CQ – How are we different? Part Ten – Cultural Relativism

As you have been reading my blog posts about cultural dimensions, or values, over the last several months, I often encouraged you to put yourself on a line continuum between the two ends of each dimension. Your cultural value ratings of yourself show your general orientation to life, work, and relationships. They describe how you prefer to get things done.

Thinking about this may help you understand conflicts you have experienced with others who have different cultural orientations. In addition, this awareness may help you understand why you (and most other people) subconsciously prefer interacting with conflict-3069179_1280people who have cultural value orientations that are similar to your own. For example, it probably contributes to children sitting with others from a similar culture at lunch.

Your Cultural Value markings do NOT evaluate whether you can effectively work with others who have a different orientation from you. If you mark yourself at one extreme of a cultural value, it doesn’t mean you can’t work effectively with people from the other extreme. And those who are in the middle are not necessarily more adaptable than those on the extremes. Scoring in the middle shows that you prefer a more moderate approach – somewhere between the two poles.

If we aren’t careful, talking about different cultures in light of these cultural values can result in stereotyping (putting people in boxes because of their cultural background). But without looking at overall patterns like these, it’s difficult to know how to work and relate effectively across cultures.

Generally speaking, too, there is no right or proper end to any of the cultural dimension continua, no correct way of thinking of cultural values. In a real sense, cultural dimensions are relative.[1]

I know, I know. I am walking on thin ice here. Be sure to know, I am not saying there is no right or wrong in life. We all know, it is wrong to murder someone. Human trafficking is wrong. Child and sexual abuse are abhorrent. And so on. So please do not get me wrong. I am not saying there is NO right or wrong. All cultures have things that are right AND wrong in light of the absolute dignity of human beings.

However, we can tend to be judgmental and think OUR values, our way of experiencing cultures is the only right way to see it. For example, many Americans think individualism is the ONLY way to be and look down on cultures which are collectivist. However, there are times where working toward the greater good for our community is necessary. And there are times when thinking and acting for myself is a good thing. Balance, insight, and wisdom are necessary.

So then, we should not be judgmental of others; we should not be overly proud of our own cultural values. We should always be willing to humbly step back and see what is 


good and what is not so good in our own cultures.

 And. Always, always, ALWAYS avoid negative stereotypes.

As you meet or enter a new culture, look up what are some of the cultural dimensions of that culture. Then treat those cultural norms from that culture as your best first guess. Be open to changing your assumptions, biases, and expectations. 

There are some great books to help you sort these out. David A. Livermore’s Expand Your Borders: Discover Ten Cultural Clusters is a great place to start. Reading Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business is another one.

A reminder of what CQ or Cultural Intelligence is: The capability to function effectively across various cultural contexts (national, ethnic, organizational, generational, etc.)

The awareness and insights that come from understanding our personal orientation vs. cultural norms is very helpful in improving our capability to function effectively in various cultural contexts. It is possible to use the Cultural Value ratings from a Cultural Intelligence Center assessment report or other tools like Hofstede’s GPS, GlobeSmart, or Cultural Navigator. It can help develop this kind of awareness as a starting point.

As Meyer says in The Culture Map, “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act.”[2] From my experience, I would say those are very wise words.

[1] Meyer, E. (2014). The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, pp.21-27. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

[2] Meyer, E. (2014). The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, p.27. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.


Author: Leslie P Johnson

Christ follower, Wife, Mother, Grandmother, love children, dogs, and horses and love to hike, and I am helping develop Culturally Intelligent Communities (CIC)

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