Culture and Perception

Clear-thinking people everywhere acknowledge that it’s easy for two people to see the same situation very differently. 

In a world where we increasingly work across time zones and cultures, this would have even greater meaning if perceptions were influenced by one’s culture. While those of us who work globally may have experienced–and thought about– the inherent reality of these perceptive differences, a few years ago Canadian and Japanese researchers  confirmed some very specific distinctions.

East westWhen East Doesn’t Meet West

According to the study:

Researchers showed Japanese and North American participants images, each of which consisted of one center model and four background models in each image. The researchers manipulated the facial emotion (happy, angry, sad) in the center or background models and asked the participants to determine the dominant emotion of the center figure.

The outcome?

The majority of Japanese participants (72%) reported that their judgments of the center person’s emotions were influenced by the emotions of the background figures, while most North Americans (also 72%) reported they were not influenced by the background figures at all.

Takahiko Masuda, a Psychology professor from the University of Alberta, noted:

“Our results demonstrate that when North Americans are trying to figure out how a person is feeling, they selectively focus on that particular person‘s facial expression, whereas Japanese consider the emotions of the other people in the situation.”

This may be because Japanese attention is not concentrated on the individual, but includes everyone in the group, says Masuda.

Why Is This Important for Business?

1. It has always baffled me when I’ve watched Western corporations decide to indiscriminately import programs and processes that  work well in the East. Looking for a “quick fix” or a “magic pill” is a very North American business characteristic. At the same time, there is no reason not to examine theprinciples behind things that work elsewhere; then, figure out what might be applicable and how to make it work.

When corporate meeting rooms ring with the cry, “Perception is reality,” then Masuda’s study should be a caution that global reality can’t be driven by local perceptions.

2. Even more specifically, definitions of “team” hugely influence what happens across cultures. North American “teams” are made up of individuals who see themselves as individuals participating in a group with a common purpose for some finite period of time (my observation and experience). Eastern team members honor the group as the important entity to be served, not as a vehicle to one’s individual career aspirations.

While time and exposure have somewhat altered instances of the above in the minds of some, Masuda’s study should be taken seriously by organizations involved in East-West business and collaboration.

This is one instance where perception can be grounded in reality–for the good of all concerned.

 


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