“People from Asia and Africa are exactly the same as us, here, in New York.” My friend sipped her sprite with conviction and continued. “There’s this program that lets you talk to people from all over the world, right? And I started talking to some kids in Afghanistan, and they seemed exactly like us. I mean, you think that since they live in drastically different conditions, they would be different. But we’re all the same.”
The conversation that I had with my friend that day got me thinking. I’ve been to countries in Europe and Asia… And though the people were outwardly the same, the feel of the countries was radically different from each other. Here are a few main generalizations about the differences between the Eastern and the Western worlds.
From my research, Easterners tend to be collectivists, and place group harmony and family over individuality and social justice, while Westerners are often individualists, and gravitate towards the opposite. For one, hierarchies are observed in the East a lot more than in the West. In an Eastern family, for example, absolute obedience is often expected of everyone to their parents; their fathers in particular. He is after all, as the oldest male in the house, the head of the household. In rural India especially, the caste system may dictate your life. Boys have different statuses to girls, just as younger people have different statuses than their seniors.
More stability exists in such a hierarchical system, since you understand your place in society and the opportunities that may be afforded to you for the rest of your life. However, you have less mobility as well; if you’re born into the lowest caste of society, or as a girl in a patriarchal culture, you will be afforded fewer opportunities right off the bat.
The East also places the utmost importance on their relationships, while the West is a lot more individualistic. The family dynamic, for example, is extremely different in both societies. If a conflict arises at home, Westerners often flip tables until their justice is served, while Easterners swallow their grievances for the sake of family harmony, no matter the “wronged” of the situation.
This is probably attributed to a number of reasons. Food, for example. Eastern societies’ nutrition sources are a lot more agriculture-based than Western foods, and they relied more on communal methods of attaining this source, such as irrigation and crop rotation. They saw the value in their relationships on the job, and these values extend to today. Western societies’ methods of farming with their meat-based diet, on the other hand, led to herdsmen and lone-operating farmers. They saw the value of freedom and social justice in their daily life back then, as they do now.
Culture may be another determining factor. Greek democratic philosophy emphasized the individual; the Reformation stressed a personal connection to God; the Industrial Revolution made entrepreneurs successful. But in Asia, philosophers such as Confucius said virtue hinged upon appropriate behavior for specific relationships, say, among siblings, neighbors or colleagues. Politics may also have something to do with it; strict hierarchies make for very effective population control. If people question the legitimacy of their monarch, they would be questioning the entire social system… And nobody wants to give up the system they’ve played by for centuries.
In terms of marriage, the East looks for love after marriage, while people in the West search for love before anything else. The Eastern view of relationships and family is more pragmatic than the Western model, and there are results to prove it – divorce rates are much lower in Eastern countries than Western ones. The West proclaims love, while the East shows it. The West bases marriage off the often fickle emotion of love, while the East prioritizes the stability of the family over any emotional concerns. The kind of strength I’ve seen in Eastern family relationships is, frankly, exceptional…and many of my Western friends don’t know what that feels like, since they’re split between two families most of the time, or have parents estranged from the rest of the family, or just never meet with the rest of their family because they don’t get along.
However, placing emotional concerns after pragmatism also means that Easterners may find themselves trapped in abusive relationships without the societal support or financial means to break up with their spouses. Many eastern families don’t understand divorce, and this can be stifling to those caught in a bad situation. And two people in the East, brought together by arranged marriage or the like, may never grow to care about each other the way some Westerners love each other. This offers a whole other spectrum of issues.
Indeed the Western idea of marrying for love was radical when it first came about. Before the 17th and 18th centuries, Westerners never married for love either. Rather, they sought to raise their positions in society, secure alliances between families, or make political statements. It was during the Enlightenment that thinkers brought up the idea that life was about the pursuit of happiness. They began to advocate marrying for love rather than wealth or status. The Industrial Revolution and the growth of the middle class in the 19th century continued this, as young men could select spouses and pay for a wedding, regardless of their parents’ approval. The East never had such a movement after the 17th century, and so they stuck to the traditional idea of marriage.
This ties into “relationships,” but in the Eastern professional world, the concept of connections is extremely important. It’s infinitely harder to score a job in the East without business connections than in the West, where even mailing in a resume to your prospective job may be sufficient to render you employed. However, if you do establish a connection in the East, your contact will drop everything and do everything in their power to help you, and will expect the same from you in the future. Connections are useful in the West as well, but only for getting your foot in the door. After that, your work ethic and results speak for you because people take the time to learn about it.
One theory as to why this occurs is that the government works more efficiently in the Western World; we can fall back on the government to pick us up after a financial mishap. Indians, for instance, can’t do that because of the stifling bureaucracy of the country, so they turn to another support system made of their families and friends, to get things done. Only the western world has such strong social security and efficiency.
Furthermore, in the East, people value relaxation, and are often passive thinkers. In the West, people are assertive and often become active doers. It is said that when Easterners and Westerners are put in a room and appointed to a task, the Westerners will immediately assume leadership. This may also have come about due to the reason that connections are so important – systems don’t really operate as efficiently as the way they do in the West.
New research has suggested that easterners and westerners think differently when solving problems; cultural differences go as far as to affect our cognition.
The research claims that Easterners tend to see everything in context, while Westerners focus on the specific point at hand. Moreover, Easterners tend to think more holistically rather than analytically compared to their Western counterparts. When looking at an image, Easterners focus on the background and the context of the picture, while the Westerners focus on the focal image of the picture. When presented with a list of words, Easterners group them holistically while Westerners group them thematically. Easterners want to know the meaning in everything as compared to Westerners, who want to know why everything works.
Take the varying attitudes towards time, for example. Westerners see time linearly, while Easterners tend to think of time cyclically. Westerners, with their “time is money” attitude, often try to seize, chart, and measure their time. They work with tight schedules and deadlines, run to meetings, and have lunch on the go. Once you’ve spent your time, it’s gone forever… So you have to seize it while you can! Eastern cultures, on the other hand, see time in context. Seasons come and go, over and over again. The sun rises and sets day after day. Time is everywhere; we have lots of it to spare.
Thus when decisions are being made, Easterners take their time to go over every aspect of it, considering the past, present, and long-term implications of the decisions. Westerners try to make the decision right off the bat; get it done and move on. Westerners are also known for saying, “if only I had done…” or “if I had known then what I knew now…” which Easterners don’t often do. Then again, Westerners often seize opportunities and take advantage of situations that Easterners may miss altogether.
The different attitude toward relationships, as mentioned in both categories above, also affect levels of happiness. Depression and anxiety are both epidemics among Western countries. People don’t often see such patterns in the East. This is because we, as humans, are social beings by nature, and the West puts emphasis on social relations that we need for a happy, healthy life. Relationships are important to us, and having close familial connections and friendships can do wonders for your mental health. For example, many Western grandparents are put into isolated nursing homes, while Eastern grandparents live at home, taken care of by their children and spending quality time with their grandchildren.
The importance of these discoveries can make a major difference in the opportunities afforded to people from around the world. For example, as a junior, I have just taken my standardized tests. And I have observed a major difference in the kinds of people taking the SATs versus those taking the ACTs. Many international students opt for the SATs over the ACTs, while the ACT’s popularity in America is increasing exponentially each year. Now, this may be due to the relative newness of the ACT (the SAT is older and thus more likely to be accepted on an international scale), yet both are standardized tests. The pace and type of questions asked varies between them. If we were only given one of the two, that is, the SATs or ACTs, one group of people would benefit more than the other. We need to keep this difference in mind as we enter the global marketplace.
Cultures are an incredibly interesting and diverse topic to explore, and they’re growing all the more important in our increasingly connected world today. Who knows? Perhaps this knowledge will come in handy in a business opportunity overseas, or help you discover a significant other while vacationing in the mountains. Knowledge of other cultures can be incredibly handy, and you may be grateful for having it!
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