A cultural bias occurs when we are inclined to interpret a situation from your own cultural perspective. This can cause cultural disagreements, confusion, and offense.
We are used to things being done a certain way, so we form a very firm expectation.
When we travel to another country or meet people from a different culture, we can encounter things that are different. This creates an initial feeling of shock when our expectations are not met, which can then lead to an unfavorable view of those situations because they are so different from those from which we are accustomed.
These expectations can include table etiquette, how people greet and speak to each other, relationships at work, and even the use of household appliances.
Definition of Cultural Bias
The formal term for our culturally-skewed perspective is ethnocentrism. It means that we think our cultural practices and customs are the correct standards that other cultures should follow. We naturally see our own culture as the ‘anchoring point’ (e.g. the norm, in the anchoring bias heuristic), and all other cultures are judged as ‘different’.
Although Sumner (1906) is usually given credit as the first to have coined the term, Bizumic (2014) contends that references to the concept actually occurred several decades prior.
Hard to believe that over 100 years ago scholars were so enlightened, and yet, most of us today are still exhibiting these same biases. It is even more surprising given the scale of cross-cultural communication that exists in the 21st century with the prevalence of the internet and global social media platforms.
Examples of Cultural Bias
1. Biased HR Hiring Practices
Sometimes, people have implicit cultural bias when hiring people. Many studies have shown that people from the dominant culture tend to have an advantage in job interviews due to their high cultural capital.
Living in a pluralistic society has many advantages. Everyday life involves a wide variety of dining options, choices of music, and ways of expression.
It also brings challenges. One of those challenges involves hiring decisions made by HR managers. In order to ensure a diverse workplace and to avoid having one’s own cultural biases affect hiring decision, HR departments often implement practices that help ensure a diverse array of job candidates.
One technique is to make copies of resumes that exclude place of birth. Another is to cover the applicant’s name. One can infer the ethnicity from a person’s first or last name with some accuracy.
Although these practices are well-intentioned, obviously they are not full-proof. Eventually an in-person interview will be necessary, at which point an applicant’s ethnicity will most likely be apparent.
Many HR departments try as best they can to avoid their own cultural biases.
2. Cultural Approaches to Teamwork
Cultural differences in team meetings can take many forms. In some Western cultures, participating in a team meeting is highly encouraged while some Asian cultures encourage individualistic work.
In fact, in the west, not being involved by asking questions or making suggestions can be interpreted as a sign of disinterest or lack of motivation.
However, in some Asian cultures it is customary for employees to sit quietly while the manager or team leader does nearly all of the talking. They may speak continuously for an hour or longer, with no interruptions.
If an employee were to make a suggestion, no matter how well-intended their motives may be, it can be interpreted as questioning the leader’s authority. It can be seen as an extreme show of disrespect.
Unfortunately, this may also lead to a cultural bias against a person from the West. Their Eastern colleagues will not be happy with the perceived aggressiveness and disrespectful attitude.
3. Cultural Approaches to Punctuality
The concept of punctuality is defined quite differently in many cultures. Some cultures prize punctuality highly, while others see it as a guideline. This can cause some culture shock for people traveling to cultures with different cultural norms around punctuality.
For example, in North American countries, punctuality is extremely important. Having a meeting at 9 a.m. is strictly interpreted as 9:00 o’clock, exactly.
However, in South America, the cultural definition of being “on-time” is much more flexible. It is common to start a meeting 30-minutes, or even 2 hours late. When this happens, it is not surprising or seen as poor time management. There is just a different conception of time.
Of course, when people from both cultures try to hold a meeting, it can lead to significant misunderstandings. People in the North will see lateness as irresponsible and lacking motivation or interest. People in the South will see the attitude of those in the North as being unreasonable and bossy.
4. Differing Perspectives of Eye Contact
Looking someone directly in the eye is one of those customs that vary greatly depending on the culture. In some, maintaining direct eye contact is a show of respect and honesty. In another culture, however, it can be interpreted as rude and even confrontational.
To make matters even more complicated, it can carry different meanings within the same culture, depending on the gender or age of the people involved.
It is a relatively simple act, but yet has a very nuanced meaning. This is an example of the kind of cultural bias regarding nonverbal communication than can lead to significant misunderstandings.
Sometimes a phone call is a better way to open a dialogue.
5. Differing Cultural Gestures
I recall a story of a visiting professor giving a lecture in a British university when he got extremely insulted by the students having their feet up on the chairs. To him, showing the bottom of your feet was the worst of insults. Here, we see the clash of cultures where the professor and students were unaware of each other’s norms, causing offense.
A gesture is the movement of a body part, such as the hand, that conveys a specific meaning. Gestures exist in every culture, carry varying cultural meanings, and are an integral part of communication.
In the words of Edward Sapir (1949) “We respond to gestures with an extreme
alertness and, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known to none, and understood by all” (p. 556).
For those of us that lack multicultural experiences, we might enter a foreign land assuming that all gestures are created equally. That can be a dangerous assumption. In some countries, a simple hand gesture can be the equivalent of an insult and may lead to a physical altercation.
6. Differing Housework Practices
Living in the home of someone of another culture is another situation where you might start questioning why these people do such strange things! Of course, their strange practices are probably completely normal in their culture.
If you want to learn about households in other countries, watching a TV show about international house hunting is a great place to start. It is a very entertaining way to get a look inside other people’s homes without having to travel and knock on their door.
And there are some interesting differences. For example, people from North America are accustomed to large rooms, and love walk-in closets and bathtubs. Those features do not exist in common price ranges in some Asian countries.
Another example is about clothes dryers. In many Asian countries, they simply don’t exist. People are much more accustomed to hanging washed clothes outside and letting mother nature do the drying.
Of course, in the age of environmental protection, this is a great idea. Hanging clothes on a balcony requires no electricity and is good for the environment.
7. Cultural Customs at Dinnertime
You may experience cultural bias when you are exposed to other cultures’ eating habits. Not only what they eat (yuck, snails!) but also how they eat (chopsticks?) can cause you to turn your nose up and say “these people are strange!”
In many Western countries, all the dishes are served simultaneously. That’s why people cook on a 4-burner stove. Whoever is cooking has to have a really good sense of timing and know exactly how long it will take to prepare each part of the meal.
In a lot of Asian countries, dishes are served more sequentially. Some parts of the meal are served first, and then as dinner progresses, other dishes are brought out one at a time. In part, that’s because many people have a 2-burner stove-top.
Another difference is that in Western cultures, everyone eats from their own plate. Each person takes a portion of each item and places it on their own plate. Whereas in many Asian countries, everyone eats from the same bowls placed in the center of the table. It’s definitely more communal.
These are the types of differences that can take some getting used to and can really spark our cultural biases.
8. Cultural Stereotypes in Hollywood Movies
Although movies are made for entertainment purposes, they can perpetuate cultural biases based on narrowly defined caricatures of others. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to not let these portrayals have a long-lasting effect on our impressions.
Hollywood movies that involve characters from various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds often include very stereotypical portrayals. For example, Italians are often portrayed as temperamental and dangerous; the Irish as heavy drinkers and prone to depression; and Aussies are carefree and always barbecuing shrimp. This list could go on for quite some time.
No one likes to be stereotyped and some movies certainly don’t help.
9. Cultural Attitudes to Disciplining Children
Probably one of the most researched cultural differences is child discipline. To spank, or not to spank, is one frequent area of study.
Although in the past it was very common for people in Western society to implement physical discipline in the form of spanking, it has become less common over the last several decades. However, in more traditional households, using physical discipline is still practiced.
It is easy to make value judgments on whether spanking is right or wrong. And in fact, in countries like England, it’s illegal.
Sometimes, when people say they spank because “that’s how it’s always been done in our family”, then this argument becomes an appeal to tradition.
10. Cultural Approaches to Teaching Methodologies
Western teaching practices are characterized as being more open than those in Asian cultures. Some people from an Asian perspective may see Western schools as lacking discipline, while Westerners may turn up their nose at the lack of critical thinking in Asian schools.
Stereotypically, students are given more opportunities for exploration and independent thinking in Western pedagogy. Developing critical thinking skills is a priority and teachers often encourage their students to ask questions.
In many Asian cultures however, classroom practices are more regimented. Teachers are more authoritarian and in control of instruction. Students are given fewer opportunities for exploration and questioning what is found in the textbooks is not encouraged.
Surprisingly, a lot of Asian parents will pay higher tuition rates to send their children to schools that implement Western teaching practices. At the same time, Western educators admire the high math and science test scores that Asia students achieve, year after year.
This may be a case of a cultural bias that manifests itself in a form of cross-cultural admiration.
11. Cultural Approaches to Attributions of Responsibility
Different cultures have different ideas about responsibility – if something went wrong, was it due to your own errors, or environmental factors? Your answer to this may have a lot to do with your cultural upbringing.
In individualistic cultures, people have a tendency to explain the behaviors of others in terms of dispositional factors. People do things because of their personality characteristics and internal motives.
However, in collectivist cultures, people have a tendency to do the opposite. There is a greater tendency to emphasize situational forces that compel people to act the way they do.
These cultural biases in explaining people’s behavior have been found in the use of the fundamental attribution error and in cases involving criminal behavior.
More specifically, people from individualistic cultures are more likely to exhibit the fundamental attribution error than those from collectivist cultures. Similarly, criminals are seen as more culpable for their actions when judged by people from individualistic cultures than collectivist ones.
12. Believing You Speak Without an Accent
If you think you speak without an accent, you’re a victim of your own cultural bias! You assume your accent is neutral (or even doesn’t exist at all) while everyone else has an accent. This is because we’re so used to our accent that we see it as the ‘norm’.
English is spoken as the primary language in at least 18 countries. Each country, however, has a different pronunciation. Sometimes those differences can be so strong that two people speaking the same language can have a very difficult time understanding each other. Just put a Jamaican in the same room as a Scotsman and watch the games begin.
When one person assumes that their pronunciation of English is the correct one, and people from other countries have an accent, it is an excellent example of cultural bias. More than likely, the people in those other countries consider their pronunciation to be correct and the visitor from a foreign country is the one that speaks funny.
Our biases can take many forms. Westerners may feel shocked at having to dry clothes without an environment-destroying machine, while those in the Far East may marvel at how Western students are so expressive and carefree.
The culture we grew up in creates a bias in our expectations that can be hard to overcome. Although understandable, in the era of rampant cross-cultural communication and the ease today of learning about different customs and practices, ethnocentrism is still as strong as ever.
The only remedy is to travel. By immersing ourselves in the ways of a foreign land we can grow as individuals and develop an enlightened perspective on the state of human existence.
At the end of the day, experiencing cultural differences can enrich all of our lives and hopefully help us evolve as a people.
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