Differences and Similarities

When I was a student in elementary school back in the 1980s, I became very familiar with the Venn Diagram. In a paper and pencil era, teachers couldn’t get enough of “compare and contrast” activities in which we would identify how two things – like a novel and its film adaptation – were the same in some ways and different in others. Neither half of the activity was the end goal; rather, the point was to discover the dynamic relationship of separateness and connectedness between the two items.

This old-fashioned diagram has resurfaced in my mind lately as I read articles about whether it’s more important to focus on similarities or differences when crossing cultures. In my view, and in keeping with the Venn Diagram, it’s not either-or but both-and.

The Power of Similarities

Milton Bennett, one of the leading scholars in the intercultural field, observed that a common reaction toward cultural differences is defensiveness. Instead of experiencing curiosity or opening their arms in tolerance, people can twist differences into evidence that their own culture is either under threat or is inherently superior. The most obvious example of this is in the political vitriol that surrounds immigration debates, but it also plays out in workplaces and communities. Consider how some people see a woman in a headscarf and assume that she is just too foreign (or dangerous) to relate to, or how tempting it is to blame team members from other countries for every problem.

In these situations, focusing on similarities is abundantly helpful. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that the woman in the scarf also enjoys cooking, photography, and dancing – just like you? That the team members share your passion for football/soccer, are also doting parents, or possess credentials that you respect? Similarities reduce our vulnerability and put us at ease. By focusing on them, we can downgrade our internal threat level and bridge differences that might have made us want to stay away.

The Power of Differences

Similarities inspire us to plant those first seeds of a new relationship. Their limitation is that we may become perplexed when people we’ve identified as being “like us” subsequently do things that make us angry, insult us, or let us down. If we are so similar, then why do our global team members miss deadlines, give vague answers to our questions, or defer to their own bosses rather than exhibit the individual responsibility, direct communication, and sense of initiative we (in the U.S.) expect as hallmarks of professionalism? Why does our neighbor appear to have perspectives on family life, modesty, and feminism that diverge from our own?

If we have negated cultural differences, the answer can’t be cultural, so all that’s left is to make it personal. We may come away with a viewpoint like this: I am open minded when it comes to other cultures – there is just something wrong with those individuals. Individual personalities do play a part, but when we frame cultural differences as personal flaws, we may errantly think the other party is upsetting us on purpose, may put all of the responsibility on them to fix the situation, or may believe that no resolution is possible. Either way, it is a dead-end that leaves us feeling disempowered and disenchanted.

By contrast, when we consider differences, we can recognize that many cross-cultural challenges are well-intended clashes where no party is necessarily to blame. Expanding on this realization, we may be open-minded enough to consider that we are inadvertently and ignorantly causing others frustrations because of our own cultural assumptions. For example, perhaps our expectations that team members prioritize linear calendar/clock time, engage in personal risk by speaking up, and approach their work in an egalitarian manner causes a lot of stress for those who come from cultures where time is fluid, relationships take precedence over task completion, group coherence matters more than individual success, and teams are sensitive to hierarchies and power dynamics. Rather than be tyrannical or defeatist in the face of unexpected differences, we can engage our curiosity, learn about our counterpart’s culture, develop empathy, and move toward a more productive resolution. Identifying differences won’t automatically lead to a solution, but it’s pretty hard to overcome differences when you don’t see them.

Enjoying a "double double" in Ottawa
Canada felt so much like the U.S. that it was easy to forget that we are different countries with different cultures. Copyright 2015, Melissa Hahn.

Putting it Together

Bennett said that focusing on cultural similarities and minimizing differences is a great place to start but a terrible place to stop*. I agree, and this is where the Venn Diagram comes in. It is a helpful reminder that you can’t understand the relationship between two cultures without considering how they are similar and different. To do one and not the other would be incomplete: looking at only similarities may give us a comforting but false sense of how alike we really are, while looking only at differences may make us feel alienated or threatened before we give the cross-cultural encounter a real chance.

The diagram has its limitations: for one thing, it is based on a Western preference for approaching problems logically through categorization and classification; for another, it doesn’t provide solutions. That said, it is a manageable starting place: a straightforward way to organize and clarify your thoughts and visually consider what you know, what you have to work with, and what issues you might overcome. And best of all, it is free and completely portable.

Next Steps

Are you interested in discussing how to use tools like these to work through cross-cultural situations? Or have you already outlined similarities and differences, and are now ready to take the next step in developing culturally-effective responses? I’m ready to help!


*Milton Bennett was my professor during my Master’s in Intercultural Relations, and the information included here is taken from the lectures he delivered. You can also find his ideas in the book Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Selected Readings.




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