Climate, language, history geography, spiritual beliefs, politics, kinship groups, and ways of knowing will be different cross-culturally. Why then is it so difficult for some people to acknowledge that cultural differences do exist? The research on cross-cultural differences abounds, albeit some of it has been racist, ethnocentric and conducted with poor methods and funded by eugenics organizations to advance their agenda of creating the perfect race. Unfortunately for some, their negative exposure to the former type of research is what remains embedded in their psyche, unable to explore the possibilities that good research on cultural differences can offer appreciation for one another and maintain positive international relations.
After working for over 20 years with various ethno-cultural groups, and having learned to navigate through my parent’s culture of origin and the Canadian one, I know for a fact that cultural differences do exist. This doesn’t mean that one is necessarily better than the other, it just means that differences occur because of the myriad of reasons that were noted in the introduction. Cultures are formed by differences and similarities. The similarities in their experiences makes them a culture; this is what distinguishes them from people whose experiences are different. The formation of cultural groups helps them to keep the characteristics that make them unique.
Indeed, when we speak about cultural differences there is the possibility of us making assumptions and creating stereotypes. From our early years we are taught to separate and categorize for instance blocks of different colours to help us order things in our mind and to make sense of them, and to understand their unique properties. Yes there will always be “blocks” or “people who don’t fit so nicely into these categories but it is natural for us to want to try to make sense of large amounts of important information especially when it comes to understanding the human race..
I know that my contentions will probably deviate from those of my diversity consultant colleagues; but I believe that there is some merit to making generalizations about cultures when there is solid research backing them up, while keeping in mind that there will always be those people that do not “fit into the box”. Ethnographies have come a long way since the days of Malinowski’s, ‘The Sexual Life of Savages”, and cultural anthropologists are constantly improving their research methods.
Exploring cultural differences can give us not only great insight about others, but a better understanding of ourselves as well.
Just because we are afraid of creating cultural stereotypes or making assumptions is no reason for us to contend that all cultures are the same and not talk about them. Instead, through dialogue and exploring the potential differences and the pitfalls with making some assumptions will we truly learn from one another.
Evelina Silveira, President Diversity At Work in London