“Tolerance Ends Where Harm Begins”: The Boundaries of Active Cultural Tolerance

As with everything, even active tolerance has its limits.

Certain cultural traditions are inhumane and do not have a place in today’s world (or in past worlds either).

Examples spring to mind: corporal punishment in schools; female circumcision; adultery resulting in the death penalty by stoning.

Must we apply active tolerance toward such norms in order to be culturally sensitive?

The answer is no.

The legitimization of such cultural traditions is criminal.

But, to many, where to draw the line of tolerance is not strictly defined.

The Line for Tolerance

The best definition for the boundaries between tolerance and intolerance regarding culture comes from Randy Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times.

In his column, “The Ethicist,” he explains why we should not tolerate all norms for the sake of religious and cultural respect, writing,

“Tolerance ends where harms begins.”

Actions and behaviors do not get a free pass simply because they are deeply ingrained in a culture’s history and tradition.

While some actions may conflict with moral barriers cross-culturally – like the polygamy in certain cultures discussed in last week’s post – the question is whether or not there is explicit harm as a result of the action.

My father did see some harm in the fact that polygamy could lead to forced marriages of underage girls, and he focused on remedying that by building the affected women a shelter. However, he found consenting polygamous relationships were not, in and of themselves, harmful, so he chose to actively tolerate them, as doing the opposite would directly harm all women involved.

However, as Cohen states, harm – both physical and psychological – is where you might draw the line.

Active or passive cultural tolerance should end there.

The Line for Tolerance is Not Universal

Search Wikipedia, the largest human knowledge repository, for the term, “tolerance,” and you will find, in accordance to the many philosophers who’ve written upon the topic, the idea of the “right of man.”

The “right of man” is the basic human right to live without being harmed by others.

As there is no universal line for tolerance, you are on your own to draw it for yourself when living and working in a foreign culture.

But isn’t this where you should draw that red line?

Asking yourself whether or not physical or psychological harm is done in regards to another culture’s norm or value is the delineation of tolerance.

Keeping your personal integrity intact means knowing your boundaries of tolerance.

Staying within these boundaries will fortify your own beliefs and values while allowing for your understanding and acceptance to explore to the very edges of those boundaries.

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.

The Four Principles of Cultural Acceptance: Becoming Culture-Neutral

Are you having trouble with cross-cultural acceptance when managing or working in a foreign culture?

Coping strategies are necessary to promoting tolerance and helping you move past any cross-cultural hang-ups and ethnocentricity.

Last week, we talked about Acceptance: the First Step in Cross-Cultural Management.

We’ll expand on that step this week by diving into our four principles of cultural acceptance.

The Four Principles

Cultural acceptance strategies involve four key principles:

  • Don’t judge
  • Accept ambiguity
  • Tolerate actively
  • Explain yourself

In the coming weeks, we’ll look more closely at these principles, starting today with judgment.

Why Shouldn’t We Judge?

Cross-cultural management requires you to step out of your narrow ethnocentric tunnel-vision and accept other worldviews as viable alternatives to your own.

It requires you to recognize other cultural value systems and behavioral norms as valid.

And this acceptance inherently means you do not judge. You become “culture-neutral,” not relegating things to boxes of “good” and “bad,” but simply viewing them as facts of life.

Monkeys do not pass judgment in the zoo. They just go about their business, as do the other zoo animals.

While it may seem apparent that passing judgment will get you nowhere as a manager in a foreign culture, you’d be surprised how often we are naturally inclined to do so.

In practice, avoiding judgment is difficult and must, at least initially, be an active endeavor.

This is because the culture you are raised in is the “right” one, the “best” one…at least, that’s what each and every one of us has been taught.

What Is The Best Country on Earth?

When you ask someone, “What is the number one country?” the citizens of every nation on Earth will likely answer, with conviction, that it’s their own. 

Nationalism is a strong byproduct of primary conditioning.

But let’s look at this objectively.

First off, how do you define “number one”?

Some might define it monetarily.

So, looking at the wealthiest countries per capita, you will find that Luxembourg comes out on top, followed by Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, and Iceland:

  • Luxembourg (GDP per capita: $119,719)
  • Norway (GDP per capita: $86,362)
  • Switzerland (GDP per capita: $83,832)
  • Ireland (GDP per capita: $81,477)
  • Iceland (GDP per capita: $78,181)

Does this mean Luxembourg is the best country in the world?

If you’re resoundingly shaking your head “no”, you might believe happiness is the “number one” country criteria. And in judging happiness, you could consider country suicide rates as an indicator of a nation’s overall happiness.

In that case, you’d see the countries with the lowest suicide rates are not the wealthiest:

  • Antigua and Barbuda (0.5%)
  • Barbados (0.8%)
  • Grenada (1.7%)
  • Bahamas (1.7%)
  • Jamaica (2.2%)

In fact, Luxembourg (13.5%), Norway (12.2%), Switzerland (17.2%), Ireland (11.5%), and Iceland (14%) don’t even crack the top 10.

Does this mean Antigua and Barbuda is the best country in the world?

And does this data indicate that happiness does not correlate directly with wealth? If so, what makes a country “number one”? Should wealth be the criteria of what’s “best”? Should happiness? Should either?

Putting everything into perspective like this will encourage you to look past your preconceived notions and avoid passing judgment. Because nationalism might inform you that your country is number one, but the numbers tell another story.

We’ll talk more about this powerful “no judgment” principle next week.

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.