The Myth of Monoculturalism

Published on August 18th, 2021

One of the most common reactions to a discussion about cultural awareness training is this, “I don’t need it – I work in a monocultural team.” This is a myth – what they mean is that there are no foreigners in their team or that they all have the same skin color. 

Monoculturalism is the short-sighted belief that culture is the same as nationality, and therefore if you don’t have any foreigners in your team or social circle, then you don’t need to worry about cultural differences. Even Japan, often considered the most monocultural nation is not as homogeneous as you might think.

If you prefer video over text, we made a short under 3 min video for you:

Culture is not the same as nationality

Let’s deconstruct the myth a little bit, starting with nationality. What we now class as nation state is an artificial way of breaking up land into political entities. It is a line on a screen that shows where the tax collecting authority of one political entity ends and another begins. This is most evident in a city like Geneva, which sits half in France (stereotypically emotional and group oriented) and Switzerland (stereotypically passive and individualist – although try telling that to the Italian cantons!). It is patently absurd to base a cultural strategy according to which side of a street you live on – in fact many homes straddle the border.   

And what about China or India? Each has a population of around 1.5 billion people – together making up around 1/3 of the total population of the world. Are 1.5 billion people united by pretty much identical cultural values and behaviors?   

It is clear that culture is more than just nationality. 

We can, of course, use nationality as a starting point for exploring cultural identities, but we would be mistaken and misled to use that as our only frame of reference.

Small cultures

Adrian Holliday, a leading academic in the world of intercultural thinking, has put forward the concept of small cultures. In short, any group of any size that interacts together or with others has its own dynamic culture. Each of us belongs to a huge number of separate cultures, which overlap and adapt to the addition of new members or the departure of existing members.   

We have a number of social circles, family, professional groups. Even at work, we are not just part of a team, we interact cross-functionally. Each of those interactions will have its own set of unspoken norms and rules that govern what is appropriate and normal, what needs to be said explicitly and what is understood. Going deeper our education, upbringing and experience of life, personal beliefs, politics and religion all influence how we live, how we communicate and how we expect others to behave.   

Even twins do not have an identical experience of life and will develop separate personalities, which in turn, impact on the development of cultural preferences.

Political correctness

Multiculturalism has become a byword for political correctness and excessive liberalism, but at its core is a simple fact of reality – we are in a world of an infinite blend of cultures, which makes our lives richer and more varied, enhancing creativity and adaptability; but which also leaves the potential for misunderstanding, disillusionment and disengagement.

Variety and diversity

Ignoring the cultural differences between each of us is a rejection of the value of our individuality and, at its extreme, treats an individual as a drone. Cultural differences are part of the rich variety of life, adding color and interest. Research has shown that, properly harnessed, cultural diversity adds value to your business through increased performance, creativity and innovation.   

Monoculturalism is not only misguided, but it also rejects the need to address structural inequalities and unconscious bias. It is the ultimate opposite of cultural intelligence. Monoculturalism has at its heart the idea that there is no need to consider differences or adjust for others. It is blind to the difference that makes life interesting and vibrant – we don’t want to live in a world of clones. 

There are some very valid reasons not to do cultural awareness training – and until you have experienced good quality training, those reasons increase dramatically, but the fact that you don’t experience other cultures is not one of them. 

WRITTEN BY MATTHEW MACLACHLAN

Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.


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