Why is ethnocentrism bad?

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Ethnocentrism leads us to make false assumptions about cultural differences.

We are ethnocentric when we use norms from our culture to make generalizations about other peoples' cultures and customs. Such generalizations — often made without a conscious awareness that we've used our culture as a universal yardstick — can be way off base and cause us to misjudge other peoples. In the end, thinking ethnocentrically reduces another culture's way of life to a version of our own culture. Ethnocentrism leads to cultural misinterpretation and distorts communication between human beings of different cultures.

Ethnocentric thinking causes us to make wrong assumptions about other people because . . .

We wind up making premature judgments.

It doesn't ocur to us that "they" may not be very good at something we are best at.

By evaluating "them" by what we are best at, we miss other aspects of life that they may handle more competently than we do.

Simple examples of ethnocentric thinking

We Americans often talk about British drivers driving "on the wrong side" of the road. Why not just say "opposite side" or even "left hand side"?

We talk about written Hebrew as reading "backwards." Why not just say "from right to left" or "in the opposite direction from English."

I encouraged university students going on short-term missions trips to think or say the phrase "Oh, that's different" rather than using more negative and pejorative terms when encountering strange customs or foods.

Xenocentrism

The opposite of ethnocentrism is xenocentrism. Xenocentrism means preferring ideas and things from other cultures over ideas and things from your own culture. At the heart of xenocentrism is an assumption (conscious or unconscious) that other cultures are superior to your own.

One must be careful, of course, not to throw around charges of "ethnocentrism" to try to discredit people with whose views we disagree. The best use of an understanding of ethnocentrism is to use it to correct our own ethnocentric attitudes and behavior rather than that of others.

We nned to keep in mind the 2,000-year-old admonition of Jesus of Nazareth: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3)

For further understanding on recognizing and dealing with ethnocentrism and ethnocentric attitudes and behavior: Dog sled race illustrating ethnocentrism

The perils of monoculturalism

So, what's wrong with being monocultural (that is, knowing only one culture)?

Well, a provincialism growing out of a monoculturalist worldview can cause you to fall into these traps:

1. A naive ethnocentrism
I judge everything using my own culture as the measuring rod without being consciously aware of what I'm doing.
2. Absolutist thinking
Insisting that things are not to be questioned: "It's my way or the highway"
An overly legalistic concern for maintaining form, precedents and established customs/dd>
3. An embracing of naive realism
"As we see things, that's the way they are."
Naive realism says that we can know things in the world directly without taking into account our own filtering processes. Naive realism is the view that when we perceive something, we have perceived it exactly as it is. It is believing that our perceptions of reality are not colored or mediated by anything else.
4. Lack of respect for other people's ways
"There's no one else here."
5. The evaluation of customs and perspectives on the basis of one's own culturally learned assumptions and values (worldview)
This grows out of the sense that one's views have been arrived at because they are superior to any other views.
6. The use of pejorative terms to describe customs different from one's own
This may even be done innocently simply because one hasn't thought through the baggage which those terms and phrases carry due to the way they were used in the past.

"To understand one's culture is to appreciate its value. When you appreciate the value of someone else's culture, you set aside the presupposed superiority of your own culture." -- Adam Deckard, youth pastor

drawing of two Sneetches walking
beside a beach
Image source

Dr. Seuss' Sneetches book is a delightful way of confronting prejudice based on in cultural and ethnic differences

YouTube reading of "The Sneetches"

"Cultural differences should be celebrated, not ironed out." -- Christy Williams, Nazarene Bible College student

Cross-cultural understanding milestones

Can we successfully get to embracing cultural diversity

photo of a stone milestone marker in
Spain

"I'm normal; you're weird"

As globalization moves ahead, what can move us forward on the path toward cross-cultural awareness and understanding? To monitor their progress toward a destination, travelers in the U.S. often check the numbers on metal markers placed every mile along U.S. highways. For thousands of years, European travelers have depended on numbered "milestones" to mark progress toward their destination.

marked trail

Cultural awareness is more than just realizing that another culture is different from ours. Good cultural awareness includes learning to value that other society and respecting its cultural boundaries. So, how do we get to that point?

Here are some milestones usually encountered in the journey toward authentic cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding:

  1. Point of departure: "There's no one else here" or "Our way is the only right way."
  2. "Wait a minute, there may be another way."
  3. "Oh, you mean there are reasons why people respond differently."
  4. "It's OK to be different."
  5. "Multi-cultural living can enhance our lives and even be fun."

Destination: Embracing the joy of multiculturalism and cross-cultural understanding

To invite people to make the journey to cross-cultural understanding is not asking them to embrace an uncritical relativism. Superficial cultural relativism trivializes differences and can even gloss over evil. For instance, an occasional misguided anthropologist has denounced attempts by others to get tribal groups to move away from cannibalism ("it is, after all their way")

As we consider whether to embark on this journey that will bridge cultural differences, we must not be deterred simply because some who have fervently preached "diversity" did so because they had hidden -- and not so hidden -- "agendas" to advance.

The road to cross-cultural understanding will not always be easy. There will be misunderstandings. There will be clashes of priorities and even deep differences of opinion. Those must not be allowed to lessen the delights awaiting us at the end of this path.

"One reason we learn about diversity is so we don't say something stupid and offend people" -- SNU freshman

Cultural adjustment realities: What to do with toilet paper?

One reality of life in Mexico is that waste water pipes are smaller than those used in the U.S. That means that Mexican plumbing systems are more susceptible to blockages than are U.S. systems. Therefore, most people in Mexico toss toilet paper in a trash can rather than flushing it.

After one short-term mission trip called Commission Unto Mexico for which I was the leader, a young female participant sent me this note:

Toilet tissue culture shock note

     -- Howard Culbertson

How should we describe a lightbulb?

Click
hereDid you know there is more than one way to describe a lightbulb? What people call it depends on their point of view. [ more ]


Cultural anthropology course resources:    Cultural bingo icebreaker     Bwanda Fusa game     Cultural anthropology case studies    Christianity and culture    Course home page    Culture shock    Exam study guides     Iceberg and concentric circles models of culture     Light bulb illustration: What do you see?    Missions and culture     My own culture shock     PowerPoint presentations used in class     Reading reports     Readings     Can you survive coming home from a time of cross-cultural immersion?    Research paper topic suggestions