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?

3 thoughts on “Defining “You””

  1. This was from when we were in our last year of grad school while teaching EFL in Taibei. This kind of stuff of course can only be taken so far, but I think it’s helpful, and interesting. If you liked it, you might like the other posts from the same book.

  2. I think this is generally true but I do not think it should be too big deal. It is also not black and white. Also, I think it will too difficult to completely understand how the other person will think so the important thing is just communicate and try to respect each other.

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