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Rethinking the Golden Rule

Everyone knows the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or more colloquially, “treat others the way you want to be treated.” It’s a fundamental moral rule that most people claim to live by. It’s a fundamental feature of many societies and religions, and yet it’s probably the reason why we have so many problems in the world.

The Golden Rule is nice in theory, but makes a crucial fundamental assumption… that we all want to be treated the same way. It assumes that we all have the same values, boundaries, and beliefs. But what happens when you are introduced to someone from a culture whose values and norms differ from your own?

Let’s say an American male greets a veiled Muslim woman in Spain. There are three cultural scenarios here. He can greet the Muslim woman as an American and shake her hand. He can greet her as a Spaniard and kiss her on each cheek. Or he can greet her by placing his hand on his chest.

It’s probably not hard to guess that placing his hand on his chest is the greatest sign of respect. The other scenarios would likely be disastrous or at minimum make the Muslim woman feel awkward or uncomfortable.

In fact, many political leaders even have official staff members assigned to understanding cultural norms in order to avoid any cross-cultural mistakes that could leave a lasting impact on those culture’s diplomatic relations.

Developing a framework for understanding culture can explain why people act and think the way they do based on their cultural values, but it can also help us reflect on our own values increasing self awareness.

For this reason alone, studying abroad is an ideal platform for learning about culture. The knowledge and knowhow acquired from going abroad can help you learn how to work better in international teams and communicate more effectively across cultures.

So, let’s tweak the Golden Rule to make it universally applicable. This can be done easily be changing one simple word – YOU.  Instead of saying, “treat others the way YOU want to be treated,” try “treat others the way THEY want to be treated.” Doing this requires research, knowledge, and empathy, all of which can be acquired and strengthened while abroad.

 

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