Where east can never meet west
East is meeting west like never before. Yet as those on either side of the table often find, it is not always a meeting of minds. The gulf is wider than mere differences in how to address the boss and what food to serve at meetings.
Research is revealing fundamental differences in perception, logic and even models of reality between eastern and western cultures, with implications for business people trying to bridge the divide.
It is almost a cliché that people from south-east Asian countries think more holistically than those in the west, who focus more on specifics and details. Now psychologists at the University of Michigan have shown that this difference extends to how those in each culture see the world around them.
A team led by social psychologist Richard Nisbett compared the eye movements of groups of Chinese and American students as they studied pictures of objects placed within surroundings -- such as a tiger in a forest. The researchers found that the American students focused on the central object while the Chinese students spent more time scanning the background, putting the object in context.
According to the researchers, the different strategies for observation reflect deep cultural differences developed during childhood and encouraged by parents anxious that their offspring fit
into society. "East Asians live in relatively complex social networks with prescribed role relations," say the researchers, whose results were published last month in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Attention to context is, therefore, important for effective functioning. In contrast, westerners live in less constraining social worlds that stress independence and allow them to pay less attention to context." In other words, people raised in the east literally see the world differently from westerners. But the effects extend to more abstract issues, such as perceptions of cause and effect. With their focus on the individual, westerners tend to view events as the result of specific agents, while those raised in the east set the events in a broader context.
For example, an analysis of reports of crimes in English- and Chinese-language newspapers by Michael Morris of Stanford University and Kaiping Peng at Berkeley found that the former tend to focus on the personality traits of the perpetrators. In contrast, reports published in Chinese newspapers stressed context -- such as the perpetrators' background and relationships.
According to Prof Nisbett, this emphasis on traits instead of context can make westerners more prone to fall for the so-called "fundamental attribute" error -- in which, say, an anxious interviewee is deemed nervous by nature and thus unsuitable for high-stress posts. "Easterners are more likely to notice important situational factors and to realise they play a role," says Prof Nisbett.
Cultural differences also pervade beliefs about how the world around us is put together. In a series of experiments at Keio University in Japan, researchers presented groups of Japanese and Americans with pyramid shaped objects made from cork, whimsically called "daxes". They presented the groups with two trays: one with cork objects in different shapes, the other with pyramid-shaped objects made from other materials.
When asked which tray contained more "daxes", the Americans pointed to the objects with the pyramidal shape, regardless of the fact they were made of different made from other materials. In contrast, the Japanese went for the tray with cork objects, regardless of their shape.
This, say the researchers, hints at basic differences in perceptions of the world. The "analytic-minded" Americans perceive a world full of different-shaped objects, while those from "holistic-minded" Japan perceive it in terms of related substances. Thus where westerners see a road made of tarmac, the Japanese see tarmac in the form of a road.
The two cultures differ on their view of logic. Research by, among others, Profs Nisbett and Peng shows that westerners have a deep-seated distaste for contradictions, while those raised in the east see them as valuable in understanding relations between objects or events. Again, both responses have deep roots: Aristotle, the founder of western logic, specifically ruled contradictions as inadmissible, while eastern philosophers had no such qualms.
With psychologists investigating and finding more differences between the two cultures, it is natural to ask who has the most successful approach - or, at least, it is natural for westerners struggling with the idea that both approaches could be best, depending on the context.
In his book The Geography of Thought, Prof Nisbett argues that the growing links between east and west are likely to spawn new perceptions of how the world works, with benefits for both cultures.
In the meantime, westerners struggling to break the ice with their business counterparts in the east can try out one of Prof Nisbett's tests: chicken, cow and grass -- which two go together? If you pair the chicken and the cow, chances are you are one of the object-obsessed Occidentals hoping to do business with the relationship-savvy people on the other side of the table.