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.