Getting to understand cultural differences gives us the opportunity to have a better understanding of ourselves and the people around us.
Germans are rigid, Americans are loud, Russians are scary and French girls….don’t shave. Are any of these stereotypes familiar to you?
Stereotype: a widely held oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
My intention is to share with you why I think we should get rid of cultural biases such as stereotypes and have our minds wide open to the world. The fact that the world is interconnected at almost all levels would be a very good reason for us to make the effort. But there’s something else, we can be successful and feel fulfilled in our personal and professional life. We can be healthier and happier than we are right now. I maintain that being interculturally competent plays an integral part in achieving these goals. Here is why:
Our own culture teaches us what the world is "really like", what is "good' and what is "bad". And that's why we grow up thinking that our values are natural and correct and (here is the issue!) other cultures' values are wrong, just because they are different. This phenomenon has a name: Ethnocentrism.
I remember my first moments as an international student in the States. So exciting, so many people from so many different places (Europe, Asia, Africa...) all of us with different backgrounds, so much judging going on too. Life seemed to be divided into what was right and wrong. Appropriate and inappropriate. I had the brilliant idea of taking an Intercultural Communication class during my first year in college. That changed everything. It was probably the first time that I became aware of cultural differences and learned to embrace those differences instead of judging them.
Stereotypes are a generalisation about some group of people. "Spaniards and Italians are loud" ... We are...except for my parents and siblings. They are super quiet. Is it true that every single Spaniard is loud? I don't think so but we make generalisations. The consequences of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the States were evident when I first moved to the states in 2008, with high-security measures. I've never been stopped at airports when entering the country, my white skin and European cultural background didn't fall under the umbrella of "suspect of terrorism activity".
The story, however, was quite different for my Middle- Eastern friends. Even though the Transportation Security Administration of the USA does not tolerate any kind of discrimination, ethnic profiling still exists today, and citizens with Middle- Eastern cultural heritage are stopped in airports for further scrutiny because of their physical appearance.
Stereotypes sometimes lead to prejudice. I feel for every Chinese person who lives outside their country these days. As the Coronavirus spreads so does racism targeting this community. There is a lot anti-Chinese sentiment online and increasingly well- documented real-world violence. It is important to differentiate between governments and citizens. We may not like the policies implemented by a particular government but that doesn't mean we have the right to take it out on its nationals around the globe.
Discrimination is prejudice "in action" and it can also occur in other forms like segregation. The Help is a 2009 novel (later a movie, 2011, starring Emma Stone) by American author Kathryn Stockett. The story is about African American maids working in white houses during the early 1960s. Black and white communities were completely segregated at that time and the movie shows the struggles black communities had to go through.
These black maids would raise white kids as if they were their own only to discover later in life that most of those kids would maintain the same discriminatory rules that kept black people away from equal treatment. I found the story a very good example of racism, both at an individual level (negative beliefs and attitudes toward a different racial group) and at the institutional level (unequal treatment regarding education, employment, or housing).
Racism is the ultimate obstacle to intercultural competence, it's like wearing magic glasses that allow you to see only fragmented parts of the world. By choice. You don't even know what you're missing. The most defining moments in my career happened in countries far away from mine surrounded by people whose upbringing was radically different from mine. The truth is that it wasn't always easy for me. The effort and tolerance that I had to put in a multicultural work environment were sometimes very high. The outcome: totally worth it.
Situations that would make me uncomfortable years ago are a piece of cake nowadays, the process of mingling with people with different backgrounds has given me confidence that I wouldn't have gained any other way. I would do it again, all over. But don't get me wrong! I made mistakes...so you don't have to.
Cultural studies are a crucial tool in order to navigate life. The more educated you are in this matter the higher your chances to have beautiful relationships across the globe. One of the variables that we need to take into consideration if we want to be culturally competent is the difference between collectivistic and individualistic cultures. The former will give importance to the group and rely on it, they will be more conforming and interdependent. Individualistic cultures, on the other hand, will encourage people to be unique and independent.
Elderly people living in nursing homes is a controversial topic. It's very common in individualistic societies to have elder people living that way because it is important for them to maintain their "independence", they don't want to rely on their families. However, this is extremely difficult to understand in collectivistic cultures, where both the group and family are extremely important.
Moreover, they typically put a very large psychological distance between those who are members of the group (the ingroup) and those who are not (the outgroup). When I moved to South Asia, I became part of the group because my very good friend Ashmita (who was a local) made me part of her family and, therefore, part of their society. I was a foreigner yet not an outsider, thanks to her.
In a country like Spain, the opinion of the group is important too and that could explain why we're not particularly good at speaking foreign languages. Learning a language is all about making mistakes in front of people. If you're ashamed every time you speak, you will avoid speaking.
Orientation to time is another important variable, as well as power distance. The first one talks about how structured time is in a particular society. If the group relies on fixed schedules, deadlines, and explicit verbal codes, you're in a low-context culture. If you want your life to run smoothly, pay close attention to this, especially at work. Power distance deals with social power and the different levels of status within a society. Is it o.k. to go for a drink with your company's CEO or not? Should you address him/her formally or you can use the first name? Figure that out before making a mistake.
Getting to understand cultural differences gives us the opportunity to have a better understanding of ourselves and the people around us, giving us a broader picture of what relationships and LIFE is about.
The writer was born and raised in North Spain. After finishing her degree in Political Science, she moved to the United States and started her career as an educator in this country before moving to South Asia, where she worked in different universities. She is now an untiring traveler and writer.
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