Br Craig Storti

One of the thorniest issues in cross-cultural communication is the question of making judgments. It is important to be careful judging across cultures because you are, of necessity, judging other people according to your standards. If those people don’t happen to have your standards, you might judge them incorrectly. It is an issue that well-meaning “culture crossers” struggle daily with; essentially, they’re afraid of being judgmental.

People from other cultures often do things that annoy, frustrate, and offend us, which is also true in reverse. This is a fact of life—and one which is not confined to cross-cultural interactions; people from our own culture can also annoy and offend us. While we do not feel bad if we are upset when someone from our own culture irks us, when the perpetrator is from another culture, we wonder if we have the right to be upset. Is it really fair to be angry with that person?

It’s the wrong question. Fair or not, it is human nature to react to other people’s behavior, responding positively or negatively when people act. We can’t judge by intention, after all, what other people mean by their behavior, since we usually don’t know their intention. So we respond to behavior—and judge accordingly. If we later learn their intention was quite different from what we thought, that we actually misjudged or misinterpreted their behavior, we can always amend our judgments.

Not only is judging natural, it is essential to function effectively in society. If the word culture has any meaning, it is that we have certain shared, deeply-held values and beliefs that give us our sense of what’s right, natural, and logical in our own culture. It is only because of these values and beliefs—what we call cultural norms—that people know how to behave and can therefore interact and function successfully inside their culture.

If we could not be sure that people would always behave in certain ways in certain situations—that they would behave normally—then most interactions would be impossible. If you’re not reasonably sure when you leave your house each morning that drivers of other cars will stop at stoplights, that people on airplanes won’t try to open the windows, that your children won’t decide to return to someone else’s house at the end of the day—there would be chaos.

Needless to say, when someone violates one of our cultural norms and does something that is unnatural, this behavior is going to provoke strong responses because abnormal behavior undermines our norms and thereby threatens what makes interaction possible and holds our culture together. In short, when we react to or judge the behavior of someone else, we are performing an essential function for the survival of our culture and society.

Thus, being ethnocentric is human nature. It is only when you’re dealing with people who come from another ethnos that ethnocentrism doesn’t always work so well. If you happen to be in their culture, for example, then the burden is on you to figure out their ethnos. But if you’re in your own ethnos, then it is appropriate—and a very good idea—to be ethnocentric.

If that is true, then where does this idea of trying to be culturally sensitive fit in? It doesn’t mean not judging the behavior of others but being open to the possibility that the “abnormal” behavior someone has done may not seem abnormal to them. It is still wrong for you, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to let that person know, even as you would appreciate knowing when you violated another culture’s norm.

Being culturally sensitive has very little to do with liking or accepting the strange behaviors of people from other cultures; it means acknowledging that we’re all strange depending on the context. Cultural differences and the judgments they provoke aren’t the problem; the problem is to deny culture, which is just what you do when you ask people not to judge.

Craig Stortia consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books.