Why can’t I process my thoughts like you do?

The topic I’m about to write about makes me quite uncomfortable.  For one, I quite dislike labels of all sorts. And then,  I ‘m very much aware that binary categories like the ones I am about to put forward don’t contribute to anything other than enhancing divisions and boundaries.

But, sometimes, I find myself in certain situations where I wish my brain was capable of processing thoughts and describing them out loud in a very different way. And I wonder why people of different backgrounds (particularly of Anglo-Saxon descent or who have studied in that particular model of education) seem to have the ability to do it.

I have also interpreted for a number of clients and found thought processing patterns to be serious obstacles to understanding and communication. Because certain cognitive differences of thinking are hardwired into our culture and we are exposed to them from young,  parties in these intercultural encounters clearly showed they use very different intellectual tools and cognitive patterns to arrive at a conclusion.

 

When East Meets West

 

There’s no need to say that these differences are particularly marked in Asian and Western cultures but not exclusively limited to them. And although there seems to be quite a lot of information written on the differences between East Asian and Western thought processing, I don’t seem to locate a good source of information on Southern versus  Northern European cognitive patterns and thought processing paths. And I would love to be able to understand what is it that makes me capable of pulling certain information in a format that differs quite considerably from the format used by others. If any of you have some information on that, I would love to hear it.

Linear/analytic/ abstract patterns

The Kantian heritage of abstract communities contributes to their perception of events as a matter of cause and effect . The world is discrete and discontinuous and an object’s behavior can be predicted using rules and properties. The autonomous self is the ultimate expression of the individual’s rights to freedom, choice and self-determination.

This pattern is partly result of ancient Greek heritage which, located power in the individual. Ordinary people developed a sense of personal agency that had no counterpart among the other ancient civilisations.  Athens emerged based on the notion that the state was a union of individuals free to develop their own powers and live in their own way, obedient only to the laws they passed themselves and could criticise and change as they see fit.

Over the last hundred years, linear thinking  was reinforced as a way of seeing the world based upon the deterministic physics of Newton. Children in these societies were and are trained into the world of factuality and individualism by means of a unique balance struck between nurturance and control. Enforcing and explaining rules is a method of child rearing geared to producing independent, self-reliant adults, future survivors in competitive, individualistic cultures.  Thus children grow up believing that since there are universal rules based on equal respect, they as individuals will also be entitled to be autonomous, independent persons with the right to do and ask anything they please as long as it does not hurt anyone (Wilson, J.Q., 1993:3).

The analytic thinking of more abstract societies  involves a detachment of the object from its context, “a tendency to focus on attributes of the object to assign it to categories, and a preference for using rules about the categories to explain and predict the object’s behavior” (Nisbett et al.”2001, 293).

Linear thinkers prefer a very structured approach when learning and processing information. If a learning process involves progression (Step A, Step B, Step C, etc.) linear thinkers will feel more comfortable starting Step B only after Step A has been completed.

Cyclical/ holistic/concrete  patterns

At the more cyclical, holistic or concrete end of the continuum,  social connections are given supremacy and are equipped with lots of goodwill to sustain deference and debate.  Members of these communities are seen not as individuals but as participants in distinct, inward looking social units. Social forms are commonly arranged along hierarchical lines, resulting in a high esteem for wisdom and experience. Morality is conceived from social practice, religion and revelation.

Education includes role modeling and values tend to be incidentally caught. They are more comfortable with new information if they can put it into context within a bigger picture. They prefer access to all the information (early on) so they can relate it to their overall goals.

Holistic patterns view any subject as a composite of all other subjects. Several studies have shown that Easterners perceive a stronger magnitude of relationships among objects than do Westerners. For instance , Masuda and Nisbett (2001)  found that when exposed to scenes of fish and other animated objects, Japanese subjects made more statements about background environment and relations between the fish and the environment that American subjects. In another study, Chiu (1972) asked American and Chinese children to select two objects that were most similar from a set of three objects and explain why they  went together. Americans grouped objects based on category membership or attributes (e.g., a jeep and boat grouped together because both have motors). However, Chinese adopted a relational contextual style of thinking, in which similarities were based on functional or thematic interdependence between objects (e.g., table and chair grouped together because you sit on the chair to eat at a table).

This conclusion is further supported by research demonstrating that  (Ji et al. 2000) East Asians would be expected to explain events, both social and physical, with respect to the field—that is, contexts and situations—more  than Americans would, and Americans would be expected to explain events more with respect to a target object and its properties. Thus Americans would be expected to be more prone to the fundamental attribution error—the tendency to attribute behavior to dispositions of the person and to slight the role of  s i tua t ions and contexts (Ross, 1977).

Despite some empiric evidence, and my own personal experience and observations through the years, there seem to be some notable differences in the way cultures process reality.  But, as I said before, I think these type of characterisations are only useful if we apply them to improve the way we relate to each and to the world.  But for the sake of harmony and successful cross-cultural communication, it is useful to view everything in the universe as an entity connected to everything else… and if each relation helps to determine the nature of the thing that is related, then everything is what it is because everything else is what it is. 

References:

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