How to Respect Cultural Differences

A diverse group of women.
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Technological advances continue to shrink the world and bring disparate and far-apart cultures much closer together. Participation in today's global society requires showing respect and understanding to members of all cultures even when they contradict one's own culture. Cultural differences are inevitable; showing respect for those differences is imperative for successful intercultural relations.

1 Self-Awareness

Intercultural respect begins with the awareness that your culture is no more valuable or "correct" than any other. Being part of the majority culture in a given country does not change this; in fact, it only makes that awareness more important, since it may be even easier to see your culture as normal and dismiss or mock others for being strange. To show respect for any cultural differences you encounter, keep in mind that you see the world through a cultural "filter" that not everyone shares.

2 Education

Lack of understanding often plays a role in intercultural tension, so it's important to educate yourself on other cultures to help minimize that tension. For example, a German doctor who deals primarily with patients from Peru is likely to find that his patients' view of time is different from his own. He may place a high value on punctuality, while the patients see arriving after the appointment time as completely normal. Neither is right; they're just different ways of dealing with time. Educate yourself on the cultures around you so that you're prepared and equipped to deal with any disparities.

3 Engagement

It's natural to gravitate toward those with whom you share a culture, but interacting with those from other cultures will broaden your worldview and help you show respect when cultural differences arise. Without being pushy or critical, ask questions and exchange views. Take an interest in what it means to be a member of another culture, being careful not to make unfair or insulting comparisons. For example, it is not uncommon for the parents of Chinese university students to choose their child's area of study, but Western cultures may see this practice as controlling or even wrong. Instead of making judgments, talk to members of the other culture to understand the context of their decisions.

4 Flexibility

Be willing to defer and adapt to another culture when differences arise, as this is often the ultimate show of respect. For example, an American traveling in Palestine may be repeatedly offered cups of tea, food and myriad other forms of hospitality. In the United States, it's often more polite to decline, with the goal of not inconveniencing your host. In other cultures, however, declining anything offered is considered disrespectful; on the other hand, it is often perfectly acceptable to take one sip of tea and leave the rest untouched. Deferring to another culture is in effect saying, "Let's do things your way. I respect and value your way of life."

Kate Bradley began writing professionally in 2007. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and a minor in German from Berry College in Rome, Ga; TEFL/TESOL certification from ITC International in Prague; and a Master of Arts in integrated global communication from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga.