Cultural Bias: Using Ethnocentricity to Your Advantage

Ethnocentrismthe evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.

We’ve been discussing this theme for the past few weeks. And that’s because ethnocentrism is innate in all of us. Although it seems like a type of bias only present in uneducated or prejudiced people, even the most “woke” individual, even those who study cross-cultural differences professionally, even those experts who produce management literature are all subject to ethnocentricity.

For instance, Maslow’s pyramid of needs is ethnocentric. The “needs” in question are not universal; they’re the needs of those from western cultures.

So, being that we are all subject to our own innate cultural bias, how do we use ethnocentricity to our advantage?

Overcoming Your Own Cultural Bias

We are programmed through primary socialization and further cultural conditioning to view our way of life as the most logical. We consider other cultures to be “wrong,” while ours is “right” and should be universal.

This is ethnocentricity in a nutshell.

Even when we are well aware of our cultural bias, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

While we may not be able to avoid ethnocentrism completely, in a cross-cultural workplace, it’s essential to accept that our values are not universal, nor are they absolute.

This is the first step to altering our perspective of another culture’s values and norms and adapting our behaviors accordingly.

In order to thrive in a foreign culture, acceptance and tolerance will melt ethnocentrism’s hard edges.

Next, you must adopt the fresh new “rights and wrongs,” standards, and methods of the new business environment.

Doing so may feel unnatural to you, but your willingness to adjust to the other culture’s standards will allow you to succeed in that new culture, as it demonstrates respect.

Play It to Your Advantage

Taking this all a step further, you may use ethnocentrism to your advantage in business.

This is more applicable to specific aspects – like playing to your customer base, for instance.

If you’re opening an American hotel chain in America, for example, you’d likely highlight the new spacious rooms, the modern conveniences, the privacy and security of the hotel, the staff’s professionalism.

But if you were opening that same hotel in Albania, you know that Albania’s hospitality index is through the roof, so you might focus your press release on the personal nature of the hotel’s hospitality, its traditional and homey atmosphere, and its family feel to accommodate Albanian values.

The point is, awareness of your own ethnocentricity – and that of the culture in which you’re doing business – can often help you work, communicate, and promote effectively across cultures.

Ethnocentrism and the Workplace: How Our Biases Enter Into Business Relations

We’ve talked about ethnocentrism the past couple weeks and the ways in which it might crop up in cross-cultural research.

But ethnocentrism isn’t just a vague concept that infiltrates research; it often shows up in your average everyday workplace.

Let’s take a look at how and why.

Ethnocentrism in Business Communication

International business ventures require that individuals communicate cross-culturally.

This can either turn into a promising business partnership and even a delightful way to share cultures or into a complete devolution of business relations.

Let’s take a look at one example:

Ted (from the U.S.) sets up a video conference with Saanvi (from India).

“Let’s talk tomorrow at 8 AM, sharp,” he writes.

The next day, Ted logs into the video conference room at 7:45. 8 AM rolls around, and there’s no sign of Saanvi. Ted shoots Saanvi a quick message to let him know he’s there. By 8:10, Saanvi still hasn’t shown up. Ted is growing impatient. At 8:30, Ted sends Saanvi a curt message about rescheduling and then signs off.

Saanvi later responds to Ted, indicating that he did eventually show up to the online conference room. He video calls Ted, and when Ted asks if Saanvi can talk the next day at the same time, Saanvi nods.

The following day, the same thing happens. Ted is livid. Saanvi had confirmed with his nod, after all.

There are a few things going on cross-culturally here, and both Ted and Saanvi would do better to understanding these cross-cultural issues.

Punctuality & Visual Cues

Ted and Saanvi come from two different backgrounds, two different traditions. They possess different values and likely have different approaches to business and methods of communication.

They likely process things from their own cultural conditioning.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. With basic cross-cultural understanding, one might be able to acknowledge and accept this gap. And with an even more specific mastery of the cross-cultural differences between your culture and the other, one might be able to bridge that gap effectively.

With nothing but ethnocentrism, the gap widens and business relations potentially implode.

Why?

Because when the individuals involved do not have a basic understanding of cross-cultural issues, they don’t know that the differences in communication aren’t intentional rudeness or unprofessionalism; they may simply be cultural differences.

For instance, whereas in America, time is money, punctuality is generally taken lightly in India. Even VIPs may show up late to business meetings.

Moreover, when Indians nod their heads, the movement doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes.’ Rather, the nod can be employed simply to show they’re being attentive to what you’re saying.

Instead of understanding the other culture, both Ted and Saanvi refused to acknowledge and adapt at all to their counterparts and instead forced their own ethnocentric business standards upon the other.

In this case, they both look like monkeys in each other’s eyes.

Without understanding and compromising to some degree, ethnocentrism can become a toxic trait, creating chasms in business relations and in cross-cultural workplaces where there should be bridges.

The Hospitality Index: A Hypothetical Example of Ethnocentricity

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’91, I traveled as a journalist to a region near the former Yugoslavian border of Albania. In many of the remote, mountainous villages to which I traveled, I was the first foreigner seen by locals since the Germans of WWII.

As I explored the region, one of the impressions I had about the people was that they were unconditionally hospitable. They treated this stranger, this foreigner, as an esteemed guest, preparing generous meals for me, despite not having a lot themselves.

One village had only three sheep, and they killed one of them to serve me, though I attempted to discourage such a sacrifice on my account.

Hospitality exceeding no bounds was their cultural norm.

Not only did this manifest in the meals they served, but also in the accommodation. In each house, there was a guest room, fitted with a bed to welcome visitors at any time.

While this region isn’t alone in this cultural norm, as I’ve been so graciously treated with such hospitality in other parts of the world as well, one conclusion that I’ve come to in my travels is this:

Hospitality is best wherever there is no telephone.

Lack of Connection Improves Quality of Connection

People often arrive unannounced to places with no telephone. This may be one reason cultural norms require those who live in remote places to be prepared to accommodate at any time.

The pop-in is inevitable (Seinfeld would hate to be a member of these cultures). Hosts must provide guests a place to stay and a bite to eat last-minute because they have nowhere else to go. And these hosts are more than happy to.

In such open-door cultures, active hospitality – and lavish hospitality, at that – is adopted and valued.

Ethnocentricity’s Bias in the Reverse

Last week, we talked about ethnocentricity: the innate bias we have about our culture being “right” and another being “wrong” and evaluating cultures according to our own values.

My personal example is one case in which ethnocentricity’s bias might work in the reverse.

Sometimes, we see other’s values and norms as more “right” than our own. This may be one of those cases.

Most Westerners would never think to invite themselves over to a neighbor’s home, nor would they expect to accommodate a stranger. Even showing up on an acquaintance’s doorstep without a moment’s notice would be questionable.

Some Westerners might even choose to stay at a hotel rather than with family or friends when they’re visiting. Not only because they don’t want to impose on another’s space, but likely because they’d prefer their own space and privacy.

But most Westerners would surely see the value in such open-door hospitality. It’s universally a beautiful thing.

In Albania – and in other world regions that are less connected – there is no imposition and space is not valued as it is in the West. It would be a dishonor to the people if you rejected their hospitality.

Ethnocentricity in Albania

As I’ve highlighted, hospitality is a deeply entrenched value in these regions.

With that bit of background in mind, imagine Albanian researchers studying cross-cultural differences.

The researchers, no doubt, would consider the hospitality-index as an important cultural categorization.

Generosity and accommodation are the glue that holds society together in their minds, allowing communal ties and free travel.

Should they research other country’s hospitality norms and values, they would find other’s hospitality doesn’t meet the same standard as theirs.

They might see that in some countries unconditional hospitality is restricted to those one knows well. Strangers can find somewhere else to eat and sleep.

In other countries, only family members are provided with hospitality.

And in some, forget it. You have to find your own accommodation.

During their research, the Albanians might then conclude that their own country is on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to the hospitality index. And they would view this as a positive thing, as their values are validated.

This is just one example of how ethnocentrism might influence research. It comes naturally to most. Even professional researchers and experts in the field, no matter how objective they attempt to be, will inevitably reveal their own values when evaluating other cultures.

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.

How Media and Faith Contribute to a Culture’s Locus of Control

How does our locus of control affect our daily lives?

Let’s let our good friends, Ann and Kamal, illustrate the differences.

Ann is of a culture with an internal locus of control – she believes her actions will see results. Control is in her hands.

Kamal is of a culture with an external locus of control – he believes that the environment or a higher power is the director of life. He is powerless to his fate.

What happens when the two worlds collide?

Locus of Control in Healthcare

Kamal is in pain and is prescribed medication by a doctor. Knowing his situation, Kamal’s close friend Ann follows up on his health.

locusofcontrol.jpg

Herein lies the difference between those from an internal-locus culture and an external-locus culture.

The internal-locus, Ann, believes that taking action and following up with a professional and with additional medication will determine the outcome of Kamal’s health issue.

The external-locus, Kamal, arrives at a point in his health where he believes his fate is predestined, and this pain is a part of it. He accepts his painful fate.

Locus of Control in Media

When you look at Western media, you can clearly see the internal locus of control prevalent in everything from self-help manuals to life coaches and therapists.

Glance at any magazine headline or scroll through a Western website, and you’ll see the “top ten ways” in which to improve yourself in one way or another – whether the improvement targets your health, appearance, or habits.

These basic media elements indicate that individual improvement is in one’s own hands. And this internal locus is prevalent in Western values and norms, which highlight independence, self-determination, and individualism.

Godly Values & Norms

When you take a look at a culture’s values and norms, these often prove to be a more direct indicator of that culture’s locus.

For instance, those with an external locus of control – Muslim cultures, for instance – live according to the ideology that life was created for them.

Such a view manifests in the culture’s fundamental traditions and strict rules of law, all of which have been bestowed upon them by God. God directs the course of both individual lives and of all of humanity.

These are the values and norms that drive the external locus of control in such cultures.

Yet, there are some individuals in external locus cultures who possess an internal locus.

Muslim clerics, for example, are considered the vehicles of God’s word, so they instruct their fellow man by directing community and political views.

They, however, attribute this control to God and, in doing so, God is still the eternal director of mankind.

Next week, we’ll talk about how the four building blocks of culture are influenced by ethnocentricity.

4 Types of Cultural Time Orientation & Time Perception

The ways in which individuals in a culture work and how they view time frames are dictated by whether a culture runs according to a polychronic time system or a monochronic time system.

We talked last week about cultures with informal concepts of time, including cultures that view time as exclusively present (not past or future) and those who view time as cyclical.

How is this time-orientation learned? Let’s take a look.

Values & Norms

Just as values and norms are a culture’s learned behaviors, so is time perception.

Time perception is based on a society’s values. As we mentioned in an earlier post, those from monochronic cultures value relationships above all else. So, if they miss a deadline in lieu of putting time into a family matter, it’s a nonissue.

So, just as children learn values – such as the importance of family – during their primary socialization, so they are oriented toward a specific time cognitivism based on those values.

Time Orientation

There are four different types of time orientation.

These are:

  • Past – the past and the present are interchangeable in past-oriented cultures. They often do not fully grasp elapsed time.
  • Time-line – this type of time cognitivity is a detail-oriented linear concept of time. However, time-line cognitivity does not lend itself to multitasking.
  • Present – you might think of a thrill-seeker when you think of present-oriented cognitivity. These are low-risk aversion cultures.
  • Future – the goal-setting, forward-thinking cultures are future-oriented. Those with future-oriented cognitivity look at the bigger picture and follow their plans through to achieve that picture.

What is affected by time orientation?

Communication, particularly the content of what’s being communicated, as well as the urgency and frequency of communication.

Who Belongs Where

Older countries with centuries of history, such as India and China, are generally past-oriented. The broad scope of time in these cultures enables a view of time that judges minutes and hours as inconsequential.

Forget the stampede and the rush to meet goals. The clock doesn’t rule such cultures – or, in fact, industry or infrastructure in such cultures. A train in India will be late, and few will bother. Late trains and missed deadlines are to be expected.

Cultures who live for today, like France, are considered present-oriented. Their values are more often thrill-seeking and pleasure-based, rather than with a view on the future or the past.

Newer countries with an eye on innovation and the future, like the US, are future-oriented. The “American Dream,” for instance, is a quintessential thread in the country’s cultural fabric.

A dream is an ideal to work toward; hence, it’s always in the future. Milestones are often set to achieve this ideal. And the clock is ticking. This leads to a culture working against the clock.

Time orientation combined with a culture’s values dictate much about the way individuals in said societies live their lives.

We’ll talk about how monochronism and polychronism falls into time orientation next week.

When Being On-Time Means Everything: How Important is Punctuality to Culture?

How does your culture value time?

Are they more often punctual or late?

Do people care?

Time is valued differently across cultures. In some places, like Switzerland or Germany, punctuality is important. Tardiness is unacceptable and often viewed as disrespectful.

In such cultures, daily schedules, goals, and decision-making processes are dictated by time.

Some cultures, on the other hand, don’t stress punctuality. They might be an hour late, a day late, a week late.  And that’s a-okay. Time is not ruled by a schedule, and neither is business.

This can lead to huge headaches in cross-cultural business. When one culture’s concept of time is not the same as your own, how do you deal?

We’ll discuss that over the next few weeks. For now, let’s take a look at why time is viewed differently across cultures.

Finding Cultural Equilibrium

Is our valuation of time deeply engrained in our values? Or is it simply a reaction to others’ tardiness?

A 2002 study on punctuality in culture, entitled, “A Cultural Trait as Equilibrium,” concludes that punctuality is largely reactionary:

“…punctuality may be simply an equilibrium response of individuals to what they expect others to do. The same society can get caught in a punctual equilibrium or a non-punctual equilibrium.”

In other words, individuals of a society may collectively habit-form according to punctuality or tardiness, based on what they expect from their peers. Then this habit becomes a cultural norm.

This study suggests that such habits “could be subject to evolutionary erosion or bolstering.” The researchers consider a society’s punctuality/tardiness norm is both a shared social trait and an individual reaction to our expectations of others, adjusting our behaviors to arrive at equilibrium.

This makes sense. After all, have you ever had a group of friends that were perpetually late and, in knowing that, you found yourself arriving for planned meetups later and later than the set time.

“Fashionably late” is a term for a reason. Who wants to be the first one to arrive, the longest to wait? How unfashionable.

The question is, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did society’s general values about time inform the initial tardiness/punctuality that evolved and became a norm? Or did the values evolve as the norm became more, well, normal?

The Clocks Run On-Time…Literally

While cultural studies tend to delve into the intangible nature of cultural attitudes and values to explain behavior, some behaviors may result from very practical matters.

One interesting theory that developed from a 1980 study on punctuality pattern differences between the United States and Brazil is that Brazilian watches were simply not as reliable, which may have led to less stress on punctuality in Brazilian culture.

When researchers studied various watches in the United States and Brazil, they found evidence to support the theory that “public clocks and personal watches [are] less accurate in Brazil than in the United States.”

An interesting hypothesis, and not a conclusion you’d immediately jump to.

Are Swiss more punctual, because their clocks are notoriously accurate? Or are their clocks notoriously accurate, because they value punctuality?

Do German trains run on time, because their tickers do?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss culture and its relation to time. How it impacts everyday life, communication, orientation, and business relations. Stay tuned.

Business Culture & Social Responsibility: Where Do the Pair Intersect?

What does it mean to be socially responsible as a business?

This blog post will explore where the two intersect.

Although Western cultures are rule-based, they are limited when addressing the global problems of today. And yet, businesses must take on social responsibility in today’s world and be held accountable for their practices, because these practices, in the end, can impact all of us.

Social responsibility is taking hold.

Social Responsibility

What is social responsibility?

In short, it’s when an individual or organization takes it upon themselves to act in a way that benefits society rather than only their reputation or bottom line.

With social responsibility, economic ecosystems – such as environmental efforts, societal welfare, or material development – balance out.

One example of this is when the environment is negatively impacted by an organization’s productivity or processes.

For instance, when Ohio’s Cuyahoga River repeatedly caught fire from an oil slick, which prompted governmental change, including the 1970 formation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Or the case made famous on the silver screen, in which Erin Brockovich drove a 600+ resident suit against PG&E, after discovering illnesses in the town of Hinkley, CA were linked to high levels of hexavalent chromium found in the drinking water. When she traced the pollution’s source to PG&E, she found that the utility giant was well aware of the pollution and attempted to cover it up.

The lawsuit was settled for $333 million in 1996.

In these cases, an organization’s social responsibility must be put under the microscope.

A community’s health, as well as the biological ecosystems of an area, could potentially be (and have been in the past / continue to be in the present) destroyed.

When a business is indifferent to these impacts on the society it’s meant to serve, not only does the company’s negligence reflect poorly upon their culture, it can literally mean life or death for some.

Active/Passive Social Responsibility

You can also be active or passive in your socially responsible principles and behavior.

One example: shoplifting in a retail environment.

It sometimes happens that retail workers shoplift from the companies they work for. As a retail worker yourself, you might know that your colleagues do it, but keep your mouth shut, though you don’t participate.

This is passive social responsibility.

Active social responsibility is more direct. It might mean advocating for better antitheft procedures, like spot-checking bags before employees head out for the day.

As long as you don’t follow suit when you witness your colleagues crossing that ethical line, you are being socially responsible.

Whether active or passive, that responsibility reflects your values.

Next week, we’ll talk more about a relatively new type of management strategy called corporate social responsibility.

Cultural Ambiguity & Uncertainty: Following the Line of Logic to Understanding

One of the most difficult parts of managing across cultures is a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty when it comes to rules.

Those from rule-based cultures, thrust into relationship-based environments, likely find the rules ambiguous, and vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, the rule-based US culture professes a fundamentally rule-based management theory, decidedly offering straightforward advice regarding successful management.

Take “ad res” versus “ad personam,” for example.

Ad Res vs. Ad Personam

hierarchychartAmerican universities teach an “ad res” organizational theory, in which organizations are structured in a chart adapted to the business. The names can be altered in the chart, as the organizations are indifferent to the people who fill the roles.

However, this differs from how relationship-based cultures view organizational structures. In these cultures, organizations consider “ad personam” to be correct, which is quite the opposite of “ad res.”

With “ad personam” organization, the individual people come first.

Vagueness Leads to Misunderstanding

This is just one example of the way a culture’s values shape their management theory and structures. Just one more reason to clarify any cultural ambiguity or uncertainty in order to better manage within another culture.

Uncertainty stems from vague values, norms, and behaviors, which lend themselves to wrong assumptions.

When things are uncertain or ambiguous, the first step is always to seek understanding.

As we talked about early in this blog, finding the rationale behind the values, norms, and behaviors of your cross-cultural counterparts is essential to clarifying uncertainty and ambiguity.

And the first steps in seeking understanding are to:

  1. Identify the conflicting issue – pinpoint whatever it is that’s rubbing your own values and beliefs the wrong way.
  2. Look at the issue from the other culture’s baobab tree – keeping in mind what you’ve learned about the culture, try to see the issue from their perspective, their standpoint, their worldview.
  3. Seek out the advantages in their perspective – when you approach the issue from your own baobab, you’ll probably see the other’s perspective in a negative light; but from their baobab, a spotlight is shone on their train of thought, allowing you to see more clearly.
  4. Find the line of logic – while seeking understanding may not bring you in line with the other’s ideas of personal and social responsibility, finding their line of logic will lead you to a place of clarity. And with clarity comes understanding.

What Are Their Advantages?

When faced with conflicting cultural behaviors, values, norms, and management methods, ask yourself these questions:

What are their baobab’s benefits?

Why and how are their methods successful in their culture?

When you seek understanding instead of discriminating; when you start looking at another culture through their own lens, you may just discover significant advantages to their methods and values.

In doing so, you may also see the disadvantages and limitations of your own culture and ways you can improve your own culture. In fact, you may adopt certain behaviors, values, or norms that you appreciate.

Next week, we’ll take a look at one of the limitations that the individualistic West has started to improve on: corporate social responsibility.

Contracts in China: How Relationship-Based Cultures View Contractual Obligations

When you do business in China, you may come across a common contractual clause.

This clause stipulates that if issues arise, the contracted parties will discuss them and the contract may potentially be redrafted.

China is a relationship-based culture.

Someone from a rule-based culture, like most Western societies, will likely take issue with this clause.

Contracts are supposed to be black-and-white. They are supposed to be unambiguous. They are supposed to regulate specifically every aspect of the business relationship.

Contracts exist to effectively end the negotiation stage and begin working together.

The clause makes it clear that the contractual agreement may be renegotiated at any time. That means, for instance, when the parties do face a dispute, it might not go to court in the city in which the contract stipulates, but rather in a city court where the established law may work in the other party’s favor.

So, why even negotiate a contract in China? If it’s so ambiguous, what does the contract stand for?

Relationship-based Values vs. Rule-based Values

The relationship-based culture of China values a mutually beneficial and respectful business relationship. The contract is symbolic as such.

The contract signifies that personal relationships exist amongst the parties, therefore future disagreements may be negotiated.

While in Western cultures, a signed contract might mark the end of the negotiation process, in China – and in other relationship-based cultures – it marks the beginning.

You might think you’ve nailed down prices, but even those can be renegotiated days or weeks after signing.

Although those from Western cultures might see such a contract as pointless, its signing is still very important in relationship-based cultures.

In fact, it’s so important, that a contract signed with a Chinese company traditionally involves a luncheon or ceremony when making it official.

As soon as a contract is signed, it signifies that the two parties – especially the leaders – are publicly friends and will be respectful of their business relationship.

Relationships-to-Home Life

Relationship-based societies also view work life and personal life as inseparable to the point that “personal relations” and “business relations” are concepts that don’t exist in these societies.

That’s because company rules are dominated by relationships, particularly if an employee’s in-group is their family or tribe.

This means that if you have a conflict with an employee, it can often extend to a conflict with his/her family, kin, or any other member of his/her in-group.

Next week, we’ll discuss how this situation might manifest, along with other conflicts that crop up in business in relationship-based cultures.