In understanding cultures that are different than one’s own, the topic of cultural relativism comes to mind. Cultural relativism is defined as the action of understanding another person’s morals, ideals, beliefs and personal values in the context of his or her culture only. Cultural relativism is not about arguing a point of whether or not one culture is better or worse and right or wrong in relation to another. It is simply about creating understanding in an ever-changing and increasingly diverse world, specifically the world in which we life. Perspective, understanding and possibly even acceptance are paramount to how individuals learn about history, psychology and sociology, all of which shape cultures themselves. These open-minded perspectives can help us make sense of what we may not understand or need further clarification on. Without this type of open communication and inclination towards understanding, we face a world of ignorance and intolerance, both of which can breed hate and violence.
It is, however, much easier to discuss being acceptable of and understanding cultural differences. Not many people have the opportunity to experience cultures of a deeper level on their own beyond tourism travel. Thankfully, there are opportunities such as study abroad for university and college students, mission trips for the religious and foreign exchange student programs to assist in making cultural relativism on a personal level a reality. That is not to say that those that go on vacation to foreign countries to not respect or even bother to understand the culture, but it takes more than a short time away from home to have the kind of intellectual discussions and experience of another culture completely different than your own. Understanding something you have not had to experience is difficult. A vacationer visits another country for tourism and relaxation; those that are sojourners are expatriates are there for the long-term for a specific purpose such as work, a mission or even just to life in another place. An expatriate is defined as a non-citizen worker who lives in a country for an unspecified amount of time, but expects to return home. Immigrants on the other hand have permanently relocated to another country and have the difficult task of assimilating, a great challenge. In addition, refugees and asylees are seeking safety from another country due to a natural disaster or political strife, respectively.
An example of the difficulty experienced in doing so is known as culture shock. Whether faced by immigrants, sojourners or expatriates, culture shock occurs when making the transition to a host city. Up to 60% of expatriates experience the feelings of anxiety, discomfort, self-doubt and disorientation that come with living in a foreign country. Moving in a five-stage process—the honeymoon stage, disintegration and hostility, reintegration of new social cues, gradual adjustment and reciprocal interdependence (Jandt, 2016, pp. 10-11)—culture shock is intense and can lead to detrimental psychological and physiological symptoms that affect daily life. Culture shock manifests in many ways. For example, a student who travels to another country for a study abroad or exchange program can see the stark differences during one of the most important times of the day—dinnertime. Interexchange.org features a number of culture shock stories, namely one of a U.S. student living amongst a Chinese host family in Shanghai. At dinner there were large bowls of food and small bowls of rice for the family and the student’s shyness was noticed by the host mother, who placed food into her bowl of rice. As dinner continued, the cultural differences were apparent when the student, acting as he or she was taught, thanked her host mother for her food and showed it by an empty bowl. The mother, aghast, refilled the bowl to the student’s confusion and ate more. What they learned later is that an empty bowl is an indicator that you would like more food; leaving food in the bowl shows satisfaction with the meal which is different than that of North American culture.
- Jandt, F. E. (2016). An introduction to intercultural communication: Identities in a global community. Los Angeles: Sage.