The Colonial Superiority Complex: Why Adapting to Another Culture is a Struggle for The West

Do you easily adapt to another culture? Do you find value in another’s values and seek to understand norms and behaviors?

For Westerners, in particular, this step in cultural integration is difficult.

And its difficulty has its roots in history.

The Colonial Superiority Complex

Samuel P. Huntington, American political scientist and former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, considers two opposing civilizations as particularly dangerous: the Muslim world and Western civilization.

Why did he consider these two civilizations to be dangerous?

1) Their “superiority complex” in relation to other cultures

2) Their willingness to enforce their values and norms on others

In this case, we’re defining “civilization” as a group of cultures that share history and values.

In his groundbreaking book, The Clash of Civilization, he writes, 

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. […] The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” 

Published in the nineties, a number of Huntington’s predictions unfolded in reality. These two civilizations did indeed come to a head in many conflicts along the “fault lines” and continue to today.

Both Muslim civilization and Western civilization have a history of invading other cultures and universally imposing their rule of law and way of life through violence.

While all civilizations enter into war for access to resources, some in history have notably allowed the local culture to remain without much or any interference.

Others, however, attempt to convert cultures to their own way of life, often buoyed by religion.

Consider this: if your belonging to a civilization is based on race (for instance, Chinese or Slavic civilizations), the culture cannot expand.

However, if belonging is built on behavior, values, and norms, then yes, conquered people can adapt to the lifestyle.

European Colonialism in Africa

A vivid illustration of this lies in Africa.

20th century European colonialism exploited the continent both economically and culturally.

Schools, universities, and churches were built, so Western values and norms could be exported.

The political leaders in the West at that time viewed their culture as superior, so imposing it on others came with the territory.

However, as failed attempts at implementing working democracies in North Africa have shown, an external force imposing culture in this fashion does not work and instead results in civil war and failed states (e.g. Libya, Syria).

Although that’s not to say democracy will never work in other countries, a shift from ethnic culture to national culture is required, and such a shift in mentality takes willingness and time.

The West didn’t allow either.

China in Africa

On the other hand, there’s China.

Without anyone noticing, China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with more than $200 billion in annual goods exchanged.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a million Chinese expats have moved to Africa, largely as traders and laborers.

But the Chinese approach is different than Western colonialism. No attempts have been made by China to promote their culture on the continent.

There are no Chinese missionaries, think tanks, schools, or cultural centers. China is there purely for economic benefit; not to globally expand their culture and civilization.

African culture and political systems are left untouched by their largest trading partner.

This is the difference in approach. And this historical difference is why those from Western cultures find learning and adapting to another culture to be difficult.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to overcome that.

Step 2 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Accepting in Action

There are things about foreign cultures you won’t be able to accept. As we covered last week, behaviors or beliefs that cross a moral or ethical line are the most difficult aspects of a culture to embrace.

That’s where YOU draw the line.

But in order to be successful across cultures, one must integrate as much as possible. To an extent, you must accept the culture as it is. This means you shouldn’t judge the local culture, you should accept ambiguity, you should actively tolerate, and you should explain your monkey moments.

Four Key Steps to Acceptance

  1. Don’t Judge – Be “culture-neutral.” Don’t view differences as good or bad. Viewing a culture as “different” instead of “wrong” will allow you to warm up to their ways. Finding fault in another is often due to fear that you are the one who’s wrong. As Charlyne Blatcher Martin writes for global business protocol, “It is safe to say that our fear or insecurity is often the breeding ground for casting a suspicious eye at ‘the foreigner.’”
  2. Accept Ambiguity – You’ll find that many processes and behaviors of other cultures are ambiguous to you. You must relinquish control and accept this ambiguity. Doing so will allow room for fresh connections to be made. You’ll see that you don’t always have the “right” answer; there are many answers to the same question.
  3. Practice Active Tolerance – To be actively tolerant means to allow for other opinions and points of view, while still standing firmly behind your own. You don’t have to agree, but you should accept that others have differing opinions.
  4. Explain Yourself – Undoubtedly, you’ll make a fool of yourself and have a monkey moment or two during your integration. Instead of hiding behind a tree branch, talk about them with your hosts and explain why your behaviors and views differ from their own.

Accepting Inaction

“The locals are always late! So disrespectful!”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something along those lines in cultures where time is valued differently than in the Western world.

In some cultures, being late is not a problem. But to Westerners, it’s a waste of time, money, and is a mark of disrespect.

Yelling and berating the locals for their culture valuation of time isn’t acceptance; it’s accepting inaction.

Accepting in Action

Instead of pulling your hair out, someone who is looking to integrate into a culture where the trains don’t run on time must go with the flow.

Relax.

I know many travelers who’ve accepted another culture’s valuation of time but still follow their own internal clock. This is accepting in action. I also know many who’ve adapted to and adopted it, themselves.

We’ll talk about adapting next week.

 

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness

What happens when you wade into the waters of a new culture, one in which the waves are warmer or colder, one in which the fish are either all the same size and shade of neon, or where there are many different sizes, shapes, colors, and species?

How would you react to the change in the tide?

You’d likely feel like a fish out of water.

Heightened Awareness

When we’re put into an environment that’s unlike our own, it sets off our spidey-senses. Suddenly, our awareness is heightened, because everything that’s going on around us is all too different. And when something is a tiny bit off, it feels uncanny.

This can make us uncertain of our environment and uncomfortable in our own skin. Depending on the type of person you are – whether you’re adaptable or one who rarely leaves his/her indentation on the couch – the distinct awareness of all that is different may trickle in, little by little, or it may blast you with immediate discomfort and leave you soaking in anxiety.

Yes, living and managing in a foreign culture can be overwhelming. But it’s not impossible, even for those who live for their comfort zone.

The key is to use your spidey senses for good. Being culturally aware of your surroundings and behavior can help you limit – or even eliminate – the “monkey moments” you may encounter.

Monkey Moments

What’s a monkey moment?

Remember last week, when I said that you are the monkey in the zoo? Well, a “monkey moment” is when your monkey-ness is made clear and apparent to your host culture.

Your hosts are the spectators, remember; they’re the normal ones, the humans. So they’re watching and waiting for you to make a mistake, to behave like a monkey. They expect it from you. The moment you drop the ball, forget to be culturally aware, and start to fling your poo – that’s when they’ll see you for what you are.

While this isn’t to say you must abandon your culture, else your hosts won’t accept you, this is to say that being culturally aware will make you a more effective leader and integrator in a foreign culture.

Making Your Awareness Actionable

When you first arrive to your host country, you will see yourself as normal and the environment/the “other” as strange. This is instinctive. But you must remember:

What seems unfamiliar is not necessarily unnatural.

Knowing this will help you develop cultural sensitivity, which you’ll need in order to make your awareness actionable. I’ll discuss how to do that in next week’s blog.