Cultural Differences That Connect, Not Divide

How do you describe an American? How do you define a German? 


When talking to an American or German about the opposite culture, a stereotype, perception, or generalization is usually communicated. 


Furthermore, we as members of a certain culture tend to put people in categories of different or “the other” even if the knowledge base for determining what category a person is in is not always well rounded or exact. Examples of stereotypes and cultural differences can be found simply by talking to young adults in either culture.


“I’ve heard that our cultures are very different,” Kaitlin Kochs, a student at the University of Leipzig said. “I always hear that it’s much more fun to live in America than to live in Germany. I only know about America what I hear about from people who have been there or what I’ve heard in T.V. shows.”


She went on to say that a friend of hers who spent time in America said that it was very fun, she said that it was “a very other way of life.” 


Defining an opposing culture is often easy to do by describing it as the other. This helps cultivate ethnocentric ideas, because the other is often seen as negative. 


According to “Classical Values Orientation” by Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, different cultures put each other in categories based on five different value classes.  


People-nature orientation deals with how those in a culture treat nature. Are they subordinate, do they have harmony, or do they try to master nature? The next is their sense of time, considering whether a culture orients themselves with the past, present, or future. Another way cultures can judge each other are if they have an evil or good nature. Following that is an activity orientation. Are they expressive and emotional or quiet? The last value that can help cultures classify one another is with relational orientation. Does the country make group decisions, follow a leader, or make individual decisions? These are important things to understand because it helps determine where stereotypes come from.  When talking to Germans or Americans about their feelings on the other culture, their answers can usually be categorized into one of these values. 


Harriet Zeise, a University of Leipzig student, may have subconsciously based her opinion off of Americans in the activity orientation section. She said, “[Americans] are loud and maybe rude…or direct and very excited.” 


While this seems to be a typical view of Americans based on interviews of students in Leipzig, it is hard to tell where this perception comes from. 


Some students in Germany have a very distinct view of what people are like in America based on where they live. 


Felix Lauter, who spent 2 months on the west coast, said “When I think of California, I think of a surfer dude, dread locks or something. Guys from the middle west are cowboys or [I think] of Brokeback Mountain. East coast guys are maybe hip hop artists.”


In order to more successfully live in our global community, ethnocentrism needs to be turned into ethnorelativism. This means that despite the perpetuation of stereotypes that result from differing societies, a universal acceptance of “the other” can be found. 


Spaceship Earth a widely known idea and book by Barbara Ward. It expresses the idea that we are all on the same ship. We have the same resources and are working toward the same goal. This means that we should create a peaceful and cooperative team in order to work towards the good of all people. If this concept is accepted, cultures need to break down barriers by trying to understand each other while striving to work better together. 


To counteract division and ethnocentrism, learning to understand and think about other cultures with an open mind is necessary. The first step is talking about it.


We all live in a global body. Letting conflicting values divide our international community can lead to war, struggle, and hostilities. Instead, a willingness to learn and appreciate cultures different from our own will create peace and harmony.



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