First, you are a human being who exists on the planet earth. You have the same basic needs shared by every other person—food, water, shelter, affection, and a sense of belonging.
Think about your life. What are some of the things that have influenced you or helped to shape your perception of the world and how you interact with it?
Everybody has a cultural lens. Your cultural lens is the unique perspective you have formed through time and experience. It colors the way you see the world and the people within it and it changes with you as you experience new things.
Understanding the ways in which cultural lenses impact how we interact with the world will help you answer difficult questions by allowing you to recognize where others are coming from as they ask questions, as well as how you can use elements of your own culture to answer those questions.
Let’s consider how preconceived notions can influence how Americans are perceived abroad.
Think of generalizations as a circle drawn with a dotted line, representing a collection of information with porous borders, letting in new information and releasing old or irrelevant information.
Think of stereotypes as a circle drawn with a continuous line, where new updated information cannot get in and old, irrelevant information cannot get out.
Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is better than other cultures. This is a predictable reaction based on our familiarity with our own culture and comfort within it. Diplomacy, like interpersonal relationships between cultures, is never facilitated by arrogant expressions of personal or cultural superiority.
For example, Americans might say that the British drive on the “wrong” side of the road. It would be less ethnocentric to say that they drive on the “left” side of the road—words that are more objective and don’t carry a negative value judgment.
Inexperienced travelers may over-identify with a host culture in which they are living (or have lived), demeaning or rejecting their own original cultures. This phenomenon serves as another form of cultural prejudice or bias.
The enduring belief in the American Dream implies a sense of optimism toward the future and the possibility of upward social and economic mobility. The desire for personal improvement is supported by public efforts to provide equal opportunities for all Americans in areas such as education and the workplace, and in access to social services and protection under the law. However, our values are constantly being tested.
However, having such a strong sense of independence can also result in a diminished focus on community and interpersonal interactions, leading you to put your own needs above others.X
U.S. citizens feel less obligation to conform to societal norms or to follow in their parents’ footsteps than most people in the world. This can be perceived as selfish in some cultures.X
Due to America’s geographic isolation and global influence, the average American is not well informed about international current events except those which may directly impact U.S. political, economic, or social interests.X
Professionals often value direct feedback and authenticity over concerns for a relationship as a means to attain efficiency. In other cultures, this can often be perceived as rude.X
Consuming at this volume, however, has a profound impact on the environment and can be perceived as greedy and careless in other cultures.X
However, many people say U.S. citizens do not know how to relax.X
Perfect social, economic, educational, and legal equality doesn’t exist in the United States, or in any other country. The ideal of equality still resonates strongly with most U.S. citizens and it represents goals and results to work toward.X
Democratically elected public servants have an obligation to serve in the best interests of their constituency, however personal interests sometimes interfere.X
Not everyone in America will have a “rags to riches” story. There are still societal obstacles that can impede your progress regardless of how much work you put in.X
While Americans show a healthy regard for tradition, they are even more attracted to the “new and improved,” such as the latest smartphone and newest car model, which can be seen as wasteful or unattainable in other cultures.X
American informality in dress and speech can also be perceived as disrespectful in more formal cultures.X
When you look at yourself in the mirror, what do you see? When looking through your own cultural lens, you might see someone who is independent and hard working. You might see someone who treats all people equally. You might see someone who is smart and innovative.