Saturday, April 30, 2011

"East is East", "West is West"

Intercultural Communication: A Reader (Eleventh Edition) (pp. 104-106)
"Living Together vs. Going It Alone" by Richard E. Nisbett

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese, there is no word for "individualism." The closest one can come is the word for "selfishness." The Chinese character jen - benevolence - means men. In Japanese, the word "I" - meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalised self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences - is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for "I," depending on audience and context.

"Tell me about yourself" seems a straightforward enough question to ask of someone, but the kind of answer you get very much depends on what society you ask it in. North Americans will tell you about their personality traits , role categories, and activities. The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean self, on the other hand, very much depends on context. A study asking Japanese and Americans to describe themselves either in particular contexts or without specifying a particular kind of situation showed that the Japanese found it very difficult to describe themselves without specifying a particular kind of situation - for example, at work, at home, or with friends. Americans, in contrast, tended to be stumped when the investigator specified a context - "I am what I am."

It's revealing that the word for "self-esteem" in Japanese is
serufu esutiimu. There is no indigenous term that captures the concept of feeling good about oneself. Westerners are more concerned with enhancing themselves in their own and others' eyes than are Easterners. Americans are much more likely to make spontaneous favorable comments about themselves than are Japanese...

It isn't that Asians feel bad about their own attributes. Rather, there is no strong cultural obligation to feel that they are special or unusually talented. The goal for the self in relation to society is not so much to establish superiority or uniqueness, but to achieve harmony withing a network of supportive social relationships and to play one's part in achieving collective ends. These goals require a certain amount of self-criticism - the opposite of tooting one's own horn. If I am to fit in with the group, I must root out those aspects of myself that annoy others or make their tasks more difficult...

Japanese schoolchildren are taught how to practice self-criticism, both to improve their relations with others and to become more skilled in solving problems. This stance of perfectionism through criticism continues throughout life...

An experiment by Steven Heine and his colleagues captures the difference between the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive fro self-improvement. The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus "creativity" test and then gave the students "feedback" indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how long the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the tasks if they had succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed. The Japanese weren't being masochistic. They simply say an opportunity for self-improvement and took it.

Excerpts also posted on Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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