since 1997, the world's premier FREE website for learners + teachers of English

Understanding and Misunderstanding Other Cultures

My culture is better than yours and my way of doing things is the only correct way [yes most people tend to believe this]. Ethnocentrism is one of the first terms that I ever define to students when we study cultures. It is something that is normal for every culture and is something we all must try to overcome. Simply put, it means that we view our own culture as superior to other cultures.

It is only natural that when you are brought up in a society, that the things you were taught were proper behavior for everyone would have been deeply ingrained in your world view. If you were taught to make eye contact when you speak to someone, you will feel something is wrong with someone who averts their gaze. If you were taught to bow slightly in greeting, you will feel uncomfortable with someone reaching out to grasp your hand and to shake it.

If you have always stood 3 or more feet (1 meter) from people when you spoke face to face you will have felt very uncomfortable when someone moved to 1/3 that distance (30 cm) to speak to you. You unconsciously stepped backward to increase the distance until you were comfortably spaced. They also felt discomfort and stepped closer again. The sense of personal space is something that is different between cultures. In America we will only be close face to face if we are about to kiss someone or about to fight. People with a low distance of personal space, often feel Americans are unfriendly and withdrawn because they step back uncomfortably far. Likewise, Americans may get the feeling that people from these cultures are pushy, aggressive and uncomfortably familiar [remember we may be feeling that kissing or fighting is about to happen and we may not feel like doing either :-) ]

Also in American culture, men do not touch each other except in rare occasions and touching women is also strictly limited. Hollywood may give a different idea, but please remember movies everywhere can distort the reality of the culture. When I was very young traveling in Europe I went through Brindisi, Italy and saw many young men walking down the streets holding hands or their arms around each other. To me that meant open homosexuality, but these same young men would approach my girlfriend (now my wife) if I was not holding her hand. She and I quickly realized the difference of this culture. Later on when we worked with the Bushmen in Botswana we were swarmed by people all wanting to touch and hold hands or arms while we talked. At first I felt very strange surrounded by these little women holding on to us and even stroking our arms or hair. Very quickly we were able to set aside our own cultural habits and enjoy the warmth of these people.

What I am saying here is that there is no absolute right or wrong in culture. Every culture is valid for the people of that culture or it would no longer exist as a culture. An Anthropologist or anyone who wants to work successfully between different cultures must understand the concept of Cultural Relativism and fight against ethnocentrism. I may be able to show the bottom of my foot or let people see my left hand. You may be able to walk around in much less clothing than me, and still be properly dressed. Certain gestures that I am allowed to make could be very bad in your culture. We do not normally kiss on cheeks when greeting, but that may be the best type of greeting for you.

I spent several years trying to teach well over a thousand American and International Business students these concepts. We should embrace the differences and be understanding of other cultures. We should not care if someone else has a different name for God, or if they view God as being composed of several gods. They are human and our brothers and sisters. We should love humanity for the differences and treat everyone with the respect they are due. My major concern was that these young Americans may go abroad and be insensitive to other cultures which would cause them problems and make others have a bad opinion of America and Americans.

Culture is the means by which everyone learns to live and interact with others in their lives. It used to be enough to understand your own culture. Today the world is "smaller", as they say. Each country and the culture (or cultures) within it must interact with other countries and cultures. You members of English Club are the beginning of a new generation of a global economy with global interaction. We can no longer afford to let hatred or misunderstanding interfere with the advancement of humanity.

You will be the future of the world. You who learn English will be the bridge between cultures to help bring all of the competing groups and countries together for the better of mankind.

To do this we must put our own culture on a lower shelf so it is no longer central to everything we do. We do not abandon it, but we realize that there are many right ways to do things.

Next, and maybe harder, we must put our personal religious beliefs on a shelf where there is also room for tolerance of other people's religious beliefs. Picture this as a large shelf which can contain many things which are good. We must understand that other religions are also important to their believers and may be the best belief for those particular people. This may be hard for certain Christians who have been taught that there is ONE WAY to the grace of God and that is through Jesus. It will also be hard for many believers of Islam who have been taught that Islam is the only path. I have read the holy books and know that they all say many things that can be read by people in different ways. I like to believe that there would not be a God who would only favor one people and would be just as happy to see all others killed or converted. That is what I would like to believe.

But what I believe personally does not matter, because I have to place it carefully on a shelf where all other peoples beliefs can also be placed. I have to view this shelf as a shelf of good. It must be a shelf that is level and no part of it is above another. For me to operate as a human I must stay away from Ethnocentrism and my beliefs must be on the shelf with everyone else's. This is the way we can all communicate without mistrust and hatred. It is the only way I can exist. I have to believe for myself that every culture, every language, and every religion is equally good for the people that believe in them. I can still have my own private beliefs, but must realize that they are mine and not necessarily better just because they belong to me.

Please try to tolerate others who believe differently, and on this day, please remember all who died nine years ago and all of those who have died since then, without hatred or prejudice. Violence and war are not the answer to the differences of the world. Remember the terms "cultural relativism" and "ethnocentrism". Look them up and try to always keep them in mind.

PLEASE ---Love everyone and make the world better.

Views: 2288

Tags: anthropology, cultural, culture, differences, ethnocentric, relativism

Add a Comment

You need to be a member of MyEnglishClub to add comments!

Join MyEnglishClub

Comment by Mr. Bob on October 8, 2010 at 23:48

I should have had you in my Anthropology classes. Some of the students took a whole semester to reach that conclusion. You got it in one simple blog : )
Comment by Mr. Bob on October 8, 2010 at 0:13
Thank you Herry,
I hope that we can all be more tolerant, even in your lovely country of Indonesia. There is always some friction when people from differing backgrounds and religions live in the same place unless everyone is very careful to practice tolerance.
Comment by Mr. Bob on September 18, 2010 at 12:25
Of course you love everyone Karenina. You are the type of person who will save a starving kitten. The world will be better when everyone can care so much.
Comment by Mr. Bob on September 15, 2010 at 1:20
Thank you for the compliment Tara.
I do believe that a great many of the people active in English Club will have important places in shaping the future of the world. Those with the motivation to learn, to communicate, and attempt an understanding with others have exactly what is needed to move up in the world and bring different peoples together.

I have never seen any of my friends here in person, yet I feel a strong connection beyond the connection I feel with many of the people I see in person almost every day. These members know what they need to do and they are actively doing it to become better users of English. As long as we all work to keep this a welcoming and safe feeling place where we can all share knowledge, this group of learners will improve in English and in understanding of other cultures.
Comment by Tara Benwell on September 14, 2010 at 14:31
Very well said, Bob. I quoted you on EC's FB page today and asked if our friends agree with this statement: "You who learn English will be the bridge between cultures to help bring all of the competing groups and countries together for the better of mankind."

Comment by Lynne on September 12, 2010 at 2:24
I understand how important tolerance is in our lives.
Your topic is really very nice but as human beings we have fixed ideas which we always keep at the back of our minds. So open-mindedness will most likely end up as not minding other people's business, yet retain that concern and respect for our fellow. Please correct me Bob if I am wrong.
Thanks a lot.
Comment by Hardi on September 11, 2010 at 21:31
I have spend some times to think about what doe's the word tolerance mean. Since it often seems like people define it differently.. People have different things they see to be tolerated.. It's also because different culture and such. So it seems like it's often meaningless word in international relations.

So how to define word tolerant? Is it just when I don't care, or is it for things that don't involve me.. or? Where does tolerance end?
I think, that most people probably would draw the line to where tolerance becomes endurance.. but that's also relative.

So when I have told to be more tolerant, then I'm either intolerant ,or just have different standards.. Either way opposite side is tying to make me accept their own standards?
I suppose, that then the easiest way, is to be consciously intolerant, since then I don't have to feel affronted when someone calls me intolerant.. Keeps me from unnecessary, time consuming fights and explaining. LOL

Well I tolerate everyone, until it won't be too much endurance. But it doesn't mean, that I like everyone, or want to be involved with everyone and anything. ;)

PS. I believe, that in northern Europe, men don't like to hold hands so much. We usually don't touch each other, or look to eye when talk to each other.. I think. At least I don't do it. And most people I know would dislike it.

Depending of people. I need a lot of personal space.. up to 10 kilometers maybe. lol
Or in some case, I might need to move to Jupiter, since earth is too small with own circumference of only 40,008 km when measured through of the poles. :P or, something.. LOL
Comment by rose on September 11, 2010 at 20:53
You have outlined the meaning of humanity in your words .
If everyone thinks like you (Sir Bob) there will be no wars.
But all what you said was not consistent with the interests of governments and capitalism in the world ,
many of them do not like the peace that it is against their interests and their works.
I am sure that there is no mother like her son to go to war.
Comment by Mr. Bob on September 11, 2010 at 17:02
Please forgive any mistakes you may find. I typed this very quickly and had no one to go over it and look for errors. I only had a few minutes and wanted to post it before I have to go outside and begin my work for the weekend. Happy EID to all my Muslim friends.

How to Report a Member
FIRST, go to the member's page. Click "Report Member" at the bottom of the page. Fill in the form and send.

MyEC Terms of Service

Technical HELP

Please DON'T Plagiarize!

Test your level

MyEC Moderators

Josef Essberger

Official MyEC Page

Official MyEC Welcoming Committee


How do you write "happiness" in your language?

Started by Jessie in General Discussion. Last reply by Grace 2 hours ago. 25 Replies

In my country,Thailand. I write the word  "happiness" as "ความสุข" in my own language.Continue

Old age house

Started by dara gino in General Discussion. Last reply by Md Abbace 26 minutes ago. 42 Replies

It is about the house of old people. In our society, we take our old mother or father there. We are able to support them but still, we take them there to spend the rest of their life. They did their best to raise us and to bring us to the society.…Continue


Started by dara gino in General Discussion. Last reply by Mishaikh 19 hours ago. 12 Replies

I like to use a nice fragrance. I used to put Channel 5, One man show, Trinity, and Boss. My wife likes Channel 5 very much. She told me to stick to it, but I like to change. This liquid which we put on our skins attracts the attention. I remembered…Continue

© 2017   Created by Josef Essberger.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report Member  |  Terms of Service