How Asians and Westerners Think Differently

I have sometimes postulated that if I ever get to heaven, I risk being bored to death by the lack of bad news.

Can you imagine picking up the papers every day and finding nothing but positive articles? No crime, no political disputes, not even a hint of salacious gossip. Your favourite team wins every game and there are no celebrity deaths to mourn.

In the modern era, newspapers are struggling to retain readers but at least they have no shortage of issues to write about. Bad news thrives online: Twitter is bursting with accounts of human conflict.

A good argument

But is my fascination with bad news and a passion for a good argument partly down to my own culture? Would it be different if I was Asian?

A Japanese friend told me recently that the concept of a lively discussion does not exist in Japan because of the emphasis on group harmony.

I have also heard it said that combative, rhetorical forms of argument are extremely rare in China.

“Most of the time Chinese people are quiet and they don’t talk about politics. They might talk about it the dinner table but they don’t talk about it in public,” observed the artist Badiucao, in an interview with the Financial Times this week.

My research on this topic turned up an intriguing book called The Geography of Thought written by Richard E. Nisbett, an American who has tried to work out why Asians and Westerners think differently.

“East Asians live in an interdependent world, in which the self is part of a larger whole. Westerners live in a world in which the self is a unitary free agent,” suggested Nisbett.

Turning to the topic of argument and debate, he observed: “Westerners have faith in the rhetoric of argumentation, whereas Asians avoid controversy and debate. Easterners are highly attuned to the feelings of others and strive for interpersonal harmony.”

School problems

These generalisations may help to explain why some East Asian students find it difficult to adapt to Western education systems. It’s not their lack of confidence in English which necessarily holds them back – although that can be a factor – but they are unaccustomed to the way argument and counterargument are seen as central to the learning process.

Nisbett claims it is not unusual for American professors to give bad grades to Asian students, not because they are lazy or slow but because they have not grasped the rhetorical style.

I recently led a course for a group of students from China. The British and Western professors who taught them were sometimes frustrated by the lack of lively question and answer sessions at the end of their talks. I have heard similar remarks by teachers in Japan.

Heavenly lessons

I don’t know if heaven contains classrooms in which we can extend our learning. I hope that it does and that our teachers will come from every age and nation.

We could study art from Leonardo di Vinci and go on to learn science from the geniuses of future generations. I expect the teachers will have the patience of saints and essay deadlines will be extended indefinitely.

But I also hope that among those learners there will be those who challenge what they are told, or even deliberately start an argument.

When the rebels do cause conflict, it will give the angelic scribes a topic to put in the heavenly journal. I shall read it with interest.

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