Can you remember back to when you were a child going on your first sleepover? Did you find yourself in unfamiliar routines or eating unfamiliar food? I remember thinking my friend’s family did things a lot different than my family. From how they did afterschool chores, to snacks and meals, to getting ready for bed and getting up the next day; it was all different. It was neither right nor was it wrong, it was just different than what I knew.
Maybe you have visited another city, state or country. Did they ask for soda instead of pop? Maybe they drove on the left side of the road instead of the right. Perhaps they looked away from you as a sign of respect instead of straight into your eyes. None of these ways of doing things are right nor are they wrong. It is merely a difference in culture.
The way we interact and do things in our daily lives seems natural to us. It is only when we come in contact with people from another culture that we become aware that our patterns of behavior are not universal. As people we are the same in many ways, what makes us different is our culture.
Everyone has a culture. Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, traditions, beliefs, customs, music and arts. Therefore, when you are asked to explain your culture you are being asked:
- What language do you speak?
- What music do you listen to?
- What dances do you know?
- What food do you eat at home?
- What do you wear on special occasions?
- In your family, what is considered polite and what is considered rude? What manners have you been taught?
- How often do you see your extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles? What role do they play in your life?
- What holidays and ceremonies are important in your family?
The common response in all societies to other cultures is to judge them in terms of the values and customs of their own familiar culture. This is ethnocentrism. Liking your own way of life and condescending to other cultures is normal for all people. However, our ethnocentrism can prevent us from understanding and appreciating another culture and lead to conflict.
To help us understand and appreciate other cultures, we need to take the approach of an anthropologist and practice the “cultural relativity approach”. The cultural relativity approach means that an anthropologist tries to learn and interpret the various characteristics of the culture being studied in reference to that culture not the culture the anthropologist is from. This approach will be helpful to anyone who needs to interact with people from other societies and even subcultures within their own society.
Having an objective perspective allows people to see that ethnocentrism has a negative and positive side for a society. From the negative side, ethnocentrism results in prejudices about people from other cultures and rejection of their ways. When in contact with people from other cultures ethnocentrism can prevent open communication and result in misunderstanding and mistrust. This is very counterproductive for anyone trying to get along with another culture, from business people negotiating a trade deal, to backyard neighbors establishing how to work together on community projects.
The positive side of ethnocentrism protects a society by acting as a valuable force in preserving the traditions and customs of a person’s culture. This is done, for example, by rejecting certain foods or customs, or continuing to speak their cultural language. By rejecting other cultures traditions and customs, it helps a culture maintain their separation and uniqueness.
Cultural awareness is something everyone needs to understand better. Understanding other people’s cultures is important because when we learn about others:
- We have a better chance of relating to them and avoiding conflicts with them. When we do not take the time to get to know someone and their culture, we begin to assume things about them that may lead to disagreements that could have been avoided.
- We increase our knowledge of their culture and learn to appreciate them more.
- We may find that we have more in common with them than we have differences.
- We can be more effective as mediators, helping others to work through their differences and helping to resolve their conflict.
- Take A Stand Curriculum, AgriLife Extension, September, 2009.
- Human Culture: Characteristics of Culture, Dr. Dennis O'Neil, Palomar College, San Marcos, California, April, 2012.