Module 7: Cultural Differences and Cultural Understanding

The progression towards cultural understanding is vital to becoming an effective volunteer.  As humanitarian entrepreneur Connie Duckworth observes, "It's very hard to just parachute into a developing country. There are so many cultural nuances and ethnic differences, so many things about a particular culture that wouldn't be readily apparent to someone who's not from there. Success or failure of projects or enterprises rests on creating solutions that work within that cultural context."(1)  Culturally sensitive volunteering requires a willingness to learn as well as to give, but most of all, it requires the humility and ability to self-evaluate.

Overcoming ethnocentrism involves more than “getting used to” cultural differences. After having been raised in one culture, sudden immersion in a different culture can trigger a series of complex emotions and reactions. For some, it can come as a shock that their worldview isn’t universal, but is instead just one of many equally valid worldviews. For others, fundamental differences among people from different backgrounds can be difficult to accept. Still others will immediately admire the “beautiful” and “exotic” characteristics of a foreign culture, and may even temporarily shun their own background. Regardless of your initial attitude towards cultural differences, it is important to develop genuine intercultural sensitivity in order to be an effective volunteer.

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (2)(3)(4)(5)

Intercultural development and communication expert Dr. Milton Bennett has been recognized for his Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. The model describes, in a series of six stages, a continuum of attitudes toward cultural differences. The goal is to move from the ethnocentric stages of denial, defense, and minimization, to the ethnorelative stages of acceptance, adaptation and integration. Bennett describes ethnocentrism as an attitude or mindset which presumes the superiority of one’s own worldview, sometimes without even acknowledging the existence of others.  Ethnorelativism, on the other hand, assumes the equality and validity of all groups and does not judge others by the standards of one’s own culture. Bennett’s six-stage model is summarized below.

Ethnocentrism: A simple way to conceive of the three stages of ethnocentrism is in terms of attitudes toward cultural differences: those in the denial stage deny the existence of cultural differences, those in the defense stage demonize them, and those in the minimization stage trivialize differences.

Denial: People in the denial stage do not recognize the existence of cultural differences. They are completely ethnocentric in that they believe there is a correct type of living (theirs), and that those who behave differently simply don’t know any better. In this phase, people are prone to imposing their value system upon others, believing that they are “right” and that others who are different are “confused.” They are not threatened by cultural differences because they refuse to accept them. Generally, those who experience cultural denial have not had extensive contact with people different from themselves, and thus have no experiential basis for believing in other cultures.  A key indicator of the denial stage is the belief that you know better than the locals.

Defense: Those in the defense stage are no longer blissfully ignorant of other cultures; they recognize the existence of other cultures, but not their validity. They feel threatened by the presence of other ways of thinking, and thus denigrate them in an effort to assert the superiority of their own culture. Cultural differences are seen as problems to be overcome, and there is a dualistic “us vs. them” mentality. Whereas those in the denial stage are unthreatened by the presence of other cultural value systems (they don’t believe in them, after all), those in the defense stage do feel threatened by “competing” cultures. People in the defense stage tend to surround themselves with members of their own culture, and avoid contact with members from other cultures.(6)

Minimization: People in the minimization stage of ethnocentrism are still threatened by cultural differences and try to minimize them by telling themselves that people are more similar than dissimilar. No longer do they see those from other cultures as being misguided, inferior, or unfortunate. They still have not developed cultural self-awareness and are insistent about getting along with everyone. Because they assume that all cultures are fundamentally similar, people in this stage fail to tailor their approaches to a cultural context. (7)(8)


Acceptance: In this first stage of ethnorelativism, people begin to recognize other cultures and accept them as viable alternatives to their own worldview. They know that people are genuinely different from them and accept the inevitability of other value systems and behavioral norms. They do not yet adapt their own behavior to the cultural context, but they no longer see other cultures as threatening, wrong, or inferior. People in the acceptance phase can be thought of as “culture-neutral,” seeing differences as neither good nor bad, but rather as a fact of life.

Adaptation: During the adaptation phase, people begin to view cultural differences as a valuable resource. Because differences are seen as positive, people consciously adapt their behaviors to the different cultural norms of their environment.

Integration: Integration is the last stage in one’s journey away from ethnocentrism. In this stage, people accept that their identity is not based in any single culture. Once integrated, people can effortlessly and even unconsciously shift between worldviews and cultural frames of reference. Though they maintain their own cultural identity, they naturally integrate aspects of other cultures into it.

Once you have progressed to an ethnorelativistic view of cultural differences, you will in essence be bicultural. You will revel in cultural differences, and be able to effortlessly take on subtle characteristics of the local culture. Your intercultural sensitivity will also affect how others view and treat you. Being trusted and accepted by local people into a culture you have recently come to know and accept will be thrilling and fulfilling, and will allow you to be a more effective volunteer.

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(1) Analysis: Local Connections are the Key to Success.” 5 December 2008. Business Week Interactive Case Study.

(2) Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook,” p. 201-202. Peace Corps Information and Collection Exchange.

(3) Bennett, M. “A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” Derived from: Bennett, Milton J. "Towards a Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity" in R. Michael Paige, ed. Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1993.

(4) ibid.

(5) Bennett., M. Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Boston: Intercultural Press, Inc, 1998, 26-30.

(6) “Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook.”

(7) Bennett, M. “A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” Derived from: Bennett, Milton J. "Towards a Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity" in R. Michael Paige, ed. Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1993.

(8) Bennett, M. “Leveraging Your Intercultural Experience.” 17 September 2007. Presentation to BAE Systems Executives. Kyoto, Japan.