Not All Cultural Misunderstandings are Negative:
The Inadequacy of the Concept of Ethnocentrism

Jordan Hyde
Alex North

Brigham Young University - Idaho


This qualitative study examined the extent to which expatriates accommodate local worldviews and the implications of such accommodation on intercultural relations. Participants were interviewed and transcripts were analyzed and coded for themes. Most participants did not accommodate local worldviews per se, but most recognized the ecological benefits of the other cultural traditions. Various factors influenced the degree to which they accommodated local perspectives. Those who empathized with local perspectives expressed more positive relations with the host culture.


In an age when technological, political, and economic trends make the world smaller, research on intercultural relations has become increasingly important. Samuel P. Huntington (2008) argued that “in this new world . . . the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural” (p. 203). Further, Richard A. Nisbett (2003) demonstrated that cultures (in this case, East Asia and the West) “have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years” (p. xvi). Hence, research on cultural ideologies and how to facilitate positive human relations across cultural boundaries is more relevant than ever.

One common approach to investigating intercultural relations emphasizes expatriate adjustment and experience (Templer, 2010; van der Heijden, Engen, & Paauwe, 2009). Studies have revealed several factors associated with expatriates’ improved sociocultural adjustment, including psychological hardiness (White, Absher, & Huggins, 2011), low perceived and actual distance between the expatriate’s native culture and the host culture (Jenkins & Mockaitis, 2010), and having chosen (rather than having been assigned) to move to another culture (Peltokorpi & Froese, 2009). Jenkins and Mockaitis (2010) also found that previous international experience slightly improved expatriate adjustment, except when it increases the accuracy of expatriates’ perceptions of the host culture; perceptual accuracy toward the host culture actually decreases expatriate adjustment.

As informative as this literature is, it has four significant limitations. One, it focused largely on expatriates who travel internationally for work and has therefore placed as much or more emphasis on work adjustment as cultural adjustment (e.g., Chen, Krikman, Kim, Farh, Tangirala, 2010; Templer, 2010; White et. al., 2011; Peltokorpi & Froese, 2009; and van der Heijden et. al., 2009). Two, it often utilized questionnaires or surveys to test variables that were already assumed to be relevant, (e.g., Hemmasi, Downs, & Varner, 2010; White, et. al., 2011; Peltokorpi & Froese, 2009; Jenkins & Mockaitis, 2010; and van der Heijden et. al., 2009) rather than exploring the subjective experience of expatriates to discover more variables that may be relevant. Third, it was typically quantitative (as are all of the aforementioned articles on expatriate adjustment), so little literature explored expatriates’ experience from a qualitative perspective. Moreover, although some research addressed expatriates’ general perceptions of their host cultures (e.g., Jenkins & Mockaitis, 2010), it has not deeply explored how the “different systems of thought” that Nisbett (2010, p. xvi) described impact expatriates’ intercultural experiences.

The purpose of this study is to explore the responses of expatriates, specifically missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), as they recall their time in foreign cultures, with particular consideration of whether they describe the culture from its own perspective or from the missionaries’ native cultural perspective. Our research questions were articulated as follows:

  • Do expatriates accommodate local philosophical worldviews as they visit foreign cultures?
  • What are the effects of accommodating local worldviews on expatriates’ relationships with individuals in the host culture and on their attitudes toward the culture as a whole?

We hypothesized that

  • participants would generally not use descriptions based in the host cultures’ worldviews, and
  • the more participants were able to recognize such worldviews, the more positive their attitudes would be toward the host cultures.

Scientific rigor demands that we articulate a few of the assumptions that underlie this investigation. First, we assume that there actually are ideological/philosophical differences across cultures. This assumption is founded in a plenitude of research both in anthropology and cross-cultural psychology (see Nisbett. 2003; Levine, 1997; and Nydell, 2006). Second, we assume that it is possible for expatriates to accommodate those worldviews. This assumption was initially based on anecdotal evidence, but it was also immediately and manifestly supported by the data gathered in the first pilot interview. Third, as mentioned before, our approach to treating this subject assumes that previous descriptions of intercultural attitudes are not sufficient in accounting for all the complexities of intercultural relations.



We selected a convenience sample of nine individuals (6 male, 3 female). All participants were students at Brigham Young University – Idaho who had served missions for the LDS Church for a period of 18 months to two years. Four had served in South Korea, three in Brazil, one in West Africa (Liberia and Sierra Leone), and one in Zimbabwe. Having cultures from three continents represented and having multiple participants from each helped ensure that differences in participants’ responses were not simply due to differences in the host cultures. Each of the participants signed an informed consent form before participating in our study.

Interview structure.

Qualitative interviews were used for data collection because “qualitative interviewing . . . provides us with a means for exploring the points of view of our research subjects” (Miller & Glassner, 2004, p. 100). A digital recorder was used for later transcription, thus freeing us “to concentrate on the topic and the dynamics of the interview” (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009, p. 179). During our analysis, we closely reviewed both the written transcripts and audio recordings because written transcripts are “amenable to closer analysis” (p. 180), but the audio recordings maintain “the words and their tone, pauses and the like… in a permanent form that is possible to return to again and again for relistening” (p. 179). We started with four general “introductory questions” (p. 135) to ensure that we would collect roughly equivalent data. These questions are as follows:

  • Where did you live and for how long? With which culture or cultures did you interact?
  • What was it like for you to experience that culture?
  • Were there any aspects of the culture that you had particular difficulty adapting to?
  • How do you feel about that culture?

Other types of questions (e.g., follow-up, specifying, structuring, and interpreting questions) were added in individual interviews as necessary for the researchers to understand the responses of each individual (pp. 135-136).


All participants were interviewed in study rooms at the University’s library. Each interview was later analyzed broadly for general themes, including (a) whether or not on the whole, the participant used worldview-relative descriptions and (b) the nature of the participant’s general attitude toward the culture. The interviews were also analyzed word for word to ascertain details and specific examples.

Our method shares some commonalities with grounded theory in that we allowed the data to generate our explanations. Our approach was also extensively influenced by the “critical methodology” proposed by Yanchar, Gantt, and Clay (2005). Ours was a “question-driven, (rather than a method-driven) approach” (p. 28).

As we were analyzing the interviews, we used data-driven coding (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009, p. 201) to group responses into two categories, one for the degree of worldview recognition and another for implications of worldview recognition.

We established inter-rater reliability and validity in two ways. First, we established the specific introductory questions listed above. This helped us explore roughly similar topics while nevertheless having the flexibility to adapt to the needs and themes of individual participants. Second, as we examined the interviews, we engaged in constant and critical discussions about our analyses, much like the “peer validation” described by Kvale and Brinkmann (2009, p. 326). We also strengthened the validity of our findings by pursuing expert review and by frequently consulting relevant literature to guide our method, interpretations, and conclusions.


Of all participants interviewed, only one (who served in South Korea) offered descriptions almost exclusively from the host culture’s perspective. The finding that the majority did not use such descriptions was in support of our first hypothesis. The accuracy of the second hypothesis was more difficult to assess. Most participants were generally positive toward the host culture, even if they described it from their own culture’s perspective. This fact does not support our second hypothesis. However, the subject who made the most statements regarding the local worldview expressed the greatest depth of recognition of the difference and viewed it as just that; he repeatedly stated that “it is just different.” This suggests that worldview recognition may decrease negativity but that it tends toward neutrality rather than positivity.

One challenge we faced as we were analyzing our data is the emergence of a common theme that we had not considered when we were posing our research questions. We posed our question with reference to philosophical worldviews, and, as mentioned previously, few described such alternative worldviews. However, many did recognize the social or ecological necessity of the differences, and this was much more strongly and overtly accompanied by increased positivity (or at least decreased negativity). In this case, participants most frequently felt initially negative toward some cultural differences but grew increasingly positive toward the difference as they began to see its purpose (See Table 1B). Interestingly, these accounts were often followed by statements that participants came to embrace the differences and that they wanted to adopt them in their own lives.



DESCRIPTION: If they don't want to make an appointment, they'll say 'Later,' and 'Later' pretty much means
'Never. ' They're not going to say "no" flat out.

• If they make an appointment, they're kind of honor-bound to follow through.
• They are trying to be polite and not hurt you.
• They are going to go about it in the most socially acceptable way possible.

• Seeing their intent actually helps you appreciate them more.
• You start doing it yourself because it just feels polite as soon as you understand what they're doing.
• It's very, very easy to get used to.
• It's just - it's different. I don't know how to describe it . . it just is.
• It's actually really comfortable.


DESCRIPTION: They beat children. They are kind of a "no nonsense" parenting style that way.

• [At first] I saw the end product, bur I failed to see the reasoning behind it.
• [Realized later.] A lot of that deals with the child's responsibility in the family; if the children don't
accomplish their roles, the family doesn't have water that evening.

• My upbringing does not allow me to agree with that. But I failed to realize that this child has let him and
his siblings down.
• I didn't see the good at first, but by the time I left:, I saw where they were coming from.


DESCRIPTION: They would eat a big lunch and then take a nap. In the middle of the workday they would have
a two hour break (Siesta.)

• It always seemed lazy to me, especially at first.
(Note that although he said "especially at first," he described continuing to be negative toward it even later in
his mission .)

• As a missionary, that was annoying.
• My trainer was a Brazilian, so he would take a nap after lunch. After I got in charge we would traet [per
form door-to-door contacting] and wake people up through siesta.

Tables 1A-1C have been selected as largely representative of the domain of participants’ descriptions of the host culture, with 1B being by far the most typical. Each portion of Table 1 includes a description of the difference and attributional and attitudinal statements regarding the difference. Because worldview recognition was so rare, we did not include it in the table, but we will expound on it more in the discussion section.

Table 2 lists some of the factors that were repeated by multiple participants as facilitating the process of adapting to the culture. Factors could be roughly grouped into internal factors and external factors. It was abundantly clear, however, that none of them caused adaptation or worldview/social function recognition. (In fact, the participant who least frequently reported recognition and the most frequently reported negativity had a native trainer, spoke the language fluently, and lived in the culture for two years.)


External factors:
• Learning their language: "The whole society, the whole culture, is reflected in the language."
• Knowledge of historical context: "Because I learned a lot about their history, I was able to tolerate things."
• Locals themselves: "I was lucky enough to have a native trainer."

Internal factors:
• Love of the people and of their culture: "It comes with a love of the culture ... The more you care toward a
certain people, the more understanding you'll be of the differences."
• Time: ''After living there for six months, I started to ... understand that that is just how it is."
• Humility: "Humility is a key to viewing the people charitably."


Before proceeding into our deeper discussion and offering our conclusions, we must first clarify some of the terminology we will use. For our purposes, social function recognition involves describing a specific behavior and the practical or ecological purpose of that behavior. Worldview recognition involves perceiving a broader philosophical attitude toward life and/or self that tends to pervade several, if not all, behaviors described. To illustrate, we can offer some prototypical examples. When two of our participants noted that Koreans are “collectivistic” and that Americans are “individualistic,” we considered this a worldview statement; it did not refer to a specific behavior, and it did not describe the purpose behind the difference. It was used to describe a general approach to life and was either directly or indirectly referenced throughout various descriptions. By contrast, the description in table 1B shows Participant 2’s recognition of the necessity of very strict parenting for the survival of many West African families. We deemed this to be social function recognition.

Because the phenomenon of worldview and/or social function recognition is not precisely the same as any other phenomenon commonly studied in research on intercultural relations, we have created new terms relating to it. This will help us discuss our results and conclusions with increased accuracy and brevity. We offer the term specticentrism to refer to the tendency to understand or describe other cultures from the perspective of one’s own culture (“specti” is of the same root and meaning as we find in perspective; “centrism” carries the same meaning as it does in egocentrism or ethnocentrism). Specticentrism is problematic for expatriates because it leads them to describe their host cultures in ways that are not truly relevant or applicable to host culture itself. In contrast to specticentrism, we call the recognition of the other culture’s perspective (either through worldview or social function recognition) alterspection. Alterspectivism can be likened to an intercultural “theory of mind.” The precise meaning of both of these terms will be clarified as we distinguish them from other related terms.

First, specticentrism is fundamentally different from ethnocentrism. Kieth (2011) explained that ethnocentrism is conceptualized as an elevation of one’s own in-group, often (though not always) accompanied by negative attitudes toward the out-group. The problem with this term is that we are investigating attributions/descriptions that were dependent on the ideology of one’s in-group but that were not necessarily preferential toward the in-group. In some cases, descriptions were openly preferential toward the host culture while being, nevertheless, grounded in the perspective of the participant’s home culture. For example, one of our participants made sense of the initially frustrating fact that busses in Brazil did not follow a rigid schedule by stating that it would be “a waste of time” for them to stop at bus stops if nobody was getting on or off. She also said that she eventually came to wonder why America does not do things more like that. This is clearly not ethnocentrism. Yet the attribution “it would be a waste of time” may be dependent on American (or at least industrialized) ideology and therefore not appropriate for much of Brazilian culture. Levine’s (1997) A Geography of Time suggested that time, and particularly wasting time, is likely not the issue at all. Because even reconceptualizations of ethnocentrism (i.e., Bizumic et. al., 2009) rest on the fundamental premises listed above, this term and its associated measures are not appropriate.

Second, alterspectivism differs sharply from relativism. There are many forms of relativism, none of which accurately reflect our phenomenon because they all, by definition, demand the denial of absolutes (Speck, 1998, p. 67; Trigg, 2001; Lenkeit, 2009, p. 17). Speck (1998) described some of the problems with relativism that are particularly pertinent to a discussion about missionaries. Setting aside his potent arguments that relativism is “untenable as a coherent philosophy” (p. 67) and that it “promotes intolerance” (p. 68), his demonstration of the “theological incoherence of neutrality” (p. 75) is particularly relevant to our data. It is unreasonable to expect that expatriates whose sole purpose is to make theological truth claims be totally neutral. Indeed, though almost all of them held very positive attitudes toward the host cultures, all of them expressed disagreement with at least one aspect of the culture. Nevertheless, we argue that they should be credited for the fact that they almost uniformly felt deep love and tolerance toward their host cultures despite being, unmistakably, not relativistic.

Finally, the distinction between specticentrism and alterspectivism is not the same as the distinction between the etic and the emic views frequently discussed by cultural researchers. This distinction is subtle, because some definitions of the terms etic and emic are fitting to describe our phenomenon while others are not. For example, Lenkeit (2009) defines etic as “an outsider’s view of the culture” and emic as “an insider’s view of a culture.” The problem for us is that the term etic often carries the connotation of an “‘objective outsider’s’ perspective” that must be used by researchers, particularly ethnographers (Christensen, Johnson, & Turner, 2011, p. 371). Research of this nature is so markedly dissimilar from the experiences and purposes of our participants that these terms are also potentially misleading.

We must offer one final word about worldview and social function recognition. Although both seem to be effective at promoting alterspection, there does seem to be one advantage to worldview recognition. Our data suggest that recognizing the presence of an alternative worldview may help expatriates take a new perspective on the culture as a whole, thereby helping them reframe many behaviors characteristic of the culture, whereas social function recognition has to be done repeatedly. Nevertheless, it is obvious that recognizing social functions, even if it must be done repeatedly, is sufficient as a major factor facilitating positive attitudes toward the host culture.


First, the results suggested that although the missionaries’ descriptions did not tend to accommodate local worldviews, they did frequently learn to acknowledge social functions. Therefore, had we rephrased the research question, “Do these expatriates’ descriptions of their host cultures tend to be alterspective?” we would have concluded that the answer, generally speaking, was yes. Moreover, we conclude that although recognizing worldviews seems to be only weakly related to positivity toward the host culture, alterspectivism seems to have a much stronger relationship with positivity.

Our findings may have many implications for organizations that train expatriates. We will focus on three. First, if expatriates can be trained to be alterspective, it seems that such training may help expatriates transition to living with the host culture more quickly and smoothly. This may be especially important for expatriates who will speak in their own native language (as often happens when many natives are multilingual), because several participants reported that learning another language facilitates humility (an internal factor) and gives cues about what is important to the culture (an external factor). Second, training in alterspectivism may help provide expatriates a framework through which they could more easily explain their disagreements with the culture while remaining positive toward it. In other words, alterspectivism may be a viable alternative for those who feel they cannot accept relativism but wish to remain respectful and empathetic to the host culture, as in Table 1B. Finally, the statements listed in Table 2 may also provide insights about factors and situations that should be encouraged when possible to facilitate the adoption of alterspectivism.


One major limitation of this study is that we interviewed expatriates who had already returned to the United States and had lived there for a time since they lived in foreign cultures. This means that we ultimately examined cognitive reconstructions of these expatriates’ intercultural relations, not the relations themselves. This approach was nevertheless useful because we heard from those who were able to retrace their ideological and emotional journey from specticentrism to alterspectivism. Another limitation is that all participants were of the same home culture, making it difficult to determine how applicable these new terms are to expatriates rooted elsewhere.

Future Research.

Further research could more thoroughly test the recommendations we made to trainers of expatriates. First it must be established whether people can be trained to be alterspective, or if stable personality traits determine whether expatriates are open to alterspection. Additional research could be done to evaluate the nature and strength of such training. We hypothesize that helping expatriates avoid specticentrism will lead them to be more cautious and discriminate about which aspects of the culture they want to “help.” Finally, further research should increase the diversity of expatriates, including multiple nationalities, different durations of tours elsewhere, and various reasons for leaving home.


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