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Intercultural Sensitivity Part 2: Ethnorelativism

In my last post on Dr Milton’s Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, I wrote about ethnocentrism. Today let’s examine the final three: the ethnorelative stages.

The first of these is acceptance and is characterized by learning. As with all learning processes, acceptance can be at times rewarding or uncomfortable.

First, the reward of acceptance. During this stage, there is calm curiosity, and learning gains momentum. Each new piece of information is like a puzzle piece that also helps you more fully understand things you’ve already learned. You move beyond noticing surface differences and begin to understand the value system and world view. The habitual interpretations of your own upbringing become apparent, and this is both fascinating and liberating. The efforting of denying, judging, and minimizing during ethnocentrism can be left behind. To learn, you just have to open your eyes and be willing. You see the cultures standing side by side, like friends.

For international social workers, the challenge is in resolving ethical issues. It is difficult to know whether something is unethical or ethical in a way that you do not yet understand. One trap is to equate cultural and ethical relativism or to say that something is culturally appropriate because it is common. The result is extreme permissiveness and maintenance of the status quo. People in the new culture who have power and are privileged may hold this view. Another trap is to become paralyzed by indecision and self-doubt.

I have been working very hard to resolve ethical issues in a culturally competent way. I use mindfulness to recognize the jolt I feel when encountering something that appears to be unethical (or definitely is unethical in a Western context). I then pause and gather information, paying special attention to clients and their responses. Next I do research. I talk to colleagues from both cultural groups, explaining what occurred and asking for their perspectives. I also do research online since many ethicists address cross-cultural issues.



Here’s an example of a cross-cultural ethical issue: Recently a Western oncologist shared that, in Bhutan, diagnosis of terminal illness is shared with the family but not the patient. Further, the family makes all treatment decisions without consulting the patient. At face value, this violates confidentiality and informed consent. It’s also common and accepted in Bhutan, and no one seems to mind (except the Westerners). I’ll write more about this in a future post.

The second of the ethnorelative is adaptation. It’s the acceptance in action.

During acceptance, you are observing. Now you participate. In the beginning this manifests as taking part in the greeting, eating, and communicating rituals of the new culture. After some time, one adapts the way of thinking and interpreting so that events are understood in a cultural context, and empathy develops. You also begin to know how you can be most effective in the new culture. You also become sensitive to the range of culturally appropriate values and behaviors and understand the diversity within the new culture.

Like acceptance, this stage is both rewarding and uncomfortable, often at the same time. When you adapt to the new culture, not only do people respond to you in more positive ways, but you’re able to recognize what qualifies as a “positive response” in the new culture. Adaptation also means tolerating the discomfort of behaving in new ways.

For example, Westerners are very verbal in communicating positive feedback. When I do a training for Western social workers, people will approach me afterwards to say it was helpful or I will receive emails communicating that. Westerners even solicit feedback by handing out forms and standing at the door to collect them. In Bhutan, the cultural is hierarchical. People who perceive themselves as “beneath” you will give you copious positive verbal feedback regardless of what you’ve done. Those who see themselves as “equal” or “above” you might not communicate anything verbally. They will, however, refer to your training later, ask when the next training is, or suggest your training to others. The challenge here is to rely more heavily on behavioral, rather than verbal, feedback.

The final stage is integration. I’m not able to speak with much authority on this since I’m not sure I’ve experienced it.

Integration describes people who are able to move back and forth between cultural frames. The advanced learning that’s occurred makes them highly competent. The people at this stage may be a minority group member who is also competent in the majority culture, someone who’s lived for many years in the new culture, or someone who is bicultural. I wonder if this stage is ever possible for me. I also wonder if I should even work towards this stage. I would worry about having an attitude that I am “done” and becoming closed to learning.

For someone working on their own cultural competency, remember that this is not a linear process. You will learn, adapt, learn more, refine. You will think that you’ve learned and then realize that you have not. You will be under stress and retreat (briefly) into the comfort of ethnocentric thinking. You will learn so much that you decide to start a blog.

Further reading:

The Intercultural Development Research Institute, (2011). A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity [pdf]. Retrieved from http://www.idrinstitute.org/allegati/IDRI_t_Pubblicazioni/47/FILE_Documento_Bennett_DMIS_12pp_quotes_rev_2011.pdf

Carlton College. Milton J. Bennet’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity [pdf]. Retrieved from http://apps.carleton.edu/curricular/ocs/paris/assets/WDMIS.pdf

In-Country Cultural Strategies Part III: Strategies for Developing Intercultural Sensitivity [pdf]. Retrieved from http://www.yale.edu/yalecollege/international/predeparture/pdf/strategies.pdf


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