‘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 and ingroup bias.
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 that 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.
Ingroup bias is our tendency to favour our own social group (ingroup) more than groups of which we are not a member (outgroups). Studies show that, in general, people extend greater trust, positive regard, cooperation, and empathy to ingroup members compared with outgroup members.
Our preference for people like us has important social ramifications. We seek out others who are like ourselves. We cluster in groups with people like us to enjoy their affection and positive attention. Their similarity and attraction to us reaffirms our identity and boosts our self-esteem.
This preference for the company of people similar to ourselves creates psychological and physical distance between social groups. A look around most university campuses or workplaces will reaffirm this: from the day they step on campus or into the office, new students or employees seek out and form friendships with people from their own ethnic group. This tendency is largely automatic and unconscious.
Ingroup bias is linked to a tendency to withhold praise or rewards from outgroup members. In addition, studies show that our preference for ingroup members biases our attributions. We attribute the successes of ingroup members to positive character traits rather than to external causes. In contrast, we attribute failures of ingroup members to situational causes rather than to character traits. For outgroup members, on the other hand, causal attributions are less favourable. When outsiders experience success, we are more likely to attribute it to luck or to situational causes rather than to any positive character traits. Similarly, we are more likely to attribute the failures of outgroup members to innate character flaws rather than to external causes.
Biased attributions can perpetuate negative stereotypes. When an outgroup member behaves in accordance with a negative stereotype, we attribute that behaviour to the stereotypical characteristic they share with their group members, but we attribute positive behaviour to external causes.
Preference for the ingroup also manifests as a swifter condemnation of any outgroup behaviours that breach social codes, and conversely, as greater tolerance of ingroup deviance.
When ingroup bias occurs across cultures or ethnic groups, it can lead to ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is often accompanied by negative feelings, such as fear, hatred, or disgust. In its extreme form, ethnocentrism can lead to terrorism, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.
In the workplace, we are often faced with the unconscious bias of well-intentioned individuals, rather than with the behaviours of blatantly prejudiced extremists. Yet even mild forms of ingroup bias threaten integration and harmonious intergroup relations at work.
Widening our Lens
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.
When Values Collide
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.
When you interact with individuals from backgrounds different from your own, 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.
Rather, 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.
However, 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 partner’s 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.
Respect as Civility
Luckily, there is a notion of cultural respect that lies midway between complete acceptance and reluctant endurance. 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 a forced sacrifice nor a moderation of personal convictions. It does, however, make you more expansive in your thinking and promotes reflection.
Through Cultural Intelligence training, you critically examine your cultural meaning system and how this influences your interpretations, expectations, and assumptions. As you develop Cultural Intelligence, you come to accept the validity of different worldviews. With high Cultural Intelligence, you are less defensive and more accepting of new ideas. You are open to new perspectives, ideas, and relationships. Being released from the confines of a singular worldview opens up new possibilities. You might even decide that your way is not the only or the best way after all!