A little child is naturally thinking only of himself or herself. The world of a child revolves around how he or she can be satisfied. As we grow, we learn to see other people and take them in to consideration. But the tendency to live life in an egocentric way is still there. It is something that we are born with and to some extent it is necessary in order to have a meaningful life. However, it shouldn’t dictate or control our lives. Rather it should be like a spice which we need a little, but not too much.
When we think about encountering different cultures, the situation is the same. According to Merriam-Webster (2016) dictionary ethnocentrism is “based on the idea that your own group or culture is better or more important than others”. A man named William Graham Sumner was one of the first researchers who introduced the term back in 1906. After that social scientists have developed many theories explaining the roots of ethnocentrism. It has been a largely studied subject also in the field of psychology. (Bizumic B. 2014)
But why is ethnocentrism is harmful? Barger K. (2014) puts it well when he explains that it leads to misunderstandings. Cross-cultural misunderstandings often arise from ethnocentrism. And where there are misunderstandings, there is division.
Last year Finland received more refugees than for a long time. New refugee centers in small villages are changing the street view. A friend of mine told a story how the whole village of his homestead in Laitila was gathered together last fall to wonder arriving buses bringing refugees in to a new refugee center. Many senior citizens had never seen people from foreign cultures in Laitila as they had used to see and meet only Finnish people. My friend described how the villagers felt confused and even a bit afraid.
I believe that there are two main reasons for ethnocentrism. The first one is simply that one hasn’t encountered different cultures. When you have been brought up in monocultural environment, like many people in the small village of Laitila, it might be hard to value other cultures. The Second reason is the lack of comprehension of different cultures. So often we tend to make assumptions based on outward behavior of a person from a different culture without considering the inward worldview he or she holds. Our behavior is always based on our values and our values are based on our worldview. Different cultures have different worldviews which are affecting behavior a great deal.
One good everyday example of ethnocentrism is connected to eating. Westerners generally think that it is proper to eat with knives, forks and spoons while a person from India for example thinks that it is proper to eat with fingers. When a person from a western country sees a person from India eating with their fingers, it is considered from a western point of view as a primitive way of eating. So in other words it is seen as an improper manner of eating. But one Indian guy put it well: “You see, we wash our hands carefully, and besides, they have never been in anyone else's mouth. But look at these spoons and forks and think about how many other people have already had them inside their mouths!” (Youth Kairos Reader 2015, 6-9).
So the question is: how to fight against the ethnocentrism? I believe there are at least three steps we can take. The first step is to realize your ethnocentrism. Understanding how it affects your attitudes and behavior is crucial, because our behavior has its roots much deeper in our worldview. This step usually takes time, because our values and worldview are deep inside of us. A good thing is to ask from yourself the question of why. “Why I think like I do” is not an easy question but it is a very important one.
Another good step toward a better understanding of cultures is to study culture and to learn new languages. Language Centre of LUT is offering courses in many languages which are helpful for studying the different cultures as well, because language is such a big part of a culture. I have learned to appreciate people from different cultures in the courses of Language Centre. They have offered me good insights and principles for encountering different cultures. The third step is rather practical and straightforward. It is meeting people from different cultures. At LUT we have a great opportunity to meet people from a variety of cultural backgrounds which is a great asset.
One of the keys to a more wide-open life is to have the learner’s mindset. A will to learn more helps you a lot in life. We are on the lifelong journey of learning and we can enjoy it. So let’s remember that diversity is a gift, not a curse. We can all learn from each other, from different cultures. Next time when you think that some habit of a person from another culture is odd or wrong, think again. It is not wrong, just different.
Bizumic B. 2014. Who Coined the Concept of Ethnocentrism? A Brief Report [www document] [Referred 12th of April 2016] Available at: http://jspp.psychopen.eu/article/view/264/html
Merriam-Webster 2016. Simple Definition of Ethnocentric [www document] [Referred 12th of April 2016] Available at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethnocentric
Barger K. 2014. Ethnocentrism [www document] [Referred 12th of April 2016] Available at: http://www.iupui.edu/~anthkb/ethnocen.htm
Youth Kairos Reader. 2015. Chapter Six: Culture.
Text by Timo Raassina, as student of Independent Study in English course