We Aren't All the Same

Learning to Love Diversity, part 2

Stage 3, minimization of cultural difference, is not quite as awakened as it might seem. When we disregard real differences, we end up using ourselves as the standard. We thus treat other people as versions of ourselves. We neglect the importance of our own culture in shaping who we are. We’re emphasizing these universals – features universally true for all of us -- but these supposed universals, on closer inspection, turn out to be assumptions of our particular culture.

Once we notice that our assumptions and habits of thought are themselves cultural products – that is, not the natural, universal pattern – then we’ll recognize that cultural differences are more real and important than we had imagined. So, as much as minimization is an improvement over polarization, there’s a stage beyond minimization.

We aren’t all the same, and treating people as if we were is refusing to see the fullness of their humanity. Our different paths are often leading up different mountains. Not respecting real cultural differences amounts to not respecting people.

Stage 4 is a greater appreciation of how deep culture goes. If we assume that we’re basically all the same, then we deal with people by appealing to what we take to be the universal shared characteristics. To move beyond that and honor difference involves an openness and curiosity about differences, recognizing how real and profoundly meaningful culture is. Stage 4 is called the acceptance stage, because here we accept different cultures and accept that culture is a very deep part of who we are and who others are. At the acceptance stage there is an interest in exploring differences without judgment or evaluation.

To get from stage 2 to stage 3, more exposure to different cultures helps. But to get from stage 3 to stage 4, more exposure to and learning about different cultures probably won’t do much, because those at stage 3, the minimization stage, process the information in ways that look for – and find – that other cultures are basically the same. What does help people move from stage 3 to stage 4 is work on cultural self-awareness – recognizing their own culture as a culture, and recognizing how thoroughly the way we perceive everything is a product of our cultural assumptions. Seeing that, we are positioned to be curious about how other cultures work differently.

People at the acceptance stage may say such things as:
  • "The more difference the better -- more difference equals more creative ideas!"
  • "You certainly wouldn't want to have all the same kind of people around -- the ideas get stale, and besides, it’s boring."
  • "I always try to study about a new culture before I go there."
  • "The more cultures you know about, the better comparisons you can make."
  • "Sometimes it's confusing, knowing that values are different in various cultures and wanting to be respectful, but still wanting to maintain my own core values."
  • "I know my homestay family and I have had very different life experiences, but we're learning to work together."
Getting more Americans from stage 2 antagonism toward people who are different to stage 3 habits of universalizing and minimizing difference would help reduce discrimination. Getting more Americans then from state 3 to stage 4 would help us more fully understand the reality of difference, make us better able to empathize, and would get us still further toward reducing discrimination.

But curiosity about something is not the same thing as competence at it. Curiosity about trigonometry is not the same thing as skill at solving trig problems. So there is yet a fifth stage – going from intercultural openness and acceptance and curiosity to intercultural competence. To get to stage 5 means being able to shift cultural perspective and adapt behavior to fit with the other person’s culture.

It’s not assimilation. Assimilation is a permanent change from your original culture to a new culture. Intercultural competence involves the ability to make temporary shifts into a different culture, allowing you to be more effective in a particular situation.

The previous transitions were attitude shifts. From stage 1 to stage 2 involves an attitude of hostility to difference. From stage 2 to stage 3 involves shifting the attitude to one of disregarding cultural differences. From stage 3 to stage 4, our attitude shifts to being interested, open, and curious about differences. But stage 4 to stage 5 is not an attitude shift. It entails acquiring new skills. Being interested in and open to learning how to play the clarinet is one thing, but actually playing a complex melody smoothly on a clarinet is something else.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Learning to Love Diversity"
See also: Part 1: Reaction to Cultural Difference: First Stages
See next: Part 3: A Skill, Not an Attitude
Stock image royalty free from shutterstock

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