Misunderstanding and cultural bias
Ethnocentrism is a term that describes a belief that our own culture and cultural practices are central to the smooth operation of society and hence superior in some way to other cultures.
Ethnocentrism leads us to make false assumptions about cultural differences. We are ethnocentric when we use our cultural norms to make generalisations about other people’s cultures and customs. Such generalisations ─ often made without a conscious awareness that we've used our culture as a universal yardstick ─ can be very inaccurate and cause us to misjudge other peoples. Ethnocentrism also distorts communication between human beings.
An example could be the way we describe American drivers as driving on ‘the wrong side of the road’. Why not just say ‘opposite side’ or ‘left-hand side’?
Another example could be cultures whose written language is different to ours. For example, we talk about written Hebrew as reading ‘backwards’. Why not just say ‘from right to left’ or ‘in the opposite direction from English’? (Taken from Why is ethnocentrism bad?)
In the community and disability services field, where support work often involves basic counselling and guided intervention in the lives of clients and their families, this ethnocentrism or culturally based assumptions can be very subtle and yet quite destructive. Paul Pederson identified some key areas where these assumptions can negatively impact on support work (adapted from Pederson 1994, p. 113).
- We often assume that other cultural groups share our view of what is ‘normal’, e.g. in terms of accepted discipline, dating behaviours, table manners, and age-appropriate activities.
- Mainstream Western culture values individualism and sees the individual as the basic unit. However, many other cultural groups operate on a more communal paradigm and hence family expectations and family loyalties may override individual needs.
- Similarly, mainstream Western culture assumes that independence is desirable and dependence is undesirable; hence we may tend to view family life in some cultural groups as being ‘enmeshed and pathological’.