Outcomes of the 2018 Miss Universe Competition: Cultural Insensitivity

Jan 19, 2019

How the Miss Universe organization can use cross-cultural assessment tools to develop intercultural sensitivity

The 67th Miss Universe pageant was held in Thailand on December 17, 2018. According to the pageant’s website, contestants are supposed to be “confidently beautiful,” who can make a change on their local level and hopefully the world. Their mission:

“The Miss Universe Organization is a company run by women for women, built on a foundation of inclusion and continues to be a celebration of diversity. Annually, nearly ten thousand young women participate in Miss Universe pageant events. The mission of the organization is to provide the tools which help women to be their personal best. Self-confidence is the key. Every woman should have the confidence to stand up in any situation and declare, ‘I am secure and that's what makes me beautiful!’

The website has a section called, BREAKING STEREOTYPES and purports: “Research has shown the #1 obstacle for women to overcome in reaching their potential in any endeavor is a lack of self-confidence. In doing so our contestants and titleholders have the opportunity to grow as women and be confident in any goal they choose to pursue. While we are a competition, the women who participate also learn to help one another and create a network of friends and colleagues on which to draw support.”

If the goal is to break stereotypes of women and help them reach their potential (i.e., not to be judged just by beauty but to be able to confidently change their communities and world), now is the perfect opportunity for the Miss Universe Pageant to help break down cultural stereotypes. 

Miss USA has been slammed by social media for her Instagram post (along with Miss Columbia and Miss Australia) for mocking the English language abilities of Miss Vietnam. In this video she discusses the isolation of two other candidates because they can’t speak English. She refers to “Poor Cambodia” (Miss Cambodia) and then giggles at Ms. Vietnam’s pretending to understand a conversation in English

 Analyzing Through the Lens of Culture

There are two ways that I can interpret these videos – my reaction upon watching the videos the first time was that this was a “mean girl” mentality (fueled by the vicious reactions of social media users); the second time was more of a reaction to their lack of self-awareness and understanding of the bigger picture – that they live in a world where they are not the center of the universe (even though they were competing for Miss Universe!). They are only a small part of a talented group of young women who come from all corners of the world and who have many experiences, languages, and insights to share. 

Rather than criticize Miss USA sharply, which is what social media responders love to do, after watching several times, I believe that there is a real opportunity for growth and development.  For these young women engaging in the conversation, their lack of cultural awareness, understanding, and empathy – while unfortunate and ignorant – is an opportunity for growth and development and I believe that the Pageant organizers should put their money where their mouth is and invest in helping these young contestants “to be their personal best….[and]…who can make a change on their local level and hopefully the world.” 

It would be great if the Pageant could better help facilitate friendships and understanding among contestants. “While we are a competition, the women who participate also learn to help one another and create a network of friends and colleagues on which to draw support.” I will surely be contacting the organization to see if they are open to partnering with me to help promote “intercultural confidence” within their organization! Learning to identify one’s blind spots and hidden bias doesn’t happen through osmosis. Just because there is a pithy mission statement and nicely construed phrases doesn’t change a person’s heart and mind. Guided learning and walking alongside people who are willing to make a change does.

In this blog I will talk about my second perspective in order to explain a scientifically validated, cross-cultural assessment tool called the Intercultural Development Inventory, which helps us identify our hidden bias in order to become more culturally sensitive, aware, and empathic. My next blog will address my initial perspective upon seeing the video for the first time and I’ll reveal another model that can help us keep in check our judgmental tendencies. So stay tuned for that.

We all Have Blind Spots

We are all biased – we don't want to admit it so we don’t even realize it. This gets in the way of us being understanding, sensitive, and empathic towards others who have different points of view, lifestyles, and beliefs. Sociologists tell us that each of us is ethnocentric [ethnocentrism comes from the Greek word, ethnos, which means "people" or "group"]. It’s the view that our ‘in-group’ is better than others. We’re programmed from an early age that the environment we grew up in and the perspectives we hold are the "right" ones, and this is hard to get past.  It's all part of the sociological process of human beings.

But I believe that each of us can become less biased and more culturally competent - which means developing the ability to understand both "self" and "other" in order to adapt one’s behavior and attitudes as needed. It’s not an easy process, but when we work at it, we can achieve it – our development of cultural competence is a constant work in progress. 

When I work with business professionals and students across a wide-range of industries and disciplines, I sometimes start with a cross-cultural assessment tool called the IDI – Intercultural Development Inventory. This scientifically validated and reliable tool assesses our intercultural competence by showing our orientations towards difference – how we make sense of and respond to cultural differences and similarities. The IDI is based upon the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, originally developed by *Dr. Milton Bennett, a former Peace Corps volunteer and longtime intercultural scholar.

The theory states that we move through five stages of intercultural sensitivity as we learn to adapt to difference. Our ethnocentric tendencies hold us back because we’d rather see things from our own perspective – and our innate desire to "hold fast" to our in-group’s way of doing things  (our current reality) can prevent us from moving towards a intercultural viewpoint where we accept that differences exist, and then adapt our interactions with others. This tool has literally transformed my life – and I will never be the same after taking the assessment and working through the Action Plan. If you’d like to learn more about my humbling journey, please check out my explanation of this process on my website. I’m now better equipped [day by day] to look at the world with more self-awareness, sensitivity, and empathy.

Stages of Intercultural Competence

Denial: Denies that differences exist – we are basically all the same regardless of where we come from and what our life’s experiences are – after all, we’re all humans.

Defense: Has a strong defense of one’s own world view, customs, and values which manifests itself in an “us vs. them” mindset.

Minimization: While recognizing differences, plays down the differences in order to focus on similarities – after all, we should all get along, so let’s not see difference because that is to uncomfortable (and often politically incorrect).

Acceptance: Recognizes differences, accepts that they are an inevitable part of life (this is different than ethnorelativity, which is a topic for another blog), and seeks to understand more about those differences. 

Adaptation: Is able to understand the other point of view (based upon someone else's perspective and not our own) and interact accordingly – style shifting in order to achieve mutual understanding and respect.

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity demonstrates how one can move from being unaware of cultural differences (monocultural view – that one’s experience of their culture is central to reality) to being more aware of cultural differences and thus being able to accept and adapt to differences (multicultural view – that one’s culture has to be put into context). This model is applicable to anything defined as cultural difference.

Research of intercultural development has demonstrated that it isn’t whether we live in a multicultural environment (at home or abroad) or learn to speak other languages (although these are both important for culture learning); what matters is the inner work of self-reflection, curiosity, and openness to change that develop our self-awareness and understanding. While familiarity with certain cultural differences (whether it is national, language, age, gender, religious, etc.) affects one’s competence, the key predictor of intercultural effectiveness is the movement away from ethnocentrism because of self-reflection and learning: that self-awareness, understanding, and ability to act empathically help keep in check one’s blind spots and biases. 

 Explanation of the Video through the DMIS

In the first video, Miss USA sympathizes with Miss Cambodia and talks about isolation and confusion without having command of the English language. In the second video, Miss USA makes faces and motions to imitate “cute” miss Vietnam while talking about having a conversation with her and then realizing that she doesn’t understand what has been said. 

It’s a classic “defense” stage on the IDI-Intercultural Development Inventory assessment. She is comparing another person based upon her tacit belief that everyone should speak English. In the IDI defense stage, cultural differences are perceived in stereotyped ways – effectively polarizing one person’s culture against an other – “us” becomes superior to “them”. 

People in this stage are unconsciously threatened by cultural difference, so they can be critical and/or laugh off the differences of someone else because they believe their perspective is right. So, regardless of the fact that this was an international competition with the global language of English being spoken, the young women from Cambodia and Vietnam (who probably speak several languages) are being played down as lesser contestants because they could not speak English.

As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the Miss Universe website has a section called, BREAKING STEREOTYPES and proudly claims: “Research has shown the #1 obstacle for women to overcome in reaching their potential in any endeavor is a lack of self-confidence.” If we extrapolate this declaration from gender to culture, we could help the Miss Universe organization BREAK CULTURAL STEREOTYPES. Just think of the power that cultural sensitivity learning could have within the Miss Universe organization to transform the hearts and minds of the nearly 10,000 young women it purports to help become their very best. A little bit of guided learning (I prefer to use this term instead of “training”.) can go a long way to instill in the minds and hearts of these aspiring young women how to be aware that they are not the center of the universe and that there is a need to be empathic towards everyone.

How about starting 2019 with a new year's resolution to become the best you can be regarding cultural sensitivity? It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.** How about making a step forward to learning about your own hidden biases in order to become a more culturally self-aware, sensitive, and empathic person? As mentioned before, my transformation as a person and a professional will never be the same after taking my step about ten years ago to learn from this amazing tool. The IDI is inexpensive, easy to take as an individual or as a group (in groups the results are private), and requires just one 30-40 minute debriefing session. Please contact me if you or your organization is interested in exploring a new way to take off your cultural blinders and become more aware of the capacity for understanding the beauty of cultural difference in our amazing universe!


 *THEORY BEHIND IDI "Using concepts from constructivist psychology, grounded theory, and communication theory, [Milton Bennet] organized these observations into positions along a continuum of increasing sensitivity to cultural difference. The underlying assumption of the model is that as one’s perceptual organization of cultural difference becomes more complex, one’s experience of culture becomes more sophisticated and the potential for exercising competence in intercultural relations increases. By recognizing how cultural difference is being experienced, predictions about the effectiveness of intercultural communication can be made and interventions can be tailored to facilitate development along the continuum."   

**CHINESE QUOTE Literal Chinese translation "The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one's feet."  千里之行,始於足下      Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià

From: Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher (604 BCE)               

Meaning: Even the longest and most difficult ventures have a starting point; something which begins with one first step. Although this is the popular form of this quotation, a more correct translation from the original Chinese would be "The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one's feet." Rather than emphasizing the first step, Lao Tzu regarded action as something that arises naturally from stillness. Another potential phrasing would be "Even the longest journey must begin where you stand."


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