Small Town Upbringing: Is “Culture Blindness” as Bad as Bigotry?

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Growing up in a small town in rural America doesn’t provide many opportunities to interact with a diverse array of people. Like most North American children, my peers and I were taught by teachers and other well-intentioned adults that people around the world are essentially “the same on the inside” and to admit otherwise was akin to a form of racism. At the time, this made sense — and not having much experience to tell me otherwise — I was content to believe what I was told.

Many people in the West learn about culture and diversity in much the same way. However, according to University of British Columbia professor, Ara Norenzayan, this sort of color or “culture blindness” isn’t helpful for actually understanding people from different backgrounds and in fact, may contain the seeds for a different, more insidious form of racism.

In a recent interview with The Vancouver Sun, Norenzayan details how the desire to avoid stereotyping often leaves people without the ability to navigate diversity. “The problem is that we socialize kids to treat everyone the same — out of fear they would stereotype others,” he says. “Then when they encounter differences in a diverse society like ours, they don’t know what to do and difference becomes a threat. [University of British Columbia] is a microcosm of this issue, where students tend to self-segregate.”

How does culture blindness affect people as they grow into adults with professional careers? With the workforce becoming increasingly global, having an unrealistic, overly politically correct view of culture may result in misunderstandings, embarrassment and even professional failures.

At RW3 CultureWizard, we’re very aware of the risk of stereotyping when discussing how cultural norms impacts the workplace because the two concepts are often erroneously mixed up. A stereotype is a negative characteristic intended to make people feel badly about certain behaviors and preferences. On the other hand, cultural norms don’t carry a value judgment because they describe how the majority of people within a culture behave and the things that they value. There are empirical studies that demonstrate large scale behavioral trends within cultural units, large and small (the GLOBE study is one of them). Anyone can leverage awareness of cultural norms to help understand why people behave in certain ways, and taken a step further, to interact with people from around the world in the most productive ways.

With this in mind, we also know that teaching culture in a practical way requires making observations and generalizations knowing that there are always individual and group differences to keep in mind. While national cultural norms may characterize the majority of people in a given country, individuals within the same cultural cohort can exhibit widely different views on a single topic (e.g. the best way to make decisions within a group or the appropriate way to fashion an email to a boss).

In the end, the most effective approach is to treat everyone you meet as a unique individual, keeping in mind that deeply embedded cultural values often play a role in the behvaiors we encounter in and out of the workplace. Learn about the vast array of cultures that exist around the world (CultureWizard is an online learning platform that can help). You can use this knowledge to avoid confusion or offending people when your intention was always positive. Furthermore, you can build successful relationships based on this mutual understanding.

How were you taught about diversity? How big of a role do you think culture has on values and behavior? Do you believe that all people are inherently the same or are cultural disparities a real-life issue worthy of recognition?

  • Outbound Adventurers

    Interesting post, especially the part about self-segregation. I saw this frequently when I was teaching in the inner-city. For the most part, students of all backgrounds were entirely pleasant with one another, but they still tended to “stick to their own”, largely because they could fall back on cultural similarities.

    On a grander scale, I can see how this could cause problems in the workplace and in the traveling world. If you’re visiting another country expecting everyone to be “just like you”, you may be in for a rude awakening, become confused, or even feel threatened. I think it’s more important to celebrate and try to understand differences than attempt to paint everyone with the same brush.

    Of course, it’s also important to avoid stereotyping and bigotry. Different isn’t bad, and it shouldn’t be seen as a threat. It’s just different, and it presents a learning opportunity for everyone involved.