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Cultural Bias: Expat Life

McDonalds fried chicken and spaghetti

Many assumptions we make don’t matter much at the end of the day. For the expat, cultural bias can be awkward, amusing or even deadly.

Cultural Bias

Cultural Bias is one of those bugaboo terms that freaks everyone out. 

I think the term can be pretty simply summed up by saying: don’t assume.

What Does That Mean?

Here’s an example: Recently, the University of Bath in Britain advised its faculty members against using the phrase, “As you know”. The university said that it could make some students feel inferior if they didn’t know.

Predictably, the internet exploded with anguished cries of “Political Correctness!”, and “Snowflakes!” (meaning those who melt easily when things get a little tough), and many other more colorful phrases.

The University did a really poor job of explaining what it meant and the internet, well, it never pauses to think about things much at all.

Don’t Assume

What the University should have said was simply, “Don’t assume all of your students know exactly the same thing and don’t assume they know what you do. To do so may discourage some students.”

It makes a lot more sense when said that way and doesn’t fan the flames of internet indignation.

Don’t Assume, Expats

A light switch from the UK

What do I mean by assume? Well, let’s say you’ve just arrived at my house in Davao from Jolly Olde England where you’ve lived your whole life.

You ask to use my bathroom and when you approach the door, you notice something strange: there’s no light switch on the wall outside! 

You open the door, enter the bathroom, and use the the light from the window to do your business.

Returning to me in the kitchen you say, “The lights in the bathroom are broken.” But you’re wrong!

The switches in my Davao house are American. They’re inside the bathroom, unlike most UK bathroom light switches, and they work opposite from UK switches. You thought the lights were broken because the lights were dark but the light switch was in the down position and in the UK, that’s “on”!

Because of my cultural bias, I assumed you knew all about American light switches even though you’re a native of the UK. Because of your cultural bias, you assumed my lights were broken and that all light switches work the way they do in your country.

Biased Food?

McDonalds spaghetti and fried chicken

One last example of cultural bias is McDonald’s in the Philippines. Or, rather, my perception of it.

One night last week, my wife and I were talking about the McDonald’s at our local SM Mall being closed for renovations.

I happened to mention that it made me laugh to see so many Filipinos eating spaghetti and fried chicken there.

“Why?” she asked. “McDonald’s is only trying to compete with Jollibee. Even KFC has spaghetti.”

And then it hit me. “Well, it’s funny to me because, as an American, it would never occur to me to even ask for spaghetti or fried chicken at a McDonalds. They’ve never been on the menu in the US.”

That’s an example of cultural bias!

Let’s Be Thoughtful Out There

It’s easy to fall into the trap of bias. But we expats just take a moment to be thoughtful and realize that not everyone – even in our home countries – has had the same experiences as we have, we’ll be able to avoid it.


Photo credit: Breakfast At A Philippines McDonalds by koadmunkee is licensed under CC BY

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