I sometimes bring all my students who wear glasses down to the front of the room and have them rotate their glasses to the person on the left, rotate them again, and again until eventually they get their own pair back. Rarely does one student’s pair of glasses work for another. I ask them this rhetorical question, “What’s the last thing a fish would ever notice?” After a brief discussion, someone suggest, “The water they swim in.” For humans the last thing we pay attention to is air. This is true for us and our world-taken-for-granted. It is so subtle to us, that it is often the last thing we notice until we travel and find ourselves in a foreign place where we encounter diverse cultures.
Cultures are part of the human social experience. They are comparable to ice-cream flavors, each tends to be sweet and desirable while still having a vast variety of ingredients and textures. To help my students understand the value of cultures, I often ask them to go to Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors and chose which flavor is the “Good” flavor and “which flavor is the ‘bad or evil” flavor. They tend to be confused because we typically don’t judge ice cream flavors.
Yet, even though cultures tend to be universal and desirable, we often judge cultures as being “good, bad, or evil,” with our own culture typically being judged good. We have to consider our perspective when engaging people from different cultures. Are we ethnocentric or culturally relativistic?
Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge others based on our own experiences. In this perspective our culture is right while cultures which differ from our own are wrong. I once visited a beautiful Catholic cathedral, Cathédrale St. Jean in Lyon, France. I fell in love with this beautiful and historic monument to the religious devotion of generations of builders. I learned that it took about 300 years to build, that England’s King Henry the VIII married his Italian bride there, and that a few families had 9 generations of builders working on it. I left with such a deep sense of appreciation for it all. On the bus back to our hotel, we met some American tourists who were angry about their vacation in France. The gentleman said, “these people will eat anything that crawls under the front porch, they never bathe, they dress funny, and they can’t speak one *#&@ word of English!”
I tried to redirect the conversation back to the cathedral and the things I really enjoyed in France. He was too frustrated to listen. If a person harbors these negative and judgmental feeling after considerable time has passed in the culture, then he may be ethnocentric. It’s not ethnocentric to need time for adjustment to a new and different culture. If he had just arrived and was transitioning to the diversity we call it culture shock. Culture Shock is the disoriented feeling which occurs in the context of being in a new culture. It tends to leave over a few days or weeks and the greater the familiarity with the culture the less the shock.
Another more valuable and helpful perspective about differing cultures is the perspective called Cultural Relativism, or the tendency to look for the cultural context in which differences in cultures occur. Cultural relativists like all the ice-cream flavors, if you will. They respect and appreciate cultural differences even if only from the spectators’ point of view. They tend to be teachable, child-like, and open-minded. They tend to enjoy or learn to enjoy the many varieties of the human experience.
An ethnocentric thinks on the level of carrot soup: peel carrots, and water, and boil. The cultural relativist tends to think on the level of a complex stew: peel and prepare carrots, potatoes, onions, mushrooms, broth, tofu, and 10 secret herbs and spices and simmer for 2 hours. The diversity of the human experience is what makes it rich and flavorful.
But, do cultural relativists have to accept all versions of morality, ethics, values, and traditions in order to be teachable? No, of course not. Anyone who is planning a trip to another community, state, or country would be wise to do their cultural homework and prepare in advance how they will immerse themselves into the parts of the culture that fit their value system. They can begin their homework at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/ and look up their destination and as many of the details that will help prepare them; or by studying on the Brigham Young University Culturegram Website at http://kennedy.byu.edu/travelsmart/six.php). Always do you cultural homework before you travel even if you are just spending time across the state for a day. Remember that your best cultural skills may be antagonistic to those from other cultures (see box below)