The Individual vs The Context

Harmony and China's dream, from David Brooks, columnist at the NY Times:
If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

Interesting distinction in perspective. I wonder how the Chinese language fits into this notion of context. In other words, how does the language itself express context and not individualism. I'll have to ask some Chinese friends because it seems the concept is pretty similar in Japan. In fact, I'm reading a book on Japanese linguistics that would tend to support this view from Brooks. The book documents how the Japanese language is used to create context vs how the English language is used to do the exact opposite -- topics vs subjects, passive voice vs active voice, nominalized verbs vs action verbs, etc. There are probably a lot of exceptions among people on both sides of the language/culture line, but the tendencies seem pretty clear.
Comments:

Just because Brooks has the pulpit of the NY Times doesn't mean that his thoughts on Asia are worth one yuan. Lots of people much more experienced with China would say that Brooks significantly misunderstands China.

http://cnreviews.com/china_cultural_differences/david-brooks-china_20080818.html

Posted by Gen Kanai on October 20, 2008 at 04:18 PM JST #

hey, Gen. Thanks for that link (which has many links!). You always give me more references to read! :) I'm really interested in this subject and know very little about it. I agree that Brooks is a tad on the generalization side, and I don't like the words "collective" vs "individual" to describe China vs the West. My friend Jon has educated me on that bit a lot. However, "context" seems easier for me to understand as I poke through this. Also, I'm just as skeptical of "experts" and their research, though, so I value the one shot observations from those who, like Brooks in this case, are clearly from the West with little knowledge of the East. That has value. Warts and all. We'll see. Every time I write on this subject, it gets a reaction, which to me is just as interesting as the original issue. I'll keep reading and see where I go ...

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on October 20, 2008 at 05:09 PM JST #

I just wonder if the use of ideograms has something to do with this different way to perceive the environment. We put meaningless characters to create a phonetic sequence that then is interpreted by our brains as a meaning. They need to extract the meaning from the character that already contains the elements that together create the meaning.
Maybe this process stimulates two different ways of thinking.

Based on my experience in Japan, I realized that I tend to focus the problem and my actions are directed to it.
They instead spend more time on many related parameters that surround the problem.
Sometimes I'm too direct forgetting important details.
Sometimes they waste a lot of time thinking on irrelevant details.

Posted by Pietro Zuco on October 21, 2008 at 03:50 AM JST #

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