“Western Culture” as a Stereotype: Defining “The West”

Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about stereotypes: how they can be harmful and ways in which you can use them wisely to aid cross-cultural understanding.

In fact, we use stereotypes a lot in this blog.

One of these stereotypes is the broad term, “Western culture,” which is associated with core values, norms, and beliefs.

But what, exactly, is it?

What is “Western Culture”?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Western culture”?

You probably think of Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada – the latter three of which are highly influenced by Europe, due to their historical roots.

All of these countries mentioned (and others that fall under the umbrella of “Western culture”) hold a common set of values and norms.

However, as we’ve also highlighted in this blog, values and norms vary widely across the countries that fall under this umbrella.

In the U.K., queues are law; in Italy, it’s every man for himself.

German companies run like well-oiled machines; French companies are like royal courts.

Despite these cultural differences on a country-by-country basis, Western cultures share strong commonalities, due to their historical heritage under the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires, as well as the influence of Judeo-Christian religions.

Moreover, 18th-century Enlightenment in Europe brought forth a rationalist and secular-oriented ideology focused on social and scientific progress.

This drove such democratic values as the separation of church and state, human rights, capitalism, modern technology, and political pluralism.

Western Culture is a Stereotype 

Up until now, we never defined “Western culture” in this blog.

Yet, somehow, we all understood what it means.

This is due to the fact that “Western culture” is as much a stereotype as anything else. 

The behaviors of someone from “the West” are fixed in our mind, contrasted with how those from an Eastern culture might act or the ideology and values they might live by.

So, while we know there are differences between the values and behaviors of Australians, Europeans, Americans, etc. – and even further, between countries, regions, subcultures, and even individuals in each culture – we still recognize the broad commonalities that exist across all of “the West.” 

Use Your Discretion

If I board a plane and am seated between a Swiss person and an American, I would be more inclined to talk to the American.

This is not because I am opposed to the Swiss (I am Swiss); it’s because I want to be courteous.

Americans generally like small talk with strangers in public settings; Swiss generally don’t.

However, some Swiss might actually be prone to small talk, while some Americans will put their earbuds in immediately.

The point is, when it comes to stereotypes, applying them wisely means to use your discretion when approaching each individual.

Test the waters, apply your observational skills, and proceed accordingly.

Stereotypes blanket entire populaces, but they don’t take into account the individuality of people.

So, rather than presuming each person is attached to the stereotypical values, norms, and behaviors of their cultures, tuning in to the individual nature of a person’s preferences, priorities, and behaviors will allow you to avoid misusing stereotypes.

How to Cope in Uncertain Times: A Call for Ambiguity Tolerance

These are uncertain times.

The current climate has everyone spinning, trying to make sense from the senseless and turn the upside-down rightside-up again.

With so much conflicting information, so many question marks and dashed plans, ambiguity tolerance has never been more important.

Last week, we talked a little about uncertainty avoidance and ambiguity tolerance. In this post, we’ll discuss how to develop the latter.

Low Ambiguity Tolerance = Little Room for Relativism

Parental and cultural ideologies teach us right versus wrong and good versus bad.

Racism, for instance, stems from these very distinctions. The concepts of good and evil are clearly defined in such extreme ideologies, leaving little room for relativism or doubt.

When a system has strong rules and norms, ambiguity tolerance is often lower.

Such norms and classifications also exist in cultures with higher ambiguity tolerance; however, there is greater wiggle-room, and classifications are more flexible.

People, situations, and ideas are still labeled and placed in boxes but said boxes are open and cardboard, allowing easier interchangeability, not hard and inflexible under lock and key.

Oftentimes, the more diverse a place is, the higher the ambiguity tolerance – both because there’s need for it in order to keep relative peace and because there’s exposure to others, hence less uncertainty.

No matter where you come from, you can improve your ambiguity tolerance to better adapt to places and situations that are strange to you.

In other words, you can improve your coping mechanisms instead of simply avoiding uncertainty.

Developing Ambiguity Tolerance

The following are some key ways in which to tolerate ambiguity:

  • Do Suspend Judgment – As we’ve spoken about previously, judgment in uncertain times (like now, during this pandemic) or in uncertain environments (like multicultural ones) does nothing but shut done your tolerance. Remaining neutral in your expression of personal opinions about the norms/behaviors of others and other cultures allows room to breathe and grow. When you leave your mind open, you enable yourself to explore the wider world rather than locking into a narrow mindset.
  • Don’t Assume – We all know what assuming does. Instead of assuming certainty about everything going on around you – assuming you know what and why and how things are happening – learn how to ask questions. Listen instead of speaking. Dig deeper, ask “why,” and encourage others to “tell me more.”
  • Do Consciously Relax – Those raised in rule-based cultures like things to be cut and dry. Those raised in low ambiguity tolerance cultures like one Truth as opposed to many truths. Stretching oneself outside of fixed ideologies causes stress, so learning how to deal with that stress takes conscious effort. Use meditation and deep breathing exercises – or any other personal relaxation methods – to help you de-stress and remain calm when you’re stretched. Making these conscious efforts will help you cope in cross-cultural environments and in uncertain times.
  • Don’t Hurry Yourself – Slow down. Now, is not the time to rush things. While you might be of the mantra that “time is money,” it’s important to slow down when the times or the environment calls for it. Taking time to examine, reflect, and give your full attention and care to cultures, people, and situations of uncertainty will ease the additional stress that a time-sensitive nature causes. Don’t be in a hurry to change yourself or to fully understand; allow yourself the time and care to adapt.

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.

Different ≠ Inferior: Dropping the Cross-Cultural Superiority Complex

Your culture calls light blue and dark blue simply “blue.”

Another culture has two different words for it.

Your culture crumples its toilet paper.

Another folds it.

Another uses no toilet paper at all.

Your culture bows.

Another shakes hands.

Another kisses on both cheeks.

Cultures are different. But none are inferior. And none are unnatural either.

Here’s why.

Stranger Danger

One of the most dangerous ideas in the history of man has been that different equates inferior.

Why is this thought dangerous?

Well, for one, if you view your foreign counterpart as inferior, it goes without saying that you consider yourself superior to him/her.

And when you consider yourself superior, you may try to impose your ideology on the other. That’s happened throughout history, time and again.

When you consider another inferior, you may also justify treating them as such. Treating them like animals.

You may enslave them.

You may abuse them.

You may slaughter them.

It’s a sad reality, but this idea of inferiority is the catalyst to such horrors in our world.

Many of the most heinous crimes against humanity have been committed because of the prejudice that one’s own culture is superior to another’s.

But it isn’t.

Be Fascinated * Give Life Meaning

Cultural norms are natural to their own culture. And they are often a beautiful representation of that culture.

Seeing cultural differences in this light – as natural and beautiful to the culture – will make you more adaptable and successful in a multicultural environment. Adopting this view will help you manage differences (some of which may appear to you as cumbersome or even incomprehensible when compared with your own norms and values).

If you are living and working in a foreign culture, your success depends upon identifying cultural differences and accepting them as they are.

Do not view them in the positive or negative. Such shades are counterproductive.

Instead, take the view of John Hooker who said in his book, Working Across Cultures:

“I have neither the wisdom nor the desire to pass judgment. For me every culture is a source of fascination, because it must encompass all of life and give it meaning.”

And, as with most life-encompassing meanings, none are “less than”. They are the heart of a people, a culture, and should be respected as such.

Next week, we’ll talk about how cultural conditioning creates these differences.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk about next week.