On Biases, Ethnocentrism and Other Relationship-Damaging Beliefs

"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.” [1]


What are your thoughts on the matter? Could/should the Thai girl have been more understanding and forgiving? Should the American girl have been more aware and/or tactful?

And - above everything else - who gets to decide what’s acceptable when a cultural misunderstanding occurs?

While the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are entirely subjective and determined by personal circumstances (see slides on hidden cultural values and High- and Low Context Cultures for further insights), 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.” [2]

What are the consequences of ethnocentric tendencies in a multicultural workplace? Imbalanced communication, micro-aggressions, in-group favouritism, exclusion, just to name a few.

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 [3]. 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 Attribution Bias [4] 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 may perceive out-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 [5] 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 (whose repercussions are amplified when one of the parties involved is a society that ranks high on the Power Distance Index) 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).



[1] Sikkema, Mildred and Agnes Niyekawa (1987). "Design for Cross-Cultural Learning", Intercultural Press. ME: Yarmouth

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

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

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

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


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