The Problem of Difference



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.  10-08

One of the most critical issues in human relations is dealing with differences between ourselves and others.  This applies to all levels of relationships, from dyads to nations.  Since other human beings affect us or potentially affect us practically all the time, we are always watchful about what they might do toward us, and we depend for our sense of personal security on being able to understand and anticipate the actions of others.  This means that we are most comfortable with those who are just like us.  The more another person is different from us, the more frightened and insecure we become, or conversely, the more effort we must make to preserve our sense of security and to maintain comfortable relations with the other person (by making special efforts to understand the person and predict his/her behavior).  (Differences, if not threatening, can be stimulating and exciting as well.)  Many people would identify their reactions to difference as annoyance, irritation, or anger, but these are reactions to the fear and insecurity that they feel first but cover up.

Key areas of similarity/difference are (a) language, (b) emotional reactions to events, (c) customs of interaction (methods of greeting, dominating, submitting, acknowledging, committing, resolving disputes, etc.), (d) customs for doing things (design of houses, system of justice, system of government, when and how to plant crops, etc.), (e) primary emotions used in the culture to control behavior (shame, guilt, etc.), (f) degree of emotional expressiveness, (g) degree of behavioral restrictiveness, (h) degree of desired personal autonomy (as opposed to following the dictates of authority), (i) identifying self primarily as an individual agent as contrasted with understanding oneself to be first an integral part of the group, (j) concepts used to understand one’s place in the universe and in society (God, roles, etc.), and (k) things that are made sacred and thereby used for worship and to ward off danger.  As you can see, since human life is so complex, there are many, many opportunities for difference!

The more differences there are between us and others, the more likely the situation is to lead to aggression and violence.  For example, Americans are more comfortable with Canadians than with Britons, more comfortable with Britons than with French persons, and more comfortable with Europeans than with Middle-Easterners, all because of these increasing degrees of difference. 

When one person reacts with surprise or amazement to an event and the other person with fear, they will be unable to predict each other’s next move.  In a similar vein, those who believe in following the instructions of authority figures (parents, police, teachers, etc.) will distrust and fear those who comfortably decide things for themselves, sometimes contrary to what authority have said.  When one group is brought up to feel shame in order to control behavior and another has been trained primarily with guilt, they will be unable to understand each other.  People who are trained to restrict their emotional expression are shocked and unbelieving regarding the behavior of those with much greater expressiveness, and people who are more controlled emotionally are usually viewed as more trustworthy.  Those who are brought up to regard themselves primarily as members of the group (with group maintenance a higher value than individual liberty) will be dismayed and confused by the behavior of those who are raised to place their own benefit above group security.  People who go to church and believe in God will have more difficulty understanding, predicting, and trusting those who do not share those values and behavioral conventions.  People who view certain objects (a Torah) or figures (God, Allah, Mohammed) as sacred may be offended or feel insulted if other people do not treat those objects or figures with equal reverence.  It is fortunate for human beings that we are all so genetically and physically similar, because if we were more different than we are now, we would probably be killing each other at much higher rates!


As human beings, we live a life that is uncertain in a somewhat unpredictable environment of which we are not in control.  The environment does not automatically give us the things we need to survive, so we have to work for them, and sometimes we cannot get them (famine, drought) and must make great efforts to survive.  The earth’s own processes include hurricanes, earthquakes, and life-threatening temperatures, which again call on use to make heroic efforts to survive.  The natural world contains enemies (certain bacteria and viruses, lions, tigers, sharks) that can injure or kill us.  Our own fellow human beings can also be very dangerous to us, both within and outside of our own cultures.

A very important part of being human is predicting the future (or anticipating what will happen next), so that we can avoid harm and prepare for things that may happen.  Since harm does occur, it is appropriate to anticipate potentially harmful circumstances, yet our predictions are not perfect, since we do not understand all of the factors that will determine whether a possible harm or event will take place.  This uncertainty is unpleasant for most people, and they will do or pay quite a bit to reduce or eliminate this uncertainty.  Thus we spend considerable amounts of money and attention on predictions of who will win the game, who will be elected, what stocks will go up, and where a hurricane will go.  These prediction efforts and the reassurances of others (who also want to be reassured, too) are sufficient to enable most people to tolerate the uncertainties of life (although they are not enough for those who develop “anxiety disorders” such as panic disorder and agoraphobia that seriously disrupt their lives).

We are not conscious of it in our moment-to-moment existence, but knowing what will happen at every moment is also very important to us.  We have learned that if we cause our muscles to contract in certain sequences and combinations, we will grasp and turn that doorknob, and this is a reliable prediction, but consider how you would feel if reality was such that only half the time the doorknob was where you thought it was.  Until you adapted to this new state of affairs, you would be very upset!  The same is true with regard to the behavior of others around us.  When we walk into a room, knowing (at least roughly) who is in the room, we anticipate relative safety, or we would not walk through the door.  Think how you feel if the people in the room are very different from you—perhaps speaking a language that you do not understand and having behavioral rules that you do not understand.  (You think that a slight wave is a friendly gesture, but perhaps because of their culture they see it as an insult.)  You would experience considerable anxiety about being around them, until you learned more about them and could once again predict what will happen and how your behavior might be seen by them.  The important conclusion we reach from these considerations of prediction and uncertainty is that differences are always threatening.

Even small differences in customs, such as eating on the floor instead of at a table or eating with one’s fingers instead of with utensils, can annoy us and make us suspicious of others.  We automatically think that our way of doing things is better, usually without any reflection on whether it actually is better or whether we simply think it is better because it “feels better” to us to do it that way (which is only because that is our already established habit).  Culture is the set of understandings, beliefs, customs, and rules that all members of the cultural group use to organize their behavior and goal attainment efforts.  (Culture is often viewed as sacrosanct, even though it is only made up by human beings, probably because people transfer the awe they felt for their parents as virtual gods to the society as a whole and its forms and rules.)

Because human beings are so insecure in the world, they are very willing to make up explanations when they don’t know something (the people at the end of the earth are cannibals, which is why they have been put at the end of the earth), so willing to distort reality in efforts to justify their bad behavior (they are different and we don’t like them, so it’s OK to steal their women and other resources), and so willing to resort to violence to protect their shaky sense of security (if those people insist on doing things so strangely, let’s just kill them all).  Again, differences between ourselves and others are always disturbing and threatening, and in this increasingly interconnected world, this is causing more and more problems and violence.

There are three reasons for the strength of this fear of and discomfort with difference.  One is that differences make interactions more cumbersome and difficult, since special efforts are required to communicate and to suppress negative feelings that we are having about the differences.  Second, differences make us less trusting, since they make us less able to confidently predict the behavior of the other person (and this feeling that we know what others are going to do is very important to our sense of comfort with them).  Third, to the extent that we (falsely) associate our security and self-esteem with how we do things, the fact that others do things differently is a direct threat to our sense of security and our self-esteem (and makes us want to reject them or make them change to be like us).  If we want something from those others who happen to be different from us, we can usually overcome the practical problems of interactions being more cumbersome and difficult.  The psychological issues are more difficult to deal with.

The emotions most often felt in response to differences are fear, confusion, distrust, frustration, consternation, suspicion, shock, disbelief, and insult (or disrespect).  Cognitively our reaction is caution, with the realization that we are not confident in predicting the behavior of the other person.  If behavior proceeds further than a cautious backing off, it may involve aggression, with verbal or even physical attacks, which are seen most often when the misunderstood behavior of the other person is viewed as insulting, disrespectful or as demeaning one’s honor.

For example, a person from a very poor, urban ghetto in the United States may have learned various behavioral indicators for disrespect, such as staring, rolling the eyes, a certain walk, wearing certain colors, or hand movements, that are unknown to persons from other parts of the city or other areas of the country.  There have been instances of gang members killing persons who passed by in the gang area and gave behavioral signals of disrespect inadvertently (not knowing that they were doing so).  This is a tragic outcome, and the “moral” is that people must not assume that the behavioral indicators of respect, etc., that they have learned are universal.  In other words, their emotional reactions may not be justified by what they observe.  In this example, since the gang members did not know the strangers (and could not assume that they knew the behavioral language in question), they should inquire of the passers-by whether the behaviors observed did in fact indicate disrespect, before acting. 

On the international scene, at least in years past, for a Westerner to proffer a hand for a handshake that was the hand (right or left) that traditionally in the Middle-Eastern culture was used to clean excrement from one’s anus was viewed by a Middle-Easterner as a grave insult, whereas the Westerner was probably completely unaware of this assumed association and meaning and did not intend any insult at all.  More recently, some Muslims have perceived critical inquiry and humor regarding Mohammed by non-Muslims as disrespectful or even apostasy and have angrily demanded apologies or even condemned the inquirers and humorists to death.  This critical (and sometimes simply factual) inquiry and humor may have in some instances been extreme or over-stated, but these behaviors may have been intended only as critical, as stimulating further thought, or as poking fun at hypocrisy.  To these Muslims, Mohammed is sacred and not to be disrespected in any way.  To Western offenders, Mohammed is not sacred and is subject to the same critical or humorous treatment that Jesus or the Pope would receive.  The Pope might wish that everyone perceived him as sacred, but he realizes that those who do not perceive him as sacred do not necessarily intend to violate his sanctity by criticism or humor–rather they are engaging in the discussion and debate to which the culture subjects everything. 

The offended Muslims have applied the behavioral indicators of disrespect from their culture to persons from other cultures incorrectly (i.e., that anything critical of Mohammed or critical of Islam is automatically disrespectful), since these Westerners are operating from a very different value system.  In Western culture, stating reasonable, fact-based criticism and pointing out unacknowledged truths about something or someone through humor are not automatically intended as disrespectful.  Some Muslims have illustrated their inability or unwillingness to perceive these cultural differences by their own intentional disrespect of Western figures, apparently unaware of the inequity of their actions (demanding “respect” for Mohammed but not giving it to the Pope).  It should be clear that misinterpretations such as these will poison all intercultural dealings, and that persons of all cultures must learn as much as possible about the meaning of various behaviors in various cultures. 

Dealing with disrespect when it is in fact intended is an analogous intercultural problem. Respect and honor are taken much more seriously by some people and by some groups than others.  In some cultures one’s honor must be defended at all costs.  Gang members who shoot people for disrespect or offended Muslims who do the same are going much further in behavioral response than other cultures or subcultures would allow.  The gang members, if caught would be punished severely in U. S. culture.  Muslims who kill persons who supposedly disrespect Mohammed would be praised by some other Muslims but condemned by many others.  Afghan tribesmen who kill female family members who are seen to have dishonored the family with their sexual behavior are seen as righteous and as acting appropriately (and will not be questioned by legal authority).  For the sake of peaceful coexistence, persons from one culture must be able to perceive that their emotional reactions to disrespect, etc., may be far different from those of persons from at least some other cultures.


We can start to deal with them, however, by acknowledging that the forms and customs of our lives are only one of many possible ways that things can work acceptably.  People could get along just as well grasping each other by both shoulders instead of shaking hands as a physical greeting, and it doesn’t matter whether one says “Hi, how are you,” “Good day,” or “How’s it going” (or “Como esta,” for that matter).  It doesn’t matter for relating to others that one culture has young people living at home until they marry while another has them leave home on their own before marrying.  It doesn’t matter for relating whether you plant by the moon or by the leaves (and no one knows which works better).  There is simply no reason to assume that our way is better—it is simply more comfortable for us.  At first it may feel threatening to accept this fact (that our way is not necessarily better), because it feels insecure.  If there are better ways, then we will have to spend a lot of time and energy finding them.  Perhaps we aren’t as smart as we thought we were. 

The next step is to fully accept that there may in fact be better ways, and that it is in our interest to be open to considering all possibilities.  We would then fully accept that our nation and culture are not special and that we are probably no smarter than other peoples either.  America gained its prominence not because its people were smarter or more God-fearing but because ambitious people from another part of the globe took over a huge land area from those who were here and did a great job of exploiting its fine natural resources.  We deserve little credit for this, except credit for working reasonably hard to gratify our personal ambitions.  To accept these new views may be galling at first or may lead to some feelings of uncertainty, but accepting their reality will lead to greater openness to new ideas and ways of doing things, as well as to greater security within ourselves, based on confidence in our abilities to deal with a complex world (instead of feeling secure because of the familiarity of what is around us and because of little white lies we tell ourselves about ourselves).  Please note that this attitude is not degrading to America or American culture—we have a fine nation and a fine culture, but we are not better than other nations and cultures.  We love to pat ourselves on the back and believe that we are the most righteous nation and the savior of the world, but this is simply a story that we have made up to make ourselves feel good.  If you think about it, you will see that there is no evidence that we are overall better than other peoples.

Difficulty trusting and feeling comfortable with those who are different is the most difficult barrier to overcome, but if we are willing to see our fundamental similarities with all others, we can learn to trust again.  All human beings have the same basic motives and feelings and engage in the same kinds of thoughts in trying to achieve their goals.  Everyone wants to create a family, raise children, and have a good life.  Exactly how we structure the tools that we use to accomplish these things (language, laws, social patterns) varies, and the rules that we set up for status and priorities among people vary as well, but we can accept these different forms and customs if we see clearly that they aim to accomplish the same things for those other people as our forms and customs do for us.  They are simply tools and not talismans.

Religion is cited by some as the reason that they cannot accept those who are different–both people within and people outside of their own culture.  In my opinion, the same arguments above apply here as well.  God didn’t say which language we should speak or which laws we should pass.  He didn’t say that shaking hands should be the way we greet each other.  These rules and customs are irrelevant to religion and should in no way be a barrier between people for religious reasons.  There is likewise no reason to think that a good society can only be constructed by people of one’s own religion.  We all have the same goals in life, and the customs and rules that we set up serve those ends.  We do not treat our neighbors decently because God said to.  We would treat our neighbors decently even if God did not say to, because it makes for better relations if we do, and we feel better when we have good relations with those around us.  If we insist on believing that those people who are not of our religion will not “go to heaven,” etc., then that is reason to feel compassion for them, not a reason to reject them.  Religion is only a barrier to accepting differences if we use it as a custom and a form, rather than as a living set of beliefs.

A significant amount of conflict between people is due to some wishing others to change or be different so that they will not feel threat regarding those others.  Hence, members of most Christian villages in medieval Europe would not tolerate a person of another religion living in the village, because the presence of that person was thought to represent a threat to the whole village of punishment from God for unbelief.  A wife may fight with her husband about his appreciation of the beauty of other women (or vice versa).  She wants him not to notice those other women so she will feel more secure in his affections.  Currently, some persons in the U. S. may perceive threat from any Muslims in the country, due to Muslim terrorism in the world, even if those Muslims they see have no wish to harm the U. S. or its citizens.  They would feel safer if all Muslims would move outside the country.  Many people feel threat from those who are noticeably mentally ill, because they feel unable to predict the behavior of such people.  They would like those people to move elsewhere or be in hospitals.

1. Stop wanting others to change so that you can be more comfortable or get what you want.  This works miracles in relationships.  Stop wanting people who are different from you to be more like you.  Trying to get others to change for your benefit is usually a losing proposition, since they are just as attached to their ways of doing things as you are to yours, and it is quite difficult for any of us to believe that changing our ways will benefit us (unless our backs are “against the well”).  It would be convenient and more comfortable if everyone’s ways of doing things were the same, but you will accomplish more by adapting to differences than you will by trying to convince or force others to change.  (The lone exception to this rule is when you propose a change that will benefit both you and the other people involved, and even then your proposal should only point out the pros and cons and should not contain any personal urging and certainly should not involve any lying, concealment, or subterfuge.) 

If you have troublesome marital conflicts, reflect on how your fights involve each person trying to get the other to be different (see something a different way, react differently to something, behave differently).  It is clear, isn’t it, that if both of you stopped trying to get the other person to be different, most of the fighting would stop?  What you would be left with, of course, would be the other person just the way he or she is, and you would have to decide whether you want to live with that or not.  If you decide you won’t live with that, you can tell the other person what you need to be different in order for you to stay in the relationship, and the other person would have the option of changing or not (and also saying how he or she needs you to change).  Each party takes responsibility for who he or she is and how he or she acts, and each party decides how to be and how to change, not in response to force, manipulation or lies from the other, but in order to have the pleasure of the other’s company.

What is difficult for us in this scenario is letting the other person decide whether we will get what we want.  We are so used to trying to “get” people to do what we want (talking them into it, making them feel guilty, punishing them, etc.) that we feel vulnerable and frightened if we state our needs and then wait to find out if the other person cares enough to give us what we want (assuming, of course, that they are even capable of giving the things we want).  If they are not capable of giving what we want, then we are trying to get “blood from a stone,” and we would be better off facing reality and either accepting things as they are or looking elsewhere.  We hate feeling vulnerable to others (recognizing that we can be hurt by them), but finding out if the relationships is workable (and ending it if it is not workable) is less painful in the long run than beating your head against a wall of unwillingness or inability. 

Of course, the best arrangement is making it worth their while to give what we want by giving them what they want first (or at least at the same time).  Any stable and mutually satisfying relationship must seem worthwhile and worth preserving to both parties.

In general, it is in the best interest of the human race for people to be more similar to each other around the globe, since they will then get along better because they are similar to each other.  Empathy, understanding, and self-control can do a great deal to minimize conflict and violence, but it would be even better if customs across the world (language, ethics, attitudes about sex, etc.) could become more similar so that people would naturally be comfortable with each other.  “Globalization” will make things somewhat more similar, but since people associate their forms (language, customs) with their gratifications, they find it quite difficult to feel equally secure and satisfied with other forms.

2. Allow others to be who they are, within reason.  Approach all relationships with the assumption that it is good for people to be who they are and who they want to be.  Don’t take on relationships that can only be good for you if you are able to change the other person.  Instead seek out people with whom you fit well already, and approach them with the expectation that they will allow you to be who you are as well.  (This may suggest that you leave relationships that are abusive or harmful to you, even if they are close family relationships.)

A significant amount of conflict between people is due to some wishing others to change or be different so that they will not feel threat regarding those others.  Hence, members of most Christian villages in medieval Europe would not tolerate a person of another religion living in the village, because the presence of that person was thought to represent a threat to the whole village of punishment from God for unbelief.  A wife may fight with her husband about his appreciation of the beauty of other women (or vice versa).  She wants him not to notice those other women so she will feel more secure in his affections.  Currently, some persons in the U. S. may perceive threat from any Muslims in the country, due to Muslim terrorism in the world, even if those Muslims they see have no wish to harm the U. S. or its citizens.  They would feel safer if all Muslims would move outside the country.  Many people feel threat from those who are noticeably mentally ill, because they feel unable to predict the behavior of such people.  They would like those people to move elsewhere or be in hospitals.

3. Recognize your discomfort with difference in the moment, immediately review your commitment to accept and tolerate difference, and immediately implement your methods for accepting and tolerating difference

4. Be interested in ways that others do things that are actually better than how we do them.

Minimizing Intercultural Conflict and Violence

Since our future will include so much more interaction across cultures than in the past, it is very important that people everywhere learn to deal in adaptive ways with differences.  It would be a great and hopefully preventable shame if human civilization ends in a nuclear war started by a leader who incorrectly interprets another leader’s behavior as insulting or challenging!  If this seems inconceivable, remember that in some cultures, many feel that death is more desirable than dishonor! 

(1) If the behavior of the other person seems puzzling or different from what you expect from those you are most familiar with, raise the possibility within yourself that your usual ways of understanding the behavior may not apply.  If you insist on applying your typical expectations to everyone, whether or not they feel, believe, and act the same as you, you will engender much conflict with others.  (2) Inquire of the other person what he is thinking, feeling, and intending to communicate, until that is clear.  If these things are still confusing, inquire into the reasons why the person is thinking, feeling, and intending as he is, until you understand the experiential and cultural background for the behaviors.  Do not act in response to the behaviors until you understand “where the other person is coming from” accurately.  (3) Reexamine and if possible revise your emotional reactions to the other person’s behavior in the light of what that person actually meant and intended, instead of in terms of the signals that you usually receive from those with whom you are familiar.  (4) Keeping firmly in mind the reality of what the other person actually meant and intended, respond appropriately from this new understanding that you have gained.  (5) Record in your memory of the events the actual meaning and intention of the behaviors in question, rather than your original responses.  (6) Use this opportunity to learn about human beings in greater depth.  Pay attention to the fact that all human beings have basically the same needs and motives (physical survival, somewhat pleasant life experience, the affirmation and support of others, raising offspring, feeling secure in life).  If we understand the other person’s feelings and motives, we can empathically appreciate what he or she is doing, even if the behaviors are very different from what we are used to.  (7) In addition to what you have learned in this incident, take other opportunities to learn as much as you can about other cultures and other ways of looking at and feeling about different aspects of living.  Travel and reading and classes on other cultures and religions are good ways of doing this.  (8) Do not support political appeals to hatred or violence toward those who are different simply because their difference is threatening or offensive.  These issues are capable of non-violent and understanding solutions.