Cultural Relativism: From “Fear” to “Leaning In”

Favorite pillow for the plane, check! Passport, check!  Vaccinations, check!  Mindset and Behavior Matrix, check…..wait, what?!

As an educator, one of my favorite experiences each year has come to be the Fall Orientation for Castilleja’s Junior class as they prepare for their school-sponsored Investigator trips.  To witness a Castilleja Junior preparing to embark on an Investigator trip is to witness a young adult becoming acutely conscious that “leaning in,” as local FB COO and feminist pundit Sheryl Sandberg reminds women across the United States, may look, feel, and sound different according to one’s socio-political, economic, and cultural context.  To be a Castilleja Junior at Fall “Investigator” Orientation is to be reminded that developing global relationships requires having both courage and fear, pride and humility, and a passion to “share one’s truth,” as well as a deep commitment to “do no harm.”

This year’s Fall Orientation included an introduction to cultural relativism by Stanford Business School professor Bill Barnett, and it affirmed my commitment towards these opening days as an important experience in shaping global citizens.  Bill Barnett is a raconteur extraordinaire, and, as his tales and anecdotes are as varied as the myriad of cultures and organizations he’s experienced, studied, and analyzed, our morning in his company was nothing short of a whirlwind tour through several dozen extraordinary moments.  These snapshots of his travels abroad were used to exemplify the concept of cultural relativism and the importance of understanding it as a Global Investigator intent on behaving as both a guest and a partner in another region of the world.

For those who want a little more context to the term, cultural relativism is an opinion that was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the 20th century and later popularized by his students. Boas first articulated the idea in 1887: “…civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” (Wikipedia)

The mere thought of thinking about and applying an understanding of cultural relativism to project work with a group that clearly has a different cultural context could potentially cause panic and concern in anyone’s heart – let alone a high school Junior’s.  Students suddenly start to wonder about everyday behaviors, as well as big decisions.  They begin ask themselves and their future travel companions questions ranging from what can be said and what topics need to be avoidedwhat is a faux pax and what is standard behaviorto how do I ask if something is okay and how do I know if I have suddenly caused a problem?

“Leaning in” can feel very risky in such situations.  So, how does a young adult “lean in” and learn to lead while remaining dedicated to “doing no harm” and “respecting another culture”? It’s not easy, and like most rewarding life experiences, there is no right way to do it.  However, there is a framework that can lower the risk and enhance the potential for incredible rewards that range from new friendships to future business relationships to life-altering social change in numerous communities including one’s own.

At Castilleja we teach students about the travel mindsets of “tourist, traveler, guest, and partner.”  And, we suggest to them that they fluctuate between these mindsets whenever they enter a community other than their own. (Yes, that can as easily be across the freeway as it is across the world.)  And, whatever their mindsets, in each moment in a new community they make behavioral choices.  They can be a “prisoner, a vacationer, or a leader.”

On their investigator trips we ask students to focus on being guests and partners.  Through projects co-created with our partners on the ground, they are negotiating and developing relationships. They are simultaneously guests and partners, and they need to watch and listen closely for and then respond to social cues from those we visit.  They also need to promote partnership by using their knowledge of the local social and cultural context and norms to collaborate effectively – sharing their honest and thoughtful opinions while respecting the boundaries of our nascent collaborative work. Time is an ally in partnership development, and building a strong foundation will allow for sustained social transformation for individuals and communities.  Social transformation occurs through shared moments that develop trust between people and generate enough courage to effectively negotiate when opinions diverge.  We ask our students to support one another as they navigate their behavioral choices; everyone feels trapped at times (like a prisoner), and the choice to lead (oneself, a small group, everyone working partnership) is usually available to several in any moment.  Moving from prisoner to leader can be as simple as daring to take a bite of an unknown food offered generously by a host to something as meaningful as framing an activity so thoughtfully that previously silent and potentially disengaged participants come forward to share their perspectives.

When Fall Orientation ends and a predictable schedule resumes for Castilleja Juniors, I like to believe that their daily rhythms of life are already slightly altered.  After all, their Mindset and Behavior Matrix should be as effective in the classroom as it will be across the globe.

Written by Stacey Kertsman.

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