Translating Tolerance: Why We Don’t All Think Alike

If you have ever felt as though you can’t understand someone’s perspective because it is different than your own, it may be because they hold a cultural perspective that is vastly dissimilar to yours.

America considers tolerance to be a significant feature in our attempt to co-exist in a multi-ethnic society. Tolerance is easier to implement when people grasp the unique distinctions that make up the differences between varied groups. Understanding the manner by which someone is culturally “wired” helps us to appreciate his or her attitude or frame of reference.

Besides the obvious influence that lifestyle and surroundings have on one’s behavior, cultural patterns play a unique role in forming most people’s views, values and convictions. The customs and traditions that individuals grow up practicing and believing reinforce the philosophies that make up that distinct community. Since sociologists classify most societies as either collectivist or individualist, it is crucial to identify the general characteristics that make up each group in order to learn how to effectively identify with its members.

Collectivist societies such as Asian, South American, and cultures of the Pacific Islands ascribe to a philosophy that is “other” oriented. Meaning these societies relate as members of a “group” and are intensely concerned with the group’s wellbeing. Groups have a powerful effect on the individual and his or her judgments, which can be detected by the frequent use of “we” phraseology. They are more composed and empathetic, and more prone to making sure they please others.

Individualistic cultures such as Northern and Western Europeans, Canadians, Australians and Americans, emphasize personal identity, individual uniqueness and individual freedom. They place great emphasis on a person’s ability to control immediate conditions, tasks and goals. Members of individualistic societies are identified primarily as individuals as opposed to group members; they seek personal preferences as opposed to what is best for the group. Individualists tend to be proud and on a continual search for meaning and happiness.

The distinctions between both groups can be clearly recognized in a typical school setting. Educational psychologist Harold Stevenson conducted a study that revealed how people in collectivistic and individualistic cultures hold different convictions about academic performance. He found that Asians who ascribe to a collectivist mentality view accomplishment as a result of situational factors, such as effort. American students, on the other hand, regard performance as a product of one’s level of intelligence.

Because of their collective nature, Asian societies minimize individual differences in achievement across all fields and focus on hard work and determination. In contrast, Americans are more likely to emphasize the significance of intrinsic ability in making judgments about a person’s performance. If a student does poorly in school, Asian cultures generally assume he or she is not working hard enough. Western cultures, on the other hand, may conclude that the student lacks the intellectual competence required for good performance.

When discussions occur between people who view the world from different cultural lenses, the language and the attitudes can be cryptic and inexplicable. Collectivist and individualist societies can hold values and life perspectives that can often conflict. Communicating cross-culturally involves understanding meanings within speech as well as recognizing patterns of thought. When people from contrasting cultural dynamics interact, a mutual understanding of the other’s nature and personality can help interpret meanings and motivations. This in turn can enable people across cultural bounds to accept and appreciate one another’s environment and unique characteristics.

In dealing with co-workers, neighbors or friends, learning their cultural “language” will go a long way in helping you exercise tolerance and appreciate their unique angle.


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