Recently, a coworker (who I have only shared email correspondences with) told me that she thought I was Caucasian. As you started reading this, did you make the same internal assumption? I am actually Korean-American. That identification is so core to my cultural identity that without knowing that about me, you miss how I view and experience the world.
Let’s face it, we all have cultural assumptions and biases that color our perspectives. They are like unconscious simplifications, loosely based on our previous experiences, what others have told us, and general stereotypes. Many times, we fall back into our “default mode”, where we label people based on whatever characteristics are in the majority population we surrounded by. For example, we tend to specify certain details about a person when they are not in the “norm” for that environment–like introducing someone as “this is my gay friend.”
Making assumptions about culture is problematic for two very important reasons:
Firstly, making assumptions based on a default/majority gives a subtle (or not so subtle) indication that whatever is not within that default/majority category is ‘abnormal’.
We see it all the time. “Oh, I didn’t think she was into sports” or “I couldn’t eat a lot when I was overseas, I needed normal food”. This can cause a lot of discomfort and rejection as it gives an implicit message that a person is not normal, is odd, difficult to accommodate, and so on.
Secondly, making assumptions takes away the richness or value of whoever is in the default/majority.
I often find that people specify race when the person is not Caucasian. Or people simply assume the individual being discussed is Caucasian if nothing else is specified. This strips that individual of their rich Caucasian culture which is so vast. Just because people look similar, does not mean there are no differences.
Research shows us that there are many more differences within a category than there is between categories.
This gives rise to further complications. For example, why are the common descriptors for describing people mostly just age and gender? The individual’s race, ethnicity, relationship status, socioeconomic status, disability, religious background, sexual orientation, and so on are just as important in understanding them. Are we defaulting to or assuming other parts of their identity, and if so, what rich information are we missing?
ADDRESSING Cultural Assumptions: What can we do?
An essential task for all of us is to ask ourselves, “What am I assuming about other people’s identity and experience? How do different facets of their identity impact their relationships, worldview, and life?”. A great place to start is using the ADDRESSING Model to expand our descriptors and challenge our assumptions of others.
A – AGE
D – DISABILITY
D – DISABILITY OBTAINED LATER IN LIFE
R – RELIGION
E – ETHNICITY
S – SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS
S – SEXUAL ORIENTATION
I – INDIGENOUS HERITAGE
N – NATIONAL ORIGIN
G – GENDER
We must start the process somewhere. Ask yourselves this: how do these factors impact your life? How do these factors impact others’ lives? How do these factors intersect with one another?
Cultural Sensitivity and the ADDRESSING Cultural Assumptions Model
Having cultural sensitivity and using the ADDRESSING Model doesn’t mean that you must be an expert in each culture’s values. It simply means that you’re willing to ask honest questions, seek understanding, and demonstrate empathy rather than judging those around you. Making the effort is important because without it we’ll co-exist with people we don’t understand, thereby creating a higher risk for misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and bias – things that can all be avoided.
Diana Ro, PsyD is a Doctoral Limited Licensed Psychologist at the Pine Rest Traverse City Clinic. Diana earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Social Behavior from University of California of Irvine. She received her Master’s degree in Psychology and Christian Leadership as well as her Doctorate of Psychology degree from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.