An Ideas-Based Online Magazine of the Global Network for Advanced Management

The Power of 'Diversity Ideologies' in Globalization

Increasing globalization has created opportunities to cross cultural boundaries when inventing products, engaging in business activities, and building teams. How do people perceive cultural trespassing, and judgments of the crossing of cultural borders as inappropriate?

Previous research has shown that exposure to foreign influences can concern people, heightening negative reactions and feelings of being under threat. However, we still know relatively little about how people nowadays react to cultural mixing and the crossing of cultural boundaries. In a series of experiments over the past few years, my colleague and I discovered that cultural fusing is a touchstone, eliciting different reactions as a function of people’s fundamental beliefs about cultural factors. These are called diversity ideologies.

Three basic diversity ideologies (colorblindness, multiculturalism and polyculturalism) all aim to overcome prejudice and intergroup conflict and to enhance intergroup relations. But they use different approaches to managing cultural differences.

Managing Cultural Differences

Colorblindness encourages people to ignore cultural backgrounds and focus on sameness, since all conflicts and prejudice are seen to arise from the recognition of differences. Multiculturalism emphasizes the need to acknowledge and preserve cultural differences in the belief that all problems are rooted in the misunderstanding and disrespect of other groups. It should be that each ethnic or cultural group has the right to maintain its traditions and protect its values and identity against the influence of the dominant culture. The more recently developed ideology of polyculturalism also acknowledges the importance of cultural differences, but it places more weight on the view that cultures continually influence one another. Taking this perspective, cultures evolve due to the interactions which take place between different groups. How, though, do these diversity ideologies impact our judgments about and preferences for mixing and crossing cultures?

Imagine an American businessman visiting an office in China. During a meeting, he adapts his behavior to match Chinese cultural norms, aiming to behave exactly as a typical Chinese businessman would. Do you like him? Do you appreciate his efforts to accommodate a different culture? A few years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech in Mandarin to Chinese students at Tsinghua University, using the local cultural style. Some of the students admired his flexibility and attempts to fit in, while others questioned his authenticity given that access to Facebook had been blocked. Why did the locals feel differently about an outsider’s efforts to accommodate and adapt?

Judgments about Outsiders’ Accommodation to Local Norms

This is confusing. Based on the commonsense view that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” these efforts might seem advisable and could be expected to charm locals. However, real-world findings and scientific research suggest that foreign visitors who alter their behavior to accommodate local norms completely (high accommodation) sometimes elicit negative feedback. To solve this puzzle, my colleague and I investigated how diversity ideologies guide different judgments about outsiders’ accommodation to local norms (Cho, Morris, & Dow, in press). We found that high accommodation by outsiders is viewed more negatively through the multicultural perspective (which sees cultural traditions as unique and preserved over time) than through that of polyculturalism (which sees cultures interacting with and contributing to one another). People with a multicultural mindset, it seems, are concerned that outsiders are not showing their true heritage and identity when they try to accommodate local norms completely. The findings suggested that when people enter new cultural zones in teams, organizations or countries, they should be mindful about what a dominant ideology is and how much they should try to accommodate local cultural norms.

Choosing Cultural Fusion

In addition to increasing opportunities to cross cultural boundaries, globalization engenders cultural fusion in cuisine, leisure activities, and a wide range of other experiences. When I meet my American friends for dinner, many of them are interested in tasting “authentic” Korean foods instead of Korean fusion dishes.  My colleagues and I tested whether choosing fusion cuisine or something comparable depends on people’s underlying diversity ideologies (Cho, Morris, Slepian, & Tadmor, 2017).

We found that the polycultural mindset increased preferences for culturally mixed experiences (e.g. a Japanese-Brazilian aikido class) over culturally unitary experiences (e.g. a Japanese aikido class). Polyculturalism reduced concerns about cultural purity or “contamination” when experiencing a foreign culture, which made cultural fusion more favored. These findings imply that diversity ideologies may guide differing understandings of cultural authenticity, suggesting that polyculturalism embraces foreign influences more readily, rather than viewing them as threats or sources of contamination.

This still leaves a number of important questions to consider. How should organizations foster trust in newcomers from different cultures? When is cultural mixing most appealing? When are people willing to connect with those who have different cultural outlooks? How do people overcome cultural threats and, instead, become cultural chameleons? My research program is aimed at answering these questions in the hope of inspiring greater cultural diversity.