A Discussion Series on Cultural Diversity: Cross-Cultural Understanding and Misunderstanding: Cultural Bias

What is Cross-Cultural Understanding?

In a nutshell, cross cultural understanding is when we learn to not only tolerate but respect other people’s culture and their views. This means that we look forward to truly changing the way we think about our own understanding of cultures. Cross cultural understanding allows us to abandon this idea that a view is ‘wrong’ to that a view is just ‘different’ from ours. Ultimately, we strive towards accepting and appreciating that a ‘different’ view can be just as valuable as our own. Hopefully, we’re able to not only tolerate difference but celebrate it globally. In many cases, all of us on a subconscious level have our own cultural code which we use to determine whether we think a view or behaviour is “right” or “wrong”. However, applying our own code often leads to misinterpretation about the intentions and behaviours of others.

“Unfortunately, people often think that their own way is the right way. Thinking that someone else is wrong or disrespectful because they do not follow our customs and beliefs leads to cross-cultural misunderstanding.” (Thinking Consortium, 2011)

What is Cultural Bias?
Cultural Bias is when we judge and interpret situations, communities, behaviours and views by standards that are intrinsic to our own culture. Cultural bias is grounded in assumptions we have about the way the world works and how others should behave and what their actions mean. Some examples of cultural biases are : language interpretation, what we believe is right and wrong, racial biases, religious belief and relationships (family, romantic and platonic).

There are actually two distinct kinds of cultural bias:

Explicit Bias: This is when an individual is conscious about their feelings and attitudes and any behaviour that is related to the bias is intentional.
Implicit Bias: This is when an individual is unconscious about their feelings and attitudes and is unaware of the bias that is directing or controlling their behaviour and feelings.

Both of these biases can work together or on their own to form what is called ‘confirmation bias’. This becomes especially problematic when we try to understand other cultures by using our own code to decide whether others are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Confirmation bias is when we find new evidence and use it to confirm a belief we already have while at the same time disregarding the possibility that this new evidence could actually prove our belief is false.

The Debate on Monocultural vs. Multicultural Societies
How does cross-cultural understanding affect living in an increasingly globalized world? One of the biggest challenges we face is learning how to coexist in a society where minorities are living with racially and religious dominant majorities. How do we manage to create a society in which both can live freely? Should the minorities assimilate into the majority’s culture or not?

At the end of the day we must ask ourselves “What kind of society do we want to live in?”

Monoculturalism is the idea that the majority of a country dictates its own culture as the correct culture and the only culture which is, and should be, allowed. Others with different ethnicities, backgrounds and religions are allowed to live freely in the country, but their culture shouldn’t interfere with the nations. Often, people are forced to abandon their own culture and assimilate into the monocultural society of the country. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is when a nation tolerates and makes all the different cultures inclusive. Some Western countries, Canada and Australia have a national policy in which all religions, ethnicities and cultures of different communities are respected and their cultural rights protected. However, this doesn’t apply to the country’s legal system. All cultures must adhere to the secular law and any other kind of legal system, such as sharia law , or practise , such as honour killings, are prohibited.

However, the challenge of monocultural vs. multicultural societies is nothing new. In the 1960s, after the independence of former European colonial empires, various European societies allowed different ethnic minorities and cultures to become a part of their societies. Since most European societies were monocultural, there was an expectation that people from different cultures and ethnicities should assimilate; however this idea was better in theory than in practise, which at large is still the same issue we face today. In reality, these people were treated with prejudice and only ‘tolerated’ if they obeyed the laws and social expectations of the country’s culture. This resulted in over two generations of European societies divided over whether the growing minorities should coexist alongside them (multicultural society) or if they should assimilate into their society (Monocultural society).