Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Geography of Thought

When I first went to China my first year out of college, I had a goal. As I spent the year teaching English at a University in Shanghai, I wanted to "become more and more Chinese". So, in my quest to become more Chinese, I did what I saw Chinese people do:

  • I ate street food habitually
  • I tasted strange foods like octopus, sea cucumber, turtle, and snake
  • I rode on the backs of bicycles and had people balance on the back of mine
  • I played Chinese card games, like 80 points
  • I sang karaoke in Mandarin

It was a great year. Fabulous. Which is why I eventually returned to Shanghai. But did those activities make me more Chinese? As I opened my mind to these new activities, perhaps they they did shift my thinking. Overall, my thought processes remained grounded in Western philiosophy.

These cultural differences I attempted to imitate were tangible. They were easy to recognize and learn. But cultural differences stretch far beyond these customs and preferences. Differences are found in not just not just what we think about, e.g. beliefs and values, or how we act, but, more deeply, in how we think and perceive the world. At our very core, our patterns of thought are shaped dramatically by the cultures in which we were raised. The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett is a fascinating account of some of these differences that were identified between Western and Eastern cultures through psych studies conducted at the University of Michigan. Nisbett ties these results together in an engaging story that leads readers to see the value in thought patterns that may not be their own.
Take the below image. In one study, American and Japanese subjects were asked to report what they see. Take a minute to think about this. How would you describe the picture?

The findings revealed that while Americans focused primarily the dominant objects, Japanese subjects took more holistic perspectives. For example, Americans typically began their account by describing the large fish in the foreground, while Japanese began by referencing the background elements, e.g. the lake or the pond. Moreover, Japanese participants offered 70% more statements about background elements and 100% more statements about relationships between the objects in the picture. This is a reflection of how they see the world.

I realize now that while my adventures did serve to make me more open to other cultures, there were (and are) still things about life in China that baffle me. Their logic isn't always my own. But rather than say it is illogical, I believe that it's just a different type of reason and thinking ... one that even six years in China and a Chinese spouse haven't enabled me to fully understand. (Though, undoubtedly, I have begun to be shaped by Chinese thinking.) Reading Nisbett's Geography of Thought has allowed me to put some structure around these differences and to more fully appreciate the way they play our in my work life, my friendships and my marriage. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

My Shelfari Bookshelf

Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog