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Cultural Sensitivity

April 4th, 2016

In another article on this website, you can read about the DAE culture model which helps people observe and analyze their surroundings before judging those around them. Sometimes, we forget that other people’s experiences are different from our own and we think that people should all live according to our cultural beliefs and practices. This train of thought, however, can cause issues among strangers and even friends if we don’t consider a wider worldview than our own. One topic that comes to mind that people have strong opinions about and need to be reminded of others’ experiences is international conflict.

A common international conflict that is widely discussed, especially in China, is the dispute over territory in Taiwan. China, to this day, considers Taiwan part of its territory, though the central Chinese government does not rule over Taiwan and the Taiwanese people elect their own officials. Chinese people largely consider Taiwan’s attempt at independence ridiculous because their land mass is small and China is powerful. Also, many Chinese people do not consider Taiwan a strong economic presence and certainly one that does not threaten China’s success. In the late 70’s, the United States signed an agreement stating that it would never try to label Taiwan as an independent nation to keep the interests of its strategic trading partner, China. However, with a simple Google search (a company founded in America), Taiwan’s labeling as a nation immediately comes up. In America, people value independence greatly. Culturally, Americans have no problem viewing Taiwan as an independent nation because it is obvious that, historically, the Taiwanese have wanted independence from mainland China. The Chinese, however, have no issue boldly stating their disapproval of Taiwan’s desire for secession from mainland China, even with a Taiwanese person present in the room. This is where cultural sensitivity comes into play. Imagine a group of three people in a room – one Chinese, one Taiwanese, and one American. If the American legitimizes Taiwan as a nation, or the Taiwanese person as a Taiwanese national, the Chinese person will be upset because of his/her culturally-deeply held views that Taiwan is not a country. If the American supports the Chinese person’s view of Taiwan not being considered a nation, the Taiwanese person will not feel validated in his/her own national identity, which comprises a huge part of who we are as people. Culturally, the American would likely lean more towards calling Taiwan a country due to American cultural norms of valuing independence and respecting people’s national identities. But what would be the best action for the American to take in that situation? That’s a question worth considering.

China and Taiwan are not the only groups of people in conflict over land. If a person from Crimea tells you that he/she is Ukrainian, do you respect that title and call him/her Ukrainian? If a Russian person heard a person from Crimea say he/she is Ukrainian, how would that person feel? Another example takes into consideration the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in the Middle East. America, by and large, historically supports Israel in its legitimacy as a nation and is one of the nation’s largest contributors economically, financially, and militarily. An Arab living in exactly the same region, however, would not consider him/herself Israeli, but rather Palestinian. In the Middle East, according to many countries, Israel is not even a country and they do not legitimize it by putting it on a map. In the United States, on the other hand, a person can quickly identify Israel by its written name on any globe made in America. But, if a Palestinian introduces him/herself to an American, should the American disregard that person’s national identity?

These questions are crucial to consider when interacting with people from war torn nations. Their experiences vary from our own and their perspectives must be taken into account. If you hold a strong belief about something concerning another country, consider the opposing viewpoint for its valid arguments. Remember that rigid cultural views can be harmful in international settings and relationships and may hinder your ability to enjoy what other cultures have to offer.