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.

Acceptance: The First Step in Cross-Cultural Management

The first step in bridging any conflict is acceptance.

Acceptance does not necessarily mean approval; it just means you are not whipping out your red pen and labeling something “bad” or “wrong” before engaging with it in a thoughtful manner.

Acceptance means tolerance.

When you’re no longer actively butting your head against something unmovable, you are demonstrating your willingness to engage with that with which you are unfamiliar or may not inherently agree.

And to work in a cross-cultural environment, you will have to engage in various ways. Change is inevitable.

So, how do you relinquish judgment and accept another culture’s values and norms?

Good vs. Bad; Right vs. Wrong

Cultural values define what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong, making each of us innate judges of other people’s behavior and character.

This judgment becomes even starker in another culture when the people aren’t playing by the same rules. Their “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are not the same as that of the foreigner who is passing judgment.

In a sense, when managing in a foreign culture, you are entering a world of moral ambiguity.

How do you navigate it?

Morality in Question

You aren’t likely to encourage debates of morality in a professional setting while working abroad. But that doesn’t mean your conscience won’t awaken when faced with another culture’s values.

We’ve discussed some of the differences across cultures in our self-assessment over the past couple weeks.

These profound conflicts of conscience might affect you outside of the workplace or inside it.

For instance, you might face the following questions:

  • Does the culture in which you are working consider gifts bribes?
  • Are your competitors circumventing the tax laws in this country? And does that mean you should follow suit, so as not to be at a competitive disadvantage?
  • Are women treated as inferior to men in the company?
  • What is the dress code like? Are public-facing jobs expected to dress professionally…and what does that even mean in this culture?
  • What if your company is manufacturing a product that directly conflicts with your cultural values (drugs used for executions, for instance)?

Here’s the thing: as a foreign manager in another culture, you aren’t going to click your fingers and change the societal values and norms by acting against the grain.

Nor should you completely abandon your convictions, because your values and norms are a substantial part of you.

All you can do is cope, which comes in the form of accepting, adapting to, and adopting the culture wherever you can.

We’ll expand on the four principles of cultural acceptance next week.

Breaking Down the Barriers of Ethnocentricity: Accepting, Adapting, or Adopting Culture

In the West, particularly in America, equality is highly valued.

Being as such, although gender equality is not exactly level anywhere in the world, when entering into cultures where that disparity is even greater than one’s own (Islamic cultures, for instance), a Westerner’s moral nerve is struck.

In another vein, consider a Westerner entering into a culture with a strictly set social caste system. This, too, strikes a nerve, regarding this value of equality.

When a culture’s values or norms contradict another’s deeply-ingrained values, reserving judgment often proves difficult.

Now, imagine a company wanting to do business in a culture in which their values are opposed.

Last week, we talked about how a culture’s social environment can influence everything from gender roles to social mobility and nepotism in the workplace.

This week, we’ll discuss how to break down the barriers of ethnocentricity.

Morality & Ethnocentricity

When contrasted with your own ethnocentric values, social structures in the workplace can be difficult to get on board with.

Why?

Because, as mentioned above, they hit a moral nerve.

An enormous social divide must be bridged in order for a company to work across cultures of disparate values, and in order for the individuals in these businesses to be willing to overlook their own ethnocentricity and avoid criticizing the opposite culture’s fundamental beliefs.

While the broader company may have an easier time looking the other way, the cross-cultural divide may not be as easy to bridge for the individuals working for these companies.

Although these individuals may not be expected to accept the other culture’s values, succeeding cross-culturally in a business setting requires restraint in projecting one’s own values onto the issues at hand.

So, how to show that restraint when your moral nerve is struck?

Be Aware & Proceed with Caution

As we’ve discussed in this blog, the volume of one’s awareness must be turned up several decibals when working cross-culturally.

Being aware of cultural differences, especially the subtle ones, is essential to breaking down the barriers of ethnocentricity. And that means being aware of both the differences and the nuances behind these differences.

After awareness comes a choice: what reaction do you want to have toward these differences?

Here are the only choices if you hope to succeed:

  • Accept the differences without criticizing or condemning them.
  • Adapt your behavior to the cultural difference.
  • Adopt your host culture’s values.

Needless to say, condemning the differences will get you nowhere. If you are doing business in another culture, you can’t expect that culture to shapeshift around you. The culture may evolve in its own time and become more aligned with your cultural values, but it’s not going to change for you.

With these three choices in mind, next week we’ll talk more specifically about how you can use these tactics to react to cultural differences in a diplomatic manner, avoid breaking an ankle on your own tripwire of ethnocentricity, and successfully work across cultures.

Step 2 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Accepting

Last week, we talked about awareness. Awareness of culture differences throws a fork in the road: once you’re aware of differences, you can either tolerate or be intolerant toward cultural values and norms.

This is where acceptance comes in.

Acceptance plays a huge role in your cultural integration. To be successful, you must accept the culture into which you’re integrating. If you reject it, then you will ultimately fail in this foreign culture.

But, then again, there will be things you willingly accept and things you morally reject.

What Must You Accept?

A myriad of cultural values and norms must be accepted if you want to integrate into a culture. Some will be easy; others will be hard. Here are some examples.

Easy to accept:

Hard to accept:

Whether it’s adapting to the time management mantra of “it will get done when it gets done” in cultures like Nepal or India or accepting that South Koreans eat dog meat or that the French eat horse meat, you must accept that things are morally sound in some countries, even when they’re unsound in your own.

How Do You Accept Something You Morally Reject?

If you have ethical issues with the cultural norm, you can draw the line at accepting another’s culture instead of adopting it.

For example, let’s talk about headscarves. Women from Western cultures often morally reject the idea of wearing the Muslim hijab. Some see it as oppressive and as a way to control women and their human rights.

As reported by Independent, in 2016 an entire Air France cabin crew refused to fly to Iran when they were ordered by the airline chief to wear headscarves upon disembarking the flight in Tehran.

When venturing into a country like Iran or Saudi Arabia, not only might a Western woman feel uncomfortable wearing the hijab, but she might feel as though she’s complicit in what she views as oppression of women by following this custom.

If they reject this custom, then they won’t be able to do business in this country, as happened in the case of Marie Le Pen, France’s far-right presidential candidate, when she refused to wear a headscarf on her visit to Lebanon in February.

According to The Washington Post, “Marine Le Pen walked away from a meeting with Lebanon’s top Sunni Muslim leaders after she refused to wear a headscarf. The move sparked an outcry across the Arab world.”

The question is: is it worth it to spark an outcry?

You Draw the Line

As with most things, it depends on the situation and your own personal standards. YOU draw the line between what you culturally accept, what you adopt, and how far you choose to integrate into a culture.

You may come to accept things as small as greetings and time management, but those that touch upon a moral obligation will be harder to accept or adopt. It’s up to you to draw that line for yourself.

I’ll tell you how I drew my own line next week.