8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are
What kind of person are you?
Are you independent—individual, unique, and in control of your world? Are you interdependent—relational, similar to others, and good at adjusting to situations?
Or are you both?
In Clash!, leading cultural psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner show us how our cultural backgrounds create and reflect these two basic ways of being a self, which then shapes everything from how we run our governments to how we raise our children.
Markus and Conner also demonstrate how clashes between independence and interdependence fuel many of today’s most pressing conflicts, including tensions between East and West, the Global North and Global South, men and women, blacks and whites, conservative and liberal, religious groups, rich and poor, and businesses, governments, and nonprofits.
Provocative and entertaining, Clash! offers solutions to many of the problems that plague our workplaces, schools, and relationships. For readers of The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille and The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, it doesn’t just explain who we are, it also envisions who we could become.
Hearts and Minds, East and West
Hazel cold-called the graduate student at the end of the seminar table.
“Do you have something to add?”
Schooled in South Korea, Heejung Kim was now deep into her Ph.D. studies at Stanford. Hazel was her adviser and expected students to chime in during class discussions.
Yet again, Kim shook her head and whispered, “No.”
Slightly peeved, Hazel tried once more: “Heejung, what do you think about this claim that Asian students who sit silently in class and don’t contribute to the discussion aren’t thinking for themselves?” Hazel was referring to a widely publicized news article by a college professor who criticized Asian and Asian-American students for not participating in class. The professor concluded that the students were “freeloading,” and that “to be come independent thinkers, they need to learn to express themselves.”
The other students waved their hands in the air and fidgeted in their chairs. Finally, Kim looked down and quietly asserted, “You know, talking and thinking are not the same thing.”
No one knew what to say, so the class carried on to another point.
Later that day, Kim e-mailed Hazel her response to the weekly class assignment. As usual, her commentary was both deep and succinct. But what really caught Hazel’s eye was Kim’s new e-mail signature: “The empty carriage rattles the loudest.”
For all their interdependence, Asian students don’t talk much. At least that’s the perception many educators wrestle with, including Gail Davidson. Davidson is the principal of Lynbrook High School in Cupertino, California, which serves more than 1,700 students, 80 percent of whom are of Asian heritage. A public school, Lynbrook High is the envy of its competitors, with one of California’s highest academic performance index ratings, a blue ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education, and a gold medal from Newsweek’s rankings of the nation’s high schools.
“Our students are fantastic and achieve at a high level by all objective standards,” Davidson says, “but our teachers are concerned when students don’t speak up in class. Students absolutely need to develop their communication skills to succeed in the wider world.”
East-West clashes, like the one over how much students should speak, cause ripples of contention through schools around the world, ranging from prekindergarten classrooms to postdoctoral lecture halls. In the United States, for example, many teachers see how Asian interdependence can send a kid to Harvard (as it did Chua’s daughter), but they still feel put off by it. “Why do Asian students so seldom talk or get excited?” they ask. “Why do they put their parents’ wishes before their own? Why do they work so hard to fit in?” These are not the sorts of hearts and minds most Western teachers were trained to educate.
Western teachers also worry that their students with Eastern backgrounds are not cultivating the skills they will need in the Real World. Some even see how the independence of Westerners can hold Easterners back, both in the classroom and in the workplace. At the same time, many suspect, as did the op-ed writer, that Eastern students’ way of being is somehow unfair to their Western classmates.
A closer examination of the selves of people with Eastern and Western heritages can help demystify their different ways of doing school. For many East Asians and their children growing up in the West, listening, following the “right” way, fitting in, and keeping calm are not odd classroom behaviors; they are the very route to being a good person—a good interdependent self, Eastern style. But for their Western classmates and teachers, speaking up, choosing your own way, standing out, and getting excited are also ways of being a good person—but in this case, a good independent self, Western style. Understanding the meanings and intentions behind these ways of being can not only dispel bad feelings in school and at work, but also help us harness the strengths of Eastern and Western selves for the betterment of both groups.
Talk or Listen?
After six years in the United States, Heejung Kim was getting irritated with professors needling her to talk. She had been taught that silent contemplation, not half-baked chattering, paved the path to wisdom. As the great Confucian sage Lao Tzu wrote: “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”
Kim knew she felt comfortable listening without talking in a way that many of her European-American colleagues did not. And she knew that connecting what she heard with what she already knew was a lot of work. She definitely did not feel she was freeloading.
As a budding cultural psychologist, Kim was learning that irritation was often the bellwether of a good research idea. So she decided to explore why Americans worry so much about silence in the classroom. Hers was a rather revolutionary hypothesis: for European Americans, talking helps thinking, but for Koreans and many other East Asians, talking can actually hinder thinking.
She tested her hunch with Richard, a European-American graduate student from New York. Having logged many hours talking on his high school’s debate team, Richard opined, “Talking really helps clarify what you’re thinking. Sometimes it’s hard to know what you think without talking.”
Kim then consulted with other East-Asian students. Akiko, a graduate student from Japan, shared Kim’s frustration with the American assumption that talking is thinking, and supplied her own set of proverbs: “The mouth is the source of misfortune,” “Guard your mouth as though it were a vase,” “You have two ears and one mouth, to be used in that proportion,” and “The duck that quacks the loudest gets shot.”
Armed with these insights, Kim set out to test her ideas. She first devised a survey with statements that reflected both Eastern beliefs about talking and thinking such as “Only in silence can you have clear thoughts and ideas,” and Western beliefs such as “An articulate person is usually a good thinker.” She then asked people in San Francisco and Seoul how much they agreed with the statements. She found that Americans of many different ages and professions thought that talking is good for thinking. Koreans, in contrast, more readily agreed that talking can impede thinking.
Just because Americans believe that talking helps them think, however, does not mean they are right. Likewise, East Asians may mistakenly believe that talking interferes with thinking. To find out exactly how talking affects thinking for European Americans and East Asians, Kim asked American students who had grown up speaking English to take a nonverbal intelligence test called the Raven Progressive Matrices. Half the students had European backgrounds, and half had East-Asian backgrounds (including Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese). All the students completed half the intelligence test items in silence, and the other half while “thinking out loud,” that is, verbalizing their problem-solving process.
Kim found that the European Americans performed better when they were solving the problems while speaking. In contrast, the Asian Americans performed much worse when they solved the problems while thinking aloud. But when the Asian Americans were allowed to solve problems in silence, they performed better than the European Americans.
For Asian Americans, then, silence is not a sign of checking out. Instead, it produces their best thinking. The op-ed writer was wrong.
Choose My Way or Follow the “Right” Way?
Hazel found herself in the middle of an East-West clash of a different sort when one of her star students finished his undergraduate degree. A scholar, musician, and athlete, Bobby Wong6 had gained admission not only to several top-flight medical schools, but also to a highly competitive work-study program in China. Bobby sorely wanted to take a year off from school and explore his cultural roots. But his father, a Chinese immigrant, had other ideas.
“C’mon,” Hazel encouraged Bobby, “you just need to explain to your father in a very calm and respectful way that a trip to Mainland China with people who really know the country is an opportunity of a lifetime. Medical school will let you defer your admission for a year. What’s the problem?”
“I explained everything calmly and respectfully,” Bobby replied. “But he just says, ‘No, you have to start medical school in the fall.’ ”
“But you did so well in undergrad, and you got into every med school you applied to,” Hazel said. “I’m so proud of you! He must be proud of you, too.”
“He is proud,” Bobby conceded, “but he says the next step on my path is medical school, not a year abroad.”
“Well, I guess he will just have to be angry for a while,” Hazel said. “Once he sees what you are doing in China, I’m sure he’ll come around.”
“He won’t be angry,” Bobby sighed, “because I’m not going. It’s not up to me; it’s not my choice.” He slumped a bit lower in his seat.
Despite her initial reaction, Hazel knew that Mr. Wong was not being a bully, and that young Bobby had not misplaced his spine. Instead, the Wongs senior and junior were following the logic of interdependence.
Independent European-American parents and teachers say that a student should first choose what she wants to do, and then do it her own way. In the West, choice is perhaps the most important act because it lets people realize all five facets of independence. Choice allows people to express their individuality and unique preferences, influence their environments, exercise their free will, and assert their equality.
But interdependent parents such as Wong and Chua lay out a different agenda: I show my child the right thing to do, and then help her do it the right way. In the East, following the right way is a central act because it lets people realize all five facets of interdependence: relating to others, discovering your similarities, adjusting yourself to expectations and the environment, rooting yourself into networks and traditions, and understanding your place in the larger whole.
Mother Knows Best
When you have an interdependent self, you aren’t blazing new trails on a barren social frontier. Instead, you are finding your place in a web of relationships. Most of these relationships (parent-child, teacher-student, boss-employee) are between levels of a pecking order. Your parents and other family members not only help you hook into the web, but also make sure that your place in it is as comfortable as possible. This demands knowledge of the rules of the web, of the right way to be. For their efforts to root and rank their children’s selves well, Asian parents receive heaps of filial piety: the blend of respect and responsibility that interdependent children feel toward their parents.
If you have an independent self, in contrast, these machinations seem downright unjust. Inherited hierarchies are an affront to independent notions of uniqueness, control, freedom, and equality7 (although, as we explore throughout this book, independent selves erect plenty of social ladders of their own). And though you know that you should “honor thy mother and father,” as the Bible says, you often jettison this commandment when it interferes with what you want to do. You want choices, not instructions.
The power of filial piety to motivate Asian Americans, on the one hand, and the power of personal choice to inspire European Americans, on the other, is already apparent in early elementary school, find psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. In clever experiments, they first recruited seven- to nine-year-olds whose parents had either emigrated from East Asia or were born in the United States. The researchers then asked all the children to solve as many word-unscrambling puzzles as possible, but under different conditions. One-third of the children got to choose the topic of the puzzles (for example, animals, a party, or food). The second third did not get to choose because the researchers had already chosen the puzzle topic for them. But the third group learned that their own mothers had chosen their topic, just for them.
Which of these conditions would make you feel most driven to solve as many puzzles as quickly and as correctly as possible? Which condition would undermine your motivation?
If you had an independent self, you would probably perform like the European-American kids in this experiment. You would probably thrive when you got to choose the puzzles by yourself, for yourself, but would balk when someone told you which puzzles to work on—especially if that someone was your own mother.
But if you had an interdependent self, you would probably solve the most puzzles in the “mom condition,” as did the Asian-American kids in this study. For you, as for these children, your mother’s involvement would inspire you. She has shown you the way, and now it’s your job to follow it.
Here’s a starker demonstration of the importance of parents for Asians and of choice for European Americans: Your house is on fire. Inside, your mother is asleep in one bedroom and your spouse is asleep in another bedroom. You have time to rescue only one of them.
Whom would you save?
Susan Cross, Tsui-Feng Wu, and their colleagues posed this dilemma to hundreds of European-American and Taiwanese students. True to the spirit of filial piety, the interdependent Taiwanese students more frequently chose to save their mother. And true to the power of choice, the independent American students more often chose to save the person they had chosen for themselves: their spouse.
Even in tight-knit East-Asian cultures, parents aren’t always there to show their children the way. What happens then? Do Easterners finally strike out on their own and express their independence? Or do they search for other interdependent cues to guide them?
To find out, Kim and Hazel went to that bastion of confusion and anonymity, the San Francisco International Airport. There, they tapped Asians heading home to Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, as well as European Americans traveling to destinations in East Asia, and asked them to fill out a short questionnaire.
Supposedly as a gift for completing the questionnaire, the researchers next offered participants a pen. And then the real experiment began. Half the time, the researcher extended four pens with orange barrels and one pen with a green barrel, and invited the participant to choose one to keep. The other half of the time, the researcher offered four green pens and one orange pen for the participant’s choosing.
Using their independent selves, the European-American travelers took this experiment as an opportunity to go their own way. They overwhelmingly picked the unique pen, the one whose color was different from the other four. Yet most Asian participants chose the “majority” pen. In other words, when there was one orange pen and four green pens, European Americans usually selected the orange pen, but Asians tended to take a green one. Absent any other cues of which pen was the right one, Asians defaulted to the more common pen color—the one that the previous and next participant were more likely to choose. Like the firefighters who enjoyed the thought of their friend’s buying the same car, these participants also wanted to fit in with a group—even in an anonymous three-minute experiment.
Stick Out or Fit In?
Steven Heine witnessed the clash of independence and interdependence from the other side of the Pacific. As an English teacher at a high school in Japan, his students were earnest, diligent, and respectful. Yet they were not progressing as fast as Heine had hoped.
Eager to distinguish himself as a good teacher, he tried to rouse his charges to Anglophone greatness. He did what his teachers back in Canada had done. When students answered correctly, he praised them. When they erred, he nevertheless found something to compliment. And when a big test was on the horizon, he delivered pep talks, assuring them that they could do whatever they wanted, as long as they believed in themselves.
Still, his class’s performance trailed, until one day, Heine overheard a Japanese colleague lecturing. The teacher expressed grave disappointment that his students were falling further behind his expectations. He told them to be very worried that their skills were still so poor. And he warned them that their lessons were going to get even more difficult, so they should expect to spend long hours studying.
Heine winced at the words. But then he saw that, rather than slumping in their seats and staring at their shoes, the students were straightening their backs, squaring their shoulders, and setting their jaws in determination. Words that would have deflated his European-Canadian friends and family spurred these Japanese students into action. Sure enough, when he unleashed a similar tongue-lashing on his own students, they performed much better on their tests.
Years later, Heine was still asking, “Why did the Japanese students respond so well to criticism?” Everything he knew about psychology told him that people react best to praise. As a newly minted cultural psychologist, he took his question into the laboratory. His team gave European-Canadian and Japanese students the same creativity test. Partway through the experiment, the researchers told half the participants that they were rocking the test, but the other half that they were botching it.
Like many Western researchers before them, Heine and his colleagues showed that the European Canadians persisted longer after the success feedback than after the failure feedback. These participants had found something that they were “good” at—something that would allow them to stand out— and so they stayed with it. But negative feedback deterred them; the test was not an opportunity for them to show their selves in a favorable light.
The Japanese students did just the opposite. They persisted longer when they believed they were flunking the test than when they thought they were acing it. Having learned that they were not yet up to snuff, they doubled down and worked even harder. To them, the test was not a stage on which to strut their stuff or hide their flaws. It was a place to learn what the standard was and then to try their best to meet it.
Westerners set their selves apart in other ways. When Hazel asked her European-American Stanford undergraduates, “What percentage of students in this university are smarter than you?” they estimated that only 30 percent of the other students outshone them. In other words, they saw themselves as smarter than 70 percent of the student body.
But when Shinobu asked his Kyoto University students the same question, they reckoned that about 50 percent of the students were smarter. In other words, they saw themselves as average, in the middle, normal. This self-estimation showed both social awareness and statistical savvy: chances are, you are average on a given trait in a given population.
Tests of self-esteem similarly reveal the Western drive to individuate and feel great about one’s self versus the Eastern drive to relate and adjust one’s self to other people. Across several studies, European Canadians clock dramatically higher self-esteem scores than do Japanese students. Americans raised on the belief that psychological health requires high self-esteem might conclude that the Japanese students must be depressed. Yet the opposite seems to be true; Japan has fewer cases of depression than the United States, even when researchers use the most conservative and culturally sensitive measurements.
Stand by Me
If they’re so psychologically healthy, why don’t Japanese have high self-esteem? Once again, Hazel, Shinobu, and their colleagues find that the answer lies in the self. Feeling fantastic about your self can hinder your ability to relate to others. And relating to others is the very route to health and well-being for interdependent selves. Examining the physical and mental health of thousands of Japanese and European-American adults, we discovered that the Japanese respondents with the most harmonious friendships and family relationships had the fewest physical problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and back pain. Having good relationships also helped the health of American respondents, but not as much as did having a sense of control.
Psychologist Yukiko Uchida and colleagues have explored health and interdependence from a different angle. The research team showed Japanese and American participants photographs of Olympic athletes who had just won gold medals. In some photos, the athletes were alone; in others, the same athletes were shown with their teammates. Japanese participants who viewed photos of the athletes with their teammates guessed that the medalists were feeling more emotions—more happiness, pride, and joy— than did Japanese participants who viewed photos of the same athletes all by themselves. They applied the interdependent belief that psyches are most alive when they are sharing a moment with others.
Yet the Americans showed the opposite pattern: They estimated that the solo athletes were feeling more emotions than the medalist surrounded by teammates. They applied the independent belief that psyches are most alive when they are alone in the limelight.
Amp Up or Calm Down?
Asians also aren’t known for their emotional effusiveness. “Our teachers wish their students wouldn’t hold back in expressing their thoughts and feelings,” Lynbrook’s Davidson says. This lack of expressivity leaves some of the students’ European-American teachers and, eventually, employers feeling suspicious and left out. Why are these Asian Americans holding back? What are they holding back?
Yet psychologist Jeanne Tsai bristles when you ask her why Asians repress their feelings. “My family is really emotional,” she says, speaking of her Taiwanese parents, “and not at all stoic or inscrutable. If anything, my parents always comment on how Americans are difficult to read because they hide their emotions behind smiles.”
Growing up in Irvine, California, Tsai also recalls her scientist father admonishing her not to get too excited. But a few miles away, in Anaheim, the crowds at Disneyland routinely indulged an altogether different impulse.
Never been to Disneyland? Let us paint you a picture:
Streaked with purple, green, blue, red, and orange laser lights, the night sky is a riot of color. Bursting out of this backdrop are firecrackers that become hearts, flowers, and rockets, and then—gasp!—the face of Mickey Mouse. Dancing through the park are Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, and Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella arrives with her horse and carriage wrapped in thousands of sparkling white lights. A loud and perfectly synchronized soundtrack pours in. Floats with live performers complete the scene.
Over it all, a live announcer narrates the incomparable pleasures of the Main Street Electrical Parade. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people are all expressing themselves. They jump. They dance. They clap. The three-year-olds cry. The six-year-olds scream, “Mommy, look! It’s Mickey!” The eleven-year-olds shriek, “Ohmigod, it’s sooo awesome!” The adults beam broadly and congratulate themselves; Disneyland is expensive, but you sure get your money’s worth.
Halfway around the globe, at Tokyo Disneyland, the scene is both exactly the same and completely different. The lasers, the lights, the music, the Disney characters are in place. The crowd is equally huge.
Yet this scene of mass pleasure is orderly, almost quiet. Children are wide-eyed, pulling and leaning on their parents. The smallest ones are sitting on their parents’ shoulders. Some are holding up their fingers in V signs. Some are moving gently with the music, and all are carefully tracking the shape-shifting lights. Heads turn in the direction of each explosion. People are attentive and consumed.
But no one is shrieking. Only the youngest children are jumping, dancing, and clapping. The crowd is intent, yet doesn’t seem excited or high. Farther around the Pacific Rim, at Disneyland Hong Kong, the emotional reactions are also subdued.
From an American perspective, the low-watt reaction of Japanese and Hong Kong park-goers is curious. Yet judging by the yearly attendance, Disneyland may be even more popular in Japan and Hong Kong than in the United States.
If East Asians aren’t repressing their feelings, what exactly are they doing? And why are Westerners amping up their feelings so high?
Tsai and her colleagues are answering these questions. They find that which emotions feel good to people varies dramatically with cultural background. East Asians like being calm more than Westerners do. Being interdependent requires paying attention to other people and tracking their thoughts and feelings—activities best performed while calm.
Westerners, in contrast, like being excited more than East Asians do. Being independent means expressing your uniqueness and exerting your freedom. For these ends, excitement is the more useful emotion to muster.
At Disneyland, Hazel witnessed how excitement animates the independent self. Two families were spending the day together. In one family, both parents were Asian American, and in the other, the mom was Asian American and the dad European American.
As the families were getting ready to leave, the European-American dad loudly asked, “How much fun was that?”
A school-age boy from the Asian-American family answered quietly, “A lot.” The European-American dad shouted, “Did you think so? If you do, then say it with passion! Say, ‘a lot!’ Let me hear it! I need to know how you feel! Express yourself!!”
East and West. Independence and interdependence. These are, of course, messy categories. Japan is not China or Korea or Vietnam or India. The United States is not France or England or Australia. And as we will soon show, the interdependent selves of Midwestern men are not exactly like the interdependent selves of Southern women; the interdependent selves of working-class European Americans are not identical to the interdependent selves of middle-class Japanese; and the independent selves of Protestant businesspeople are not just like the independent selves of agnostic West Coasters. Although each of these groups will have most of the qualities for either independence or interdependence that we listed in the introduction, few will meet all five criteria. In addition, the way they live out the specific details of independence or interdependence will reflect the many other features of their culture cycles.
Yet once you explore how people in different places answer the really big question, “Who am I?” you see patterns in the seeming chaos. You also see patterns in the conflicts that ensue when the two selves bump into each other. As Amy Chua learned the hard way, you can’t just plop the practices of one culture into another and expect them to take root. Her younger daughter, Louisa, rejected the very methods that had propelled Chua’s elder daughter, Sophia, to stunning success—hence the long subtitle of her book: . . . This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
You can, however, skillfully apply your independent and interdependent sides to improve your self and your worlds. How can Westerners tap into the power of interdependence to prepare themselves for a more competitive marketplace? How can Easterners plug into independence so that they may better collaborate with their neighbors in the other hemisphere? There are no quick fixes. There is, however, one relatively simple system that explains both where these clashes come from and how to soften them. And that system is the culture cycle—the topic of our next chapter.
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