Ethnocentrism: The Cultural Superiority Complex

Ethnocentrism: The Cultural Superiority Complex

by Felicity Menzies

‘For if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others’

Herodotus, The Histories, 420 BC

Ethnocentrism is a belief in the superiority of your own culture. It results from judging other cultures by your own cultural ideals. Ethnocentrism is linked to cultural blind spots. Blind spots occur when we fail to attribute differences between our behaviours and beliefs and those of others to differences in cultural schemas.

Cultural schemas are mental frameworks for interpreting the world that are shared by members of a cultural group. They act as social codes to guide individuals’ behaviour as they strive to fit in and succeed in a particular cultural context.

There is great variation among the cultural schemas of different social groups, but when we do not appreciate the diversity of cultural schemas, we are limited to interpreting the world narrowly through our own cultural filter—our natural cultural code defines our reality and determines what is true and right for us. Any variations are deemed bizarre, wrong, or inferior.

Learning to appreciate our differences

The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism: the judging of cultural elements relative to their cultural context.

Groups of people develop distinct patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours as they respond to the survival challenges of their shared environment. Culture is flexible and has helped human beings adapt and survive in nearly every socioecological environment on the planet.

Recognising the adaptive nature of culture supports cultural relativism. Every culture has succeeded as a system for human survival. No culture can be judged as evolutionary superior to another and cultural features can only be understood in terms of their role in the complete system.

Cultural relativism encourages respect for different cultural values, beliefs, and practices. We are less likely to interpret differences as bizarre, offensive, or deficient if we consider them in terms of their own cultural context.

Does cultural relativism imply approval for all cultural practices?

Critics argue that cultural relativism discourages cross-cultural criticism, rejects universal morality, and sanctions human-rights abuses and terrorism.

Anthropologists counter-argue a distinction between ‘methodological’ and ‘moral’ relativism. As a methodological tool, cultural relativism seeks to understand cultures within their own context but it does not extend to endorsing the moral legitimacy of any cultural practice.

Cultural Intelligence and cultural relativism

When you interact with diverse others, there will be times when your own values conflict with the cultural ideals of your partner. Cultural Intelligence does not require you to abandon your own cultural values or to support the practices or beliefs of other cultures. Cultural Intelligence encourages a nonjudgmental respect for difference. This improves your interactions—when people feel respected, they are more likely to reciprocate the favourable sentiment with pro-social behavior and you are more likely to achieve your goals.

How do I convey respect for a position I oppose?

Our cultural frameworks are intimately tied to our self-concept. Differences in values, beliefs, and behavioural norms can trigger emotional resistance or backlash.

For example, asking two individuals on opposite sides of the abortion or same-sex marriage debate to embrace each other’s viewpoint is likely to be met with anger and frustration or provoke strong arguments against the opposing belief. Attempts at persuasion might even strengthen the intensity of each partners’ point of view. The notion of respect as acceptance, affirmation, or appreciation of different perspectives or ways of being may be too unrealistic.

But neither does respect have to involve reluctant tolerance. Tolerance is a negative term. It implies a gritting of one’s teeth: a quiet endurance of differences privately perceived to be deviant, immoral, or even abhorrent.

Luckily, there is notion of cultural respect that lies midway between complete acceptance and reluctant endurance: civility. Respect as civility is about treating others with courtesy, politeness, and concern. Civility is respecting the humanity of diverse others. It does not involve endorsing their specific ideas or behaviour. Respect as civility means showing a positive regard for others as equals. It involves disagreeing without demonising, and hearing diverse opinions without attacking.

Cultural Intelligence embodies this notion of respect as civility. It involves neither the sacrifice nor the moderation of personal convictions. It does, however, make us more expansive in our thinking and promotes reflection. We might even decide that our way is not the only or the best way after all!

Brown, M. F. (2008). Cultural relativism 2.0. Current Anthropology, 49(3), 363-383.
Howson, A. (2009). Cultural relativism. EBSCO Research Starters.
Von Bergen, C. (2013). Misconstrued tolerance: Issues for multicultural and diversity training. Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal, 27(2), 9-12.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.