One of the challenges to maintaining a happy and productive workplace can be cultural misunderstandings – and given the highly cosmopolitan societies in which many of us now live, the opportunities for cultural misunderstandings in the workplace are surely higher than ever. So how is it that different cultures have come to approach life so differently in the first place?
Richard E. Nisbett explores this theme in his book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. Nisbett traces the intellectual roots of the East and the West back to ancient China and Greece respectively, and shows how the differences between their ancient societies are still reflected in the world today. For example, the Greeks esteemed individual liberty as the ultimate ideal, whilst the Chinese valued family and harmony; the Greeks prized logic and the cut and thrust of debate, whilst the Chinese strived to find the middle road between opposing views.
So why was this?
Nisbett proposes that the societal differences between East and West can be traced back to the natural environments of China and Greece. For example, the fertile plains of China favoured agriculture, and agricultural societies need to work together well in teams. But the mountains and coastline of Greece favoured fishing, hunting, animal-rearing and trade – all reasonably individualistic occupations that required relatively little interaction with others.
The implication of this was that the Greeks came to see themselves as independent free-agents, who thought about the world in terms of individual objects, and who developed logic as a tool for settling social conflict so that the best view always prevailed. The Chinese, on the other hand, came to see themselves as interdependent parts of a greater whole, who thought about the world in terms of a series of complex interrelationships, and who favoured compromise for dealing with conflict.
Thus the Greeks invented rhetoric, and by extension science (though paradoxically, the ancient Chinese were far more technologically advanced), and the Chinese invented holistic healing.
So how does this affect the way that we think today?
Nisbett describes various laboratory tests that demonstrate how Easterners and Westerners respond differently to reasoning, attention and perception tests; Westerners generally tend to focus on objects, whereas Easterners like to consider the context as a whole.
In one test, American and Japanese subjects were asked to memorise the contents of an underwater fish scene. When asked to recall what they had just seen, the Japanese subjects made many more references to background elements such as rocks and seaweed, and on the relationships in the scene that involved background elements. They also tended to begin by describing the overall scene (“It looked like a pond”), whereas the Americans tended to focus on the main objects, such as the largest fish.
These different ways of viewing the world are also reflected in Eastern and Western languages. Western infants – born into a culture that tends to focus on individual objects – generally learn nouns much more rapidly than verbs, yet for Eastern infants – born into a culture that tends to emphasise the relationships between many objects – the reverse is true. This is because nouns are used to label individual objects, but verbs are used to describe the relationships between elements as they interact.
In fact, the Japanese have many different words for “I”, depending on the context of who you’re talking to; this is because the focus is not on the individual “me”, but on the relationships between “me when I talk to my colleague” or “me when I talk to my spouse”.
So what can we learn from all of this?
Yes, we are all different based on the culture into which we’ve been born. It’s important to understand that where a Westerner may value freedom or the ability to make up their own mind, an Easterner may value ties with family and friends or living peaceably. Depending on our backgrounds, we all have different approaches to leadership, teamwork and problem solving; but being aware of these differences is an important step towards developing a mutual understanding and creating a positive workplace environment where everyone feels at ease.
Check out a video of Richard E. Nisbett discussing cultural differences at an instinctive level: