If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.

- Herodotus, The Histories -

While the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are entirely subjective and determined by personal circumstances, workplace relationships are heavily influenced by power dynamics and by ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s own culture is the correct way of living, originally defined by social scientist William G. Sumner as “[the] technical name for this view of things in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.[1].

In their book “Communicating With Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication”, authors William Gudykunst and Young Yun Kim suggest that “we communicate the way we do because we are raised in a particular culture and learn its language, rules, and norms. Because we learn the language, rules, and norms of our culture by a very early age (between five and ten years of age), however, we generally are unaware of how culture influences our behavior in general and our communication in particular. [2]

Miscommunication and misconceptions in the global environment are often the result of ethnocentric thinking, of poor self-awareness (Hofstede argues that ethnocentrism is to people what egocentrism is to individuals [3]), of incorrect assumptions about other people’s values and standards being made with our own cultural codes in mind as an ideal reference point.

What are the consequences of ethnocentrism in a multicultural workplace? Imbalanced communication, micro-aggressions, in-group favouritism, exclusion, just to name a few, for an ethnocentric company “going international” is unlikely to respect and appreciate different local customs and norms and to consider local workers as capable as those employed by the headquarter [4]:

the Similarity-Attraction theory suggests that we are naturally attracted to people who remind us of ourselves because they validate our own beliefs about ourselves, while dissimilarity triggers negative feelings toward the other party [5]. Since the main pillar of ethnocentrism is assumed superiority of a group over another, companies characterised by an ethnocentric culture (those that identify themselves with the nationality of their owners/founders) and by a centralized approach choose to not hire locally when expanding internationally (and if they do is strictly for subordinate roles), are likely to ignore or underestimate feedback and suggestions provided by their subsidiaries, tend to be inflexible in their approach to local standards and customer preferences.

Furthermore, a phenomenon known as Ethnocentric Attributional Bias [6] suggests internal attributions for the positive behaviour of in-group members (“they’re competent”, “they’re clever”, etc.) and external attributions for their negative behaviour (eg, if they fail to perform well in a test, the fault may lie with “tricky questions” rather than with a lack of personal preparation), while the opposite happens when the behaviour of out-group members is under scrutiny.

A particular area of concern is represented by the communication occurring between managers and subordinates, especially when subsidiaries in developing countries are involved: ethnocentric managers, as previously mentioned, may perceive out-group (*those people who do not belong to a specific in-group) subordinates as lacking either important skills or the credibility to succeed in their role, while ethnocentric subordinates may not trust or be able to relate to the out-group manager. As a result, hiring decisions and performance appraisals are likely to be unfair and heavily affected by biased perceptions.

The co-cultural communication model introduced in the late 90s by Professor Mark Orbe [7] suggests three different approaches to dealing with ethnocentrism:

1. Accommodation

Based on desire for social approval, it consists in altering one’s own beliefs, behaviours and attitudes to accommodate others (the majority), in order to reduce personal differences and increase mutual understanding;

2. Assimilation

An unconscious and gradual process usually seen in a negative light, since it presupposes that minority groups adopt the language and the values of the majority in order to gain social acceptance;

3. Separation

This last approach consists in consciously maintaining separate group identities, based on the belief that integration or cooperation with members of a different group is not possible.

From a business perspective, how’s ethnocentrism going to affect the ability of a company to thrive in a global workplace scenario?

Ethnocentrism may:

- result in high organizational costs (for instance, in a scenario where the relocation of HQ employees abroad is preferred to the option of hiring local workforce);

- hinder growth (“foreign” ideas and business practices are met with resistance regardless of their actual validity);

- lead to tense and dysfunctional professional relationships in which the dominant party degrades the other and is not able or willing to appreciate its inputs (see post on fearful communication in the workplace for clarifications on this last point);

- affect the communication process as a whole, since research suggests that source credibility and attractiveness are two key components of interpersonal communication dynamics [8].

At the opposite end of ethnocentrism we find cultural relativism, the idea that "civilization is not something absolute, but...is relative, and... our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes." [9], based on the belief that everyone’s perspective is biased and influenced by one’s own cultural references ( cultural context encompasses all aspects of a culture: values, beliefs, behaviours, lifestyles, language, power dynamics, etc. ).

For instance, what do you think of the following scenario?

"An American girl cleaned the room while her Thai roommate was having breakfast in the dormitory dining hall. 

When the roommate returned, she became upset, cried, and left the room. Later it became clear that the American girl had placed the Thai girl’s skirt on the pillow portion of the bed.  In Thai culture, the head is sacred and putting a piece of clothing associated with a lesser part of the body on a place reserved for the head was one of the worst possible insults.  Friends and advisors tried to explain to the Thai girl that the American girl’s intentions were only good, but the involuntary reaction was so deep that she refused to share the room with the American girl again." [10]


Who's right, what are your impressions? Has the Thai girl overreacted? Has the American girl been disrespectful?

If according to (Western) ethnocentric views the Thai girl might have overreacted, cultural relativism suggests that there is no "right" or "wrong" answer to this question, because values, beliefs, behaviors, and definitions of "right" and "wrong" are not universal: what's acceptable and "normal" in a certain culture might cause great offence or distress in a different environment.

While a quarrel between two schoolgirls may not seem to be a "big deal", unfortunate cultural misunderstandings have the potential to cause great financial losses to businesses operating internationally (see posts " Where do babies come from? A tale of misunderstandings and corporate negligence " and " Reasons why market research matters in cross cultural advertising " for examples of ethnocentrism applied to cross cultural marketing).


Related posts:

- Cultural Intelligence and Intercultural Sensitivity: The Key Elements of Expatriate Success


**Bonus content for this week: an introduction to the concept of micro-aggressions**




[1] Sumner, W. G., & In Keller, A. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Boston: Ginn and Company

[2] Gudykunst, W. B., & Kim, Y. Y. (1984). ”Communicating with strangers: An approach to intercultural communication”. New York: Random House

[3] Hofstede, Geert H. (1997). "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind". New York: McGraw-Hill

[4] Begley, T.M., & Boyd, D.P. (2003). “Why don’t they like us Overseas? Organizing U.S. business practices to management culture clash”. Organizational Dynamics, 32, 357- 371. DOI: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2003.08.002

[5] Byrne, D. (1971). “The attraction paradigm”. New York: Academic Press

[6] Taylor, D. M., & Jaggi, V. (1974). ”Ethnocentrism and causal attribution in a south Indian context”. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 5(2), 162–171

[7] Orbe, M. (1998). “Constructing co cultural theory: An Explication of culture, power, and communication”. Thousand Oaks, NJ: Sage Publications

[8] McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (1996). ”Fundamentals of human communication: An interpersonal perspective”. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press

[9] Perusek, D. (2007). “Grounding Cultural Relativism”. Anthropological Quarterly, 80(3), 821-836. doi:10.2307/30052726 - https://www.jstor.org/stable/ 30052726 

[10] Sikkema, M., and A. Niyekawa (1987). "Design For Cross-Cultural Learning". Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press 

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