Cultural Superiority, or Something Different?

Published: November 9, 2017


In a training session a while back, someone asked me if the study of cross cultural communication wasn't just an exercise in cultural relativism. 

Wow - what a question!  I wasn't actually surprised by the question and in fact was well-prepared for it, simply by virtue of the fact that I've asked myself that same question many times over the last few years. 

I have a simple way of looking at that question - and here's my simple explanation:

 Think of a continuum, stretching from left to right.  On the far left (and not the political left-wing, I should add) imagine an orientation towards cultural superiority.  An assumption that the culture in which you've been raised is simply, by the virtue of the fact that it's yours, superior to all others.

Now imagine on the opposite side of the continuum, an orientation towards cultural relativism.  An assumption that all cultures are so different that there is no inherent better/worse value that can be ascribed to any of them, and after all, who are we to judge the value systems of others? 

My guess is that both of these orientations are a bit of a turn off to most of you.  I am forcing you to choose between two, probably equally distasteful orientations.  One is highly chauvinistic, one is somewhat apologetic and weak.

Now, there is a third orientation, one that sits between the two I've just described.  I would call this orientation one of simple cultural sensitivity.  An assumption that awareness, in and of itself, is a good first step in getting work done between cultures.  Cultural sensitivity simply means you are open to the idea that other cultures do things a little differently, and it would be a good idea to understand as much as possible. Cultural sensitivity can lead to creating better work relationships, building trust a little more quickly, and getting things done now, rather than later!

 At the end of the day, it's about working well across cultures - what do you think?

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