During my cultural diversity training or one-on-one coaching, I often ask participants this simple question, “What comes to your mind when people around you speak a language that you do not understand?” The overwhelming answer I always get is the one you too may be rationalizing: “I think that they are talking about me.” Why, because you think that you are the (center of the world).
In his 2012 Christmas message to the Pope Benedict XVI echoed this sentiment and declared, “We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of… we want our plans and purposes ... We are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.” There seems to be no room left for anything else.
When sociologist William Sumner first used the term “ethnocentrism,” he was referring to the prevalent belief that one’s own ethnic group or culture is considered central, while other cultures or religious traditions are reduced to play peripheral roles. Ethnocentric individuals unconsciously believe that their culture is superior to other cultures, that their ways of thinking and living are the best. In fact, they are convinced that there is something wrong with those people who are not living their lives like them. As a result, their “universal” cultural standards should be applied to others.
Throughout the history of the world, ethnocentrism has dictated numerous events that have shaped the world to the status it is today. Imperialism, the practice of taking over other lands, and colonialism were heavily practiced by Europe starting in the 16th century, in Africa and in the Americas. Europeans believed both Africa and the Americas to be primitive societies based on hunting and farming, and felt that they needed to take over these nations in order to bring them up to speed with modern European standards of living. During Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler decided that he hated Jews and other groups and held them tragically in concentration camps.
In the line of ethnocentric thinking, the ethnocentric we generally attribute virtue to people similar to ourselves and vice to people from different ethnic groups, national cultures, socioeconomic strata or belief systems. We develop the exclusive dichotomy “friend or foe,” “us and them,” “for us or again us,” “conservatives or liberals,” “good or bad,” etc. The lack of considering inclusion as an option leads ethnocentric cultures to believe that they are threatened by the other cultures, that others are either bringing evil or are coming to take away something which is dear to them. When cultures stand so far on opposite sides from each other, cultural compromises are often difficult to reach.
Ethnocentrism occurs everywhere and every day at local communities and at all organization and in politics. We do not need to look far to see politicians, in and outside of democratic systems, whose “me” culture is so ingrained in their actions and thinking processes that they develop and maintain a blind eye and a deaf ear to the aspirations, will and cries of the people they represent. Ethnocentrism is a powerful force that hinders human relations at great extends.
Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D. is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He consults and coaches on cultures, cultural diversity and languages. He can be reached atinfo@universalhighways.- com.