East-West psychological stereotypes in the hot seat… sort of

Social psychologists argue over the causes and degree of superficiality of common East-West psychosocial stereotypes, and reach the stunning conclusion that we are all, in fact, human, and that the social contexts in which we are raised affect our modes of thinking. From the article:
“”Everyone can think both ways, but on average, people tend to do more of one than the other,” says Oyserman.

people had to think harder to perform tasks outside their cultural comfort zone. The brain uses the same mental machinery to solve complex tasks, but cultural differences can affect how well trained these areas are.

ease of transition between different modes of thinking is even more pronounced in people with roots in more than one culture.”

Some of the thinking behind the spitting

A funny-in-an-appalling-sort-of-way conversation about spitting last week in Chinese class uncovered an interesting thought category difference between our Chinese teacher and her North American students. So without further ado, read on for some irresponsible speculation regarding a Chinese-North American category dispute and some stomach-churning subject matter!

Spitting in Chinese Class
There’ve been public campaigns to curb spitting since at least the 1950’s and especially in the run up to the Olympics. Spitting seems down compared to before the Olympics, but it’s still everywhere. The topic rarely comes up with our Chinese friends because it’s just not nice for foreigners to bring up embarrassing discussion topics. If this particular conversation hadn’t uncovered some (I think) interesting cultural differences, then I probably wouldn’t be writing about it. But I have a latent obnoxious streak, and when our teacher was teaching us how to use the verb “to spit/vomit,” I couldn’t resist jumping on the chance to ask questions about something we usually don’t ask about. The ensuing discussion turned into a revealing but maddening category dispute because it involved not just a difference in language and opinion regarding a somewhat sensitive topic, but also a difference in thought categories. I’m pretty sure my teacher was annoyed, but I sure learned a lot. :)

When introducing the verb “to spit” (吐) our teacher explained there are two ways to pronounce this word and each has a different meaning. She said tù means both “to spit” and “to vomit,” but if you change the tone — tÇ” — you can say “to spit” with a third meaning: spitting to show your contempt for someone. The big distinction in her mind was voluntary vs. involuntary “spitting,” and that made sense to us until she separated horking lugies from spitting at people and put it together with puking:

吐 — to spit/vomit
Involuntary, physical necessity Deliberate
puking, horking, spitting to clear mouth (tù) spitting in contempt (tǔ)

I think this rubbed our fur backwards a little because the spitting is something that foreigners try to ignore but can’t accept; it’s embarrassing. I really wanted to find out what the deal was, especially considering that foreigners’ bodies don’t force them to spit, even though spitting is supposedly involuntary. So I asked.

To my teacher’s mind, puking and clearing your throat are more or less the same because “it’s something you do because your body is uncomfortable” and “you don’t choose to do it”; you just can’t help it (“没办法“). But spitting in contempt is different (and thus has a different pronunciation) “because it’s something you do on purpose.” We protested, but she countered with saying that horking and puking are basically the same — and seemed surprised that we didn’t find this plainly obvious.

The two Canadians and one Yank in the class couldn’t let it go just yet; we figured it’s kind of important to know how to distinguish between puking and spitting no matter what language you’re learning. They’re obviously fundamentally different physical actions, and her explanation — even though the language itself reflects it — made no sense to me. Puking is something you usually can’t help doing even when you want to, and it’s something you wouldn’t normally do on purpose, nevermind that it involves different parts of your body from spitting. But clearing your throat is almost always a choice; people have to deliberately work up a bunch of phlegm before letting it fly. Horking and spitting should be in the same category because (a) they are physically pretty much the same action, and (b) it’s almost always a voluntary action, whereas puking is a different physical action and you usually have no choice:

Wet stuff coming out of people’s mouths
Involuntary Deliberate
puking spitting, horking

We tried to object with most of that, but our teacher seemed surprised that we disagreed at all. So I asked her what people think when they see foreigners not spitting. She said most people assume that we spit, too, but that we just spit in private(!). I hadn’t thought of that. She was surprised and quite skeptical when I and my two classmates told her that aside from being really sick, we pretty much don’t spit. Once she saw that we were serious, she looked slightly alarmed and asked, “Well then what do you do?? Do you [makes a swallowing gesture]???” She was totally grossed out that we just swallow our regular daily spit (we explained that if we’re sick and coughing a lot of phlegm, we spit that out in the bathroom, but she was still disgusted at the amount of spit we swallow daily).

Going way overboard
Cross-cultural category disputes are interesting because they sometimes reflect differences in the deeper, often unconscious assumptions underlying our respective worldviews. For example, I most naturally — and I think reflects my own general cultural heritage — try to classify things according to what I perceive as their innate properties. Here we see the influence of science and individualism (self-definition). So with spitting and puking, I look exclusively at the biological aspect of the actions to determine their respective classifications. In this case, the what (food vs. saliva), why (involuntary vs. deliberate), and the how are all different. The social aspects of these actions didn’t even factor in.

My teacher also claimed to categorize according to the deliberate vs. involuntary distinction, and she probably honestly thinks this is what she’s done, though I think we can say that, objectively speaking, she hasn’t: horking is voluntary; puking is usually unavoidable. But her categorization makes sense according to a different criterion: spitting in a way that is socially/relationally irrelevant (puking, spitting to clear your throat), and spitting as a relationally relevant action (spitting to show your contempt for someone).

So since it’s fun to play with irresponsible intercultural speculation, I wonder if Chinese culture is in any way reflected in the way that spitting is divided into relationally relevant and relationally irrelevant actions (rather than categorized according to the innate physical properties/characteristics of each action), or whether that’s all just a stereotype-driven coincidence. Some people, like psychologist Richard Nisbett in the Geography of Thought, say that East Asians are generally culturally more predisposed to think about and define objects in terms of their relational context, while Westerners are more likely to define and categorize objects according to their perceived innate characteristics and properties. In this classroom experience, my teacher and her students happened to disagree along this line drawn by Nisbett.

This little anecdote isn’t near enough to go drawing conclusions about connections between this particular Chinese verb and potential underlying worldview predispositions. One anecdote is just an anecdote, and there is more than one Chinese verb for spit. But irresponsible cultural speculation is still fun to write some times. =)

So the short answer: Why is there so much spitting in China? Because a lot of people pretty much see it as a necessity, and the idea of swallowing all that spit is just gross!

Defining “You”


“To really know a thing, we have to know all of its relations,
like individual musical notes embedded in a melody”

What makes you “you”? By what criteria do you define and identify who “you” are?

Defining You? Here’s some options

For many people who compare cultures and worldviews, the characteristic differences between Eastern and Western answers to these questions are old news. What Richard Nisbett has done is provide clinical evidence to support these perceptions.

…Westerners and Asians literally experience the world in very different ways. Westerners are the protagonists of their autobiographical novels; Asians are merely cast members in movies touching on their existence (87).

The ways we conceptualize our “selves” make a huge difference in the way we see, understand, and experience life.

To the Westerner, it makes sense to speak of a person as having attributes that are independent of circumstances or particular personal relations. This self – this bounded, impermeable free agent – can move from group to group and setting to setting without significant alteration (50).

In the West, your unique characteristics are what make you who you are. Your identity stays the same regardless of where you are, who you’re with, or what you’re doing. Unless, of course, crucial life experiences have hampered your psychological and emotional development and you need a therapist to help you work through your “issues.” In the West, your identity and worth doesn’t and shouldn’t depend on anyone else.

But for the Easterner (and for many other people to one degree or another), the person is connected, fluid, and conditional. As philosopher Donald Munro put it, East Asians understand themselves “in terms of their relation to the whole, such as the family, society, Tao Principle, or Pure Consciousness.” The person participates in a set of relationships that make it possible to act and purely independent behaviour is usually not possible or really even desirable (50-51).

In East Asia, your relationships determine your identity. Your relationship roles weave together into a fabric of identity known as “you.” Richard Nisbett quotes Henry Rosemont:

…For early Confucians, there can be no me in isolation, to be considered abstractly: I am the totality of roles I live in relation to specific others… Taken collectively, they weave, for each of us, a unique pattern of personal identity, such that if some of my roles change, the others will of necessity change also, literally making me a different person (5).

Problems with perspective

I have a hard time wrapping my head around this – imagining different ways of conceptualizing my self. I have to rely on concepts we used in premarital counseling and marital intimacy courses, like differentiation (the ability/process of learning to maintain and express your personal identity while in close physical and/or emotional proximity to another). It makes me think of the counseling courses, “self-actualization,” “self-validation,” “dysfunctional,” and the emotional immaturity and personal insecurity of college kids who try to find their identity and value in how their boyfriend or girlfriend feels about them. We assume, in the West, that your source of identity and value should come from within – from yourself (does this even make sense??) – and should not be dependent on other people.

But those are evaluative tools and assumptions based on a distinctly Western concept of the individual. Does it even make sense to say, “The concept of self in Eastern worldviews is inherently ‘dysfunctional’ because it encourages ‘other-validation'”? It certainly appears that way sometimes – I can think of specific Chinese individuals who have been plucked out of their Chinese social networks and transplanted into North American cities. Their methods of relating seem highly dysfunctional according to Western criteria. I just don’t know if it makes sense to evaluate Eastern concepts of self according to Western criteria.

We in the West haven’t exactly cornered the market on healthy relationships. Does the East Asian concept of the person, far from being “dysfunctional,” reflect a more proper understanding of interdependence and the nature of human experience? Nisbett provides an illustrative anecdote from the classic “See Spot Run” primers:

Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, were quite the active individualists. The first page of an early edition from the 1930’s …depicts a little boy running across a lawn. The first sentences are “See Dick run. See Dick play. See Dick run and play.” …But the first page of the Chinese primer of the same era shows a little boy sitting on the shoulders of bigger boy. “Big Brother takes care of Little Brother. Big Brother loves Little Brother. Little Brother loves Big Brother.” It is not individual action but relationships between people that seem important to convey in a child’s first encounter with the printed word (49-50).

I’m assuming that our Western model of self- vs. other-validation probably doesn’t fit in China (and I have my own issues with that model anyway). Can we adequately evaluate Chinese conceptions of self without first understanding them on their own terms?

Who wants “Freedom”?: Non-Western critiques of the West

Houston recently posted What the Feminist Movement can learn from Islam, about an article written by an Islamic woman that criticizes Western attempts at social development in other countries aimed at ‘raising’ the status of women according to the ethnocentric assumptions of Western feminism. Not the kind of thing you hear every day in Western media, I imagine. Richard Nisbett offers another such critique from the outside in The Geography of Thought.

Consider this a warm-up to the personal identity post. Nisbett ties the following back to the basic differences of perception regarding objects and their contexts, but I won’t attempt that here.

We tolerate an awful lot of poop in the public sphere, to put it mildly, because we value individual “rights” so highly. We buy Voltaire’s “I disagree with what you have to say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m not saying we’re wrong, necessarily, but it sure is interesting when you can start to understand why many people disagree – or don’t hold that value as highly as we do. Parts of the West have recently spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives on the assumption that everyone will value our brand of “freedom” if given the chance. The truth is: everyone won’t. And it’s long past the time we started trying to understand why.

Can you imagine how our insistence on freedom of expression could be considered by some to be a morally objectionable violation of human rights?

It is also important to recognize that East Asians and other interdependent peoples have their own moral objections to Western behaviour. When East Asian students become comfortable enough to speak out in Western classrooms, they will often express bewilderment at how much disorder, crime, and exposure to violent and sexually explicit images in the media Westerners are willing to tolerate in the name of freedom. They perceive these issues as entailing human rights because rights are perceived as inhering to the collectivity rather than the individual (199).

Some people value social stability and the elimination of harmful content from the public sphere more than they value a Western degree of freedom of expression. Some don’t assume that in a “free market of ideas,” the “right” ideas will always win out over the harmful ones in the long run. And their view of our society is great support for their opinion.

Something I find so interesting – and I’ll have to talk and read some more before really putting any ideas together – is our supervisor’s take on why democracy and rule of law (courts, etc.) aren’t really fitting that well in Taiwan. The cultural factors he’s brought up are fascinating, but more on that after I read and ask some more questions.

Objects and Their Contexts

One major difference between East Asian and Western thought, according to Richard Nisbett in The Geography of Thought, is the way we tend to see and understand things. Emphasis on things, as in, objects (including people). This has huge implications for personal identity and perceptions of causality, but those areas are for other posts.

East-West Differences in Cognitive Process:
Objects and Their Contexts

Put on your abstract-thinking hats. I’ll try to convey this in a way that makes sense. To boil it all down: when it comes of objects and their contexts, Western thought is oriented toward discrete objects while East Asians put much greater emphasis on context.


The differences between Western and traditional Chinese medicine provide helpful examples of how these abstract differences in thought orientation play out in daily life.

Medicine in the West retains the analytic, object-oriented, and interventionist approaches that were common thousands of years ago: Find the offending humour and remove or alter it. Medicine in the East is far more holistic and has never until modern times been in the least inclined toward surgery or other heroic interventions. Health is the result of a balance of favourable forces in the body; illness is due to a complex interaction of forces that must be met by equally complex, usually natural, mostly herbalist remedies and preventives. Dissection of bodies into their component parts was practiced by the ancient Greeks and … in the West for the last five hundred years, as well. Dissection was not introduced – from the West of course – to Eastern medicine until the nineteenth century (193).

Our practicum supervisor gave us a similar description when we recently observed his visit to a traditional Chinese doctor:

He explained that unlike Western medicine, which seeks to isolate and treat a specific problem (“attacking the one place only”), traditional Chinese medicine is more concerned with addressing the environmental imbalances both inside and outside the body that are causing the problem in the first place. The substances within the body must be brought back into proper relationship, or balance, with each other, the body as a whole, and the daily environment of the person. … He mentioned that for surgery people will go to Western-style doctors, but for most everything else they want the long-term, big picture oriented traditional approach.

Historical Heritage of Thought Processes

In Nisbett’s view, the differences in ways of thinking between the ancient cultures map onto the differences of current East Asian and Western ways of thinking (77).

Our heritage from the Greeks is largely responsible for our view of things. The Greeks came to value and develop logic, categorization (leading to science), and an obsession with the principle of noncontradiction, largely due to the widespread use of debate and rhetoric in their administrative and legal affairs. So when we reason, we use linear analysis. To understand our world we focus on discrete objects (whether physical or social), their respective inherent attributes, and the fixed relationships by which they relate to each other. We use an object’s attributes to categorize it. We articulate rules based on those categories to predict and explain its behaviour.

But rather than seeing and speaking of reality as a collection of discrete objects with fixed relationships, the ancient Chinese…

…saw the world as consisting of continuously interacting substances, so their attempts to understand it caused them to be oriented toward the complexity of the entire “field,” that is, the context or environment as a whole (21).

In contrast to Western linear analysis, East Asians reason holistically. They emphasize an object’s context (or surrounding “field”), and therefore have less use for hard categories and universal rules. It’s not just that everything is related in some way or another. The identity and nature of a thing is in part determined by all the other things with which it is in active relationship:

To really know a thing, we have to know all of its relations, like individual musical notes embedded in a melody (175).

The Chinese conviction about the fundamental relatedness of all things made it obvious to them that objects are altered by their context (?).

Thus attempting to categorize objects with Western-style precision is not that helpful; actually, it’s often simplistic. The world is too complex and interactive for hard categories (23-24).

Our two cultures not only see different things when looking at the world, we think about what we see in different ways.

Asians see the big picture and they see objects in relation to their environments – so much so that it can be difficult for them to separate objects from their environments. Westerners focus on objects while slighting the field (context) and they literally see fewer objects and relationships than do Asians (109).

As you might imagine, this has big implications for answering why things happen. It also makes a significant difference in personal identity. Those areas are, for me, where it really gets interesting.

The Geography of Thought

Richard E. Nisbett explains and illustrates the fundamental differences in East Asian and Western thought in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why. He traces those differences back to our respective cultural/philosophical roots and the subsequent thousands of years of relatively independent societal development. That’d be the ancient Confucians for East Asia, and the ancient Greeks, notably the neo-Platonists and Aristotle, for the West.

Some of the major areas of difference are getting their own posts; it helps me sort this stuff out into my neatly arranged, mechanically-related Western categories.

The critiques I read say Nisbett’s strong on the “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently” part. He has international clinical studies to back up his analysis and as a well-known and respected social psychologist, he speaks authoritatively regarding insights from his particular academic domain. It’s the “…and Why” part that seems to draw the most criticism. He ranges over thousands of years of history, philosophy, and politics to produce a very neat explanation of how we got this way. Some people think he’s being too simplistic for the sake of convenience and should be more careful outside his particular area of expertise. However, since the list of academic awards he’s received over the last four decades is longer than your browser window, and I don’t have the academic perspective to evaluate those evaluations, I’ll just cut the ol’ boy some slack.

Posts on some of the major ideas are in the pipe.

Them’s fightin’ words… for our grandkids

Culture wars. You may or may not have noticed, but there’re a handful of rather influential cultures on this globe that don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. What’s going to become of it all? What kind of world will our grandchidren live in? How will they think about whatever they have to think about? Will they see the world like we do, or like Asians do, or like Arabs do, or what?

Some political and social scientists, like Francis Fukuyama, actually argue that the West has already won and that eventually the whole world will be capitalist and democratic. Global politics, economics, and values will converge on Western characteristics more than anything else. Richard E. Nisbett characterizes this view in The Geography of Thought:

Everyone is really an American at heart, or if not, it’s only a matter of time until they will be.

I’m assuming that Fukuyama might say it a little different.

Not surprisingly, others, like Samuel Huntington and Nisbett, have issues with that. Huntington says that we’re on (over?) the brink of a “clash of civilizations” that is better attributed to irreconcilable differences of culture, thought process, and perspective, rather than to conflicting economic or political interests. Nisbett quotes Huntington:

In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilization clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false, it is immoral, and it is dangerous.

The economic advances of the Far East and the demographic growth of Islam mean that the relative global influence of the West will decline significantly.

Nisbett proposes his own third option:

the world may be in for convergence [Fukuyama] rather than continued divergence [Huntington], but a convergence based not purely on Westernization but also on Easternization and on new cognitive forms based on the blending of social systems and values.

Now, I don’t think he’s just saying that in the future more hockey mom’s will take more yoga classes, Western doctors will prescribe more herbs, Western young people will get more mistranslated Chinese tattoos, and Western kids will buy lots of Hello Kitty (behold the Cult of Cute). Ever notice how certain Western world leaders and certain Islamic world leaders seem to talk past one another? Or that what “they” say makes no sense to us and what we say apparently doesn’t count for squat with them? “New cognitive forms based on the blending of social systems and values” – he’s talking about foundational differences in how people see and how they think about it.

I don’t have a clue which one of these three predictions, if any, will be more accurate. Our grandkids might, though. In the meantime, I think we’ll keep learning Mandarin, but I’m boycotting Hello Kitty.