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.

Cultural Conditioning: How Does Our Culture Influence the Way We See the World?

figure1

Look at this figure. Study it. Memorize it.

Now, take out a blank sheet of paper, turn your screen away, and draw the figure from memory.

Return to your screen.

Did you draw it accurately?

For more than a decade, I’ve given my classes this test, and I’ve yet to have a single student be replicate this picture from memory.

Why does this simple figure baffle us so?

Three-dimensional Conditioning

In Western culture, we are taught to recognize three-dimensional projections on paper as real object replicas.

In all actuality, this drawing when taken in two-dimensional pieces is only three circles, six horizontal lines, three diagonals and one vertical line.

But when we see this figure through our Western lens, our brains start doing mental gymnastics, trying to interpret a two-dimensional figure as a three-dimensional one.

This happens with other like-figures. M. C. Escher’s infinite staircase based on Penrose Stairs, for instance.

blog59

blog59-2

Or the triangle of Penrose.

blog59-1

Because we have been trained and socialized to see three-dimensionality on paper, we have a much harder time replicating these impossible figures.

Absence of Three-dimensional Conditioning

Zambian children with no academic education were presented with the same exercise by J. B. Deregowski, author of Illusions, Patterns, and Pictures.

How did they do?

You probably guessed that they were much more successful at reproducing the figure above.

However, if you asked the same students to give you directions using a two-dimensional map, more than likely, they’d be unable to transpose the map against reality’s three-dimensional surroundings.

Why?

Because they weren’t taught to see three-dimensional figures on paper. Three-dimensionality is not important to their culture, thus, to them, there is no optical illusion.

It’s that simple.

90°

Right angles are another example of differing cultural perceptions.

People who live in traditional societies with arched doorways, arched ceilings, round huts are known to have a “circular culture.”

They are not able to perceive 90° angles, because right angles don’t appear in nature. They don’t exist there, so they don’t exist in the architecture or elsewhere in these cultures.

Conditioning

The color research we’ve talked about over the past couple weeks demonstrates that our perception of the world through our senses is influenced by cultural conditioning.

For instance, we mentioned that Russian culture differentiates between dark blue and light blue with language, defining them as totally different colors.

The British, on the other hand, don’t define them as two colors, but as two shades of one color.

Brit and Russian optics have the same functionality.

But, for some cultural reason, the distinction between light and dark blue isn’t of great importance to the Brits, while it is to Russians, according to their language.

Why is that?

Next week, we’ll talk more about how our visual framework influences our interpretation of reality.

10 Cultural Universals: How North Korean Politics Shape Culture

Imagine you live in a culture whose politics are totalitarian, whose leader has a cult of personality.

Imagine you have to triple-lock a door and put a blanket over windows so that no one catches you watching the latest Stephen Seagall movie.

Imagine you have a buddy system at school to ensure that you’re never alone.

Or that a cellphone is considered a luxury, but it only grants you access to the state-run media, not to the world wide web.

Imagine how you would be forced to live, if a toe out of line meant a stint at a “re-education center” for you and your family. You’d certainly follow the rules, enthusiastically praise your gracious leader and, with enough political and cultural conditioning, you may even believe the propaganda fed to you.

This is North Korea.

Cult of Personality

Last week, in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how collapsing events might lead to a change in cultural values.

For North Korea, a series of collapsing events culminated in the Korean War and the armistice signed in July of 1953.

The result is today’s North Korea, where totalitarianism and “the Great Leader’s” cult of personality reigns supreme.

This personality cult is rooted in the past, beginning in 1948, when Kim Il-sung took power, and growing with each and every Kim

While democratic leadership has its own brand of the “cult,” the Kim family takes their “right to lead” leaps and bounds beyond normalcy.

Kim Jong Un, for instance, is believed to be the grandson of a god-king. He is called the “father of the people” – that title, accompanied by a song by an all-girl rock band, entitled “We Call Him Father.”

And what happens when a citizen doesn’t praise him as such?

Penalties exist for those who do not respect the regime properly.

And for those who outright criticize them?

Well, there really are re-education centers and much worse to silence dissent.

The Results?

Mina Yoon, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that the totalitarian system in the country limits individual pastimes.

“The idea of ‘free time’ is not really common. Then, even if you do have free time, there aren’t many things to enjoy anyway.” – Mina Yoon

American journalist Suki Kim who taught English at an all-boys school in North Korea said  that the terror is palpable there.

“The level of fear is unimaginable. It’s possible to be both happy and terrified all at once, and I think that’s the case for many North Koreans.” – American journalist Suki Kim

This is how politics can shape culture to the extreme. Next week, we’ll talk about how technology comes into play.