West Vs Eastern – what do you need to understand to take your business into another culture – and be successful?
It is fascinating to see how different cultures see the world and make decisions.
Research around this topic shows there are many cross-cultural differences, some more obvious than others.
But the way we perceive the world will depend mostly on where we grew up because we’re all influenced by what we see or learn at a young age. It shapes how each one of us views life as an individual and how we make certain associations with and assumptions about things like love, family structure, gender roles, work, religion, etc.
This is also true in business: How you present your product to a different culture can be a winning strategy for your company! Is it something you have considered?
Culture Vs Perception:
Culture is a set of information that teaches people how to relate to their environment and each other. The norms and values of different cultures are different – how we greet each other, what to look for in a mate, what defines success, etc.
Though culture may be universal, it also varies from place to place based on the specific needs for survival of those who live there.
Then perception refers to the human senses and how people see, hear, taste, and smell parts of the outside world – a thought, belief, or opinion, often held by what a group of people see and usually based on appearances.
So, the way we see the world depends on how we (and our peers) perceive it.
For example, we perceive time differently when it comes to short term vs long term – In the States businesses have quarterly results and business plans, but in Japan, some corporations have goals that span 500 years!
Or consider a Western entrepreneur in the Middle East stressing about a construction deadline – his Arab counterpart would probably reply that his country has lived without that facility for thousands of years, so it can continue to do so for a few more weeks.
Another cultural difference is around pacing – different people get things done at different speeds. In the West, a meeting is likely to turn immediately to business, while in other parts of the world, people might spend months (or even years) getting to know each other before doing serious business.
People also differ in what they consider an appropriate use of time. A meeting in Brazil might start with a substantial amount of time spent in conversation and coffee, or the meeting may be subject to frequent interruptions by phone calls or visitors – things that a German might consider a waste of time.
This uncomfortable feeling is the result of a culturally learned interpretation, and I would like to expand on this idea of culture influencing thoughts and perception with findings from previous research. The majority of studies in this field focused on the differences between Western and East Asian cultures.
Western culture is known as individualistic or analytical, in which people are sensitive to objects and their attributes, and they detach them from their context when perceiving them. Also, they prefer predicting and explaining, and rely on the use of formal logic and the law of non-contradiction. Additionally, since the culture encourages individualism, people in these cultures are said to be challenged when it comes to understanding someone else’s point of view.
In contrast, East Asia cultures are known to be holistic or interpersonal and therefore much more adept at determining and accepting another person’s perspective. They also rely more on experiential knowledge rather than formal rules of logic and they positively embrace change, contradiction, and multiple perspectives – more so than people from Western cultures.
Some examples of how different cultures perceive the world:
Question number 1:
Which two objects would you place together?
The chicken and the cow? The chicken and the grass? Or the grass and the cow?
In this experiment, developmental psychologist Liang-Hwang Chiu showed American and Chinese children photos of a cow, a chicken, and grass; and then asked whether the children would pair the cow with the grass or with the chicken.
The Americans would more likely group the chicken and cow together as “animals” because they belonged to the same taxonomic category (that is, the same categorisation term could be applied to both) while the Chinese children preferred to group objects on the basis of relationships, putting the cow and grass together because “cows eat grass” (Chiu, 1972).
Question number 2:
How do you describe this scene?
One of Richard Nisbett’s Japanese students, Taka Masuda, hypothesized that Asians typically view the world from a wide-angle lens, and westerners often have tunnel vision. Specifically, some people focus on the main object in front of them (foreground) and some on the surrounding objects (background).
He tested this by showing to Japanese and US students an animated underwater scene (twice for 20 seconds) with one large fish swimming among smaller fishes and other aquatic life, like water snails, plants, etc. When asked to describe the scene, Americans tended to report the large, faster fish and ignored other small objects or the background.
On the other hand, Japanese people described aspects of the background environment and relationships between animate and inanimate objects much more than Americans did. This showed the visual focuses of the two cultures are very different.
Participants from areas in Eastern Asia, like Japan, more often perceive a scene as a whole, taking in both the foreground and the background, compared to Americans (the Westerners), who mainly perceive the object in the foreground.
Question number 3:
How do you interact with objects and people?
In another study, conducted by developmental psychologists Anne Fernald and Hiromi Morikawa in 1993, researchers went to the homes of mothers with infants six, twelve, or nineteen months old.
They presented different kinds of toys (a plush dog and pig and a car and a truck). They asked the mothers to play with the toys with their babies as they normally would.
After all, it turned out that American mothers used twice as many object labels as Japanese mothers (“piggy,” “doggy”) and an American mother’s pattern might go like this: “That’s a car. See the car? Do you like it? It’s got nice wheels.”.
Japanese mothers, instead, engaged in twice as many social routines of teaching courtesy norms (greetings and empathy, for example). and they might say: “Here! It’s a vroom vroom. I will give it to you. Now give this to me. Yes! Thank you.”
Nisbett writes, “Strange as it may seem to Westerners, Asians don’t seem to regard object naming as part of the job description for a parent… American children are learning that the world is mostly a place with objects while Japanese children learn that the world is mostly about relationships.”
But why do easterners and westerners tend to view the world differently?
Richard Nisbett and his team offer an explanation for this – and to understand it we must go on a journey back to Ancient China during the Han dynasty and to Ancient Athens.
Even today, most of the east is a kind of combination of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Different countries have a unique mixture of these three belief systems and in different intensities.
Laozi (601-531 BCE) – Taoism, Confucius (551–479 BCE) – Confucianism, and The Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (563-483 BCE) – Buddhism are the three teachers that are collectively referred to as “the three teachings” or “the three vinegar tasters” – and all of them come from the warring states period (2,600 – 2,500 years ago), right around the sixth to fifth century BCE.
Now, amazingly, in the west, around the same time, we also find three figures who’ve shaped much of western culture. Aristotle, Socrates and Plato, referred to collectively as “The Big Three”.
And thinking about the geography of these places as well, Richard Nisbett in “Geography of Thought” lays out a very thorough argument about the origins of the culture and mindset of the west and east.
Consider the geography of ancient China during the Han dynasty (2600 years ago), when there were vast, open plains with rivers flowing through them.
Food production relied primarily on rice cultivation, and in order to cultivate wet rice, it was extremely beneficial to have big groups of people all working together – and this required large-scale cooperation.
Comparing this to the agriculture of Athens during the same time (the bedrock of western culture), instead of wide-open plains, the geography there is mostly mountains and the sea. Because of this, they did not base their food production on large-scale production.
Mostly, food production was through hunting, herding, fishing, and small-scale olive, fruit and veggie production. None of these requires large-scale cooperation. You can do most of these things individually, or in tiny groups.
So Ancient Athenians didn’t require the communal living that we associate with the East.
Another very important thing pointed out by Nisbett focuses on the fact that the Han dynasty was incredibly homogeneous. Over 95% of the people at that time belonged to the Han dynasty, so people would go an entire lifetime without ever interacting with someone who wasn’t Han Chinese.
Because of this, they had little contact with different worldviews and they were interacting almost only with people who spoke the same language, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, values, rituals (as weddings and funerals, for example), and held the same beliefs about morals and the afterlife, religion, etc.
Therefore, there were not many disagreements since everyone believed most of the same things and the incentive to engage in the philosophical inquiry was not important for finding the “Truth” as it was in the west.
The focus was on maintaining harmonious social relationships because of the necessity of working in these large-scale rice farms — so people have really put the group ahead of themselves.
Instead, in Ancient Athens, the primary economy was maritime, focused on trading with other countries and nation-states. Tradespeople would get on a boat and arrive in an unfamiliar land, different city, different country – and obviously, different cultures!
So they were frequently exposed to radically original ideas, people who had different beliefs, people who ate different foods and prepared them in different ways, people that spoke an unfamiliar language, what manners are supposed to be…
Ancient Athenians relied heavily on debate to find “the truth” with so many new and conflicting ideas. They had the opportunity to look at different cultures and think, “Whose God is the best? Whose way of managing the economy is the best?” And to question everything they believe is important for them as individuals and communities.
These frequent interactions with diverse, conflicting cultures forced something very uniquely western according to Nisbett: the ability to abstract – and abstraction was essential for survival among the maritime Greeks.
In fact, one of the most famous philosophical theories of this time is Plato’s “Theory of the Forms”. Plato states: “There’s this chair and there’s that chair and there’s that chair. But there is the Realm of the Forms where the True Chair exists. And all of these chairs that we see with our eyes, these are merely manifestations, replications, reflections, shadows of the one True Chair.”
This is a fundamental ability that distinguishes the West from the East, Nisbett’s and his team assert. Anyway, this ability is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it leads to some extreme differences in culture.
So Athenians developed the ability to add the suffix “-ness” to the end of basically any word. giving the possibility to transform any adjective into a noun by just adding “-ness” at the end of words. The green of olives or the green of any plant can just become “green-ness”.
With abstractions, we can look at one kind of action that a person does, and one kind of action that another person does, and we can abstract the commonalities – classifying actions in terms of gloriousness or grandness, for example.
In Ancient Eastern culture, according to Nisbett, these kinds of abstract words did not exist: “There is the whiteness of the horse or the whiteness of the snow in ancient Chinese…, but not whiteness as an abstract, detachable concept that can be applied to almost anything”, he writes.
Now that you understand how Western and Eastern minds work, let’s travel to today’s world – where we live in an era of globalisation and thanks to technology, businesses can conquer the world!
East Vs West – which difference should you keep in mind when doing business?
It might seem like managing a global corporation would be easy, but it is more than just selling goods to the world or sending money abroad – Business people in global corporations should also learn about and understand other cultures around the world in order to deliver an incredible customer experience and be successful.
Differences in culture between the East and West can lead to misunderstandings and thanks to modern technology we’re able to bridge this gap. Understanding the norms and values of each will help to facilitate interactions and strengthen business processes and global connections.
I’ll highlight some of these differences that could extend to how business is conducted across cultures and the best practices to succeed!
- In contrast to western societies, Asian and other Eastern cultures still subscribe to the elevated roles of leaders with a firm sense of hierarchy. Westerners meanwhile, often look at their leaders as equal team members alongside everyone else in the organisation.
- Asians have a tendency to avoid confrontation at all costs. If they can get away from an uncomfortable situation, most would rather do so and suffer the consequences than engage in any sort of disagreement or argument – even if it means enduring intense emotional distress – and this is because Asian culture values harmony above anything else in society.
Westerners, instead, tackle problems head-on.
- Westerners are known for being punctual and expect others to be just as reliable. It is considered rude, unprofessional, and even disrespectful if you’re late or keep people waiting around for an appointment or a meeting.
Instead, Eastern cultures place more importance on status than responsibility, which is why it’s acceptable for superiors not to take the same level of care as subordinates. The higher and more powerful the position, the less stringent it is to observe promptness. It is acceptable for the boss to be late, but not for the subordinate
- Asian families are known for their extensive family ties and this kind of culture extends to their business dealings and connections. Whereas, Westerners operate much differently than Asians when it comes to working relationships; most western companies pride themselves on being merit-based organizations that don’t have nepotistic tendencies between workers and management.
- Westerners are straightforward when talking about money and business. They don’t sugarcoat their words to try to be polite, which can sometimes put them at a disadvantage.
To the west, money is money, and business deals are mostly based on their economic value.
To most eastern societies, relationships have a significant impact on any dealings, including business transactions.
- Western cultures are very direct and blunt with one another. They speak what they see, but do not take criticism to heart or get offended by a disagreement. The eastern hemisphere is much more sensitive when it comes to relationships since their culture places importance on being polite in all situations; thus people would never air disagreements or talk about flaws openly for fear of offending someone else.
- It is interesting to note that Asians are more reserved and do not readily show their emotions while in most western societies, it’s perfectly acceptable to express anger or frustration because everyone understands the strong emotion you’re experiencing.
However, in eastern culture, maintaining harmony at all costs is an inherent characteristic so people avoid conflict as much as possible by keeping their feelings bottled up inside instead of expressing them openly with others.
- In the West, adults are expected to live independently while people in Eastern cultures keep their families close and often reside in multiple generations or multigenerational homes.
- Westerners have a sense of exclusion. They will look at newcomers as an inconvenience, someone who is in the way or trying to take what they already own. For Easterners however, newcomers are welcomed and integrated into society immediately – but it’s important for them to fit in with those around them and live respecting their culture.
- In Eastern societies, seniors are honoured and respected members of society. They hold a lot of power in their communities with all the wisdom they’ve gathered over time.
Western countries tend to marginalize them away from public life into elderly facilities where their input is no longer relevant or valued by younger generations.
- In the West asking questions is regarded as standard practice. In fact, it’s expected that lower-ranking employees show their initiative by seeking to expand their understanding of key topics by asking about them.
In the East, things work differently. Employees would likely feel intimidated by the idea of asking questions. There is a fear that superiors might see questions as threatening since they would have to clarify their position on a given subject. Far more emphasis is given to the importance of politeness and not openly discussing opinions, disagreements, or pointing out flaws. Leadership in the East is just that, and should not be questioned.
- Another important point is that in the West the deal is still being discussed even after signing the contract – in their minds if something no longer is convenient for them, or as profitable, discussions can come up again – and this can drive Eastern business people insane!
To conclude, I must say that the global pandemic is primarily responsible for 150 million – 200 million plus new shoppers online that are willing to buy from anywhere in the world. This scenario presents a fantastic opportunity for every business – even if you’re a local, small store, you can now expand your operations internationally really very easily. And having an understanding of different cultures and perceptions makes a big difference to the success of your business operation.
Based on the countries that you wish to go into, whether it’s Western or Eastern-based countries, understanding local things making that country unique and different must be taken into consideration in order to customize your marketing campaign and offers.
It’s one of the most important steps to ensuring that your business expansion is much more likely to be successful than those that don’t consider the culture of the customer.
And this is definitely the right moment to expand your business internationally!
Feel free to contact me if you’d like help with this – I have consulted more than 1000 organisations and companies worldwide and helped 100,000’s of business owners and Entrepreneurs to skyrocket their business, through a unique combination of Tech, Behavioural Science and Business Strategies.
Now it’s your turn – let’s chat about your project and how to take it to the next level!