Module 9: Cultural Beliefs About Service

Western society generally teaches that those who have plenty should help those who are less fortunate than they are. In many circumstances, people who dedicate time to serving others are praised for their moral fiber, or given tax exemptions. It may therefore come as a shock to many Westerners that not everyone shares this laudatory attitude toward community service.

 “Beliefs about giving service also vary by culture. In some societies, those who give service to others often do so because of their religious beliefs. In India…the impetus for service comes from a desire to be self-sufficient in light of a colonial past, and in Denmark, a traditionally homogenous society, it is seen as a way of learning about the country’s new cultural diversity. In some societies, where the concept of “face” is important, the idea of receiving service from a stranger can be shameful—it can mean that you do not have an “in-group” to take care of you. For example, nursing homes don’t exist in many countries—families care for the elderly. Of course, that paradigm presupposes that someone, most likely a female member of the family, does not work outside the home. You may also find that the preponderant belief in some societies is that the government or some other group should take care of those in need, rather than individuals. When people in your host society react to the work you’re doing, either positively or negatively, try to put the reaction in a context—look around you, ask questions, and see if you can get some idea about their attitude toward service. What motivates people to serve? Do those who are being served feel shame, or do they see themselves as being in a temporary situation, or in a situation caused by forces for which they are not responsible?”(1)

Attitudes toward service are affected by family orientation, life patterns, notions of pride and shame, historical context, religious beliefs, collectivism versus individualism, attitudes toward change, societal class structures, and more. As a volunteer, you should recognize that your beliefs about service, like any other cultural beliefs, are not universal, and that you will have to develop an ethnorelative understanding of helping others.

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(1) Merrill, M. “What Assumptions Are In Your Suitcase?” 2005.