Cultural Bias: Using Ethnocentricity to Your Advantage

Ethnocentrismthe evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.

We’ve been discussing this theme for the past few weeks. And that’s because ethnocentrism is innate in all of us. Although it seems like a type of bias only present in uneducated or prejudiced people, even the most “woke” individual, even those who study cross-cultural differences professionally, even those experts who produce management literature are all subject to ethnocentricity.

For instance, Maslow’s pyramid of needs is ethnocentric. The “needs” in question are not universal; they’re the needs of those from western cultures.

So, being that we are all subject to our own innate cultural bias, how do we use ethnocentricity to our advantage?

Overcoming Your Own Cultural Bias

We are programmed through primary socialization and further cultural conditioning to view our way of life as the most logical. We consider other cultures to be “wrong,” while ours is “right” and should be universal.

This is ethnocentricity in a nutshell.

Even when we are well aware of our cultural bias, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

While we may not be able to avoid ethnocentrism completely, in a cross-cultural workplace, it’s essential to accept that our values are not universal, nor are they absolute.

This is the first step to altering our perspective of another culture’s values and norms and adapting our behaviors accordingly.

In order to thrive in a foreign culture, acceptance and tolerance will melt ethnocentrism’s hard edges.

Next, you must adopt the fresh new “rights and wrongs,” standards, and methods of the new business environment.

Doing so may feel unnatural to you, but your willingness to adjust to the other culture’s standards will allow you to succeed in that new culture, as it demonstrates respect.

Play It to Your Advantage

Taking this all a step further, you may use ethnocentrism to your advantage in business.

This is more applicable to specific aspects – like playing to your customer base, for instance.

If you’re opening an American hotel chain in America, for example, you’d likely highlight the new spacious rooms, the modern conveniences, the privacy and security of the hotel, the staff’s professionalism.

But if you were opening that same hotel in Albania, you know that Albania’s hospitality index is through the roof, so you might focus your press release on the personal nature of the hotel’s hospitality, its traditional and homey atmosphere, and its family feel to accommodate Albanian values.

The point is, awareness of your own ethnocentricity – and that of the culture in which you’re doing business – can often help you work, communicate, and promote effectively across cultures.

Ethnocentrism and the Workplace: How Our Biases Enter Into Business Relations

We’ve talked about ethnocentrism the past couple weeks and the ways in which it might crop up in cross-cultural research.

But ethnocentrism isn’t just a vague concept that infiltrates research; it often shows up in your average everyday workplace.

Let’s take a look at how and why.

Ethnocentrism in Business Communication

International business ventures require that individuals communicate cross-culturally.

This can either turn into a promising business partnership and even a delightful way to share cultures or into a complete devolution of business relations.

Let’s take a look at one example:

Ted (from the U.S.) sets up a video conference with Saanvi (from India).

“Let’s talk tomorrow at 8 AM, sharp,” he writes.

The next day, Ted logs into the video conference room at 7:45. 8 AM rolls around, and there’s no sign of Saanvi. Ted shoots Saanvi a quick message to let him know he’s there. By 8:10, Saanvi still hasn’t shown up. Ted is growing impatient. At 8:30, Ted sends Saanvi a curt message about rescheduling and then signs off.

Saanvi later responds to Ted, indicating that he did eventually show up to the online conference room. He video calls Ted, and when Ted asks if Saanvi can talk the next day at the same time, Saanvi nods.

The following day, the same thing happens. Ted is livid. Saanvi had confirmed with his nod, after all.

There are a few things going on cross-culturally here, and both Ted and Saanvi would do better to understanding these cross-cultural issues.

Punctuality & Visual Cues

Ted and Saanvi come from two different backgrounds, two different traditions. They possess different values and likely have different approaches to business and methods of communication.

They likely process things from their own cultural conditioning.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. With basic cross-cultural understanding, one might be able to acknowledge and accept this gap. And with an even more specific mastery of the cross-cultural differences between your culture and the other, one might be able to bridge that gap effectively.

With nothing but ethnocentrism, the gap widens and business relations potentially implode.

Why?

Because when the individuals involved do not have a basic understanding of cross-cultural issues, they don’t know that the differences in communication aren’t intentional rudeness or unprofessionalism; they may simply be cultural differences.

For instance, whereas in America, time is money, punctuality is generally taken lightly in India. Even VIPs may show up late to business meetings.

Moreover, when Indians nod their heads, the movement doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes.’ Rather, the nod can be employed simply to show they’re being attentive to what you’re saying.

Instead of understanding the other culture, both Ted and Saanvi refused to acknowledge and adapt at all to their counterparts and instead forced their own ethnocentric business standards upon the other.

In this case, they both look like monkeys in each other’s eyes.

Without understanding and compromising to some degree, ethnocentrism can become a toxic trait, creating chasms in business relations and in cross-cultural workplaces where there should be bridges.

The Hospitality Index: A Hypothetical Example of Ethnocentricity

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’91, I traveled as a journalist to a region near the former Yugoslavian border of Albania. In many of the remote, mountainous villages to which I traveled, I was the first foreigner seen by locals since the Germans of WWII.

As I explored the region, one of the impressions I had about the people was that they were unconditionally hospitable. They treated this stranger, this foreigner, as an esteemed guest, preparing generous meals for me, despite not having a lot themselves.

One village had only three sheep, and they killed one of them to serve me, though I attempted to discourage such a sacrifice on my account.

Hospitality exceeding no bounds was their cultural norm.

Not only did this manifest in the meals they served, but also in the accommodation. In each house, there was a guest room, fitted with a bed to welcome visitors at any time.

While this region isn’t alone in this cultural norm, as I’ve been so graciously treated with such hospitality in other parts of the world as well, one conclusion that I’ve come to in my travels is this:

Hospitality is best wherever there is no telephone.

Lack of Connection Improves Quality of Connection

People often arrive unannounced to places with no telephone. This may be one reason cultural norms require those who live in remote places to be prepared to accommodate at any time.

The pop-in is inevitable (Seinfeld would hate to be a member of these cultures). Hosts must provide guests a place to stay and a bite to eat last-minute because they have nowhere else to go. And these hosts are more than happy to.

In such open-door cultures, active hospitality – and lavish hospitality, at that – is adopted and valued.

Ethnocentricity’s Bias in the Reverse

Last week, we talked about ethnocentricity: the innate bias we have about our culture being “right” and another being “wrong” and evaluating cultures according to our own values.

My personal example is one case in which ethnocentricity’s bias might work in the reverse.

Sometimes, we see other’s values and norms as more “right” than our own. This may be one of those cases.

Most Westerners would never think to invite themselves over to a neighbor’s home, nor would they expect to accommodate a stranger. Even showing up on an acquaintance’s doorstep without a moment’s notice would be questionable.

Some Westerners might even choose to stay at a hotel rather than with family or friends when they’re visiting. Not only because they don’t want to impose on another’s space, but likely because they’d prefer their own space and privacy.

But most Westerners would surely see the value in such open-door hospitality. It’s universally a beautiful thing.

In Albania – and in other world regions that are less connected – there is no imposition and space is not valued as it is in the West. It would be a dishonor to the people if you rejected their hospitality.

Ethnocentricity in Albania

As I’ve highlighted, hospitality is a deeply entrenched value in these regions.

With that bit of background in mind, imagine Albanian researchers studying cross-cultural differences.

The researchers, no doubt, would consider the hospitality-index as an important cultural categorization.

Generosity and accommodation are the glue that holds society together in their minds, allowing communal ties and free travel.

Should they research other country’s hospitality norms and values, they would find other’s hospitality doesn’t meet the same standard as theirs.

They might see that in some countries unconditional hospitality is restricted to those one knows well. Strangers can find somewhere else to eat and sleep.

In other countries, only family members are provided with hospitality.

And in some, forget it. You have to find your own accommodation.

During their research, the Albanians might then conclude that their own country is on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to the hospitality index. And they would view this as a positive thing, as their values are validated.

This is just one example of how ethnocentrism might influence research. It comes naturally to most. Even professional researchers and experts in the field, no matter how objective they attempt to be, will inevitably reveal their own values when evaluating other cultures.

Ethnocentricity: When Subjective Bias Enters Cross-Cultural Research

Culture has a four-corner foundation.

To recap, the four main building blocks are:

These four categories, in particular, will not only aid your understanding of cross-cultural differences, but they’ll allow you to adapt your managerial methods when leading across cultures.

Below is an overview of these four building blocks.

monkey_charts_CMYK

 

As you can see, countries are scattered across the scale from left to right, accordingly. But one of these countries remains in place.

The United States.

The US always appears on the far left of the scale.

Why?

Because of ethnocentricity.

What is Ethnocentricity?

Ethnocentricity involves judging other cultures based on the values of your own.

Even great researchers, like Geert Hofstede, haven’t managed to design a purely objective framework in their studies on cross-cultural differences.

Their own cultural heritage inevitably appears in their research via charts like this one and through constant comparisons (and often biases) between their own culture and “the other.”

Simply put, the values and standards we find most important to our own culture are often what we deem worthy of study and comparison.

Religion, norms, language, customs, ideology – these are the attributes we compare in order to understand cultural identity. And, whether or not the intention for bias is there, those conducting the study determine their culture to be “right” and the other to be “wrong.”

Although ethnocentrism may sound wholly negative, it is psychologically innate.

The US vs. China

Let’s look at an example.

When cross-cultural research is done from an American viewpoint, individualism is often a highly valued criterion.

Moreover, the future-oriented, rule-oriented, and self-determined United States swing their bias of time valuation, personal vs. societal responsibility, and locus of control in the relative directions.

These “typically American” values force the U.S. to the far end of a spectrum of the four building blocks of culture, as these are important values to Americans and are highly considered when categorizing cross-cultural research.

If, say, China was conducting the same research, their spectrum – and where they landed on the spectrum – would undoubtedly differ.

China would evaluate other cultures according to their own valued criteria.

These criteria would likely have roots in collectivist, rather than individualist ideology. The way other cultures relate to their own values would form the subjective and ethnocentrist results that cross-cultural research often takes on.

Next week, we’ll delve more deeply into ethnocentrism and discuss how it directly manifests in cross-cultural research.

How Media and Faith Contribute to a Culture’s Locus of Control

How does our locus of control affect our daily lives?

Let’s let our good friends, Ann and Kamal, illustrate the differences.

Ann is of a culture with an internal locus of control – she believes her actions will see results. Control is in her hands.

Kamal is of a culture with an external locus of control – he believes that the environment or a higher power is the director of life. He is powerless to his fate.

What happens when the two worlds collide?

Locus of Control in Healthcare

Kamal is in pain and is prescribed medication by a doctor. Knowing his situation, Kamal’s close friend Ann follows up on his health.

locusofcontrol.jpg

Herein lies the difference between those from an internal-locus culture and an external-locus culture.

The internal-locus, Ann, believes that taking action and following up with a professional and with additional medication will determine the outcome of Kamal’s health issue.

The external-locus, Kamal, arrives at a point in his health where he believes his fate is predestined, and this pain is a part of it. He accepts his painful fate.

Locus of Control in Media

When you look at Western media, you can clearly see the internal locus of control prevalent in everything from self-help manuals to life coaches and therapists.

Glance at any magazine headline or scroll through a Western website, and you’ll see the “top ten ways” in which to improve yourself in one way or another – whether the improvement targets your health, appearance, or habits.

These basic media elements indicate that individual improvement is in one’s own hands. And this internal locus is prevalent in Western values and norms, which highlight independence, self-determination, and individualism.

Godly Values & Norms

When you take a look at a culture’s values and norms, these often prove to be a more direct indicator of that culture’s locus.

For instance, those with an external locus of control – Muslim cultures, for instance – live according to the ideology that life was created for them.

Such a view manifests in the culture’s fundamental traditions and strict rules of law, all of which have been bestowed upon them by God. God directs the course of both individual lives and of all of humanity.

These are the values and norms that drive the external locus of control in such cultures.

Yet, there are some individuals in external locus cultures who possess an internal locus.

Muslim clerics, for example, are considered the vehicles of God’s word, so they instruct their fellow man by directing community and political views.

They, however, attribute this control to God and, in doing so, God is still the eternal director of mankind.

Next week, we’ll talk about how the four building blocks of culture are influenced by ethnocentricity.

A Cross-Cultural Look at How One’s Sense of Control Influences Life Satisfaction & Well-Being

You have a dream: you want to become a famous singer.

You’re driven by an internal locus of control, meaning you believe you control your fate.

So, you take singing lessons, seek out every opportunity to perform, and invest time and money into building your skill.

You believe that if you try, you’ll make it. Destiny is in your hands. You are responsible for your own self-fulfillment.

Now, imagine you have that same dream – to become a famous singer – but you’re driven by an external locus of control; you believe your fate is predetermined. Your destiny is out of your hands and is directed by your environment.

Although you hone your craft as well, you don’t seek out opportunities to achieve your destiny, as you believe it will come to you.

If it’s ordained in the stars, you will be self-fulfilled in time.

Which locus of control do you imagine results in a more positive subjective well-being?

Internal Locus Results

It makes sense that the way you view your own personal control over your life might impact satisfaction and well-being, and various studies confirm this.

According to the study, “Locus of control and subjective well-being – a cross-cultural study”:

“Internal locus of control has been linked with academic success (Gifford, Briceño-Perriott & Mianzo, 2006), higher self-motivation and social maturity (Nelson & Mathias, 1995), lower incidences of stress and depression (Garber & Seligman, 1980), and longer life span (Chipperfield, 1993). Psychological and physical well-being has also been shown to be moderated by perceived control (Brandstadter & Renner, 1990).”

Being that those with an internal locus believe they are the director of their own lives, this sense of control allows them some predictability, as they pursue their goals with the vision that they can achieve a specific outcome through their efforts. They’re optimistic about reaching the end goal and feel a sense of power over their own lives.

This is one reason why those with an internal locus – more often than not from individualist societies – tend to clock more positive results regarding satisfaction and subjective well-being.

However, the internal locus is a double-edged sword. Individualist societies often see higher suicide rates than collectivist societies, which may be a result of unmet ambitions and a lack of communal support.

External Locus Results

Opposite the internal locus, those with an external locus believe they have no control and, thus, there’s no predictability. Their lack of power results in anxiety, a more pessimistic view of their ability to create change, and lower subjective well-being.

A quote from that same study:

“External locus of control is correlated with higher levels of stress (Garber & Seligman, 1980), and Grob (2000) notes that stress is often caused because an individual perceives the situation as beyond his or her coping abilities; with ongoing stress having a negative effect on subjective well-being…It is noted that internals actively manipulate their environments, thus acting to take control of events and to change dissatisfactory conditions (Kulshresta & Sen, 2006). In contrast, externals feel powerless to control their successes or failures (Nielsen, 1987) and, thus, are unable to remove themselves from dissatisfactory situations (Kulshresta & Sen, 2006).”

One way in which those with an external locus – more often than not from collectivist societies – combat this insecurity is to build a strong support system structure.

This is one reason collectivist societies are built upon relationships; so that the support is there when the “environment” takes an individual down a dark road.

Both the internal and external locus are cultivated by culture.

Next week, we’ll talk about the ways in which a culture’s locus of control is illustrated in media and daily life.

Primary and Secondary Control: How Cultures Control Their Fate

We’ve been talking about the locus of control over the past few weeks.

Specifically, we’ve discussed the external locus – believing outcomes are determined by environmental factors – and the internal locus – believing fate is in our hands.

Regardless of whether someone has an external or internal locus, each tries to control their fate but in different ways and to varying degrees.

They do so by primary or secondary control efforts, the first of which is active, and the second of which is passive.

Let’s take a look at how these active/passive traits unfold in the workplace.

Primary Control

Those from individualist cultures often demonstrate an internal locus of control.

Individualists believe they control their own fate.

Being as such, they demonstrate active primary control.

Primary control is a trait found in those who directly intervene in affairs, in order to command control over his/her environment or standing

For instance, Sally wants a promotion, so Sally does whatever she can to get what she wants. She works late hours, beats deadlines, invests time into learning new skills, meets and exceeds expectations. She may even try to grease the wheels with superiors and use her networking skills to expand her reach.

Sally doesn’t just wait for the job to fall into her lap. She believes success comes with work, and that if she demonstrates primary control over her environment, she will achieve her end goal.

Sally uses primary control to command her fate.

Secondary Control

Being that those with an external locus – most often from collectivist cultures – do not believe they control their fate, you might think they don’t try to at all.

But they do. Passively.

Secondary control is a trait found in those who align themselves with individuals or groups with established power.

Collectivists prefer secondary control, as their cultural values lean hard on avoiding conflict and the submission of personal control.

For instance, Dan wants to be well-regarded within the company. His colleague, Steve, is already well-regarded. Steve is also part of The Elite, an exceptional group within the company.

So, what does Dan do to get a leg-up? Dan befriends Steve. He works on becoming a member of The Elite. In doing so, he is molding relationships and changing the way higher-ups and colleagues regard him within the company.

Although the individual isn’t as active as Sally in controlling his fate, he is still trying to command passive control by building his image and the right relationships that might aid or change his environment.

Whether someone demonstrates primary or secondary control is largely based on the culture within which they live. But both types of control are seen in all cultures.

Locus of Control: How Region & Gender Influence Your Sense of Control

The degree to which a person believes in destiny is largely formed by their culture.

It can also be influenced by location, gender, ethnicity, and many other factors that impact a person’s primary socialization and conditioning.

Last week, we discussed the role culture plays in the locus of control.

This week, we’ll continue that discussion, fleshing out the roles location and gender have in a person’s sense of control over his/her own life.

Location, Location, Location

In John H. Sims and Duane D. Baumann’s study, “The Tornado Threat: Coping Styles of the North and South,” a survey was taken across two U.S. states: the state of Illinois and the state of Alabama.

The objective of the survey was to identify why these two states reacted differently in preparing for natural disasters, specifically tornadoes.

Alabama often has an alarmingly higher number of fatalities (23 in 2019, for example) than Illinois (0 in 2019).

One factor that may be contributing to that difference in coping with tornadoes is the locus of control.

After surveying four counties, a majority of Alabama residents demonstrated an external locus, while a majority of Illinois residents demonstrated an internal locus.

Considering the locus of control dictates to what degree a person/group feels they have control over their own fate, the line of logic suggests that preparation for natural disasters would differ across these two states according to the group’s collective locus.

More precautions would be taken by Illinois residents whose internal locus of control would make them proactive in reacting to tornado warnings, as they believe they have control over the outcome, while residents of Alabama, with their external locus of control, are more prone to leaving fate up to the whims of nature.

The conclusion, then, is that a region’s collective locus of control can influence the number of fatalities caused by natural disasters – and likely influence many other things related to our sense of control or lack thereof.

Gender

Gender also comes into play in regards to one’s locus of control.

One example of this can be found in M. A. Hamedoglu’s “The Effect of Locus of Control and Culture on Leader Preferences.”

In testing undergraduate students from Western and Eastern cultures, this study found that men are more often of an external locus of control, giving preference to autocratic leadership styles, while women are geared more toward an internal locus of control, preferring democratic leadership styles.

This collective locus regarding gender can impact everything from leadership preference to conflict resolution to one’s sense of accountability.

Next week, we’ll talk about how individuals across cultures try to control their fate, whether their locus of control is external or internal.

How Culture Impacts a Person’s Sense of Control (aka Locus of Control)

Do you believe in fate?

Last week, we talked about how the degree to which someone feels life is directed by destiny dictates their locus of control – that is their feeling of control over their own lives.

Let’s look at how the locus of control unfolds in the workplace.

The Blame Game

When a goal is set and not reached in a workplace environment, the reactions of your colleagues can be very telling.

Sheila blames Jeremy for not delivering the documents in time for her to complete her task.

Jeremy blames Tom for not communicating promptly.

Tom blames his home life for distracting him.

Team Leader Lisa admits she missed the mark and should have taken the campaign in another direction. She apologizes for the part she played in not meeting the goal.

People with an internal locus of control take personal responsibility for their role in a group’s failure, while those with an external locus point at everyone else but themselves, whether they see fault in the “weakest links” of the group or in external factors.

Cross-Cultural Factors

How do cross-cultural factors come into play in the locus?

The locus of control is directly related to personality orientation; however, social psychologists have begun to study the majority locus of control in various cultures and the factors that influence it.

They’ve discovered that quite often the people of any given culture look at fate or self-control in a generally collective manner.

As you may have guessed, individualist cultures generally demonstrate an internal locus of control. They believe they’re the masters of their own fate.

Collectivist cultures – like those of China or Japan – demonstrate an external locus. They accept that things are out of their hands and don’t put weight on the individual’s role in the whole.

To illustrate this, when Americans and Chinese were surveyed about their view of fate, these were the results.

locusofcontrol

89% of questioned Americans agreed with the statement, “What happens to me is my own doing,” while 65% of Chinese admitted, “Sometimes I feel I don’t have control over the direction my life is taking.”

This aligns with each culture’s dominant traits, with Americans espousing ambition, individualism, and the “American dream,” while China espouses harmony and collectivism.

Next week, we’ll talk a little bit about how the group locus of control can be divided up further amongst ethnic groups and even simply locations in the same country. We’ll also talk about primary and secondary control. Stay tuned.

The Locus of Control: Do You Believe in Fate?

Late to work?

Missed a deadline?

Passed over for a promotion?

Believe it or not, how you view the circumstances surrounding these outcomes has everything to do with culture.

Are your choices, actions, and performance responsible for the results? Or do fate or environmental factors come into play?

Your locus of control will tell us everything we need to know.

Locus of Control

Developed by psychologist Julian B. Rotter in 1954, the locus of control is the degree to which a person believes they’re in control of their life. Rotter developed four dimensions of fundamental self-evaluation in his personality study, the other three dimensions of which include neuroticism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem.

Setting those three aside for now, the locus (Latin for “place”) is either internal or external.

One with an internal locus of control tends toward feeling in control of the events in his life; one with an external locus tends toward ascribing his life’s path to destiny, fate, or chance.

A person with an external locus believes environmental factors determine the outcome, and nothing he does can change that.

Internal vs. External

“You can walk around softly everywhere by putting on a pair of shoes, or you can demand that the whole Earth become covered by soft leather.”

This Indian proverb illustrates perfectly the locus of control.

Those with an internal locus put on a pair of shoes to make their walk comfortable; those with an external locus believe the environment must change in order to make them more comfortable.

Internal Locus

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” – William Ernest Henley

It may come as no surprise that optimism and ambition are characteristic of those with an internal locus of control.

Being that individuals with an internal locus believe they affect change in their own lives, they have a sense of purpose, because they determine the outcome.

This gives those with an internal locus a sense of responsibility for their successes/failures, happiness/unhappiness, etc.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” is their battle cry. The internal locus believes it can alter its course. In that sense, those with an internal locus hold themselves and others accountable for their actions and the outcomes these actions produce.

External Locus

On the other hand, the battle cry for those with an external locus might be, “Life is what happens to you.”

The external locus drives realistic and fatalistic views of life events.

Life is predestined, written in the stars, for individuals with an external locus, resulting in a sense of limitation when it comes to personal control over one’s future.

This acceptance of limitation suggests that any outcome is at least partly based on one’s own good fortune or luck.

We’ll talk about how all of this comes to a head cross-culturally, both socially and in the workplace, next week.