From Ethno-centrism to Ethno-relativism

12/16/2014

Ethnocentrism and ethnorelativism are a measure of how much and how well we relate to others. The ethnocentrism-ethnorelativism spectrum, shown above, moves from denial, defense and minimization on the ethnocentrism side, to acceptance, adaptation and finally integration on the ethnorelativism side.

Ethnocentrism is an indicator of centricity around our own cultural perspective, meaning we evaluate others based on what we experience and what we were brought up with. This is a narrow mindset that does not lend itself to overcoming cultural gaps or learning how to interact and communicate well with people from different cultures. The goal for those who wish to become culturally competent is to move from an ethnocentrist to an ethnorelativist perspective in which our perspective on culture is relative to the situations we find ourselves in.

Let me give a personal example. When I moved to India from the United States for three years, my perspective changed enormously. I learned to evaluate situations and view behaviors based on what I came to know about the Indian context, rather than a US-American context. Over the period when I was living and working in India, I was able to move from being in denial about profound cultural differences or minimizing their significance, to being able to accept and adapt to the cultural gaps I had with my Indian colleagues, thus being able to better communicate and work with them for maximum effectiveness. Being how complex Indian culture is, I would say I still don’t have a completely thorough understanding of the culture and wouldn’t put myself in the “Integration” stage, but I would say I was in the “Adaptation” stage by the time I returned to the US.

When experiencing another culture – whether that means living in a new country as I did, changing departments within a company, or even beginning work in a new field – we can use the ethnocentrism-ethnorelativism spectrum to see where we are when it comes to how we view ourselves in our new cultural context.

Lynne Putz