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  1. 1. Dec. 2006, Volume 3, No.12 (Serial No.36) Sino-US English Teaching, ISSN1539-8072, USA Cultural Relativism and Intercultural Communication WANG Lu* (School of Foreign Studies, Shandong University of Finance, Shandong, Jinan 250014, China) Abstract: Cultural relativism is one of the most important concepts related to intercultural communication.This paper mainly examines cultural ethnocentrism and the basic tenets of cultural relativism, lists actualchallenges to cultural relativism and reinterprets the implied meanings of cultural relativism for interculturalcommunication in this complex and shrinking planet. Key words: cultural relativism; tenet; challenge; intercultural communication 1. Cultural Ethnocentrism and Basic Tenets of Cultural Relativism Since most of our cultural knowledge is acquired unconsciously, and most of us grow up in one and the sameculture, we tend to take our way of life for granted. In China, we eat three meals a day and have our meals withchopsticks, we start a family by one man marrying one woman, and we drive our cars along the right of the road…Everything we do is so natural to us that we are very likely to believe that people in other places or cultures alsohave the same practice. The tendency to judge the customs of other societies by the standards of one’s own is calledethnocentrism. In other words, it is the viewpoint that one’s group is the center of everything, against which allother groups are judged. Although no culture is immune to ethnocentrism and ethnocentrism can inspire a strongsense of patriotism, it is a big obstacle in intercultural communication. Because with ethnocentrism rooted in mind,people tend to believe that their own culture is most desirable and superior to others and refuse to appreciate otherpeople’s way of life. Misunderstanding and conflicts are often the consequence of ethnocentrism. Although it’s difficult to eliminate ethnocentrism completely, we can at least develop a strong awareness orsensitivity to our ethnocentric attitudes and learn to judge the behavior of others by their own cultural standards.The idea of cultural relativism was developed out of such consideration. According to Bryjak and Soroka (1994:57), “cultural relativism is the belief that there is no universal standard of good and bad or right and wrong andthat an aspect of any given culture can be judged only within its own context.” In order to illustrate this point,cultural relativists would raise a series of questions (Samovar, et al, 1981: 195): “In Saudi Arabia women covertheir faces; in America they cover very little—is one more correct than the other? The Occidental speaks to God,the Oriental has God speak to him is one more correct than the other? The American Indian values and acceptsnature, the average American seeks to alter nature is one more correct than the other?” Ferraro (1996) also saysthat cultural relativism means “any part of a culture (such as an idea, a thing, or a behavior pattern) must beviewed from within its proper cultural context rather than from the viewpoint of the observer’s”. Viewed from thisperspective of cultural relativism, a hunter in the Amazon rainforest covered with a strap around the waist is asrightfully dressed as a white man in suit at a formal dinner (SONG, 2004: 30). So cultural relativists maintain thatall cultures are equally worthy of respect and that in studying another culture we need to suspend judgment, WANG Lu(1966- ), female, associate professor of School of Foreign Studies, Shandong University of Finance; research fields:intercultural communication, English stylistics.94
  2. 2. Cultural Relativism and Intercultural Communicationempathize and try to understand the way that particular culture sees the world. 2. Challenges to Cultural Relativism However, there exist some people (cf. GUAN, 1995; YUE, 1996) who have put forward some challenges tocultural relativism based on the following facts: (1) Any culture is constantly changing and the direction for change is determined by people’s evaluation ofwhat is fitting and what is not according to the internal and external demands of the social, political, and physicalenvironment. (2) A people may get by with inadequate solutions to their problems, even judged by their own standards.Therefore, it is quite common to hear of complaints made by people against certain practices so widely spread intheir own society as to be considered cultural. (3) With the development of globalization, people from different cultural backgrounds more and morefrequently communicate with one another, and intercultural communication is always based on judgments of whatis valuable and what is not to a people. (4) Not all cultures develop at the same rate, nor do all aspects of culture change at a steady pace over thesame period of time. The former compels a culture to learn from some aspects of another culture. The latter willnecessarily cause so-called “cultural conflicts”, making one culture or the other in a state of perpetual“maladjustment”. 3. Cultural Relativism and Intercultural Communication Although the basic tenet of cultural relativism is that there is no universal standard of good and bad or rightand wrong, it does not necessarily follow that it’s impossible to evaluate any culture. Some scholars both in Chinaand in the West are engaged in cultural evaluation. Professor WANG Zong-yan, well known in Chinese circles ofintercultural communication for his points of view that are close to cultural relativism as demonstrated in histreatise of “Some Snags in English-Chinese Communication,” urges us to “pick up what is good in anotherculture” (1991: 30). If cultural evaluation is inevitable in this world, how to go about it without any culturalethnocentrism? In order to answer this question, we must first point out that cultural relativists maintain that no culture issuperior or inferior to any other culture, and that an aspect of any given culture can be judged only within its owncontext. Here “culture” is considered as a unified entity, not cultural elements composed of the entity. Unfortunately, culture is a multidimensional and complicated entity, the definitions of which, according to QIYu-cun (1992: 1), have amounted to no less than 250, not yet to everyone’s satisfaction. According to LIN Da-jin(1999: 87), two perspectives to look at culture for intercultural communication studies are proposed. From theviewpoint of human evolution, culture may be regarded as the comprehensive features that distinguish humansfrom animals. Culture here refers to “human culture” or “cultural universals”. From the viewpoint of humandistribution in different geographic areas in their evolution process, culture may as well be viewed as thecomprehensive features that distinguish one group of people from another. This perspective allows us to talk ofspecific cultures. As can be well imagined, the second perspective of culture is dynamic in nature, the concreteelements that comprise a given culture being in a constant change as they are compared and contrasted with thoseof each other culture. 95
  3. 3. Cultural Relativism and Intercultural Communication To return to cultural evaluation with regard to cultural relativism, one may ask what can be sorted out as “thecomprehensive features”. This very question really leads to the major business of intercultural communicationresearchers. Given the limited experience of any researcher and the dynamic nature of culture, no one can presentan exhaustive description of the elements of any given culture at any time. Yet, there is also the relatively staticnature of culture, otherwise no people could communicate in any sensible way with each other. Furthermore,specific cultural elements can be identified by way of statistical probability; namely, when a great majority of agiven nation or country or any particular group behave verbally and/or nonverbally in a certain uniform manner,we can safely regard the behavior as cultural. Since there is no way to sort out “the comprehensive features” with scientific accuracy and since “there areample reasons to assume that all races and ethnic groups are approximately equal in native endowments of themind” (Henderson, 1994: 116), it will be wrong indeed to view one culture as superior or inferior to another,especially so when local conditions are not fully appreciated. Since it’s not impossible to identify specific culturalelements, there is nothing wrong with personal evaluation of cultural elements. Assuming that these two viewpoints are accepted, it will be easier now to evaluate cultural elements inintercultural communication and for cultural exchange with cultural relativism brought into full play. 4. The Concluding Remarks In fact, the cultural relativists’ call for tolerance suggests clearly two fundamental principles of interculturalcommunication: the principle of never imposing any cultural element on another culture without its selection andthe principle of letting people live as they choose. In other words, you can make your own evaluation of certaincultural elements and even label them in your own heart as bad or wrong, but never force any people to think andbehave as you do. In intercultural communication and cultural exchange, be sure not to force the other party toaccept your culture but let the other party decide what elements of your culture they like and accept. If this can berealized, better intercultural communication can be expected. Let me close this paper with an example of intercultural communication with cultural relativism in view.About 20 years ago, if my friend said to me (You look pretty today!) when she saw mewearing a beautiful skirt, I would surely reply (Nothing pretty!), but now, without any externalimposing force, I would undoubtedly reply ! (Thank you!) an “imported product” from the West. References: [1] Bryjak, G. J. and Soroka M. P. (1994). Sociology: Cultural Diversity in a Changing World[M]. Massachusetts: Simon &Schuster, Inc. [2] Henderson, G. (1994). Cultural Diversity in the Workplace: Issues and Strategies[M]. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. [3] LIN Da-jin. (1999). Revisiting Cultural Relativism in Our Global Village[A]. . . [4] Samovar, L. A., Porter, R. E. and Jain, N. C.(eds). (1981). Understanding Intercultural Communication[M]. Belmont, CA:Wadsworth, Inc. [5] SONG Li. (2004). Gateway to Intercultural Communication[M]. Harbin University of Industry Press. [6] WANG Zong-yan. (1991). Some Snags in English-Chinese Communication[J]. Foreign Language Teaching and Researching, (1). [7] . [M]. 1996. [8] . [J]. 1996 1 . [9] . [J]. 1992 2 . [10] . [M]. 1988. (Edited by Doris and Jessica)96