Ethnocentrism is simply pride on a group scale.
I know, I know, I’m simplifying a little here. Let me explain.
Ethnocentrism = Group Pride
Ethnocentrism is one of those words that can carry multiple meanings, but generally, it’s defined as a sense of superiority over someone (or their group) due to a belief that one’s own group is different, or better, than others. I have yet to meet or hear of any group of individuals who don’t struggle with ethnocentrism on some level.
(Quick piece of ironic history here: An article in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology suggests that the term “ethnocentrism” was first used by sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz in the late 1800s. The article notes that “there may be a somewhat ethnocentric tendency among English speaking psychologists and social scientists… to ignore the work even by a prominent author such as Gumplowicz, because almost all of his publications were written in foreign languages and were unavailable in English!”)
Pride is essentially the same. Author C.S. Lewis explains, “there is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else…And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others. The vice I am talking of is Pride.”
Of course, I’m not discussing the type of pride that states, “I’m proud of my daughter’s hard work,” or the ethnocentrism that means being proud of one’s country while acknowledging its faults. I’m using both words strictly negatively.
British poet Samuel Johnson once defined oats as, “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” He published this definition in a dictionary, of all places. (The Internet mobs would really have fun with something like this today.) Naturally, the citizens of Scotland took offense at this definition, and supposedly replied, “and that is why England has the finest horses, and Scotland the finest men!”
In Johnson’s day, he would have been called proud, arrogant, or disdainful. Today he’d be labeled ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism is pride displayed on a sociological level: it’s group pride.
No one is immune to ethnocentrism, or group pride. Suppose that a man (we’ll call him Bob), fed up with the levels of ethnocentrism he sees around him, decides to abandon society and live in isolation. He quits his day job, sells most of his belongings, and moves to a remote valley in Canada, over fifty miles from any known civilization. Between hunting, fishing and farming, he manages to survive, with no human contact, for over a year. Bob now prides himself on his lack of ethnocentrism: he has broken off from the petty squabbling of less enlightened humans, and finds pride only in himself.
Bob should be congratulated: he’s now joined a new ethnocentric group, hermits.
Do you want to know what’s ironic about pride? In our cliques, in our gangs, in our snobbery or elitism or even in our piousness, we become proud. By acting in an ethnocentric way, we confirm that we are, in fact, human, a part of the humanity surrounding us.
When we automatically equate “different” with “bad,” we commit the one vice that proves we are just as human as the individual or group we are judging. The irony here is that everyone thinks they’re special, and no one is.
The trouble with pride and its group form of ethnocentrism is that it’s so easy to be prideful just when we’re getting humble. Going back to our hermit Bob, suppose that, after a year of isolation, Bob realizes he’s misjudged his fellow humans and decides to practice humility. For an hour every day, he ponders the goodness of others. After doing this for a month, Bob notices that he’s feeling very charitable and loving towards humanity. “Hooray,” he thinks, “I’ve become humble!” Well, now that’s he’s humble, Bob is quite pleased with himself—and is now proud for a different reason. His pride hasn’t been abandoned, it’s just put on a different shade of skin, a sort of chameleon effect. If you need a recent example of this, spend some time with someone who’s switched political parties in the last decade and you’ll most likely get your fill of it. (This, coming from someone who didn’t support Clinton or Trump!)
Of course, at this point I’m feeling like a pretty enlightened individual. Now that I am one of those who have discovered the link between pride and ethnocentrism, I could very easily fall into the trap of considering myself therefore superior to others who haven’t! Pride’s chameleon skin has a shade for every form of ethnocentrism.
In the Workplace: Heal the Individual, Heal the Group
In order to combat ethnocentrism, individual pride must be acknowledged. In business, when we talk about “combating ethnocentrism,” or creating a “diverse workplace,” or even addressing workplace politics, we’re discussing forms of pride displayed by a group of individuals. Labeling groups is easy; addressing the pride held by individuals, especially ourselves, is more difficult. The first step to combating ethnocentrism in the workplace, the nation, and the world is first facing our own unjust pride. Ethnocentrism’s negative effects will be minimized when individual pride is addressed. This means one of the fastest ways to begin solving ethnocentrism is to start combating one’s own pride. At the risk of sounding proud myself, I’ve found the following helpful in business and personal life:
Be willing to offer a sincere apology when proven wrong.
Learn about other cultures and groups before issuing judgment.
Be agreeable, even when disagreeing.
Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes.
Look for good in other cultures.
Worry less about being “humble,” and more about recognizing the common humanity, the human condition, you share with everyone.
Quoting C.S. Lewis again, “The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” Individuals labeling other groups as “ethnocentric” may want to have a good long look in the mirror before throwing that word around too lightly. While labeling another’s ethnocentrism mote, it’s just possible they’re blinded by the ethnocentrism beam in their own eye.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check Facebook and judge anyone posting pictures of cats. 😉
P.S. This post is long enough already, but there’s a classic example of ethnocentrism in literature that’s too good not to share: Jane Austen’s character Fitzwilliam Darcy. A British nobleman, he belongs to a family with both royal and financial status. Describing the reaction to his presence at a party, Austen writes, “the gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance.”
In sociological terms, it could be said that Mr. Darcy represents the ethnocentric attitude of the rich aristocracy of the time. Mr. Darcy’s appearance in literature, in fact, is practically named ethnocentrism: Pride and Prejudice. (Don’t worry, though, he gets over his pride by the end of the book and lives as happily ever after as any Jane Austen character can.)