Acceptance & Explaining Your Cultural Behavior & Beliefs

While adapting or adopting another culture’s behaviors or beliefs will help you integrate, you may instead choose to stop at acceptance through active tolerance.

When actively tolerating a foreign culture’s values or norms, you don’t necessarily have to take the next step.

However, remaining in acceptance means remaining a monkey in the foreign culture.

Although you don’t condemn their beliefs, you retain yours, which means you are different. And your odd behavior will be noted by locals.

Some might even view your conflicting behavior and values as offensive. Then again, you are entering their culture, so you cannot expect them to adapt to you.

But choosing not to adapt comes with a caveat: you must explain yourself.

Otherwise, a monkey moment might derail your success across cultures.

Monkey Moments in Language

A “monkey moment” is an encounter of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

When you choose to continue in your own cultural behavior while practicing active tolerance, explaining yourself to your cross-cultural counterparts is key to diplomacy and respect.

Don’t ignore the disconnect; explain why your behaviors or perspective differs from theirs. Building bridges of cross-cultural understanding allows you to be a monkey without all the negative connotations that come with it.

One specific example involves language: the formality of “you” in some cultural environments.

Consider the Swiss and the German, for example.

Germans are more formal than their Swiss neighbors, which means they use the formal, “sie,” for a longer period of time in workplace settings than the Swiss. Swiss move on to the informal, “du,” much sooner, even with their higher-ups.

For those who come from cultures without this distinction, using “sie” is like using someone’s last name, while using “du” is like being on a first-name basis.

When a German financial manager moved to Switzerland, he insisted on using the formal, “sie.” In doing so, he formed a cultural barrier between him and his team.

The more formal language made him appear less approachable and even arrogant.

Cut to a couple years later: the German manager wanted to enroll his executive team in a Swiss bike race as a team-building exercise.

Though the team excelled in the race, they weren’t remembered for their success: they were remembered for their use of the formal, “sie,” amongst themselves. Some viewed the strange usage as similar to a team captain insisting on being called “Mr. Johnston” by his teammates.

Not only did this tarnish the CEO’s rep; it tarnished the company’s image.

The Explanation

When the CEO finally understood his monkey moment after four years of working with his senior executive team, instead of simply switching to “du” unexpectedly, he explained his behavior to them and his rationale.

Describing how he’d grown up in a traditional German family, he explained that informal language always sounded inappropriate to him in a professional setting. He also expressed that it wasn’t that he wanted to be formal; rather, he wanted to communicate respect to his colleagues. However, being that Swiss culture didn’t view the informal “you” as disrespectful or inappropriate in a work environment, he proposed that from that point on, they would switch over.

Although in this situation, he chose to adapt to the culture’s approach to language, he would have avoided misunderstanding straight off had he explained himself from the beginning.

Still, in the end, his explanation made him a stronger leader and managed to bring his team together.

“Tolerance Ends Where Harm Begins”: The Boundaries of Active Cultural Tolerance

As with everything, even active tolerance has its limits.

Certain cultural traditions are inhumane and do not have a place in today’s world (or in past worlds either).

Examples spring to mind: corporal punishment in schools; female circumcision; adultery resulting in the death penalty by stoning.

Must we apply active tolerance toward such norms in order to be culturally sensitive?

The answer is no.

The legitimization of such cultural traditions is criminal.

But, to many, where to draw the line of tolerance is not strictly defined.

The Line for Tolerance

The best definition for the boundaries between tolerance and intolerance regarding culture comes from Randy Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times.

In his column, “The Ethicist,” he explains why we should not tolerate all norms for the sake of religious and cultural respect, writing,

“Tolerance ends where harms begins.”

Actions and behaviors do not get a free pass simply because they are deeply ingrained in a culture’s history and tradition.

While some actions may conflict with moral barriers cross-culturally – like the polygamy in certain cultures discussed in last week’s post – the question is whether or not there is explicit harm as a result of the action.

My father did see some harm in the fact that polygamy could lead to forced marriages of underage girls, and he focused on remedying that by building the affected women a shelter. However, he found consenting polygamous relationships were not, in and of themselves, harmful, so he chose to actively tolerate them, as doing the opposite would directly harm all women involved.

However, as Cohen states, harm – both physical and psychological – is where you might draw the line.

Active or passive cultural tolerance should end there.

The Line for Tolerance is Not Universal

Search Wikipedia, the largest human knowledge repository, for the term, “tolerance,” and you will find, in accordance to the many philosophers who’ve written upon the topic, the idea of the “right of man.”

The “right of man” is the basic human right to live without being harmed by others.

As there is no universal line for tolerance, you are on your own to draw it for yourself when living and working in a foreign culture.

But isn’t this where you should draw that red line?

Asking yourself whether or not physical or psychological harm is done in regards to another culture’s norm or value is the delineation of tolerance.

Keeping your personal integrity intact means knowing your boundaries of tolerance.

Staying within these boundaries will fortify your own beliefs and values while allowing for your understanding and acceptance to explore to the very edges of those boundaries.

Active Tolerance in Action: Accepting Conflicting Cultural Values in a Constructive Way

When living and working in a foreign environment, you are guaranteed to face cultural conflicts.

Conflicts in behavioral norms. Conflicts in values. Conflicts in the line between what’s sensitive/offensive and what’s not.

Last week, we discussed that acceptance and active tolerance do not necessarily mean you must agree with or adopt another culture’s values or norms.

But while it’s easy to discuss, it’s not that easy to envision.

How, exactly, you demonstrate active tolerance?

The following anecdote about conflicting values will help illustrate what active tolerance looks like in action.

Anecdotal Example of Active Tolerance

My father was a Christian missionary working in development aid in Africa in the 1970s.

There, he was confronted with the cultural norms of polygamy, something that deeply conflicted with his spiritual and moral ideals of the sacred commitment of marriage between one man and one woman.

Religious beliefs can make cultural conflicts all the more powerful, being that the acceptance of opposing ideologies means disobedience to God.

My father’s monkey moment was no longer surface; it was a deeply ingrained conflict linked to sin, eternity, and virtue.

But instead of reacting immediately with intolerance, and separating the polygamous men from all wives but their first, as early Christian missionaries were traditionally wont to do, my father took an objective view of the matter.

He realized in forcing separations, the leftover wives would be ostracized, impoverished, and with no family or future. In turn, all childcare and chores would fall on the shoulders of the single wife remaining with her husband, making her unhappy, exhausted, and overworked.

This solution would cause more problems than it solved.

The Flip Side

Of course, my father also saw the other side: the negative aspects of polygamy.

Historically, polygamy allowed for the difference in the mortality rate between women and men. Women far outlived men, forcing a gender imbalance.

Allowing polygamy provided social security for women, as a male sibling was obliged to marry the wives of his brother if he died prematurely.

Nowadays, the mortality rate between men and women is more or less the same. This has allowed for much younger brides being forced into marriage to much older men, with some being promised even before they’re born.

My father faced a moral conundrum: not only was polygamy morally wrong to him, but it was also wrong in that it resulted in forced marriage. However, forcing existing wives to be left to fend for themselves in a social culture was, without question, not morally right.

Did accepting polygamy in this society mean he was complicit? Would being tolerant of polygamy mean he’d be abandoning his own values?

The Solution

My father saw his way through this conflict with active tolerance.

He accepted that polygamy has historically been part of this culture’s social fabric while also standing firm in his beliefs without forcing them upon the locals, as he understood that many polygamous relationships in the culture were consensual.

However, he distinguished between consensual polygamy and forced marriages. And while respecting the culture’s historical roots and perspective on polygamy to the point that he argued to his church council that wives should not be turned out, he found a way to help those women who wanted to flee forced marriages by building a shelter for them.

Through this anecdote and many more, my father taught me what active tolerance really means: to respect those with diverging opinions, as they often have the same conviction and integrity in their view as you do yours.

Active Tolerance: How to Be Tolerant Without Abandoning Your Values

“Business owners with a high tolerance for ambiguity can normally handle new and uncertain situations with relative ease, while business owners with a low tolerance for ambiguity would handle the same situations with more angst and unease.”

Bruce Barringer

In a nutshell, this is the reason to develop your ambiguity tolerance.

As we discussed in last week’s blog post, ambiguity tolerance will save you lots of headaches when navigating the differences and uncertainties of other cultures and events – in business and in personal relationships.

Being able to approach ambiguity in a calm and thoughtful manner prevents unnecessary angst, misunderstandings, and emotional conflict.

However, as with most things in life, tolerance is often easier said than done and when it conflicts with fundamental human values, in some cases tolerating such behaviors can make you complicit in them.

Which leads us to the question…

Is Cultural Tolerance Dangerous?

Objective tolerance of certain aspects of another culture can sometimes walk a thin line between morality and injustice.

There are two dangers:

  1. Accepting values/norms that are inhumane or immoral means accepting injustice.
  2. You may lose your own values and cultural identity when becoming too tolerant.

It may seem impossible then to be both simultaneously too tolerant and immoveable in your own beliefs.

But there’s a middle ground: you might avoid both by promoting active tolerance.

As part of the first strategy for cultural integration – acceptance – active tolerance allows you to preserve your own values/identity, refusing to accept said injustices, while also learning about attitudes and behaviors and seeking to understand why they historically exist instead of dismissing them outright.

Active Tolerance = Respect

Some might consider tolerance as a weakness, a failure to stand up for one’s own convictions.

However, active tolerance is a strength.

It doesn’t mean you must accept things that are fundamentally and morally at odds with your own foundational beliefs.

Active tolerance enables a person to demonstrate all possible respect and understanding for conflicting opinions/beliefs, while also defending one’s own.

Respect and restraint are the essence of active tolerance.

What ignites a wildfire of unconstructive conflict when two people of differing values meet?

It’s not the differences, themselves, but the disrespect and refusal to acknowledge other perspectives and life experiences as valid.

When you “accept” something or someone, their experience or culture, that doesn’t mean you share their experience or agree with their point of view necessarily; it means you are actively making an effort to understand their perspective and not to invalidate their own values, beliefs, and experiences.

You accept that they have theirs, and you respect that they don’t share yours.

When performed correctly, active tolerance doesn’t equate to agreement, but rather to digging to the roots of the many cultural baobabs in this world and attempting to understand them, as well as the personal experiences of the individual.

It’s a willingness to see the world from the branches of another’s tree, even for a moment. Climbing there might not change your own perspective or your baobab’s roots, but it certainly will produce more understanding and growth in your own.

Next week, we’ll lay out an anecdotal example of active tolerance in action.