by Lydia Tan
I’m sure many of you have travelled overseas, have some foreign friends or have had at least some form of interaction with foreign media, and are aware of the differences between cultures, especially between Western and Asian cultures. But have you ever why exactly these differences exist? Let’s go deeper and explore the psychology behind these two cultural spheres.
Individualism vs Collectivism
Generally speaking, Asian cultures are more collectivist, being interconnected with other people around them and valuing the group over the individual, whereas Western cultures are more individualist, being independent and self-contained. These two ideologies can be seen the attitudes and behaviours of each culture.
People in more individualistic, Western societies tend to value personal success over group achievement, which can be linked to the need for greater self-esteem, self-validation and personal happiness. But this can result in overconfidence in their abilities; a 2010 study showed that when asked about their competence, 94% of American professors claimed they were “better than average”.
On the other hand, Asian societies are more likely to underestimate their abilities than to inflate their sense of self-worth. Think about all those times you received some praise or compliment from someone else and you had that “paiseh” feeling of wanting to shrug it off — that’s the conservative Asian mindset in action!
The collectivist mentality can be seen in how Asian cultures centre around the Confucian ideal of family values and social harmony. It’s not uncommon for people to stay with their parents for a long time, usually until they marry; sometimes elderly parents move in with their children’s families. In Western countries, however, children often move out of home and become independent as soon as they hit college-going age.
To be the first, or not to be?
You might notice how Asians tend to be more hesitant to be the first to volunteer themselves, be it volunteering for a demonstration in class, taking up a certain role for a project or even taking the last piece of food. We’ve all had that experience when you awkwardly look around at your classmates or colleagues, just waiting for someone to make the first move before the teacher or leader is forced to pick someone to do it. Or when you’re eating with a group of people and there’s one piece of food left on the plate but no one dares to offer to finish it up.
This cautious approach can be linked back to the collectivist mindset, but it could also be due to a fear of taking risks or out of respect for the leader’s position as the ultimate decision-maker. On the other hand, those in Western societies are more likely to take initiative more readily, as they want to put themselves ahead of the rest and show that they are more capable than the others.
The concept of saving/giving “face” is something that is quite innate in the Asian culture; it’s that conscious effort to protect your (and sometimes other peoples’) dignity and reputation, especially towards those of a higher standing. In Western cultures, people would much prefer you to be open and honest but in Asia, there is that greater need to be tactful and humble, for fear of others judging or forming negative perceptions of you.
This mindset could possibly stem from the fact that many Asian cultures tend to be very hierarchical, so the level of respect and formality you show depends on the other party’s level of superiority to you. In Western societies, superiors might not take it too seriously if you contradict them (in a well-meaning and respectful way, of course) but in Asia, that is a definite no-no as that will not only cause you to lose face for your brazen attitude but your superior will lose face as well for being talked down by a junior.
Drawing attention to yourself (especially negatively) in a public setting can also make you lose face. When you witness someone making a scene publicly, you might feel the need to leave the scene to try and save face because you feel somewhat embarrassed on behalf of that person — and you might notice others around you doing the same. Of course, you can also be doing it out of fear of getting involuntarily involved.
Intellectual struggle: A good or bad thing?
In 1979, now-UCLA professor James Stigler was observing a fourth-grade math class in Japan and witnessed how the teacher singled out one child struggling with a drawing of a cube and got him to practise drawing it in front of the class and asked the other students if he got it right. When the child finally drew it right after a few attempts, the class applauded him and the student returned to his seat with a sense of achievement. This experience made him realise the difference between how Eastern and Western societies recognise intellectual struggle in students — Western societies see it as a lack of intelligence and ability, whereas Asians view it as an essential, inevitable part of the learning process.
Brown University professor Jin Li corroborates this observation; through analysing recordings of American and Taiwanese mothers and their children, she concludes that academic success in Western cultures is due to innate intelligence whereas in Asian cultures, academic success is achieved through the long arduous process of hard work and practice. This could explain the tuition culture across Asia, and the (often parodied) stereotype of Asian parents chastising their children for not working hard enough when they don’t get good grades.
This Asian mentality is especially true in my upbringing; growing up, my parents would “force” me to solve problems with my homework on my own rather than relying on them for help. Even though I always lamented about them neglecting me, now that I’m older, I do see that their “tough love” approach was their way of training me to be more independent and resilient, by going through the struggle of solving problems myself.
In a multicultural country like Singapore, we are already seeing some aspects of the Western mentality influencing our traditional Asian culture and lifestyle — for example, the younger generation becoming more outspoken and open towards topics that contradict with our traditionally conservative Asian culture (ie: LGTBQ+ rights). As globalisation continues to allow for different cultures to mix, who knows, one day there might be a shift towards a certain type of mindset worldwide, or maybe even a new cultural mindset might develop.