On Cultural Encapsulation and Cross-Cultural Relationships

(photo by Sarah G via Flickr.com)

Recently, in the course of doing research for a paper I’m working on with my husband, we came across the concept of cultural encapsulation:

Cultural encapsulation is the lack of understanding, or ignorance, of another’s cultural background and the influence this background has on one’s current view of the world. The purpose of this encapsulation, or “cocoon,” is to allow people to protect themselves from the rapid global changes occurring in technology, families, economy, education, and social health. Cultural encapsulation can lead to a counselor applying his or her own experiences to the client’s experiences despite the reality that both developed in different worlds, cultures, and values. To define one’s experience as the truth or reality may result in potentially harming the client, given the possible differences between the counselor and client.

The authors intended to write this information for counselors and psychologists in relationships with clients — but I feel that the idea of cultural encapsulation could easily apply to other relationships.

For example, could cultural encapsulation explain, in part, why some Western women don’t want to date Chinese men? I thought back to the post I did last year, citing four lame reasons why Western women won’t date Chinese men. In particular, the “effeminate” and “not attractive” reasons could be examples of cultural encapsulation. Different cultures may have different standards of what is masculine/feminine behavior and what’s considered attractive — so these women may be viewing Chinese men (and the differences from their men) through their own cultural lens, and judging that difference in a negative light.

What do you think? Do you believe cultural encapsulation gets in the way of cross-cultural relationships? Can you think of examples of it?

P.S.: For further reading on cultural encapsulation, see the original Wrenn paper that introduced the concept.

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14 Replies to “On Cultural Encapsulation and Cross-Cultural Relationships”

  1. Hi Jocelyn. This rings a bell with Persian men. I had a Persian housemate who was married and eventually I met her husband once he was allowed to come to Australia. He seemed quite effeminate and I’ve met a few similar Persian men. Quite different from Australian men, even the Sensitive New Age Guy, (SNAG), types. Couldn’t see the attraction, but I guess different cultural background. The Persian men I’ve met have been smothered by their mothers who seem to do almost everything for them, meaning their life-skills are poor, like cooking and organising the household. They are lost without their mother around, or their wife who takes on a mothering role. Different way of thinking I guess.

  2. I absolutely think cultural encapsulation can get in the way, but not just for the “lame” reasons you posted before (all of which are exactly that: LAME – well, I will say about “not attractive” that while you, I and most commenters here do find Asian men attractive, everyone has the right to their own feelings on what attracts them and what doesn’t and while that can venture into the territory of racism if you decide to “only” date once race or “never” date anyone of another race, ever, I tend to not judge too hard on this because we can’t help what we’re attracted to).

    There is a lot I don’t “get” about Chinese culture. Even when I understand it after a fashion, there are things I will never “get” on a gut level. Or even if I kinda get it, that I can’t accept in my own life (fortunately not every cultural trait is present in every person, and even when it is, not to the same degree, so this doesn’t get in the way of friendships and wouldn’t get in the way of dating if I were single).

    One of these is sexism in various cultures. It exists in my own culture (oh boy does it ever!) but feels more serious in Chinese culture, among others (Chinese culture is certainly not alone in this – from Panama to the Philippines to India to Turkey, sexism abounds around the world).

    I understand that there are different ideas about gender roles and men and women in Chinese culture, and that judged through my own cultural lens those ideas are sexist, but wouldn’t necessarily be seen so in China (or Taiwan, although it’s not as bad in Taiwan). I just don’t “get” it in that I really can’t agree with it. I also understand that not every Chinese person has these ideas. I mean my best Taiwanese guy friend had a famous feminist, whom he knows personally, speak at his wedding, and he totally digs funny, outspoken, sarcastic, aggressive women! So clearly there are progressives out there.

    But yes, this could be seen as “cultural encapsulation” – I do not and will not ever really get ideas in other cultures, including Chinese culture, that I find deeply sexist. And it absolutely could have gotten in the way of me dating an Asian guy.

    Actually, it did, but my ex is Indian. We broke up for a variety of reasons but the dealbreaker for me was his idea that he should be the leader, the head, the one in charge, the decision maker, the provider, because he was the man (and for no other reason). It was a part of his culture, but I did not understand and could not accept it.

    I still can’t, actually.

  3. I don’t even want to work at all sometimes!!! She can provide everything if she wants too. I can do everything from A-Z haahahahha! :). 50/50 on decision making etc is okay with me. I don’t even want to be in charge sometimes either because some thing is just nonsense to be charged of. Balance is the key to a wonderful relationship. eeheheheeheh ahahahahha 🙂

  4. I’ve personally never heard of the idea of ‘cultural encapsulation’ before and I’m so glad you wrote this article about it because it sounds fascinating. I have to say that overcoming this cultural encapsulation for me has been really eye opening.
    When I first arrived in China, I was struck by how effeminate I thought the men were. They are often complimentary without being sexual, they express affection between each other in strange and very forward ways and they rarely, if ever, talk about sex. At first I found this incredibly unsettling but afterwards I found it really liberating. What I came to realize was that the affection shown in the male-male Chinese relationship is not because they are effeminate but precisely the opposite, they are very comfortable with their sexuality. It made me realize that Western men have been forced into this hyper masculinity which prevents them from showing affection in the same way.
    So, although I do occasionally cringe when I see two grown men walking hand in hand or when a Chinese male friend, who I know is straight, giggles at a joke I’ve made, I’ve actually come to love what I originally perceived as effeminacy in Chinese men.

  5. “cultural encapsulation” is very much sign of low IQ. Empathy or see thing from others perspective is sign of higher intelligence.

    Reasoning with stupids is truely wasting of time.

  6. We ALL have our “cultural lens” and need them. Our own cultures are a big part of what shapes us as the people we are. And ALL of us are ignorant to a considerable extent of the many different culture and ethnic groups and their values that exist alongside us. We ALL each have our own perceptions of reality, right and wrong, which have been shaped from what we experience in life. If you have experienced it, it becomes part of your reality. This is not wrong and it is not negative. However, the problems only begin to arise, not when there are different cultures and values, but when people begin to REJECT the cultures,and values of others rather than embracing the possibilities of parallel experiences and realities. And simply because a person’s experiences have been developed

    ped in different cultures, worlds and reality, does not mean that they are always going to be so far removed and different from one another. One of the joys and surprises that keeps curiosity alive in a mixed cultural relationship is not only celebrating the differences but also continuing to discover just how very much we have in common in things that really matter even though we come from different places in life.

  7. We use our own life experiences as tools to help us understand other people, life and the world around us. But it is up to us to fine tune those tools, to put them to work, and to use them in positive ways to LEARN about others and FROM others, NOT to use them to brandish in the face of others. Many many people groups worldwide are experiencing erosion of their cultures, language and values in the march for globalisation. This should not be so.

  8. @Maddie, hmmm… perhaps you have articulated my observations about Persian men by commenting on your perception of Chinese men. Thanks Maddie, I’ll observe closer next time I’m hanging around other men, doesn’t matter what cultural background they are.

  9. Loved Maddie’s comment. So true! Same thing happens in India between men but even moreso than between Chinese men. Is very true generally speaking Chinese men are very condifent and comfortable about their sexuality.

  10. I studied this notion while getting my MA, and one of the interesting things that came up in class discussions was that the very idea of “cultural encapsulation” is a Western construct, and that the comments that people are making here, how it’s okay and even good to have different cultures but wrong to reject other cultures or parts of other cultures, is again only a Western construct.

    Several cultures do not have this construct, ie, they believe their culture is simply the best, that it is completely okay to reject other cultures or label them as wrong.

    When Westerners say that it’s wrong to say another culture is wrong just because they are different, it leads to circular arguments:

    Western culture says that saying other cultures are wrong is wrong.
    Culture A says all other cultures are wrong.
    Western culture therefore says that Culture A is wrong.
    But Western culture *can’t* say Culture A is wrong, because they have said that saying another culture is wrong is wrong.
    However, Western culture *can’t* say Culture A is right, because Culture A says all other cultures are wrong, and Western culture says that is wrong.

    And on and on it goes.

    So I think that people have to walk a fine line… if you truly believe that it is wrong to call other cultures wrong, then what do you do when the other culture says it’s fine to call other cultures wrong?

    When it comes to cross-cultural relationships, I think that these issues can become big problems – that moment when you realize that yes, in his culture people are more sexist than yours and that it is actually okay. Not that it’s just a tolerated or necessary evil, but that it isn’t even bad. It’s natural. It’s not wrong at all. What do you do then? As another commenter said, this was a cause for breaking up.

  11. What do you think? Do you believe cultural encapsulation gets in the way of cross-cultural relationships? Can you think of examples of it?

    I do think it gets in the way with just about anything. When I was dating my Korean ex, I recall a few times how he told me that he doesn’t like to interact with a lot of Americans because they are pretty ignorant of where he was from or else weren’t sympathetic to the fact he was struggling with English. I have a female Korean friend who also told me that she has difficulty with English and its something similar to my Korean ex.

    My own personal example is that I recall in Russian we have a very negative name for Asians. No one told me of a more neutral name, so imagine my embarrassment when a cute Kazakhstani guy has to correct me…

  12. @Sara: Interesting observations and thanks for your thoughts. Certain Western cultures, it is true, would hold to the belief it would be “wrong” to reject the ideas and practices of other cultures from their own. And even for those westerners who regard themselves as open to learning from the culture ofbothers snd regard them as valid and equal, would still find certain elements in another’s culture that tjey may not necessarily agree with. His would hardly mean in general terms they are encapsulated in their own culture to the extent that they are ignorant of others. Even people within the same culture will acceot and reject the ideas of one another. So in one sense you could say the line.is fine. In.another sense you could say, let’s look at the big picture and just get on with it. However, it can be clearly observed through history and present day

    social anthropological studies that the embracing of diversity of people groups has long been practised in Asia extensively and is very much an Asian “construct” if you like. Western countrirs much later “adapted” to this very notion, though some very evidently in America remain resistant to it. Hence, I suppose, the discussion on cultural encapsulation (though obviously no one would wish to suggest this is an exclusively an American phenomenon as it is also evident in places such as Nepal).

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