Denial, Polarization, Minimization

Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard, part 4

Development of intercultural sensitivity happens in stages. There are five stages, which I’ll first describe briefly and then go back to add some detail.

Stage 1: Denial. There is a lack of awareness of diversity. It’s not possible for adult members of minorities to be entirely unaware of diversity, but some members of a majority can exist within a bubble such that they rarely encounter a cultural difference.

Stage 2: Polarization. This comes in two versions, and both versions involve an “us” vs. “them” mindset.

   (2)(a). Defense. In the first version, we bunker in, defensively protecting “us” and demonizing “them.”

   (2)(b). Reversal. In the second version of polarization, we romanticize and privileges a culture other than our own. This stage privileges “them” while demonizing “us.”

Stage 3: Minimization. This is kind of a return in the direction of denial except that people at this stage do recognize cultural differences, but they downplay their importance. Cultural differences are all superficial because deep down we’re all the same. Minimization over-emphasizes commonality.

Stage 4: Acceptance. We might also call it openness and curiosity. At this stage there is an understanding the cultural differences are real and profoundly meaningful. This much was also understood at the Polarization stage, but whereas polarization involved demonizing one side or the other of that difference, the acceptance stage involves curiosity and openness about differences. Difference is recognized as important, but difference is explored without judgment or evaluation.

Stage 5: Adaptation, also known as intercultural competence. Intercultural competence is the ability to shift cultural perspective and adapt behavior to fit with the other person’s culture, recognizing both the similarities and differences of their culture with yours. It’s not assimilation. Assimilation is a permanent change from your original culture to a new culture. Adaptation, intercultural competence, involves the ability to make temporary shifts into a different culture in order to be more effective in a particular situation.

Let me ask: at what stage do you think you are? Be thinking about that while I describe the stages a little further.

At the denial stage, people typically say things like:
  • "Live and let live, that's what I say."
  • "All big cities are the same-lots of buildings, too many cars, McDonalds."
  • "What I really need to know about is art and music." [not seeing that these manifestations of culture are just the tip of the iceberg of cultural difference.]
  • "As long as we all speak the same language, there's no problem."
  • "With my experience, I can be successful in any culture without any special effort."
  • "I never experience culture shock."
For people at the denial stage, the learning that can help move them to the next stage is more basic exposure to cultural difference.

At the polarization/defense stage, people say things like:
  • "I wish these people would just talk the way we do."
  • "Even though I'm speaking their language, they're still rude to me."
  • "When you go to other cultures, it makes you realize how much better the U.S. is."
  • "These people don't value life the way we do."
  • "Boy, could we teach these people a lot of stuff."
  • "What a sexist society!"
Or, in the reversal version of polarization, you might hear:
  • "These people are so urbane and sophisticated, not like the superficial people back home."
  • "I am embarrassed by my compatriots, so I spend all my time with the host country nationals."
  • "I wish I could give up my own cultural background and really be one of these people." 
For people at the polarization stage, the learning that might move them ahead is a stress on commonality and empathy. Stress on commonality can move folks to the minimization stage, which over-emphasizes commonality.

At the minimization stage, folks commonly say such things as:
  • "The key to getting along in any culture is to just be yourself-authentic and honest!"
  • "Customs differ, of course, but when you really get to know them they're pretty much like us."
  • "I have this intuitive sense of other people, no matter what their culture."
  • "Technology is bringing cultural uniformity to the developed world"
  • "While the context may be different, the basic need to communicate remains the same around the world."
  • "It's a small world, after all!" 
For people at the minimization stage, more exposure to different cultures probably won’t help because they process the information in ways that look for – and find – that other cultures are basically the same. Instead, work on cultural self-awareness is the key at this stage. Recognizing how deep your own culture goes in making you who you are. Then you’re positioned to understand how significant cultural differences are.

Next: More on Acceptance, Adaptation, and where we are and how to develop further.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard!"
See also
Part 1: Juneteenth
Part 2: Unknown Freedom
Part 3: A New Approach
Part 5: Go 90

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