We are all affected by ethnocentrism. We simply can’t avoid it. And it doesn’t make sense to deny it.
Ethnocentrism means that when we are looking at the behavioral patterns and beliefs from another culture, we are judging them based on the standards of our own cultural conditioning.
One simple example I have come across again and again are German managers who are living in Indonesia. They keep saying things implying that their own management culture is “better” than the Indonesian one, because it leads to much higher degrees of efficiency and productivity.
The problem with this is simple: the first priorities in an Indonesian work environment are not efficiency and productivity.
Why not? Well, because those are not the values and beliefs of the Indonesian people. And since these two cultures do not have the same values and beliefs, we can not compare the outcomes of these two cultures by applying the same standards to them.
Step 1# Find out what the values and beliefs of your host culture are
The problem with ethnocentrism is that we are judging the behavior of the people in another culture based on the standards of our own culture.
What are the standards of our own culture? Right, our own values and beliefs.
Consequently, the first step to developing the capability to overcome our own ethnocentrism is to actually understand what values and beliefs are underlying the behavior of the people. And to do that, we need to do some serious research.
We need to observe the behavioral patterns over and over again. We need to talk to people from this culture and ask them for their own perspective on this situation. We need to ask other expatriates who have stayed in the location longer than us. We need to find out more information about it on the internet or in books on this particular culture.
We need to do our research until we reach the point where we feel that we have a relatively good understanding on why the local people are behaving the way they do.
Step #2: Imagine you were holding these values and beliefs yourself. How would you justify this particular behavior?
Let’s return to our example of the German managers judging the behavior of local Indonesian employees as less efficient and less productive. Or, from their perspective, probably they would label this behavior as “lazy”.
You have done your research and found out that the beliefs that affect why employees in Indonesia spend a significant amount of their time at work “socializing” are that:
- maintaining harmony at the work environment is one of the most important issues
- the company is seen as a “second family”, where the priority is placed on ensuring the well-being of all members of this “family”
So now, when you are looking at behaviors such as coming to meetings late, or spending a significant amount of time talking about topics outside of work, or not being very serious about a specific deadline, you are able to put yourself into the perspective of the local people and ask yourself how it may go in line with the values and beliefs which you have learned to be underlying these behaviors.
In doing so, you will most likely come to the conclusion that, from the perspective of the Indonesian employees, delivering a project on time is simply less important than maintaining a positive relationship with all parties involved.
Step #3: Make a conscious decision on your position in regards to this behavior and how you will act
Once you have finished the process of analyzing the behavior of the local people, now it is time for you to reflect on your own personal thoughts and feelings about them.
Knowing the motivations and the beliefs underlying these behaviors, how do you feel about them? What do you think is the best way to respond to them? What strategies can you apply that will lead to positive results in your communication with the local people?
Furthermore, how do you feel about using these behaviors yourself? And how do you feel about integrating these values and beliefs into your very own belief system? Do you think it would be congruent with who you are as a person?
Thinking through these questions and them making clear-cut decisions about how you are planning to react to these behaviors in the future are very important. As a next step, you will then turn these reactions into habits in the sense that you will be able to automatically respond to these new behavioral patterns by answering with the most suitable response.
Ethnocentrism – or the tendency to judge other people’s behavior based on the standards of our own culture – is a behavioral pattern that we simply can not avoid.
However, by first analyzing the beliefs underlying the behaviors of the local people, then trying our best to put ourselves into their own perspective, and finally making a conscious choice about how to respond to these behaviors, we nonetheless have the possibility to find a creative solution leading to positive results in the communication process with people from another culture.
Lastly, I would like to hear from you: have you caught yourself being influenced by ethnocentric thinking? What have you done to resolve this situation? Is there a situation now which you are facing that is difficult for you to solve?
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