Our cultures permeate our everyday lives; influencing the way we behave, make decisions and of course the ways in which we think and process information. However, is there such an explicit distinction between the thought patterns of a “Western” individual and those of someone from an “Eastern” background?
Firstly, it is important to define what we mean by “Western” and “Eastern”, although this is a difficult task as there is no clear-cut definition of either. Generally speaking, the term “Western” encompasses those from Europe, the United States, Canada and Australasia, and “Eastern” includes peoples of Asia, the Far East and the Middle East.
However, the lack of an unambiguous definition produces an even greater quandary as to whether we can draw a sharp distinction between Eastern and Western cultures and ways of thinking. It is equally important to identify what we mean by “culture”, which we are able to define more easily as “the enduring behaviours, ideas, attitudes and traditions shared by a large group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next” (Myers, 2008). Knowing what each of these terms means, we can now attempt to discover whether Eastern and Western cultures and ways of thinking really do differ so greatly.
Let us initially consider the view that it would be incorrect to divide Eastern and Western cultures so distinctly. Many cross-cultural social psychologists have found that an “essential universality” (Lonner, 1980) exists between cultures despite apparent differences. For example, there are five main personality traits that are universally used to describe others throughout the world: stable, agreeable, outgoing, open and conscientious (John & Srivastava, 1999; McCrae & Costa, 1999).
Despite the differences in results (Australians being generally more outgoing than others and Canadians being found to be more agreeable), the fact that the five traits are universal means that we cannot immediately draw a sharp distinction between East and West. In addition, it is hard to make such generalized sweeping statements that apply to either the whole of the West or the whole of the East. In fact, our ways of thinking are individual, and individuals differ, making our preferences personal ones rather than cultural ones. For example, some people prefer more personal space1 than others and some people are more punctual than others. These can be seen as individualistic traits rather than traits that originate from either the East or the West.
We may also draw upon socio-biological evidence to prove how similar human beings are. Even humans from different races share 99.9% of their DNA (Astuti, 2008), and therefore, the DNA in a person from the West is only 0.01% different than that of a person from the East. Not only are all humans highly similar genetically, but many psychologists have also shown that everyone has the same basic cognitive processes. Nisbett, in “The Geography of Thought” (2003), writes:
“When people in one culture differ from those in another in their beliefs, it can’t be because they have different cognitive processes, but because they are exposed to different aspects of the world, or because they have been taught different things” (pp. xiv).
The point that Nisbett makes here is that internally, our bodies are virtually all the same, genetically, due to nature. We only differ because of external or environmental influences – factors of nurture. The ‘races’ and divisions we create between people of the East and the West are anthropologically referred to as “superficial” (Astuti, 2008), because the divisions are based on surface traits such as skin colour and the shape of eyes or lips. However, there are no real biological differences between humans of any race and the universal behaviours that define human nature arise from our biological similarity.
We are all, in fact, of African ancestry as they were the first ‘race’ of humans over 100,000 years ago (Shipman, 2003). Humans thereafter migrated and adapted to their environment in terms of food and climate. The physical changes in human appearance, for example more pigmentation to create darker skin for protection against skin cancer, are “superficial” differences and thereby, from an anthropological perspective, do not necessitate a clear distinction to be drawn between East and West.
Over recent years, it has been noticed that the supposed gap between the East and the West is closing, as “Westernization” becomes more popular and tightens its grip on the world. A perfect example of this is found in the ethnography2 “Passionate Uprisings”, in which Pardis Mahdavi paints a picture of Iran’s sexual revolution and the effects of Western influences and the media on what is often considered to be the polar opposite of Western society: the Islamic Republic. Factors contributing to the revolution are the increase in availability of Internet, the education of women and the realization of a global youth culture. These changes have taken place extremely recently, from the turn of the new millennium onwards, and further blur the distinction between East and West. Mahdavi writes:
“Their [Iranians] style and their attempts to embody a sexual revolution, they told me, were their ways of speaking back to the regime, to the morality police who had made them suffer for so long”.
The ethnography illustrates that since 2000, young Iranians have taken a stand against the Islamic regime and demonstrate their defiance using bodily techniques. Not only have they retaliated by flouting the laws governing sexual practices, but women now wear brightly coloured, tightly-fitting headscarves and push them back to reveal their highlighted hair, young people converse openly in public with members of the opposite sex and they hold parties with alcohol and music (both of which are forbidden), to name but a few examples. Iranian women, in particular, are not attempting to be superficial, succumb to peer pressure or to become consumerist; they are solely concerned with developing an image of modernization. To these women, being “Western” is equal to being “modern” and shows that they are making progress. Mahdavi observed that:
“The closer one is to all things Western, the higher one sits in the hierarchy [of a social group]. Having Western goods… and knowledge about the United States and Europe immediately earns a person higher social status”.
In this way, the East is becoming increasingly similar to the West, as Western practices seep into Eastern ways of life. It is therefore incorrect to say that Eastern and Western cultures and ways of thinking are poles apart, as one is becoming more and more like the other.
However, a powerful alternate theory exists which states that because Eastern and Western cultures, for the time being at least, do still remain so different in the majority of cases that it would not be incorrect to draw a sharp distinction between the two. These cultural differences, as has been found by Fiske, Kitayama, Markus and Nisbett (1998) might actually permeate deeper, beyond the surface, and demonstrate themselves as two “culturally patterned social systems, or psyches” – Western and Eastern (Hogg & Vaughan, 2008). Further descriptions of these two ‘psyches’ are the two types of self-concepts: independent3 and interdependent4. Markus and Kitayama (1991, 2003) found that Western cultures are more individualistic and prioritise standing out as an individual rather than blending into a group, whereas Eastern cultures are more collective and prioritise group loyalty, commitment and conformity (Hogg & Vaughan, 2008).
For example, a Western person would say, “I am kind”, whereas an Eastern person would say, “My friends think I am kind”. Another study to have revealed differences is that of Hofstede and Schwarz, who asked 40,000 teachers and students from 56 countries to rate their personal values. They found that in general, Westerners were more egalitarian (promoting gender and age equality) than Easterners, who preferred a hierarchical system (promoting male domination and superiority of elders). These are classic examples of how cultures can influence our ways of thinking, and shows that distinct differences between Eastern and Western thought processes have been found.
Every society has norms, which can be defined as standards for accepted and expected behaviour, or what is considered “normal” by most (Myers, 2008). To those who do not practice them or know of their existence, the norms of others may seem so different to our own that it would immediately cause a distinction to be drawn between “them” and “us”.
For example, Paterson and Iizuka (2006) conducted an experiment in the United States and Japan to see whether culture affects the way we treat passers-by whilst walking in the street. They asked a confederate (an accomplice of the experimenter) to demonstrate one of three behaviours: avoidance, glancing then looking away, or looking and smiling. The response of the pedestrian, who was unaware that an experiment was taking place, was then recorded. The results showed that Americans readily responded with a smile, whereas Japanese people were more reserved due to the importance they place on privacy.
Evidence from evolutionary psychology5 studies can also help us to make the distinction between Eastern and Western cultures clearer by proving that we “carry the psychological legacy of our ancestors’ adaptive preferences” (Myers, 2008). This means that over generations, humans inherit the social behaviours that enhance the preservation of our genes (Buss, 2005) and this helps us to survive and reproduce.
Another crucial element of human life that cannot be overlooked when discussing culture is that of language, which lies at the heart of social life and therefore heavily influences the ways in which we interpret things. An example of this can be found when comparing the Japanese language, in which personal pronouns differentiate between interpersonal relationships, and the English language, which does not do so to such an extent. This does not mean that speakers of English cannot distinguish between different interpersonal relationships, but that they interpret them differently (Hogg & Vaughan, 2008). Inner speech (thinking to ourselves) is our medium of thought, and it is mutually interdependent with external speech.
Sapir and Whorf (1956) summarised this concept in their theory of linguistic relativity – stating that language determines thought, which means that people who speak different languages see the world in very different ways and therefore live in “entirely different cognitive universes” (Hogg & Vaughan, 2008). In addition, some cultures require a more extensive vocabulary for the most important aspects of their lifestyle, for example Inuit have many more terms that refer to snow than other cultures. It is also important to note that some concepts simply do not exist in some languages, which means that ideas and messages cannot be directly translated from one culture to another. This is particularly the case from Eastern to Western cultures and vice versa, as the norms, customs and practices are so different.
After having considered both sides of the argument, I conclude that it is not incorrect to draw a sharp distinction between Eastern and Western cultures and ways of thinking, because the experiences we go through in life shape how we behave and approach situations. Even if we are virtually the same biologically, and our DNA is 99.9% the same, it is our social experiences that shape our ways of thinking – through culture, language and relationships, not biology. Although Rudyard Kipling’s famous quote, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” may not still literally hold true in today’s society of migration and multi-culturalism where people of contrasting cultures do meet, the fact that we do live alongside those from different cultural backgrounds makes us realise that Eastern and Western cultures do promote different ways of thinking. In my opinion, it is therefore of the utmost importance that we understand how our cultures influence us and how our cultures differ, and equipped with a genuine appreciation of our cultural differences, we can learn how to live side-by-side in harmony.
* Astuti, R: AN100 Lecture 8, November 27th 2008, London School of Economics and Political Science.
* Hogg, M; Vaughan, G: Social Psychology, Fifth Edition, 2008.
* Mahdavi, P: Passionate Uprisings – Iran’s Sexual Revolution, 2008.
* Moghaddam, F; Taylor, D; Wright, S: Social Psychology in Cross-Cultural Perspective, 1993.
* Myers, D: Social Psychology, Ninth Edition, 2008.
* Nisbett, R: The Geography of Thought – How Asians and Westeners Think Differently… and Why, 2003.
1 The buffer zone we like to maintain around our bodies. Its size depends on our familiarity with whoever is near us (Myers, 2008).
2 Descriptive study of a specific society, based on fieldwork, and requiring immersion of the researcher in the everyday life of its people (Hogg ; Vaughan, 2008).
3 A self that is relatively separate, internal and unique (Hogg ; Vaughan, 2008).
4 A self that is relatively dependent on social relations (Hogg ; Vaughan, 2008).
5 The study of the evolution of cognition and behaviour using principles of natural selection (Myers, 2008).