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What Exactly Is Xenophobia? Know the Misconceptions and Realities

What Exactly Is Xenophobia? Know the Misconceptions and Realities

Updated on May 27, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Xenophobia - Definition, Signs, Causes, And How to Reduce It

Fear is a natural response in times of threat. Sometimes, you may not feel comfortable being with outsiders or with unknown people around you. 

But, if the fear or hatred of strangers is excessive and robs inner peace and mental health, it may be Xenophobia as well. 

It stems from a feeling of dislike, or disgust towards people of other countries, communities, or cultures. Often the fear gets intense when the outsiders or foreign people look strange and non-native. 

In some cases, fear leads to discrimination, biases, and intolerance. It also involves hatred towards the outside group.

Let’s learn more about the fallacy and reality attached to this phobia.

Xenophobia Infographics

Xenophobia - Definition, Signs, Causes, And How to Reduce It
Xenophobia – Definition, Signs, Causes, And How to Reduce It
Xenophobia - Definition, Signs, Causes, And How to Reduce It
Xenophobia – Definition, Signs, Causes, And How to Reduce It

What is Xenophobia?

Xenophobia is a fear of strangers, unknown people, or communities that are different from us. The fear is intense and involves dislike, hostility, and hatred towards the language, customs, culture, traditions, of a foreign land and social group.

Many times, you must have seen certain groups of people showing a genuine dislike towards members of some other country or community. 

This dislike may turn into discrimination and fear of strangers when the foreign nationals are perceived as different and unlike us. 

The term xenophobia comes from two Greek words. In Greek, ‘Xenos’ means stranger, wanderer, or even a guest.

The word ‘Phobos’ refers to fear. Thus, Xenophobia means fear of strangers or outsiders.

Xenophobia is an intense and disturbing fear response. It also includes a general dislike, antagonism, and hostile feelings towards strangers.

The strangers are looked down with disgrace. They are also regarded as someone who is different, having a separate culture and language that is unknown and strange.

Xenophobia typically arises from an idea or belief that foreign people belong to an out-group.

Thus, there is a conflict between the in-group and out-group. People may differ in their ideologies, lifestyle choices, and many other things.

Xenophobia also involves an aversion for the culture, food habits, dress, and customs of people who are foreign and do not belong to one’s own country.

The fear response arises out of hatred caused due to the rise of globalization, the lack of job opportunities for the people of one’s own nation. 

The psychology behind Xenophobia

There is a misconception that xenophobia and racism are the same. But there are important differences between the two.

Xenophobia refers to fear and dislike towards members of other countries, cultures, or communities. 

Racism stems from a belief that a particular culture or country is superior to the other. This leads to anger and hostility towards members of the inferior community and culture.

Racism may involve an intense hatred that can destroy harmony between people. It is also harmful to World Peace and the mutual development of Nations.

Though xenophobia overlaps with symptoms of fear and avoidance, it is not considered a diagnosable illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The discomfort that a person suffers does not meet the diagnostic criteria of a specific phobia.

Sometimes xenophobia includes acts of damage and hostile attitude towards foreign nationals and immigrants. They are insulted, humiliated, or treated with disrespect and abuse.

An occasional worry and ill-feeling towards immigrants and unknown people are normal. But if the fear is intense and interferes with your daily life, it needs to be treated as soon as possible.

The history of xenophobia has proved that ancient Greeks and Romans were proud of their own culture.

Xenophobia has led to wide-scale destruction of life and property. Some of the historical examples of xenophobic attitudes are –

  • The World War II Holocaust
  • The Rwandan Genocide
  • Genocide in Cambodia

Triggers of Xenophobia

There are various triggers of xenophobia. Some of them are as follows:

  • Learned responses from parents or forefathers. You must have grown up seeing similar ill feelings for Foreign Nationals in your house
  • Fear of a perceived threat that is unreal but causes insecurity
  • Lack of adequate resources or sharing of resources by outsiders. This may lead to economic inequality or a dearth of jobs for local youths
  • Financial troubles of in-group may lead to hatred and intolerance for the outsiders’
  • Peer pressure
  • Poverty 
  • Acts of violence shown by outsiders
  • Trauma and emotional crisis
  • Political propaganda about a group of people who may be actually harmless
  • Coloring the perceptions of the insiders by supplying wrong information about the foreign people.

Xenophobia signs and symptoms

When xenophobia sets in, you may experience physical symptoms as well as emotional discomfort. 

The fear may soon turn into dislike, hatred, and annoyance. The people of other countries and communities are seen as alien and not a part of one’s own group.

You may experience an increased heart rate and chest discomfort. There could be an adrenaline rush that makes the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Either you will feel like insulting or abusing the stranger or would prefer to avoid being with them. You may try to move away from the social space, or do not talk to them, etc.

Xenophobia signs are real and people experiencing it have confirmed fear, disgust, and a host of negative feelings.

The xenophobic symptoms can be both physical and psychological.

Physical symptoms of Xenophobia

The various physical signs that show that you might be under the grip of fear are as follows:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Excessive body sweat
  • Trembling or shivering
  • An instant fight, flight, or a freeze response
  • Choking feeling in the throat
  • General body discomfort

Psychological and emotional signs of Xenophobia

Xenophobia manifests many psychological signs such as

  • Feeling of discomfort with people of other countries or communities.
  • You may try hard to avoid going to certain places or areas.
  • You may refuse to make friends with strangers.
  • Avoid people who dress differently or follow customs that are unknown and feel different.
  • Difficulty relating with outside people and foreign Nationals in workplaces or other social setups.
  • A general dislike for people who belong to some other country, culture, or ethnic group.
  • Feelings of anger and hostility towards strangers.
  • Fear of being threatened by the outsider in some way.
  • You may want to avoid strangers fully.
  • Feelings of discrimination towards strangers and outsiders.
  • You may wish to keep immigrants out of your in-group.
  • Poor self-esteem.
  • Isolating tendencies may surface.
  • Mood swings.
  • Lack of inner peace.
  • Fear of getting involved in conflicts with outsiders.
  • Fear of your social rights being taken away from you.
  • A constant need to be reassured by others that you are safe and sound.
  • You may criticize outsiders for no obvious reason.
  • Feel threatened without a reason.
  • Negative thoughts.
  • Intense and irrational fear.
  • Fear gets into your daily life.
  • You may not be able to function normally.

Xenophobia is not a clinical phobia. The emotional signs stem from a feeling of insecurity. 

You are feeling threatened because you have developed the wrong idea for a long time.

Even if the outsider is not harmful, you may think they are going to harm you in some ways. There is a constant erosion of self-esteem. You may start to develop an inferiority complex as well.

Xenophobia is caused by an uneasiness that something bad will happen to you. You are under the grip of fear though there is no real threat around you.

Personality factors and Xenophobia

If you hold a xenophobic attitude or know someone with a similar attitude, you must have observed that personality traits play a key role in Xenophobia.

The research studies have indicated that we all have different levels of tolerance.  Some of us are more insecure and uncertain than others.

Thus, our attitudes are colored by our perceptions and negative thinking.

People who have higher levels of intolerance are more xenophobic. They cannot accept any kind of social change. 

Change makes them fearful and insecure. They may feel threatened even without any threat in front of them.

If your ability to cope with new change and uncertain things is low, you may have more intolerance.

When the situation is unpredictable and you do not know how to deal with strangers, fear can set in.

Thus, your mind states will alter. Attitudes will convert into harmful discrimination of people.

Sometimes little knowledge about foreign people, their culture, and lifestyle can make you insecure. You are fearful because you do not know the truth.

Your ability to cope with the outsider may be poor. Xenophobia may not be intentional always. It is an adaptive response to fear and insecurity. 

Your primary motive is to keep yourself and your community safe from outside influence.

The low levels of xenophobia lead to intolerance and dislike. But if the fear is moderate or too high, the attitude will change.

You may develop symptoms of extreme anxiety, fear, and mental restlessness.

Xenophobic attitudes or anti-immigrant feelings may also lead to feelings of terror and dread. Your behavior may turn negative sooner than expected.

A research study done in 2020 has shown that xenophobia and personality traits are linked with each other. In this study, 422 college students were tested for their xenophobia attitudes. 

Three different psychological scales were administered to assess their opinion. They are –

The results were striking. The participants who scored high in agreeableness showed lesser xenophobia.

They were more tolerant and acceptable of change than the others. Compassion and feelings of empathy were seen in them.

Participants who scored higher in sociopathy and psychopathy, as well as narcissism, showed more xenophobia. 

They are less tolerant, unkind, and have an inflated sense of ‘self’. Thus, feelings of grandiose are high. This made them judge the foreigners unfavorably.

Forms of Xenophobia

Xenophobic beliefs, attitudes, and behavior may show up in various ways. The most obvious sign is dislike, aversion, and avoidance towards those who are perceived as different.

You may stay aloof from them. Social isolation and disrespect towards other countries and cultures are seen in Xenophobia.

You will avoid all strangers. Sometimes the avoidance may stop you from tolerating them even for a minute.

You may become scornful and aggressive seeing an outsider in front of you.

Sometimes your xenophobic response can be a learned behavior. You are behaving oddly because you must have seen someone else showing the same level of dislike towards an outsider.

Some examples of xenophobic talking are like this –

  • “Can we eat in some other restaurant? I’ve heard the food here is odd and not of our type.”
  • “Let us avoid this lane and go from some other way. I’ve heard that this area is not safe at all.”
  • “See her dress. It looks odd and weird. We don’t even know the name of the dress. Right?”
  • “No way. I’m not going to interact with them. They look and behave differently. It is better to avoid them.”
  • “I’m not going to talk to them. They are not of my type.”

These sayings are not directed towards a specific person. They are meant for people who are regarded as strangers, outsiders, or simply immigrants.

Xenophobia involves rejection and outright anger. It is directed towards anything or anyone who does not belong to the native’s own social group or community. 

Xenophobia can be divided into two distinct forms. They are as follows:

  • Cultural Xenophobia
  • Stranger Xenophobia / Immigrant Xenophobia

Cultural Xenophobia

This form of xenophobia involves a dislike, rejection, and hatred towards the customs and traditions of foreign people. 

You may seem to reject objects or refuse the symbols that carry the flavor of an unknown land.

The language, customs, religious beliefs, social traditions, music, heritage, and overall culture of other communities are rejected and avoided.

Cultural xenophobia occurs because you can identify yourself only with your own culture. 

All other cultures are seen as alien, absolutely strange, and unknown.

Cultural xenophobia is not related to a person. It goes beyond individuals. When you feel threatened by cultural mixing up, you may show avoidance of other cultures and traditions.

This form of xenophobia may make you reject all the small elements of the ‘outside’ culture. 

You may not accept even a bit of anything that doesn’t belong to your community.

Signs of cultural xenophobia

Someone who shows cultural xenophobia may behave like this –

  • Making negative remarks and showing rude behavior towards the dressing sense and clothing of outsiders.
  • Refuse to accept the music of foreign land.
  • Not liking the food habits of people of other Nations.
  • Not interested in watching TV shows or movies in other unknown languages.
  • Feels threatened if asked to follow customs of the strange land.
  • You may also think that the goods and services of other countries are not of good quality.
  • The food habits and customs of the immigrants are odd and funny.
  • Making abusive and belittling remarks towards people who speak a foreign language
  • Showing distaste for the dance and music forms of the outside group.
  • Tendency to separate people as “insiders” and “outsiders” as far as customs and social beliefs are concerned.

Stranger Xenophobia / Immigrant Xenophobia

Immigrant xenophobia is the fear or disliking of strangers and foreigners. 

It involves rejecting those who do not belong to an in-group. 

This form of xenophobia involves discriminating the strangers on the basis of religion, nationality, geographic location, and much more.

Immigrant xenophobia surfaces dislike and hatred. It involves a feeling of antagonism and hostility.

As the desire to maintain the integrity of the in-group is high, you will not tolerate the presence of an outsider in the group.

This form of xenophobia may cause extreme violence, genocide, and persecution of immigrants or outsiders.

Signs of immigrant xenophobia

If you are expressing immigrant xenophobia, you may behave like this:

  • You will tend to reject people from foreign countries. 
  • There will be signs of dislike and hostility towards other communities and languages.
  • Consider the members of the in-group as superior and talented.
  • You may also avoid stores or shopping centers run by immigrants.
  • Discrimination of people on the basis of skin color, lifestyle choices, and religious beliefs.
  • Immigrant xenophobia also involves avoiding neighborhoods where strangers and unknown people stay.
  • You may pass on negative comments and demeaning language about strangers.
  • Every effort is made to keep the outsiders out of one’s own group.

Is Xenophobia a type of racism?

Xenophobia includes a bitter taste of racism or ethnic prejudice but there are subtle differences between the two concepts.

The cultural biases may arise from fear and insecurity. You may fear that the outsider may be harmful towards you. 

There may not be any real threat. It could be a false perception only.

Xenophobia is caused by a fear of ‘identity crisis.’ The members of the in-group may feel threatened that their culture, ideology, language, customs might be at stake.

Through xenophobia, you may wish to strengthen your in-group belongingness. This sense of attachment and kinship may give you faith and inner strength. 

If you are suffering from xenophobic response patterns, you will feel harmony towards your own group. Thus, anyone who is perceived as different and an outsider will be kept far away.

You will prefer to maintain a distance from the outsider or stranger. Sometimes, when xenophobic responses go too far and wide, it may turn into racism.

People who consider themselves as ‘insider’ and reject all strangers hold xenophobic ideas.

They may fear, avoid, reject, abuse, or put to shame the strangers for no obvious reason. There could be the unjust treatment of the strangers as well.

The hatred is directed towards the outsiders because they are perceived as threatening and harmful in some way or the other.

The concept of racism involves social discrimination where a group considers themselves as superior, more able, and respectful of the other group.

Racism involves dividing people on the basis of skin color, hair color, language, lifestyle choices, etc. 

The abilities and worth of the out-group are considered inferior. In racism, oppression of inferior groups occurs.

Racism involves a power struggle between the superior and inferior groups.

Xenophobia is an aversion and disliking towards other communities or strangers who do not belong to the in-group. 

Causes of Xenophobia

Xenophobia is an intense fear and intolerance for strangers and unknown people. It is displayed by a person, or a group of people who think that the outside group is hostile, aggressive, and can harm them in some way.

In most cases, xenophobia is a fear that arises from a perceived fear. There is no real threat that can hint towards any danger.

An analysis of the causes of Xenophobia has shown that it is quite deep-rooted. There are many factors that may give rise to xenophobia.

Usually, the fear of outsiders can be seen in small groups such as a locality where no outside people are allowed. It can also happen in big towns or large cities.

Example: The unemployed youth may feel xenophobic towards outsiders because they may think that their jobs are taken away by the outside people. 

Xenophobia is caused by socio-economic factors. The insiders may feel that their due things are taken away from them. 

Several incidences of economic inequalities may lead to xenophobia. Thus, the outsiders are disliked and hated by the insiders.

Xenophobia may be caused when the insiders feel that their basic requirements are not met only because they are deprived of good opportunities.

There is intense competition for jobs, resources, public health policies, and social security.

Sometimes, xenophobic attitudes may also arise if the in-group members feel that the out-group members may be carriers of some deadly disease. They just want to keep themselves away and safe from such unknown diseases.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health threat but it fuelled xenophobia to a great extent. Reports confirmed that the pandemic gave rise to violence, racism, and social discrimination.

The people of East Asian and Southeast Asian Nations were blamed for the pandemic. They were looked down upon by other Nations, though without valid proof.

Impact of Xenophobia

Xenophobia has many bad effects on the person and society at large. Xenophobia can cut through the inner core of society and create widespread hatred and intolerance. 

It can influence the cultural setup of a society. People suffering from xenophobia may display antagonism and try to divide society into ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group.’

Xenophobia can also impact the economic development of Nations. Even the political and social order gets affected by xenophobia. 

There will be acts of violence and anger that the young generation will learn from the older.

Thus, the intolerance and hatred against foreign people and strangers may be passed down from one generation to another.

Xenophobia can impact societies in different ways:

  • Anger and hostile attitudes towards all those who are perceived as different
  • Reduced job opportunities for members of out-group.
  • No social security, poor medical aid, lack of proper economic opportunities for strangers
  • Social stereotypes meant for members who are regarded as outsiders
  • Isolation
  • Social discrimination
  • Large number of hate crimes
  • War
  • Hate speeches
  • Genocide

Xenophobia may take a covert form also. It may not show up externally. Yet the general attitudes of in-group members may impact the life of the outsiders.

The outsiders or strangers will be denied housing access. There will be a dearth of good quality medical care for them. Access to good employment opportunities is not there.

Xenophobia may not always involve open acts of violence. The hidden ill-feelings that insiders have for foreign people may creep into society slowly.

It can make the life of the outsiders miserable in no time.

Prevalence of Xenophobia

Xenophobia is quite common across the globe. Reports of racial discrimination and xenophobic responses are much more common than what one can expect in reality. 

The prevalence rate of xenophobia across Nations reveals a spine-chilling reality. The xenophobic attitudes lead to social discrimination, violence, hate killings, and genocide

  • A 2019 survey done by Pew Research Center has revealed that 76% of Asian respondents have experienced xenophobia and discrimination from time to time.
  • In 2009 a poll survey was conducted by Maclean’s, a Canadian News Survey has shown that only 28% of Canadians viewed Islam favorably. There are about 45% of Canadian Nationals who viewed Islam differently. They showed an unfavorable attitude and held opinions that Islam can spread violence in the World. These opinion polls may or may not always be correct.
  • In 2008, 60 people lost their lives and 50000 people were displaced in a wave of xenophobic reactions in South Africa. The foreigners were blamed for unemployment and poor government services.
  • The various forms of hate crimes against Asian Americans in the United States have increased by 150% in 2020. The xenophobic and racist attitudes towards anti-Asian communities increased because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
  • The Muslim immigrants and Sikh Canadians are insulted and face xenophobic racism after the 2011 terrorist attacks in the United States. The survey done in 2016 by Environics Institute has shown that only 28% Muslims and 30% Sikhs were tolerated in the country.

How do you reduce symptoms of Xenophobia? (10 easy ways)

While you try to overcome your fear, always remember to work slowly and take baby steps towards success. Fear is a natural response to insecurity and uncertainty.

Xenophobia is an intense fear and emotional discomfort that is triggered by a feeling of insecurity. 

If you are suffering from xenophobic attitudes, try doing certain self-help dos and don’ts to overcome your fear.

1. Broaden your exposure and experience new things

People who show xenophobia are reared in closed atmospheres. They were never allowed to or exposed to unknown people and situations.

Thus, they started feeling fearful and insecure. They slowly developed a low tolerance level for all those people who are different from them.

If you too had a similar upbringing, you may develop an aversion towards others who appear different. In such a case, you need to broaden your experiences. 

Try to expose yourself to new customs. You can also try your hand at learning a foreign language.

Just come out of your sheltered lives and explore different countries. Traveling to new places can help you understand the various cultures. 

It will improve your level of tolerance. You will become more accepting. This will go a long way in overcoming xenophobic attitudes.

2. Fight your fears by facing them

You can learn to face your fears as confidently as possible. By getting yourself exposed to various cultures, you’ll be more accepting. 

Exposure to other religions, cultures, and languages can help you to overcome the fear easily.

3. Connect with yourself

Pay attention to your negative thoughts. Try to analyze the reasons behind your thoughts and develop a logical viewpoint. 

Do not give importance to biased ideas. Sometimes what you see or hear about strangers may be completely wrong.

You should make a conscious effort to replace your wrong beliefs and ideas with positive ones.

Think of the good things about others’ cultures. Remind yourself when a good friend of some other nationality has helped you.

4. Try not to avoid strangers

When you avoid the feared stimulus, your fear doesn’t get better. It may give you some temporary relief but in the long run, it will be damaging.

Thus, do not avoid strangers. Try to know them personally. There is no harm in free mixing with others and knowing each other’s interests. 

In this way, you might be able to shed off some old biases that you may be having. You need to let go of some habits and beliefs that may give rise to xenophobia. 

5. Improve your tolerance levels

You can do this just by accepting others as they are. Embrace change that might be good for you. You need to accept change as good and increase your level of control over the situation. 

6. Practice calming techniques

You can practice deep breathing exercises to self-soothe yourself. Regular meditation can lower anxiety and negative thinking. 

It helps to improve your level of tolerance. You will be able to accept uncertainty in a much better way.

7. Challenge your negative thoughts

Xenophobia may stem from irrational thinking and biased beliefs. Thus, check-in with your thoughts and ask yourself whether the fear is justified.

You may find that most of the ill feelings that you might be having for foreign people or their culture are baseless. Your fear is not relevant because there is no real threat around you.

Monitoring your thoughts can help you reduce emotional discomfort. You will have a clear idea about why you are reacting in ways that are not justified.

8. Reach out to people who can help you

Overcoming fear may not always be easy. Xenophobia is not an exception to this. You should always talk about your preconceived ideas and biased beliefs with friends and family.

Their inputs and suggestions may help you develop a different perspective about foreigners or immigrants. 

They may help you gather several pieces of evidence that suggest that people who are different from you are equally good and able.

Sometimes a change in perspectives may help in altering your attitude towards strangers.

9. Individual therapy

If your fear is getting worse day by day, you can think of visiting a therapist. Sometimes medical advice helps to overcome fear. 

The therapist will help you develop proper insights into your irrational thoughts. They will also teach you coping skills to manage xenophobic attitudes.

10. Join a support group

Sometimes xenophobia tends to run in societies. There are many people who may have negative attitudes and fear of strangers. 

An open discussion may give rise to various opinions and outlooks. You will be able to fight your fears with the help of others.

Xenophobia Statistics

Xenophobia Statistics
Xenophobia Statistics (Sources – Wikipedia, Bloomberg, Healthline)

Summing up from ‘ThePleasantMind’

To conclude, we can say that Xenophobia is a complex psychological process. It involves a negative spiral of thoughts and feelings that guides the perception and behavior of in-group people.

People express their fear and aversion to outsiders by rejecting foreign culture. They start considering their own group and culture as superior.

It also leads to unchecked discrimination and violence towards strangers.

Xenophobia can lead to destruction. It can also damage human solidarity and World Peace. Several inhuman acts of violence can occur and leave a bad taste in society forever.

Thus, it is important to remove the veil of ignorance. Keep yourself informed about what is real and not what you perceive.

Instead of accepting what you see or hear, it’s important to develop insight and think rationally. Practice kindness and gratitude to widen your horizon.

You can remove your biased attitude simply by exploring various cultures and knowing the goodness lying within. 

Accept people humbly and learn that every culture has some good to offer to this beautiful world. After all, we are good in our own sweet ways.

Article Sources


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