Are we the same, or are we different?

There are two different beliefs which make a big difference in terms of how we approach people from different cultures. Firstly, there is the belief that all people are fundamentally the same, and that there are only small differences between them like language, food, etc. Secondly, there is the belief that people from different cultures have very different beliefs, values and needs than others.

Both beliefs make sense in their very own way. Consider, for example, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which you can find in the image below. Maslow, whose hierarchy of needs has become extremely famous, has basically assumed that all human beings have the same fundamental needs, such as esteem and belonging. It would therefore be logical to argue that despite the fact that we all might have different customs, deep inside we are fundamentally the same.


Research findings seem to be quite solid in that these needs indeed can be found in different cultures around the world. Therefore, the argument that we indeed have the same needs is quite sound.

At the same time, one could also argue that many of these needs can mean very different things in different cultures. Take self-actualization, for instance. Whereas in individualistic cultures it refers to the finding of an individuals purpose and consequently the striving for the fulfillment of that purpose, in collectivist societies it is probably more tied together with the groups to which this individual belongs. He or she will become a member of a group whose purpose her or she shares, and thus strives towards the fulfillment of this purpose.

In other words, while the needs seem to be fundamentally the same, the way in which they are being expressed can be very different.

The different ways in which cultures are expressed are a result of the different values and belief systems

sameness vs. difference

So for instance, when we are moving to another culture, we are likely to observe one of four different patterns.

  1. Sameness: both the behaviour and the values of the people are the same like yours
  2. Deep-Rooted Sameness: the people behave differently, but have the same values like you
  3. Superficial sameness: the people behave the same way like you, but have different values
  4. Obvious difference: both the behaviour, and the values of the people are different from yours

Deep-rooted sameness is interesting in that you move to another cultural environment, and first of all it seems like the behaviour of the people seems to be completely different from yours. When you look at it much more closely, though, you will find that the values the people are hold can be quite similar to your own.

For instance, I have written about handshakes in Muslim communities before. For instance, when you are a man from a Western culture and you are moving to the Middle East, you might ponder about the question why women do not shake hands with you, what the reasons for their behaviour are. It seems that there are very different values at play here like the one’s you are used from your own country. The longer you are in the country, however, the more you realize that women and men do not shake hands out of respect for each other.

In other words: both cultures value respect. But what is considered a sign of respect in your culture has the completely opposite effect in the other culture.

Superficial sameness has the danger of making you believe that both cultures are fundamentally the same, while they are really not. Often, this occurs on the level of so-called ‘cultural artifacts’, which can easily be same between two completely different cultures. Globalization has the effect that people from all over the world can wear the same clothes, eat the same food, and learn the same etiquette for dining. The danger of this, however, is that we fall into the trap of thinking that these similar behaviours could mean that we have the same values.

One example for this could be school uniforms. There are many different countries in the world where wearing school uniforms is very common. Two examples of this are Japan and Australia. If you see this at the first time, you might think that the values of the two countries must be similar, because they are both displaying the same behaviour (enforcing school uniforms).

On closer look, however, you will realize that Australia uses school uniforms to display their value of equality. Since everybody has the same status, wearing school uniforms reduces the status differences between the people.

Japan, however, has a very high level of power distance. Arguing that they would like to show ‘equality’ through their school uniforms would not make much sense. Rather, it is likely that school uniforms are so common in Japan because they enhance a sense of conformity and social order. As you can see, the behaviour is the same, but the values behind the behaviour are different.

Obvious difference occurs when both the behaviour, and the values of the people are different. In these circumstances, the differences between ‘you’ and ‘them’ will be so obvious, that it will not take you much time to figure out that they exist.

However, since both the behaviour and the values are very different from your own, it is likely to take you quite an extended period of time to find out what exactly the values of the people are, and why these differences exist. Plus, it will also take you a long time to process the behavioural patterns of the people in your intuitive mind, to internalize these patterns, and therefore to be able to imitate their behaviour.

While we have the same fundamental needs, our belief systems and behavioural patterns are completely different

As you have seen in the section above, people from different cultures can be different in many different ways. Therefore, the argument that we are all fundamentally the same is weak in my opinion. And yet, we should recognize the fact that there are certain human needs which we all share, but which are being displayed in different ways depending on the cultural background one is from.

For us as individuals, what this means is that on the one hand, as long as we are fulfilling the common needs which all of us share, we will be fine. On the other hand, however, the behaviours on how people fulfill these needs might be different. Therefore, although we are trying our best to appeal to these needs, our behaviours may actually have the opposite effect.

In the end, what it comes down to is that we develop a very clear understanding of the different behavioural patterns, and the different values which people from the ‘other’ culture are showing. Once we have developed this understanding, we will also be able to learn how to fulfill the needs of those around us.



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