being an ethnographer is like."

Clifford Geertz, Anthropologist, 1973

In the above passage from "The Interpretation of Cultures", Clifford Geertz described what it is like to be an ethnographer. Still, he might just as well have defined Red Teaming, which was commissioned to do a cultural analysis. A curious and skeptical disposition suits Red Teaming better than an unquestionable certainty. Cultural awareness means discovering that there is no "normal" position in cultural affairs.

Cultural awareness is not the same as artistic sensitivity. It is not about escaping or rejecting our deep-rooted values, beliefs, and ideals or practicing cultural relativism, but about better understanding the differences and similarities between our own and those of others (both opponents and allies) to avoid missteps in planning and policy formulation. The methods and results of a business planner differ from those of an ethnographer or anthropologist. This task consists not only in observation but also in planning and acting based on the analysis.

Remember this caution at the beginning of any cultural investigation. When we analyze another culture, we must do so in the full knowledge that our perspective lies outside that culture. Moreover, the things we see are the things we most often try to manipulate. These things are simple constructions of culture. The true wisdom here is to appreciate the deep, unchanging foundations of culture, not to reconstruct them in the way we wish.

"I don't think we should study things in isolation. I don't think a geographer is going to master anything, or an anthropologist is going to master anything, or a historian is going to master anything. I think it's a broad-based knowledge in all these areas, the ability to dissect a culture or an environment very carefully and know what questions to ask, although you might not be an expert in that culture, and to be able to pull it all together. Again, an intelligence analysis that isn't an order-of-battle, militarily oriented one, but one that pulls these factors together that you need to understand… I mean, as simple as flora and fauna all the way up to basic geographic differences, environmental differences – cultural, religious and everything else. That becomes your life as a planner, or as the director of operations, and as the key decision maker."

General Anthony Zinni, United States Marine Corps, 1998

Understanding culture for the Red Teamer

This chapter aims to develop better questions about culture to facilitate planning, policy-making, and strategic and operational decision-making. These are shaped by cultural empathy and improved through Red Teaming and a functional systems approach. Red Teaming's methods and tools prevent us from accepting simple answers to difficult questions about culture and its complexity. The functional systems approach improves our ability to translate the abstractions and nuances of culture into doctrinal and/or operational terms. To this end, our Red Teaming approach to investigating culture emphasizes the following points:

  • Conscious engagement with the role of ethnocentrism and vicarious cultural relativism
  • Culture-centered case studies
  • Instruments for the promotion of empathy


One goal of Red Teaming's cultural methodology is to reduce blind ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism, the belief that one's own culture is inherently superior to other cultures, is a natural tendency of most people. This problem exists in planning when the planner is so attached to his own culture that he is "blind to the ability to see the world through the eyes of another national or ethnic group. Negative or distorted stereotypes are also a challenge for a complete cultural understanding. Stereotypes in themselves are not harmful; the issue here is whether they are real or distorted. Distorted stereotypes are polarized, simplistic, and selfish. Race and ethnicity are common characteristics that are historically susceptible to distorted stereotypes.

"Stereotyping is a process by which individuals are viewed as members of groups and the information that we have stored in our minds about the group is ascribed to the individual."

Taylor H. Cox, behavioral scientist, 1994

We often tend to oversimplify the cultural complexity in planning issues. Our natural inclination is to construct simplified models of a complex reality to explain things. We develop simplified explanations based on selected cultural aspects of the operational environment that facilitate our planning and the desired final states. The tendency is to view culture as a block, as a category with geographical or ethnic boundaries, rather than as the people who make up the human domain. For example, a simple answer to the question "Where is Mexico?" could be an answer that explains geographical boundaries, like on a political map. A more revealing answer would be "It's where Mexicans are," or where Mexican food is, or where "Mexican" Spanish is spoken, or wherever Cinco de Mayo is celebrated, by whomever and for whatever reason. Cultures have social and psychological as well as geographical contexts. The complexity of culture is illustrated by the hundreds or perhaps even thousands of culturally learned identities, affiliations, and roles we all assume at some point. "Complexity involves the identification of multiple perspectives within and between individuals". Multiple and alternative perspectives, better questions, and "more complex" thinking is the goal of Red Teaming's cultural approach.

To this end, we take the position that the study of culture is "not an experimental science in search of the law, but an interpretative science in search of meaning. There are several challenges to developing an interpretative approach to culture, but this is our goal. We are looking for an explanation that explains the occurrence of certain phenomena in culture, in a place, at a particular time, for one specific group, for planning, policy formulation, and decision making.
Challenges in the interpretation of culture:

  • The choice of apperceptive (conscious perception with full awareness) frameworks that are strict enough without being reductive.
  • Determining what cultural skills a Red Teamer should have
  • Determine how these skills can best be put into practice.
  • The most important aspects of multicultural awareness can be learned but not taught.
  • Create favorable training conditions for the appearance of multicultural awareness and provide the necessary knowledge and skills.
  • Establish a "good cultural training" for Red Teaming.

"It is difficult to know the cultures of others until and unless you have an awareness of your own culturally learned assumptions as they control your life."

Psychologists Mary Connerley and Paul Pedersen, 2005

When trying to interpret, understand, or analyze a culture, nothing is more important than recognizing the extent to which the interpretation is solely our own, with all the inherent and inevitable biases and ethnocentricity that goes with it. While we cannot wholly escape our culturally learned ethnocentricity, there are tools, methods, and frameworks that we use to become aware of it and how it influences our thinking and decision-making. There are many definitions of culture. Some are broad, general, and inclusive, while others are specific to the practitioner's interest (ethnographer, social scientist, psychologist, warrior, etc.).

Some definitions of culture

  • "Whatever you need to know or believe in working in a way that is acceptable to [members of the culture]."
  • "The networks of meaning designed by people for themselves."
  • "The collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another".
  • "Operative culture: The aspects of culture that influence the outcome of an external operation; conversely, the external actions that influence the culture of an operating area".
  • "A theory about the way a group of people actually behaves"

The point is to remember that everything is just theory until you get there.

The culture...

  • Is learned
  • Will be shared
  • changes in the course of time
  • Is not always rational for outsiders

Several frameworks attempt to capture aspects of culture for their investigation. These comprehensive frameworks define the main categories of cultural differences.

The differences between the different approaches are directly related to the purpose of the research. Cultural frameworks do not explain everything, but they do explain something, and our attention should be focused on isolating what that something is for further planning.

There is no ideal framework or the best way to classify a culture. Furthermore, frameworks should not replace a simple explanation. The Red Teamer should understand that classifications and categories are often only used to provide a simplified basis for analysis. Choosing one categorization or framework over another not only determines the type of questions we can ask but can also obscure other essential questions that should be asked. For this reason, Red Teamers should use multiple frames or cultural "lenses" (such as 4-Ways of Seeing) when conducting a cultural analysis.

Some Cultural Frameworks

  1. PMESII-PT (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical Environment, and Time) is often used to organize militarily relevant knowledge about a place but is neither the only valid framework nor complete in itself or of itself. Frameworks of all kinds are artificial tools, not explanations of how things really are in society. Ask yourself: "What is missing in an exclusively PMESII PT analysis... does it cover the will of the persons concerned, does it fully deal with the complex interaction between variables, etc.?"
  2. Clyde Kluckhohn's six-century old Dimensions of Culture:
    • Human nature, good or bad?
    • The relationship between man and nature, harmony, or submission?
    • The relationship of people, individualism, or group?
    • The primary nature of the activity, being or acting?
    • The conception of space, private or public?
    • Time orientation, past, present, or future?
  3. Richard E. Nisbett on cognitive differences:
    • Patterns of attention and perception
    • Assumptions about the composition of the world
    • Convictions on the controllability of the environment
    • Assumptions about stability and change
    • Preferred explanation patterns for events
    • Habits of organizing the world
    • Use of formal logic rules
    • Application of dialectical approaches
  4. Edward T. Hall on communication patterns:
    • Context, what has to be specified explicitly?
    • Space, how much personal space is needed?
    • Zeit, monochron (Ereignisse treten einzeln auf) oder polychron (Gleichzeitigkeit)?
  5. Geert Hofstede's country profiles:
    • Power Distance
    • Avoidance of uncertainties
    • Individualism
    • Masculinity/Femininity
    • Time, monochronic (events occur individually) or polychronic (simultaneity)?
  6. Five operational, cultural dimensions (from "Operational Culture for the Warfighter" ):
    • The physical environment
    • The economy
    • The social structure
    • The political structure
    • Convictions and systems

Ultimately, the selected frameworks are based on what we want to know and what we intend to do. We want to collect analyses and facts and explanations that lead to empathy/understanding and contribute to a systematic approach to functional design and joint and service decision-making processes.

Every Red Team member should have a general knowledge of the environment:

  • dimensions of culture
  • Aspects of national culture
  • Exact motivational values that stem from cultural education and context

Culture analysis for the Red Teamer

Red Teaming analyses focus on the culture at a general knowledge level. The focus is on culture because the culture was identified during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom as a gap in understanding the operational environment and because the culture is historically challenging to understand as its substance and meaning are often abstract and not immediately observable.

Red Teaming for Cultural Empathy includes areas that focus primarily on four themes that are consistently recognized in anthropological studies as the basis for any cultural study: Social structure, politics (power and authority), economics, and religion (belief systems). The assumption is that we need to look at the rest of the socio-cultural context to understand a part of a culture or society. The purpose of separating society or culture into elementary parts or basic principles is not to isolate these elements but to understand the nature of the whole.

General knowledge focuses on learning about a complex environment, which is essential for planning and decision-making. General knowledge is not concrete, but an abstraction of experience - generalizations abstracted from several specific cases. Generalization simplifies a complex reality - complexity that otherwise overwhelms our ability to understand. An example of a model or framework that facilitates and illustrates an otherwise complex cultural reality is Hofstede's onion model for cultural manifestations.


Icons: Easy to change; words, gestures, objects.
Heroes: Real or not real people, their actions, their appearance
Rituals: Community activities. Strengthening of group cohesion. Technically superfluous, socially indispensable.
Values: Learned early, difficult to observe, difficult to explain. "Known or felt."
Practices: Visible to outsiders, but their cultural meaning is invisible and lies in the interpretation of the initiated.

This simple general model presents Red Teaming with a cultural "...set of patterns of and for behavior that prevails in a group of people at a given time, with observable and sharp discontinuities".

Models like this allow the Red Teamer to analyze the same and what is different, the "sharp discontinuities" of the cultural context. It contains general categories and a set of patterns that can be used to begin an artistic investigation of the environment that can help develop the environmental framework of the design process.

Without general categories, we can easily get lost in the complexity of specific details. At the population level, the human domain is hugely complex and continuously changing. Analyzing to identify what can be influenced to achieve the desired outcome difficult. There are too many interrelated variables - at a certain level almost all variables are interrelated - and the causal relationships are constantly changing. This fact alone is enough to make planners take an essential view of culture: "It has always been that way with these people."

“To explain different patterns of culture we have to begin by assuming that human life is not merely random or capricious. Without this assumption, the temptation to give up when confronted with a stubbornly inscrutable custom or institution becomes irresistible.”

Anthropologist Marvin Harris, 1989

The organization of cultural information is more than a simple data aggregation or a population of rigid system models with general information. Essential nuances of culture can be overlooked in a simple collection and cannot be examined solely based on institutional design. This is where Red Teaming can help determine which general and specific information is contextually important in the design or planning process and in avoiding the temptation to "give up" or generalize stereotypically.

The human domain complexity can be simplified by dividing specific information into general categories important for business operations. These broad categories are based on what is essential to know. At the highest organizational level for military operations, these general categories are the military operational variables PMESII-PT. These categories simplify reality and provide a framework to focus on collecting regional expertise and culture-specific information relevant to the military analysis.

At the population level, it is an understanding of the interaction of variables within a population. Given the complexity mentioned above, "systems thinking" is enabled by simplifying reality into relevant general categories of variables. Red Teams' task is to make reality as simple as possible for planning, but not simpler. For this reason, a functional approach to the cultural analysis of the environment is proposed as an approach that the Red Teamers can take to combine cultural analysis with planning and operation. The following approach of functional systems for culture analysis for planning was taken from the USAFAS Regional Expertise and Culture Instructor Course (Pilot) developed by Dr. Daryl Liskey.

Functional Systems Approach

The functional system is an analytical approach to understanding stable interacting relationships (links) and associated entities (nodes) in an organizational environment. It is an analytical tool to separate a set of phenomena from its context, which we want to study. The anthropologist Ronald Cohen describes it this way:

"The system as a whole does something. It can be characterized as having an activity or activities, and its various parts contribute to the fulfillment of these ends. Indeed, systems designers are quite clear on this point when they design systems, since they start with functions (emphasis added) and then work back to create a set of interrelationships that will, in fact, describe the carrying out of these ends."

Anthropologist Ronald Cohen

How variables are related to the generation of a particular result is the definition of a function. The function system consists of the regular patterns of interacting variables that cause the output. A functional system approach is useful because it provides a systemic approach to analyzing interactions for what is essential.

Remember that the functional systems approach is neither theory nor doctrine. It is a method that connects all aspects of cultural research. It is only one of many ways that can be used to improve perception (conscious perception with full awareness). Its purpose is to bridge the Red Teaming analysis and doctrine. This approach accurately describes a culture that leads to an explanation and ultimately to better-informed planning and decision-making.

PMESII PT systems (identified by the military as operational variables) are designed to identify the key outcomes or impacts relevant to military operations in a specific country at the campaign level of planning. In functional terms, the operational variables are:

Political power: How binding decisions are made

Military physical power: How is physical violence exercised?

Economic resources: How goods and services are produced, distributed, and consumed

Social solidarity: How people interact in their everyday lives

Infrastructure - physical macrosystems: How critical resources and activities move across artificial physical systems

Information - Communication: How information is produced, distributed, and consumed

Physical environment: How geography, artificial structures, climate, and weather affect the operating environment

Time: How different actors perceive timing and duration

It makes sense also to include religion or belief systems as a function.

In the meantime, we have found that various frameworks, procedures, and models can be used to examine culture. Whichever design we choose depends on the answer to four critical questions (after Keesing, 1970):

  1. What will the cultural description look like?
  2. What is the relationship between such a cultural description and the military plan's overall goals or decision?
  3. How is the appropriateness of the description to be assessed?
  4. What evidence is there that the descriptions we sketch are productive?

The purpose of these questions is to explain the culture; for what purpose? What is the connection? The answers to these questions are crucial to determine the validity of the cultural framework, processor model we have chosen. The solution must be a better understanding to inform the planning process.

The human domain is infinitely complex. It leads back and forth, evolves, and changes quickly and unpredictably. Currently, we lack sufficient analytical skills to understand functions in the human domain as reliably as in the biological or technical field. Institutions can be designed to perform a process, but the environment outside institutions is more complex. Instead, red teaming tools and a functional approach to the human domain generate research questions that focus on the purpose of the analysis and what random relationships are essential. We structure research areas for a given problem by using our general knowledge to determine what is needed to answer the question. As far as general knowledge is real, the categories and relationships will be valid. It provides our "best initial guess", which is preferable to the alternatives. The Critical Variable Criteria, Cultural Perceptions Framework, Onion Model, and Six Strategic Questions are useful red teaming tools to generate questions and categories that support functional systems' approach and generate a broader understanding (empathy) and alternative perspectives for cultural analysis. kritische Variablen, das Rahmenwerk für kulturelle Wahrnehmungen, das Zwiebelmodell and sechs strategische Fragen sind nützliche Red Teaming-Tools, um Fragen und Kategorien zu generieren, die den Ansatz funktionaler Systeme unterstützen, und um ein breiteres Verständnis (Empathie) und alternative Perspektiven für die kulturelle Analyse zu generieren.

A functional approach offers three critical advantages:

  • Focuses analysis on results and impacts: Observation of entities alone can tell us little about essential outcomes such as power (control). A local government official or sheik may not be a vital variable. In a village, the priest or large landowner can exercise more power. Or the emphasis is more likely to be distributed over a functioning political system. By understanding the functional structure, it is possible to identify entities or relationships important for producing an outcome. Systemic functional analysis increases the probability of developing an approach (COA) that achieves the desired effect.
  • Identifies what is essential in specific areas: A functional approach also enables regional expertise and a general cross-cultural understanding applicable in any room. Understanding the most important specific functional relationships such as decision making, execution, and enforcement helps to identify particular institutions in particular regions or systems. The precise institutional form can be very different: Congress may exercise the final decision-making function in the United States, the Central Committee in the People's Republic of China, or the Supreme Leader in Iran. It can also be shared to varying degrees between different institutions. The understanding of functions provides general knowledge of what is important in certain areas where the institutional form can vary greatly.
  • Synchronizes knowledge and analysis across levels: Certain forms of institutions also vary across levels within an environment. For example, political parties may have an organization at the national level that is linked to regional political groups, which are linked to local informal powerholders in a village. A functional analysis enables the understanding of vertical and horizontal system relationships in terms of outcomes despite specific differences in form. This allows an analysis of one level's effects on another and the aggregation of information and studies across several groups.

Cultural Relevance

There are some rules of thumb to recognize when culture can be more critical:

Larger significant cultural differences: Culture is more critical when cultures are different from ours. In countries like Afghanistan, these differences can be apparent and more critical than institutional considerations. In more westernized cultures, cultural differences may be small and institutional differences may be more critical.

Unstable countries: When institutions are weak or collapse, cultural ties are relatively essential and can become a critical conflict and resilience source.

Significant differences within a country: The cultures within a country can vary significantly. Culture in rural areas is less westernized than in large urban areas, and culture can differ from site to site within a country. Cultural differences can lead to a robust cultural dynamic within a country, even in highly institutionalized Western countries, and this dynamic can be crucial for Western countries.

Besides, culture can play a more critical role in information and influence activities and cooperation with partners at individual and organizational levels.


Anthropology is about observation, collection, and intercultural comparisons. Military planning is action-oriented and tends to a certain type of action (security, stability, decisive action, etc.). The processes of corporate planning can have a dramatic impact on the objectives of these actions. Red Teaming is about apperception as well as theoretical construction and testing. These fields often overlap but tend to use different methods and techniques. Red Teaming aims to improve cultural understanding to increase the chances of successful planning results. Cultural empathy is about explaining the relationships of cultural functions. Red Teaming represents a methodology, and the approach affects the procedure. The order of application reflects a strategy. The goal of the plan is to support operational planning in the form of design. Below are some thoughts that the Red Teamer should consider when conducting cultural analysis:

  • The study of culture is not conducted in isolation. This only makes sense if it is considered part of a larger body of thought (e.g., strategy, design).
  • Cultural analysis is part of the more extensive intellectual process.
  • The tendency to rely on authority, theory, or cultural perception approach is extremely dangerous in planning.
  • The cultural methodology of Red Teaming is not a new way of knowing - it is a systematic approach - a synthesis of several works.
  • A functional systems approach is useful because it provides a systematic way to analyze what is important about one's environment.
  • The Red Teaming method does not provide solutions but insights that influence planning - a logic of investigation.
  • The goal is to avoid false correlations and conclusions.
  • The goal is to understand what influence culture has on decisions and what it means for this time and in this context for planning.
  • The cultural methodology of Red Teaming aims to capture and understand people and their motivations on a general level to resolve conflicts or avoid unnecessary arguments.
  • The goal of general knowledge is not a prediction per se, but understanding to control and influence the desired results in planning.

And finally some observations by Dr. Geoff Demarest on the topic "Why we study culture":

  1. To find people and things. Cultural knowledge helps to find individuals, their value, and their supporters. For the competitor, this is the first and most convincing reason for artistic experience. Sam Spade, the private investigator, knows this. The rest is also useful, but if he knows where you are while you don't, you are the prey. To stay ahead of the competition, you need to know the culture.
  2. To communicate well. Cultural knowledge can improve communication with others to encourage cooperation and compromise and not to offend, facilitate cooperation and compromise, and settle disputes peacefully. This includes language beyond the verbal and in customs, prejudices, habits, mores, expectations, fears, historical grievances, community pride, and the like. All knowledge is to the point. It will be incredibly productive to identify aspects of culture that relate to honor and shame.
  3. Identification of desired objects. Sources and holders of power, complaints, agents, settlement mechanisms, debts, tax relations, jurisdictions, and expectations. In short, to understand the territorial geography of conflict and conflict resolution.
  4. To set reasonable goals. Know how or if you need to change social influence, how long it would reasonably take to implement such a change, and how long the changes may bring. This may include determining the interrelationship between people's behavior and their environment to achieve lasting improvements in human flowering and harmony. If good intentions are not based on sufficient knowledge, the reward can be a series of evil unintended consequences. In a domestic legal environment, we require doctors and lawyers to exercise due diligence - to avoid the negligent practice. Strategic due diligence requires the programmed and resourced study of foreign cultures to avoid strategic negligence.
  5. Putting things in the right places. Regardless of whether you want to place a department, a branch, a camera, or a task in the best possible way, local cultural knowledge is the best guide.
  6. Schedule actions and activities correctly. Knowing when to act and when not to act is a much easier standard when we have local cultural knowledge.
  7. To understand the joke. Jokes work the same way as deceptions. For practical reasons, deceptions are also jokes. Irregular conflicts are generally related to law, economics, and other aspects of everyday life. Not being able to make jokes means being vulnerable to dangerous or criminal ones.


André Daus Red Teaming
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T: +49 (221) 16 53 18-0

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