Cultural relativity? What’s that?

Even for those of us who grew up in less traditional cultures where it isn’t unusual for individuals or entire families to scatter and move the breadth of a continent, our cultural roots run far deeper than we might imagine. If the American presidential election in November 2016 clearly indicated anything, it’s that citizens from different states in the USA continue to harbor quite different world views despite two centuries of mass immigration from abroad and 150 years of region to region migration within the country.
Statistics also indicate there are further differences between urban and rural world views and priorities within each given state when it comes to voting patterns and proposed government legislation. If citizens from the same country can’t seem to agree on most important issues, what hope is there for agreement among the diverse cultures on our planet?

Ever heard of Cultural Relativity?

As much as an individual may want to believe in the concept of cultural relativity–the idea that all cultures have equal value–in reality we often skip the cultural observation step and head right to making comparisons (think superlatives here: better, best, worst etc) which are most likely weighted in favor of the more familiar and comfortable culture in which we were brought up. I’ve found that it’s easy to believe that I have no prejudice toward people in other cultures (both foreign and domestic) while living within my own state/city/neighborhood and personal comfort zone, but experiences on the ground while living in a foreign culture can truly challenge such beliefs as you’re faced with solving real-world problems on a daily basis.

I say this just to clear the air since my aim is not to preach from some lofty position and tell others how they should feel. However, I’ve found that when I notice prejudice creeping in, it benefits both myself and those I’m interacting with if I stop, take a breath and try to examine the reasons for my feelings. Truly, this often isn’t easy in foreign contexts. For example, it can be extremely difficult to accept the notion of cultural relativity when you’ve been waiting for more than an hour to see a teller at the bank and all the new arrivals continue to push in front of you as if you’re invisible. It takes courage and a well-developed sense of humor to remain composed and focused in such situations. Most importantly however, some very rewarding lessons can be learned from such experiences if we can slow the replay down enough to observe our reactions and think about the context of the culture around us.

What do tourists know?

Many Westerners seem to lack the basic curiosity necessary to simply do a bit of online reading about a new destination before actually traveling there. Most traditional cultures would be considered quite conservative by Western standards, yet I’ve witnessed some rude and downright irresponsible behavior by seemingly unaware tourists who were visiting some of the most conservative and traditional cultures on the planet.

While  doing my regular afternoon beach jog during the time I lived in the Dhofar region of southern Oman (close to the border of Yemen), I saw a young Scandinavian woman taking photos on a public beach where local Omani families always had picnics. From a distance, the young woman appeared to be naked. As I began to get closer, I realized she was wearing a pale colored string bikini (think tiny shreds of fabric here) which was accentuated by her tall, slim, well-toned body. In contrast, the Omanis (both male and female) were dressed in their usual body-covering garments which signify modesty. There was an older lady with the young woman who was similar in size and features (though she was wearing a shirt over her swimsuit at that point) and I assumed it was her mother. For the first time in my 4 years in Oman I knew I must say something to warn the seemingly oblivious tourists that local customs dictated they be more fully covered if they wanted to wander around outside the boundaries of the resort hotels.

I’m certainly not making any sort of generalizations about Scandinavians based on this single incident and I’ve seen plenty of Americans, Brits, Aussies, Germans and others misbehaving in similarly disrespectful ways while traveling. The lesson here is that ignorance is no excuse for showing blatant disrespect for the culture and customs of others while traveling or living abroad.

The ignorance and disrespect exhibited by some Western tourists doesn’t only show poor taste, it most likely will have a negative effect on the way the locals view Westerners since they may be prone to follow the tendency to lump folks from one country/culture into the same basket based on conjecture. Just as all illegal immigrants somehow got lumped together as rapists and murderers in the USA’s 2016 presidential election rhetoric, all Westerners may somehow be painted with the same brush as being sexually insatiable (local friends in several developing countries have proclaimed this belief) due to the way they dress or by drinking alcohol or performing other taboos in public.


The lesson here is that our actions, whether intentional of otherwise, do matter both at home and in a foreign context. Even the poorest of those who live in Western societies enjoys a higher-level existence than their counterparts in developing countries and we should be mindful of this in our interactions. Those of us who are privileged enough to have the means to travel abroad should be incredibly appreciative of such experiences and treat the locals with the same degree of respect and honor we would expect if they were visiting our own neighborhoods.

Maybe you think I’m being too critical of the behavior of Americans and other Westerners in an effort to paint a picture of a developing world where everyone has the secret to happiness that we in the West are missing. However, I don’t believe this to be true nor is it my aim. To state this in terms that are as simple as possible, people in all the cultures in which I’ve lived have admitted there is both good and bad to be found in all societies.

It often seems that the only time the Western world pays attention to the developing world is when there’s a commercial benefit to be taken advantage of involving such things as traditional medicines and grain seeds that Western corporations can patent in order to obtain exclusivity and therefore profit. What I’m making a case for is observing the way people in foreign contexts interact and prioritize various aspects of their lives in order to glean ideas that can be integrated in a way to make our Western lifestyles healthier and more stress-free.

Opening one’s mind enough to accept the ways of others as a valid alternative to our own way of life back at home should not be viewed as a sign of weakness as proclaimed by some in the newly energized alt-right movement in the USA. It’s an indication that we’re wise enough to be willing to examine the best that can be found in all cultures and then see how we can utilize those aspects to improve our own societies. Given the daily gun violence and polarized nature of dialogue in the USA currently, I’d say it’s definitely time to examine what works in other societies in an effort to heal our own.

Peace, henry

Categories: CultureTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. It is absolutely right that when in a different culture we should show respect towards it and not behave in ways that offend local sensibilities. By the same token, should a muslim woman not walk around London all covered in black and face veiled, as many local people object to this? And what about living in a country where we come across FGM? Should we say to ourselves it’s part of the culture so it’s OK?


    • Those are excellent questions Marios and, as you know, they’re being debated in Western countries by govt agencies as well as local populations. 1) Face veil: I assume you are probably talking about the niqab, which is traditionally worn in Arabian Gulf countries to cover a woman’s face in public and attaches on each side so it can be removed when she’s with the family, yet leaving the hijab (head covering) in place. Honestly, I don’t feel it is my place as a man to tell women how they should dress in or out of public. To a great extent patriarchy is the reason some more traditional/conservative Muslim women wear the niqab in the first place so who am I (as a male who was indoctrinated in American culture) to also try to dominate a woman I don’t even know and tell her how she should appear in public. Sure, maybe her father/husband/older son is forcing her to cover her face when she leaves the house, and I certainly disagree with anyone being forced to do that, but I feel this as being a serious issue that will affect societies in a negative way. I understand that citizens of western countries argue that Muslims (and other groups) should assimilate into the dominant culture ASAP, but traditional customs don’t change quickly and I don’t think it’s helpful when governments enact laws against something as benign as wearing a traditional costume in public. 2) As far as FGM is concerned, I firmly believe it’s a horror, often visited on young girls far too young to understand what’s actually being done to their bodies, other than to experience excruciating pain during and after the procedure. To me, this is a basic human rights issue and the rights of these girls are being violated in a horrific way! This practice is still quite wide-spread in the Middle East and Africa and I do believe it’s the responsibility of ALL–governments, NGOs and individuals to do everything within their power to stop FGM. More on this will be written in a future post. Thanks for commenting!


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