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.

Assuming Sameness: How Cross-Cultural Exchanges Can Go VERY Wrong

Tom walks into his potential new Japanese office.

He’s never opened a book on cross-cultural business (I am the Monkey! would be a great start), hasn’t learned anything about the culture, and barely put his shoes on the right feet this morning.

He enters the conference room, dressed casually, and goes to shake hands all around. The Japanese colleagues bow, and Tom bungles through, half-bowing, half-hand shaking.

When this exchange is over, they each present their business cards to Tom in turn. He accepts them with one hand and shoves them into his pocket. He forgot his back at the hotel.

Clearly, Tom was ill-prepared. And he didn’t get the job.

What did he do wrong?

Well, for one thing, he assumed sameness. And by that, I mean, he assumed Japanese culture and business etiquette was the same as his own.

What is “Normal”?

With the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about sameness in a way: all the general themes cultures have in common, from language to politics, from transportation to the arts.

Now, we’re going to talk about the dangers in assuming cultures are all the same.

First off, it’s completely natural to assume that other cultures fall in line with our own.

For one thing, from the time we are children, we’re taught a limited scope of what’s expected and accepted by the society into which we’ve been born; we’re taught our own culture’s values and norms.

We see this scope as “normal.” And when another culture falls outside our limited scope, their actions or ideologies are viewed as abnormal.

So with this implicit assumption that the rest of the world is normal like us, anything different feels wrong.

But, the more we are exposed to, the more our scope of “normal” evolves and grows. If we’re open to it, we learn that “normal” is not a universally fixed concept.

Abandon Assumptions

Success in a multicultural environment begins with abandoning assumptions. You can do this in five steps:

  1. Assume you know nothing
  2. Shed foundational views of right vs. wrong and normal vs. abnormal
  3. Know that you’ve been exposed to a microscopic worldview
  4. Admire the cultural diversity that paints the complex mural of humanity
  5. Recall the Baobab Theory of Culture and connect the dots from the roots to the branches, in order to understand cultural differences

Done Differently

Knowing all this, after abandoning assumptions, what should Tom have done differently during his Japanese meeting?

  • Read a book on cross-cultural business
  • Read up on Japanese business etiquette
  • Dressed formally
  • Bowed, instead of shaken hands (or both, if the Japanese counterparts offered a handshake)
  • Been prepared with business cards, as this exchange is routine in Japan
  • Accepted others’ business cards with both hands
  • Read and memorized the name and important information on each card
  • Placed the card carefully into a business card holder, instead of directly into the pocket

Respect is essential etiquette in Japanese business culture. Anything less is insulting.

By assuming sameness, Tom insulted his potential colleagues and cut short his success across cultures.

Next week, we’ll talk more about acquired and genetic perception and how they form our culture and our understanding of others.