The Danger of Minimizing Differences

Photo credit: iStock photo/elenabs 

I once heard a corporate executive share the following words at a cross-cultural training seminar:

“We are all human beings. We can understand each other as long as we communicate.”

The other participants nodded in agreement, appreciating the sincerity in his tone. It is hard to argue with such a seemingly reasonable conviction. By the end of the training, however, a fundamental flaw emerged in the executive’s message. His belief—held by many—is, in fact, the product of a particular intercultural mindset called minimization. In the name of humanity, minimization reduces cultural differences and limits our opportunities to learn from each other.

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, a.k.a. the Bennett scale, created by Dr. Milton Bennett, is a well-tested framework that explains the six stages of facing cultural differences. According to the model, we can nurture our cultural sensitivity over time by shedding an ethnocentric mindset—moving from a perceived “center of reality” and adopting an ethnorelative attitude instead.

As shown in the image, the first two stages of development are denial and defense, in which we reject and dismiss unfamiliar cultures, respectively. This is the mindset that effectively dehumanizes people from other cultures and, even today, makes it so easy to arm ourselves against perceived “outsiders.” For those of us not living in a warzone, the greater danger may lie with the third stage: minimization.

We are all human beings” is the magic phrase meant to light the way to an imaginary world in which there is, in fact, no distinction among peoples. This assumption minimizes not only our differences, but also the significance of our uniqueness. People who get stuck in this stage often do so with good intentions and a naïve sense of equality. Even experienced leaders face this danger, as they can be blinded by past success in treating everyone the same way—particularly if they’re used to a homogenous environment.

Another trap awaits under the fourth stage: acceptance. Have you ever felt that you are simply being tolerated among a group of people? Here in Japan, minority groups in the workplace, such as foreigners and women, are often treated with a kind of extraterritoriality, even receiving privileges such as special networks and fringe benefits. The intentions may be sincere, but the results are often alienating—yet another way to avoid honest conversation with those who are different. This is how minorities often come to feel tolerated, rather than truly accepted. The key element of achieving true acceptance is finding value in differences.

The final two stages are adaptation and integration. Many expats in Japan aim to adapt, but tend to fail to integrate. When we are fully adapted, we think and behave in the context of a given culture, understanding, appreciating, and emulating the way locals do things in order to thrive in their environment. Then, when we leave that culture, we can revert to our own. This is called style switching, and is the essence of the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Locals usually find this practice pleasant and respectful, which makes it both effective for survival and enjoyable for those who like to try different behaviors.

So what does this leave for integration?

According to Bennett, attaining integration makes us multi-culturists. A multi-culturist has a vast repertoire of cultural thinking and behavior. This may sound like simply a wider range of behaviors to choose from, but there is also an element of mediation between cultures.

With inclusion in mind, consider again the difference between being influenced by another culture versus influencing it. There are two clear signs to gauge inclusion in a given environment: first, the number of conversations and interactions generated, and second, how much you and the “other” have influenced each other’s value system and actions beyond style switching.

I, myself, can attest to the new perspectives and ideas that come through openness to these signs. The experience almost feels like moving from a monochrome pallet to painting with colors, upgrading to a new shade each time I acquire a new understanding of the world. Eventually, interactions with colleagues and business partners from other cultures or lifestyles makes the act of integration a natural, varicolored part of life.

The Bennett scale is essentially a mindful way of learning from others. When we no longer fear differences (or minimize them as insignificant), the world becomes an endless source of discovery and growth. The only skill we need then is the ability to share who we are, wholly and honestly. By being open to the different cultures of human beings, we can truly come to understand each other.

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