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Ethnocentrism – My Word of the Season!

Ethnocentrism is a big word, and not one I’d suggest using in a conversation, but it’s the most important word to understand if you want to improve your cultural awareness. So, what does it mean? Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge the words and actions of others through your own cultural frame of reference and to perceive your own cultural norms and values as superior. The problem with ethnocentrism is that:

  • It's often unconscious: You might not even realise you're being ethnocentric. In conflict communications, you might find yourself judging the way other cultures negotiate, show respect, express disagreement or share information without even realising it. 

  • It can be a barrier to communication: If you can't understand or appreciate other cultures, it's going to be tough to have meaningful conversations with people from different backgrounds – especially if you feel that you are not being understood by the other side. You are also likely to misunderstand or misread the nonverbal cues in the conversation.

I have seen ethnocentrism create roadblocks in conversations when it comes to the question of respect. Generally, we all agree that respectful conversations are important. However, what one culture perceives as respectful, can be seen by another culture as offensive or unnecessary. 

An example of this is direct and open disagreement with a colleague at work- this can cause significant conflict where it is seen as an act of disrespect or embarrassment. Ethnocentrism can create and exacerbate conflict in this circumstance because it leads to a misunderstanding of the intentions and values that underly the actions of others. 

So, how do we move away from ethnocentrism?

The opposite to ethnocentrism is cultural relativism, which is the idea that different cultures have their own ethical and social standards, and we should strive to understand them without judgment. To adopt this approach, you can:

1) Take the time to understand what values you hold and how your culture and experiences have influenced them.

2) Embrace differences and learn how and why different cultures perceive human relationships and community relationships differently. 

3)  Plan and practice how you will communicate your own values, and ask about the values, preferences and cultural practices of others. This is a matter of knowing the right words to use to ask respectful questions. 

I regularly host workshops on cross cultural conversations. In these workshops we journey into the challenges and opportunities presented by working in a culturally diverse context. We focus on the skills required to navigate cultural nuances, negotiate effectively, and address cross-cultural misunderstandings. To find out more about the events I am hosting head to my events page here.

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