Religion’s Influence on Cultural Drinking Behaviors

Culture and religion are inevitably intertwined.

Today, we’ll discuss some studies that demonstrate this exchange.

Our first study comes out of America and Canada, in which researchers analyzed whether culture or religion more greatly influenced drinking behaviors.

Canadian Versus American Drinking Behaviors

Past studies had shown that drinking patterns amongst college students differed across countries. 

The difference in behaviors suggests that anything from a country’s public policies to their politics, values, or economy influences alcohol consumption levels and produces different alcohol-related problems within each country.

For example, one study showed that while more Canadian students drink alcohol than American students, heavy alcohol use (5+ drinks in a row for men / 4+ for women) was much more prevalent amongst Americans than Canadians in both past-year and past-week stats. 

41% of American students had drunk heavily within the past year versus 35% of Canadian students, and 54% of American students had drunk heavily within the past week compared to 42% of their Canadian counterparts.

One reason for this may be the drinking age disparity. In Canada, 18 (in some provinces) and 19 are legal drinking ages, while in the U.S., drinking is legal at 21. 

The study concluded that a student’s place of residence may also influence the difference in drinking behaviors:

“In our sample, 52% of Canadian college respondents lived off-campus with parents while only 15% of the US college respondents did so. Our study suggests that students who live off-campus with their parents are less likely to use alcohol and to be heavy alcohol drinkers in both countries.”

While this study identified different cultural drinking habits, researchers in the ‘90s wanted to delve into religious influence on those same habits.

Religious Influence on Drinking Habits

The drinking behaviors of non-abstinent Catholics, moderately abstinent Protestants, and abstinent Jews in both America and Canada were put under the microscope.

Researchers discovered that the absence or presence of conflicting values between the country’s culture and the religion’s drinking norms predicted the drinking habits of each group. 

For instance, the drinking habits of non-abstinent Catholics generally aligned with those of the country’s culture; however, the drinking habits between abstinent Canadian Jews and American Jews were the same, as most follow the religion’s strict law in lieu of the broader cultural drinking norms.

The study concludes:

“Among this sample it was concluded that religious norms have a greater influence in cohesive religious groups while cultural norms are more influential among less cohesive groups. The results also support the Canadian ‘Mosaic’ and American ‘Melting Pot’ assumption.”

This indicates that the norms of religious-based sub-cultures are more adherent to the group norms than national ones.

When Religious Norms Become National Culture

Religious norms regarding alcohol consumption can, at times, even imbed into the national culture.

It’s not unusual to see a glass of wine or pint of beer drank with lunch in a Catholic country, while abstinence from such habits would be the norm in a Protestant country. 

In fact, in the “Bible Belt” of America, which is predominantly Protestant, you may even see alcohol norms written into law. A number of counties in this region are “dry.”

In some parts of the world, drinking norms are legally bound, nationwide. For instance, some Islamic countries follow strict drinking norms (abstaining from alcohol) and expect outsiders to, as well. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, there are laws enforcing such norms.

In such cases, adapting or adopting as an outsider is required, in order to avoid legal issues or imprisonment.

All of this is to say that a country’s dominant religion(s) influence the culture’s norms and values, whether an individual is a believer or not.

In order to understand the culture of a country, therefore, you must get to know the ideology and rules/laws of its religion(s). 

We’ll discuss how religion may imprint on business next week.

A Spirit Alive: Learning a Culture Through Religion Continued…

The Vatican in Rome. The Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Golden Temple in India.

Everywhere you travel, you’re likely to find a religious site or house of worship.

Moreover, you’re likely to encounter the values and norms of that predominant religion, demonstrated in various ways.

Whether it’s the closure of shops on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays, or the style of clothing worn, religion influences both the visual landscape and the society at large.

Despite the best efforts from some atheistic governments to destroy religion, belief has remained alive and well in the hearts and minds of many.

One example of this is in Albania.

Albania Cracks Down

Albanian Dictator Envers Hoxa tried to forcefully remove religion, forbidding rituals, destroying churches, and banning religious symbols.

I, myself, visited Albania as a journalist after Hoxa’s regime fell.

While there, I happened upon a church that the regime had converted into a “house of culture” in the mountains bordering Yugoslavia.

Someone had gone through and overturned the tombstones, but you could still see crosses littered in the stone.

But what really astounded me were the professions of faith written inside the church.

Culture and religion are so inextricably intertwined that not even a ruthless dictator could kill their spirit.

Religion is something acquired during primary socialization; it is as intimately part of us as language or diet.

Whether or not a person has faith or considers themselves religious, some of their behaviors, norms, and values are inevitably still grounded in the predominant religion of their society, regardless of secularism. Even secular societies may still celebrate Easter and Christmas.

In effect, religion influences everything, from art and history to government and education.

Clash of Civilizations

Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used religion as a major criterion when identifying the civilizations in his landmark book, Clash of Civilizations.

He looked at Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Orthodox, and Sinic civilizations (the East Asian cultural sphere).

Although GLOBE research divided 59 countries into cultural dimensions, none of which were religious, they received similar results to Huntington, which demonstrates how the behaviors, values, and norms of a culture are defined by religion.

8 in 10 people identify with a religious group, according to PEW forum.

Our societal personalities, traditions, lifestyles, and perspectives are deeply rooted in religion. 

In this way, throughout history, societal rules and regulations have been dependent upon religion to help keep society in line. With religion as a driving factor, these rules are not simply being imposed by Man, but rather by the divine.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some research analyzing the interaction between culture and religion.

Descended from a Sun Goddess: Japan and the Shinto Religion

At the beginning of the world, only the sea existed.

Using a long stick, a god and goddess – Izanagi and Izanami – began to stir up this sea which surfaced mounds of mud. 

These mounds became the more than 6,800 Japanese islands spotting the Pacific Ocean.

Next, the godly couple birthed three children: the god of the moon, the god of the storm, and the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu.

Amaterasu and all the gods are called kami – aka, sacred spirits that appear in the form of nature, such as trees, rain, wind, and mountains.

Similar to the Biblical passage, “From dust you have come, And to dust you shall return,” the Shinto religion teaches that humans become nature after they die; they become kami.

The sun goddess birthed her own children. When these children had children, the first Emperor of Japan was born.

This emperor, being the direct descendent of the sun goddess, holds great power.

After hearing this creation story, you might understand how the Japanese have historically viewed their emperor and the world at large.

Japanese is the World

The Shinto religion is as old as the country itself.

Notice that in its creation story, as the sea was stirred up, only Japan was created, not the world at large.

This differs from Christianity, where Genesis indicates that all the world and the universe were created by God.

The Japanese gods not only created the country; they lived there.

Again, unlike Christianity – or other religions or mythologies – where the gods often reside in otherworldly places and only visit Earth, the island nation of Japan is heaven and Earth to its people.

The nationalism felt by the Japanese can be explained by this religious belief…which can also explain some of the nation’s history.

Shinto & Nationalism

“Shinto can’t be separated from Japan and the Japanese, but in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Shinto became an established state religion, inextricably linked to the cause of Japanese nationalism.” – BBC

Being that the Imperial family of Japan was believed to be so descended from the gods, this leaves little room for questioning the authority of the Emperor and his relationship to his people, particularly after the Meiji Restoration and State Shinto was established.

Bringing the Imperial legend back into the light after it had been shunted to the side by the popularity of Buddhism for centuries, the mid-19th century saw the Emperor gain new power and the “divine right” to rule the world.

Moreover, the Japanese people, themselves, were descended from the gods and, thus, a superior ilk.

This gave rise to nationalism in Japan which crescendoed to its climax in WWII.

In 1946, in a transcript called the “declaration of humanity,” Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine repute, after which the country’s Constitution was rewritten toward a more secular separation of church and state.

David McNeill of The Japan Times writes that today, Shinto has “two faces.” 

“Spokesman for the religion’s International Section, Katsuji Iwahashi, stresses Shinto’s essentially peaceful roots and its overwhelmingly benign role in the lives of millions of Japanese as well as its modern, internationalist outlook. Organized beliefs can be used in any nation, he explains, for good and bad.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss how religion has been used across different cultures and nations, for good and bad, and what the beliefs and values of religions can teach you about culture.

How Language is the Oral Expression of Culture

You might be familiar with the idioms, “It’s all Greek to me” and “Burning the midnight oil.”

But do you know the German idiom, “Tomaten auf den Augen haben,” which directly translates to, “You have tomatoes on your eyes,” meaning, “You are not seeing what everyone else can see.”

Probably not.

Linguists and anthropologists, on the other hand, have long known that a link exists between language learning and culture learning.

Dimitrios Thanasoulas in The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom quotes linguist Claire Kramsch as follows:

“Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them. (Kramsch, 1993: 1)”

To put it simply, learning language is inextricably linked with learning culture, because language = the oral expression of culture.

The pair are fed by one other.

Ming-Mu Kuo and Cheng-Chieh Lai lay this out in Linguistics across Cultures:The Impact of Culture on Second Language Learning:

“Language and culture appear on the surface to be two distinct fields, but they have an intertwined relationship and affect each other mutually…The development of a language frequently affects its associated culture, and cultural patterns of cognition and custom are often explicitly coded in language.”

Culturally, language expresses both our thoughts and how we think. 

Kuo and Lai continue:

“Language is also a social institution, both shaping and being shaped by society (Armour-Thomas & Gopaul-McNicol, 1998). This means that language is not an independent construct but social practice both creating and being created by the structures and forces of social institutions within which we live and function.”

What are some structures and social institutions in which language is expressive of culture?

Following are examples of this relationship between culture and linguistics in action.

Family Structures

In this blog, we’ve talked about how the family structures of different cultures are reflected through linguistic terms.

For instance, while in Western cultures, “uncle,” is used to describe both paternal and maternal brothers and, similarly, “cousin” describes those from both sides of the family, this differs in other cultures.

“Cousin” in Yanomani, for instance, is termed dependent on the relationship; “amiwa” for the daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, “aiwa” for the son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, etc. 

With such specific familial language terms, it can be deduced that the bloodline matters more in such cultures.

Idioms Express Ideologies

Idioms across cultures can also tell you a lot about the ideology of said culture.

Individualist cultures, for instance, might say, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Such cultures hold lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps values. Idioms emphasize individualism and oftentimes capitalism.

“Time is money.”

In contrast, idioms of collectivist cultures often emphasize the group.

One Chinese idiom translates to: “More people produce greater strength.”

This is just one example about how values and norms are reflected in common language, slang, and idiomatic expressions.

Language Learning Aids Cross-Cultural Integration

Knowing how much language informs us about culture itself, it’s clear how paramount language learning is to integration.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three things learning a language will help you demonstrate in your cross-cultural transition.

It’s All About Perspective: Measuring Your Own Culture By Another’s Yardstick

Imagine you’ve been living in your host country for two years. 

By now, you know a lot about its norms and values. You know what behaviors are viewed as “good” and “bad.” You respect these views and have adapted your own cultural behaviors where you can.

At this point, you may have even begun to appreciate certain values and norms in your host culture. And, moreover, you can see your own culture through your host’s cultural lens.

In doing so, you might be noticing some things about your culture that no longer sit right with you.

Let’s take a look.

The Wisdom of Elders

Many African cultures highly value the elders in their communities.

They may sit on councils that govern these communities or even judge disputes in the village. They are respected and believed to be wise.

Being as such, elders are often cared for by younger generations and live in the homes of their children. Outside help to care for them is not the norm.

Societal health in such cultures is represented by the degree to which the elderly are cared for in society.

So, imagine for a moment the idea of a nursing home in such cultures. The concept of abandoning an elder to the care of a stranger would be, without question, taboo.

Due to this difference in perspective, these cultures are shocked by the way Western cultures treat their elderly. They view these values and norms pertaining to the elderly as a sign of an unhealthy culture.

And having been entrenched in their culture, in some cases, you might start seeing your own in the same way.

Take Pride in Being Different, Not in Being “Superior”

Managing people from different cultures requires that you check your cultural ego at the door. If you don’t, it will get in the way of cultural integration.

So, think about other aspects of your culture and how they might be viewed by your host.

Consider values and norms surrounding family, honor, hospitality, wealth-sharing, etc. 

How might your hosts see these the standards you place on each topic in your country?

Be aware that measuring the “success” of a culture is always measured in terms of one’s own values and norms. The culture doing the measuring will always set the standards of measurement thereby being the yardstick by which to be measured (see ethnocentricity).

Knowing your host’s standards might help calibrate a picture of your own culture against their yardstick. 

This is not to say that one way is superior to the other, and it is important to be proud of your own cultural heritage. But considering your host culture’s standards of measurement will help to keep your own ethnocentricity in check.

The Colonial Superiority Complex: Why Adapting to Another Culture is a Struggle for The West

Do you easily adapt to another culture? Do you find value in another’s values and seek to understand norms and behaviors?

For Westerners, in particular, this step in cultural integration is difficult.

And its difficulty has its roots in history.

The Colonial Superiority Complex

Samuel P. Huntington, American political scientist and former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, considers two opposing civilizations as particularly dangerous: the Muslim world and Western civilization.

Why did he consider these two civilizations to be dangerous?

1) Their “superiority complex” in relation to other cultures

2) Their willingness to enforce their values and norms on others

In this case, we’re defining “civilization” as a group of cultures that share history and values.

In his groundbreaking book, The Clash of Civilization, he writes, 

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. […] The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” 

Published in the nineties, a number of Huntington’s predictions unfolded in reality. These two civilizations did indeed come to a head in many conflicts along the “fault lines” and continue to today.

Both Muslim civilization and Western civilization have a history of invading other cultures and universally imposing their rule of law and way of life through violence.

While all civilizations enter into war for access to resources, some in history have notably allowed the local culture to remain without much or any interference.

Others, however, attempt to convert cultures to their own way of life, often buoyed by religion.

Consider this: if your belonging to a civilization is based on race (for instance, Chinese or Slavic civilizations), the culture cannot expand.

However, if belonging is built on behavior, values, and norms, then yes, conquered people can adapt to the lifestyle.

European Colonialism in Africa

A vivid illustration of this lies in Africa.

20th century European colonialism exploited the continent both economically and culturally.

Schools, universities, and churches were built, so Western values and norms could be exported.

The political leaders in the West at that time viewed their culture as superior, so imposing it on others came with the territory.

However, as failed attempts at implementing working democracies in North Africa have shown, an external force imposing culture in this fashion does not work and instead results in civil war and failed states (e.g. Libya, Syria).

Although that’s not to say democracy will never work in other countries, a shift from ethnic culture to national culture is required, and such a shift in mentality takes willingness and time.

The West didn’t allow either.

China in Africa

On the other hand, there’s China.

Without anyone noticing, China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with more than $200 billion in annual goods exchanged.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a million Chinese expats have moved to Africa, largely as traders and laborers.

But the Chinese approach is different than Western colonialism. No attempts have been made by China to promote their culture on the continent.

There are no Chinese missionaries, think tanks, schools, or cultural centers. China is there purely for economic benefit; not to globally expand their culture and civilization.

African culture and political systems are left untouched by their largest trading partner.

This is the difference in approach. And this historical difference is why those from Western cultures find learning and adapting to another culture to be difficult.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to overcome that.

QUERY: “How can the law have any place in a society that is not rule-based?”

Rules or relationships.

Where is the emphasis placed in your culture? Which is valued more?

Identifying where your values lie will tell you whether you’ve grown up in a relationship-based culture or a rule-based culture.

Once you discover what grounds you, you may wonder how these values impact the mechanics of your culture and your own decision-making and moral perspective.

Let’s take a look.

A Query in Context

I recently received an email query about rule-based versus relationship-based cultures.

The anonymous author wrote:

“I’m a lawyer in the USA, and I tend to be more black/white and rule-based. I’ve encountered attorneys and judges that don’t seem to care about the rules (aka the law) and it can be frustrating…

When I think about it, how can the law have any place in a society that is not rule-based? Your example of lying to protect your friend from criminal prosecution for killing someone in a school zone by speeding in a relationship-based society flaunts the law. It supports the whims of men, which may change from time to time much faster than the law. It destroys expectations…

How can I plan for the future when some bureaucrat may decide the law doesn’t apply to my adversary, contract counterparty, tortfeasor, etc? It supports dishonesty and bribery, as is common, at least more overtly, in the rest of the world.

What about judicial and lawyer ethics codes? How can those matter if you live in a non-rule-based society? It’s OK that I lied to the court to protect my client/brother? Really? That can’t be ‘right.’ Moral relativism must have a stopping point…”

Let’s see if we can clear a few of these questions up.

Rule of Law in Culture

The post anonymous is referring to is Rule of Law in Culture: Are Laws More Important Than Relationships?

It describes a study in which U.S. and Venezuelan managers were surveyed about the hypothetical scenario described.

U.S. participants more heavily leaned toward testifying against their friend who broke the law, while two thirds of Venezuelan managers said they would lie in their testimony to cover for the friend.

The scenario illustrates where each cultures values lie.

But just because a culture prioritizes relationships over rules does not mean the rules don’t exist or apply.

All societies have rules. Sometimes those rules are relationship-based, as described in my post, Relationship- vs. Rule-Based Cultures: Socially-Based Control vs. Individual Autonomy.

The post illustrates how the Shona society is ruled by a hierarchy based on familial relationships. It’s a fundamental part of their culture.

Unlike some cultures, where laws strive to be objective, the laws of the Shona society are shaped by relationships. Still, the rules exist.

This is just one example, but perhaps the misunderstanding is in what these two terms mean.

What “Rule-based” and “Relationship-based” Truly Means

Do the terms “rule-based” and “relationship-based” imply there are no rules (and no application of these rules) in the latter and no relationships in the former?

No.

It’s a matter of priority – i.e. do you break rules because of relations, or do you stick to rules, despite harming your relationships?

In rule-based cultures, an individual’s priority is, more often than not, on the law, while in relationship-based cultures, relationships take priority.

This does not mean there is no place for rule of law in relationship-based cultures. In regard to the study example, it wasn’t that the law or the legal system, the lawyer or the judge, was prioritizing relationships; it was the witness – an individual in the relationship-based society – prioritizing them.

The example about lying to protect your friend from criminal prosecution was not to indicate whether doing so is “right” or “wrong.” As we’ve also discussed in this blog, one culture’s “right” is always another one’s “wrong,” and such ideologies are shaped by primary socialization.

Anonymous questions this, writing, “Moral relativism must have a stopping point.” 

In other posts, we’ve described this stopping point. We’ve outlined what active tolerance is, how to accept conflicting cultural values, and when to personally arrive at this “stopping point” when working cross-culturally.

You might choose to draw the line of moral relativism at harm, as described in our post: “tolerance ends where harm begins.”

In this instance, your stopping point might be that your friend should be in prison. Or it might be that your friend’s life and your shared relationship is more important.

Whether or not valuing relationships over rules “flaunts the law” or is unethical is both for the society to decide and for you – on a personal level – to decide.

Prioritizing Relationships Over Rules

In a cross-cultural sense, understanding the rationale behind another culture’s priorities is the best you can do to make that decision for yourself and know where you draw the line.

To see the logic, you must empathize and understand the mechanics of the culture, which are based on the values it upholds.

Once you achieve that understanding, it’s easy to see why those who value relationships might wish to support the relationship over the law. 

Cultural Differences in Business Communication,” by John Hooker, describes exactly why one’s priority might lie with the relationship:

“In relationship-based cultures, the unit of human existence is larger than the individual, perhaps encompassing the extended family or the village. Ostracism from the group is almost a form of death, because one does not exist apart from one’s relatedness to others.”

If you’re part of a clock, do you remove the minute hand?

No.

Just as every part in a clock has a relationship to the other parts, so do the people in a relationship-based society.

When destroying that relationship means death, you’d agree that even the law is less important.

As with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable, the concept of flaunting the law – stealing bread rather than letting your family starve to death – brings that idea to the fore.

What would you do? Is what you’d do “right” or “wrong”? And how does your choice reflect your values?

Prioritizing Rules Over Relationships

And, in the other vein, you can understand why those cultures who value rules might stand by the law instead of the relationship.

Rule-based cultures are usually individualist and don’t have the same level of relationship connectedness as collectivist, relationship-based cultures.

Because of this, the mechanics of the society don’t work the same.

You might remove and replace the minute hand of the clock, because it kept getting stuck.

Just as you might testify as a witness against your speeding friend, as you believe him to be a danger to society.

More importantly, your rule-based society won’t ostracize you for telling the truth, because most view justice in the same way as you do; in fact, you’ll likely even be praised for putting the rule of law over your relationship, as this is a difficult decision to face.

In both societies, rules exist. But the individual chooses where to place their loyalty, which is all based on cultural conditioning and the reciprocal relationships between individuals in a culture.

Whether or not anonymous (or anyone in a rule-based society) believes putting relationships over rules is unjustified or unethical, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing so is “wrong” or there isn’t logic and reason in such societies.

What is the Point of Law?

Anonymous ends with the question,

“So what is the point of law and lawyers in non-rule-based societies? How does it work? Is it more about manipulation, sales, and gamesmanship than seeking objective truth?”

There are benefits and costs to both types of governance.

John Shuhe Li’s article, entitled “The Benefits and Costs of Relation-based Governance: An Explanation of the East Asian Miracle and Crisis,” provides some examples of these costs/benefits.

Li first emphasizes that agreements can only be enforced through rules or relationships. If neither exist, governance resorts to violence.

Li then outlines the benefits of relationship-based governance compared to rule-based governance, writing:

“When relation-based governance works, given two transaction partners, it can enforce all mutually observable agreements (by the two parties). When one party deviates from a mutually observable agreement, the other party can punish the deviator by playing (for example) tit-for-tat strategies. In contrast, given two transaction partners, rule-based governance can only enforce a subset of the mutually observable agreements that can also be observed by third parties. Thus, perhaps a large part of monitored-activities, which are mutually observable by the monitor and the monitee but are not verifiable by a third party can be enforced by relation-based governance, but not by rule-based governance.”

He also describes how a small relationship-based market can lower transaction costs over the larger fixed cost in a rule-based market. There are some limitations in this, however, including the small number of partners one can force relations agreements with. 

Rule-based governance has its benefits, as well.

Li writes,

“In contrast, there exist economies of scale in rule-based governance; thus a firm can resort to rule-based governance to enforce contracts (impersonal agreements) with an unlimited number of partners, including strangers.”

The activity coordination of the transaction parties can result in the sharing of more technical information (information not directly related to enforcement) in relation-based governance, which is another advantage. Moreover, without all the bureaucracy, renegotiations in relation-based governance can be less costly.

Lastly, when it comes to business, the fact remains that some economies are catching-up economies and can’t rely on rule-based governance.

Li writes,

“In catching-up economies…relation-based governance is the only available mechanism to enforce agreements. Thus, investing in relations can be profitable and rational, especially in developing countries.”

While this refers to business rather than criminal law, you can see that there is a point of law and lawyers in relationship-based societies; the rules simply lean more heavily into relying on relationships to enforce the rules of an agreement and keeping relationships on good terms.

And across cultures, those terms vary.

Empathy in Action: An Exercise in Developing Empathy

Close your eyes, and picture this:

You are born into a relationship-based culture.

Relationships are the most important thing to you, because they are so integral to society.

Not only do they help you rise in the world, but they have your back when you fall.

Everything is tied to these relationships.

How do you see the world? How does this foundation impact your behavior, values, and norms?

Exercise in Empathy

The above was an exercise in empathy

Being able to put yourself into another’s shoes and imagine things from their perspective builds empathy – a tool that you can wield to your advantage.

Last week, we talked about how empathy is an essential personality trait when managing across cultures.

It’s not easily alterable or acquired; some are naturally more empathetic than others.

But like every trait that doesn’t come naturally, one can take actionable steps to develop it.

Developing empathy is an active, voluntary act.

And when working in a cross-cultural environment, you must be willing to volunteer this shift of perspective in order to adapt to your host culture.

We’ve talked a bit about the “monkey experience” in this blog and in my book I am the Monkey.

It’s one example of an exercise in empathy: viewing the world through the eyes of a monkey – and imagining others’ perceptions about you, the monkey, in turn.

It’s a radical shift in perspective, but a necessary exercise in understanding other individuals, other cultures, and better responding to differences in behaviors and values.

Another Exercise

You teach the third grade in New York City.

A new student enters your class. He just moved to America from the U.K. He is timid and visibly shaken. 

How do you sympathize with the student?

You comfort him, sharing with him that you understand his fear in this new situation.

But how do you demonstrate empathy?

Here’s how:

Picture yourself in his shoes: a young foreign child in a new school, new country, new culture.

Although you may never have been in this position yourself, drawing from your own similar well of experiences in unknown places, you may have a sense of what he’s feeling: the fear, the discomfort, the vulnerability, the confusion.

Sympathizing is the first step to creating a cross-cultural warmth of companionship and camaraderie; empathizing goes far deeper.

In this instance, you understand the child’s inner turmoil and are thereby better able to provide support and confidence through your words and actions.

With more information, you can make informed decisions about how to address his discomfort. And empathy gives you that information.

Visualization is the key to empathy – placing yourself into the untied shoes of that third grader, and viewing the big, scary world through his eyes.

This is empathy in action.

Next week, we’ll provide some examples of empathy in the workplace.

“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.