Published here December 2008.


Musings Index

Study Demonstrates Cultural Differences

We have long been fascinated by the possibility of cultural differences impacting the success of a project - not just through problems with communication, but also with perceptions and attitudes. A recent study (2007) suggests that rugged American-type individualism could hinder ability to understand other peoples' point of view. In contrast, the study's researchers found that Chinese are more skilled at understanding other people's perspectives, possibly because they live in a more "collectivist" society.

"This cultural difference affects the way we communicate," said study co-author and cognitive psychologist Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago. So, the following study, although perhaps oversimplified compared to real life, clearly demonstrates how one's cultural framework can blind us to otherwise obvious conclusions.

Simple Study as reported by Corey Binns[1]

This simplified study of cultural differences was instructive. Keysar and his colleagues arranged two blocks on a table so participants could see both. However, a piece of cardboard obstructed the view of one block so a "director," sitting across from the participant, could only see one block.

When the director asked 20 American participants (none of Asian descent) to move a block, most were confused as to which block to move and did not take into account the director's perspective. Even though they could have deduced that, from the director's seat, only one block was on the table.

Most of the 20 Chinese participants, however, were not confused by the hidden block and knew exactly which block the director was referring to. While following directions was relatively simple for the Chinese, it took Americans twice as long to move a block.

"That strong, egocentric communication of Westerners was nonexistent when we looked at Chinese," Keysar said. "The Chinese were very much able to put themselves in the shoes of another when they were communicating."

Collectivist societies, such as the Chinese, place more value on the needs of the group and less on the autonomy of the individual. In these societies, understanding other peoples' experiences is a more critical social skill than it is among typically more individualist Americans.

Gross oversimplification

"Of course, these are very gross oversimplifications," said Keysar. "Even in America, you can find collectivist societies. For example, working class people tend to be much more collective." Culture also appears to direct our eyes to read others' emotions in different ways. For example, psychologists at Hokkaido University in Japan have found that Japanese gaze at the shape of a person's eyes, while Americans focus on the mouth. When people from the two cultures interact, these crisscrossed sightlines can lead to mis-communication.

"We all know people from different cultures are different. This is not new. But what research is now showing is how they're different and what are the implications," Keysar told LiveScience. "If we are aware of how we think differently, this can go a long way toward not allowing these differences to get in the way of reaching mutual understanding."

So this is an interesting example of the problems we might experience in conducting a multicultural team, just meeting face-to-face. Given that some 60% of communication is said to be "non-verbal", how much more problematic can it be when our only contact is through the written word sent by Email over the Internet?

1. In a Special to LiveScience, July 17, 2007, at The study results are detailed in the July 2007 issue of the journal Psychological Science.
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