Cognitive Processes


In past centuries it was assumed by Western scholars and psychologists that thought processes were universal, that people everywhere had the same strategies for processing information and drawing inferences from it. The assumptions were very much in line with the linear-active habits described in chapter 4—an adherence to linear logical reasoning, a tendency to indulge in the categorization and pigeonholing of ideas, and a practice of interpreting events in linear terms of cause and effect.

These were comforting and reassuring assumptions for the Westerner and were bolstered by the writings and thinking of a battery of Western philosophers from Aristotle and Plato right through the Renaissance and up to the early years of the twentieth century. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century, with the stunning emergence of Asian, and particularly Japanese, economic success as well as increasing attention being paid to the tenets of Confucius and Lao tzu, that credence has been lent to the belief that people in the East (and not only in the East) hold worldviews that are not necessarily those of the West.

We know now that differences in human behavior and perception are not due in any measurable degree to genetic differences. Behavioral diversity is largely culture-bound, not hereditary. Two Bolivian children transferred to Sweden at the ages of one and two (and receiving a Swedish education with Swedish foster parents) behaved exactly like Swedish teenagers when they reached their teens.

A diversity of worldviews does exist, however, especially when comparing East and West and even when juxtaposing certain Western cultures (e.g., Germany and Mexico). Much of this has been dealt with in my comments on the categorization of cultures (linear-active, multi-active, and reactive) set out in chapter 4.

The questions remain: What causes people to be linear-active, multi-active, or reactive? What diverse ways of thinking underlie the creation and formation of societal norms, rules, and comportment?

My extensive contact with Asians in academic, social, and business life has led me to believe that a basic difference in cognitive processes between East and West is a source of cultural diversity between the two. Reactive Asians simply do not see the universe in the pronounced linear form that Americans and Northern Europeans do. They analyze visible (and invisible) phenomena in an entirely different manner, mainly because they are using different analytical and cognitive tools. The multi-actives too, with their backdrop of emotion and penchant toward dual truth, have their own particular cognitive processes, though they are closer in concept to the linear ones than to the Asian systemic thinking patterns.

To be more specific, the basic concepts of truth, logic, and reasoning in the East and the West are arrived at by completely different routes. Linear-active Westerners believe in scientific truth—one that can be established through Cartesian, Hegelian, or other logical systems. They focus on target objects (especially those that can advance their goals).

When Asians focus on objects or things, they do so holistically, that is to say, they refuse (or are unable) to separate them from their context or environment; they see objects as parts of a whole that cannot be manipulated or controlled piece by piece. In their eyes the world is too complicated to be contained in linear pigeonholes or ruled deterministically. For the Chinese there is no absolute truth—only situational and/or temporary alignments of facts that can change at the drop of a hat or indeed be contradictory yet still valid. Something can be right and wrong or black and white at the same time, as long as the outcome is virtuous and harmony is preserved. Neither are the Japanese lovers of absolute truth, which they regard as a dangerous concept, able to destroy harmony and progress. Even multi-actives such as Spaniards and Italians do not arrive at truth in a linear or logical fashion. In Italy truth is seen as negotiable (in order to produce the best possible outcome in a given situation). Spaniards and Hispanics revel in the application of dual or double truth—one dealing with immediate necessities and the other taking into consideration the more lasting philosophical whole.

These diverse concepts of truth and reality cause the three cultural types to organize their lives in quite different ways. Everything is affected: social behavior, business methods, decision making, problem solving, communication styles, the use of time and space, considerations of hierarchy and respect, aesthetics and creativity, standards of ethics, ways of negotiating, societal obligations, sense of duty, and so on. The diversity of conduct springs from one’s interpretation of how the world really is. But what cognitive or interpretive tools does one use to sense reality? Why or how do they differ from culture to culture?

Language and Thought

To begin with, there was spoken language—indeed a complete linguistic map or blueprint—to define reality for us. But there are strikingly different maps. A person embarking in life with Germans and their disciplined thought processes will have a different worldview from the linguistically freewheeling American or Australian, but the schism between them is a narrow ravine if one considers the yawning canyon between European languages and Japanese. We cannot avoid language—we are born into it. Our early mental experiences are dominated by our mother tongue, and if by chance we have a choice to speak a different language a few years later, it is already too late; the patterns of thought are already formed. Language determines thought more than the other way around. By the age of six or seven, our thought processes are calibrated for good by either clinically logical French, exuberant but vague Spanish, respect-oriented but even vaguer Japanese, or rigidly morphological (fourteen case endings) Finnish.

Writing Systems

Language is our first and most basic cultural tool for interpreting the nature of the universe. How else can we think about it? How else can our elders inform us? How else do we pass on the information to others? There is in fact a subsequent and closely related device—our own writing system. If the difference between Western and Eastern spoken languages is formidable, the contrasting nature of the scripts used is even more striking (and indeed significant).

So the American/European child of tomorrow commences the construction of his or her worldview by two essential means— the native language and the national writing system. The Chinese/Japanese child embarks on the same venture, but what a contrast! Indo-European children have at their disposal an analytical, logical, consequential language system—rich in nouns and structured to handle cause and effect without difficulty—as well as a Romanic script of 22 to 28 letters. Chinese and Japanese children are expected to wield languages rich in give-and- take respect mechanisms, sophistication in ambiguity forms, nonsequential reasoning features—and written with 5,000 to 10,000 ideographs (or pictographs) embodying a richesse of nuances, subtleties, aesthetics, and compound cultural concepts that will take them twenty years to learn thoroughly. Given this, how can we expect cognitive processes to be the same?

Historical reasons underlie the choice of alphabet or script by cultural groups; they are largely accidental or arbitrary and have little to do with mentality. Once adopted, however, certain scripts have a tremendous impact on the thought processes of their users. This is particularly evident in East Asia, where more than one and a half billion people use or are familiar with the Chinese kanji ideographic writing system. This legacy, extant already in A.D. 500, spread to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia and had a profound influence on the way people constructed and interpreted symbols of reality. Pictographs are in fact uniquely suited to express Chinese—an “isolating” language consisting of stand-alone concepts—but are hopelessly inadequate and inappropriate for Japanese and Korean, “agglutinative” languages requiring scripts that can deal with an elaborate system of morphological qualifiers and polite endings. Koreans eventually developed a phonetic script, though kanji still looms large in their consciousness. The poor Japanese—still stuck with kanji after one and a half millennia of struggling with it—had to create two further scripts (hiragana and katakana), each with 48 syllables, to be able to get their spoken language on paper.

Unfortunate choice or not, the fact remains that the use of ideographs directs thought and perceptive abilities along channels familiar to East Asians but quite unknown to the West. Americans, with the limitation of just twenty-six (Roman) English letters at their disposal, have nothing to concentrate on except content. This suits their need for analysis, reasoning, and logic. The Chinese or Japanese, with thousands of symbols to call on, can express the same thoughts in many different ways, in terms of both nuances and aesthetics. The American is very concerned about what is said. The Japanese cares much more about how it is said.

There is a firm correlation between harmonious speech and aesthetic script. Calligraphy is a prized art in both Japan and China. Japanese businesspeople have explained to me that even as they read for content, they are influenced aesthetically (favorably or unfavorably) according to the combination of kanji characters. Such aesthetic appraisal of script and the meaning conveyed by it have an enormous effect (when practiced over a thousand years) on the cognitive process. In international teams factual information leading to speedy logical decisions makes little impact on Japanese team members. They are often unimpressed by, and indeed suspicious of, too much logic. On the other hand, they are better than Westerners at detecting currents of harmony and goodwill (or lack of it) in the atmosphere of a meeting. Even a business meeting for a Japanese is (or should be) an aesthetic experience. The same applies to most East Asians.

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In the case of the Japanese, there is an interesting implication in their having combined an ideographic (kanji) writing system with a phonetic one (hiragana). Scientists tell us that different activities are processed in different parts of the brain. The left-hand side processes logical concepts (mathematics, logic itself) while the right-hand side deals with creative concepts such as music, painting, and so forth. When one is reading English, one uses largely the left-hand side of the brain to analyze the phonetic characters. The Japanese use the left-hand side to read hiragana (and katakana), but have to switch to some extent to the right-hand side to be fully involved (aesthetically) in the ideographic kanji. This implies that they must use both sides of the brain simultaneously. It is a well- known fact that although it would be economically advantageous for the Japanese to give up the cumbersome kanji writing system, they consistently refuse to do so on account of the aesthetic loss implied. They would lose their literature.


Richard Nisbett in his excellent book The Circle and the Line raises this question: Why is it that East Asians excel in certain skills such as arithmetic, algebra, and spatial relations but perform poorly in verbal tests? In my opinion the Chinese and Japanese are good at mathematics because they are used to reading symbols, some of which are very complicated (the kanji symbol for rose consists of twenty-six different strokes; see diagram on page 136). The Japanese, particularly, like business concepts explained to them by diagrams, which they internalize much faster than words. On another plane, the Japanese predisposition to visual communication, by virtue of their calligraphic writing system, may explain the popularity of comics in Japan, a billion-dollar industry without parallel in any country using Romanic script. Some weekly comics sell four million copies!

The Japanese are poor verbal performers mainly because they do not trust words; in contrast, they have remarkable visual recall. Habitually reading 5,000 or more kanji characters sharpens one’s visual memory much more effectively than an alphabet of 26 letters ever will. Put 20 objects on a table, let a Japanese look at them for one minute, then remove them from sight. The Japanese will be able to remember and list 16 to 20 of them. Most Westerners will remember fewer. Chinese, too, have excellent visual recall. “One picture is worth a thousand words” is one of the best-known Chinese proverbs. Nisbett asks why Asian students in Silicon Valley shine in the classroom in comparison with Americans, yet fall behind in creative science. The reason is that originality is not prized in Asia as it is in the West. The best Japanese, Korean, and Chinese paintings are those which most faithfully reproduce those lovely horses, tigers, fish, birds, bamboo, and landscapes from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in the East it is part of the drive toward perfection. The collective nature of Chinese and Japanese thinking leads them to consider that something that has been written, painted, or invented really belongs to the public domain on account of the combined effort that went into its production. That is one reason why Westerners run into problems concerning intellectual property rights in Asia.

This elaborate pictograph (kanji) means: 8220;rose” in Japanese.

If linear-active and reactive people demonstrate skills in the fields of mathematics, engineering, physics, and science, multi- actives shine in “soft” subjects. High on vision and imagination, they live in a world of ideas, often articulating them expressively. Their all-round sensitivity enables them to put together helpful syntheses, and they frequently provide the social glue in a diverse group or team. They naturally excel in artistic pursuits in almost every field, as witnessed by the richness of French and Spanish literature, Italian music and opera, Russian ballet, and Mexican murals. Arguably the world’s most beautiful monumental architecture was created by the Moors, Italians, and French. The last two have long dominated the world of fashion.

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Collective and Individual Thought Processes

Why do most Asians think collectively, while Westerners prize and practice individual thinking? We have already mentioned that Westerners focus on objects they believe they can control, whereas Asians take into consideration a host of other related factors that add to the complexity of the situation. This leads to more complicated social practices in Asia, particularly in Japan and China, where societal role obligations are onerous. Without a doubt large populations and crowded conditions are conducive to collective thinking and consensus (consensus-prone Sweden is an exception). Collective and contextual thinking also derives from the nature of language and ultimately reinforces the original bias of the language. The diagram on page 137 illustrates this process.

The mother tongue is usually mandatory, the script arbitrary; but as I’ve mentioned, once chosen, the script welds with the spoken language to impart cognitive processes to the person. The filter created by the thought processes results in a worldview, which in turn lays down certain social practices and rules that typify the cultural behavior of the group. The social practices will subsequently affect the language inasmuch as it will be modified to conform to the society. For example, one would expect Swedish to be democratic in tone, Japanese to have many respect forms, and American English to contain neologisms—and one would be right. In this way the “circle” is self-reinforcing.

Let us look more closely at what happens in the West:

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and in the East:

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To elaborate on the diagram above, let us consider how the mutual reinforcement of language and social practices actually takes place. The Japanese language is characterized by a multiplicity of respect forms and can be spoken with at least five levels of politeness. There is even one level used only when addressing the emperor, who also uses special vocabulary. There is also what is referred to as feminine Japanese, spoken by ladies to adopt a subordinate role vis--vis men. Other East Asian languages also incorporate numerous respect forms (for instance, Thai has forty-six different ways of saying you).

The inherent politeness and respectfulness of Japanese imposes a respect-oriented manner on its speakers. In their social practices the Japanese are arguably the most courteous people in the world, which is demonstrated in their speech in a variety of ways. These are (1) choosing the appropriate status level, (2) selecting the correct vocabulary, (3) picking the appropriate deferential tone of voice, (4) displaying respectful body language, (5) timing (knowing when to speak and when to keep quiet), and (6) knowing what to leave unsaid.

All this may sound rather complicated, but to a Japanese it comes naturally because many of the tools are built into the language. The virtual absence of rude words or swearing in Japanese social intercourse contributes to the maintenance of the polite bias in the language. Grammar also unfolds in tandem with social behavior. For instance, it is considered unseemly, or incorrect, in Japan to report conversations one has had in private with others. Consequently, there is no reported-speech mechanism in Japanese similar to that in most Western languages. The question remains: Which led to which, the absence of the mechanism or the public distaste for the practice? The fact that Japanese women have traditionally reinforced their subservience to men by using extrapolite vocabulary and meek verb forms is well known. How, then, can a Japanese female manager ever succeed in giving a direct order to a male? Indeed, it is equally questionable whether a (male) subordinate can ever be assertive vis--vis his boss. A female subordinate is thus doubly thwarted. My daughter, who worked for a Japanese company in London, found that she had to switch to English to ask for a pay raise. The correlation of the correct language form and social or political behavior can be exaggerated to an astonishing degree. In the mid-1860s, for example, a conservative Japanese government, wishing to placate shogun Tokugawa, ordered its officials to use feminine grammatical forms in their correspondence as a symbol of submissiveness!

The Japanese language has many well-used terms dealing with honor, reputation, soul, and spirit. These concepts are strikingly visible in social behavior, particularly in the military. Following Commodore Matthew Perry’s successful landing on Japanese soil in 1853, samurai retainers refused to exchange their swords for rifles, even though this left them sorely disadvantaged. In World War I, Japanese soldiers and officers clung to the weapons and tactics of the past on emotional and moral rather than practical grounds. Again, this was a question of worldview. To men brought up to honor physical courage and self-sacrifice, hand-to-hand combat, and leading from the front, devices such as tanks, machine guns, and periscopes seemed distinctly unheroic. Yet Japanese soldiers can outshine Europeans in displaying a sense of aesthetics. During the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing, even soldiers involved in looting were commended for their good taste. “The Japanese,” wrote correspondent Henry Savage Landor, “were the only soldiers in the field who showed any natural and thorough appreciation of art and of things artistic. They—like everybody else, of course—looted, but they did it in a quiet, silent, and graceful way, with no throwing about of things, no smashing, no confusion, no undue vandalism. They helped themselves to what they fancied, but it was done so nicely that it did not seem like looting at all.

“I went into a house,” Landor continued, “which had been entered by a number of Japanese privates. They had found a cabinet of old china, and each soldier was revolving in his supple fingers a cup or a vase or dish and carefully examining the design. ‘Lovely, isn’t it!’ exclaimed one soldier, looking into the work with the eye of a connoisseur. ‘Yes, indeed. First rate!’ announced his neighbor, drawing in his breath in sign of admiration, while he tried to decipher the mark on the bottom of each cup.… One could not help being struck, especially when small, delicate articles were handled by the dainty, artistic touch of the Japanese soldiers.”

This “aesthetic” behavior derives from a strong feeling among the Japanese that they are themselves a part of nature. Even indoors Japanese surround themselves with natural elements—un-painted floors and walls, wooden posts, and grass mats, which they feel with bare foot and hand; similarly, they enjoy visual contact with grains of wood and grass. Flimsy sliding doors pose the tiniest distinction between the garden and the interior and usually stand open so that one is indoors and outdoors at the same time. Japanese haiku poetry uses words from nature, and it is not unusual for a Japanese to begin a letter with sentences describing beautiful changes in the color of leaves or seasons or referring to cherry blossoms.

One can deduce from studying Japanese literature that the concept of nature has a unique history, differing from the West. In his study The Tale of Genji, Ivan Morris notes that in premodern Japanese literature, nature was often represented not just as a passive backdrop but as a “vital force, exerting a constant influence on characters.” In fact the central role of nature in Japanese culture can be traced back to both Shinto and Buddhist influences. In Japanese Buddhism, nature came to represent the source of meaning and value. In English, nature is often depicted as threatening (rough, stormy seas, lost in the woods, etc.), whereas in Japan humans and nature are not in opposition but are part of each other (in harmony). Augustin Bergue notes that the Japanese self is “relatively permeable with its environment, both social and physical.” Nature acts as a conduit between conscious and unconscious thoughts. This is a premodern Japanese tradition suggesting a continuum between past, present, and future.

Group or collective thinking and behavior are, as indicated earlier, highly contextual. In Asia lateral clearances are imperative. The Westerner looks at a situation and thinks in a linear fashion, considering alternatives and gradually eliminating them until a logical course of action becomes evident. The Asian is less interested in eliminating alternatives than in combining them in a multifaceted harmonious solution. Opposing arguments need not collide—better that they converge and eventually merge; different parts will become one whole. This way of thinking also applies to human relationships. An individual is incomplete and must be supplemented by others to have any significance.

Challenging the indivisible “I” is not new in Japanese tradition. Many anthropological studies have defined the Japanese self as relational and contextual, demonstrating that the self cannot be separated from its environment. The relative nature of the self is also reflected in the Japanese language, which has a range of words for the first-person pronoun that change according to the status difference between the “I” and the person being addressed as well as to the context of the exchange. This poses profound challenges to Western assumptions about the primacy of the individual. The Japanese (and other East Asians) do not see the “I” as the center from which the rest of the world is observed. Rather, they see the individual as part of the world. In fact the Japanese will omit the first-person pronoun completely if the meaning remains clear. This makes foreigners speaking Japanese (who tend to put in the pronoun) seem overly assertive.

These Asian cognitive processes also affect legal procedures and customs in Confucian-dominated societies. The Chinese hate written laws and make theirs vague, allowing for flexible interpretations. The Chinese base their values on human feelings rather than on legal or even religious principles and are less concerned with what is right and wrong than with what is “virtuous.” This derives from Chinese fondness for enlightened and benign Imperial edicts and is hard for Westerners to accept.

The sense of belonging to a group rivals the concept of face as the dominant feature of East Asian mentality. The Chinese and Japanese just cannot accept or condone the Western sense of the individual self, which is anathema to one who sees everything in a collective context. Many Japanese salarymen still spend ten to twelve hours a day at work. The company is their uchi—their home and hearth. The Chinese spend more time with their family, but it is an extended family. In both cases the individual is subsumed and rarely operates singly. Japanese company colleagues go on long Saturday afternoon picnics, even though they have rubbed shoulders with each other fifty or sixty hours during the week. Tokyo’s citizens pack pachinko parlors nightly in the tens of thousands, not in search of financial gain but on account of the sense of belonging that the mindless entertainment gives them. They are with others, they are cozy. After his Japanese soccer team won the Asian Cup in 2000, the team’s French manager told his players to take Sunday night off and go out on the town as a reward for their success. They spent the evening in the team bus nibbling sushi. In China a military commander once confined a group of undisciplined soldiers to the barracks for the weekend as a punishment for their misdemeanors. Unfortunately for the commander, they liked the coziness of their confinement, so he had to look for a new punishment. This may seem incredible to some Westerners, but to those who have experience in East Asia, it will come as no surprise.

Logic, Logic, Logic

People who use different structures of reasoning seem illogical to each other. It has been said that Western logic tends to be monocular, which is another way of saying it supports one side of a proposition and pursues its conclusion in a linear fashion. Cartesian logic is linear logic. Chinese logic can be called binocular, meaning opposites are not necessarily seen as contradictions. Reactive in nature, the Chinese will make an effort to accommodate another’s point of view without simultaneously discarding their own. Japanese logic may be seen as polyocular—a reactive, circular form of thinking where a multiplicity of points of view is accommodated. The fact that the Japanese are careful to protect everyone’s face supports this description. The Japanese are more reactive than the Chinese in the sense that they avoid conflict or confrontation more painstakingly. Westerners often complain that the Japanese often change their minds or cancel appointments and arrangements without apparent reason. But there is a reason, invariably contextual and not apparent to the linear-active, more single-minded Westerner.

The Chinese, with their binocular reasoning, are much more comfortable with ambiguity than most other cultural groups. Reactive people love ambiguity because different interpretations of a situation facilitate avoidance of conflict and leave more options open for future cooperation. Linear-active people, on the contrary, find ambiguous statements irritating and often seek clarifi- cation or an unambiguous answer to a question. This in turn irritates reactives, who thought they were skillfully avoiding “rocking the boat.” They fail to see why the Westerner does not wish to benefit from this clever ruse. The Chinese do not see their ambiguous stance as paradoxical. They can scream hysterically to foreign guests about the Taiwan problem while at the same time be the most considerate of hosts. They believe they are the gentlest of humans, but they execute more of their fellows than anyone else.

The Western cognitive process is facilitated by dialogue and debate. These are largely absent in China and Japan, where geodemographic factors influence East Asians to exalt human-centered hierarchies over propositional truth in their thought systems. The hieroglyphic character and grammatical presuppositions of the Chinese and Japanese languages produce a mindset more oriented toward imagery and sympathetic understanding than toward definition and distinction. Americans try to solve problems by giving direct answers to questions. Asians avoid direct answers and wait for solutions to emerge in due course.

In summary, linear-active, multi-active, and reactive people wield logic from different starting points. Linear logic is based on facts—if possible, indisputable ones. It asserts that some things are constants. Reactive logic suggests that very few things are constant—perhaps nothing except change itself. Reactive logic is essentially contextual and cannot be separated from the situation in which it is embedded. In this light, ambiguity itself becomes more logical. Multi-active logic is more akin to reactive than to linear inasmuch as it takes into consideration a host of factors that the reactive person would also identify. It does, however, differ from Asian reactive logic in terms of being more influenced by subjective feelings and emotions. It is logical for linear-active people to follow their head. Reactives align decisions with a situation. Multi-actives follow the heart. Italians, Mexicans, and Arabs do not see actions that spring from the heart as being divorced from logical behavior. Impulsive, often emotional acts (perhaps considered by linear-actives as precipitous) seem right to them, as their heart tells them so. Multi-active reasoning strives to be all-embracing; its very depth and complexity baffle linear-actives. The events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent reactions on many fronts (events I deal with extensively in the Epilogue) demonstrate only too poignantly the catastrophic effects of the clash of different brands of logic.

As we have seen in chapter 4, more than three and a half billion people are characterized by multi-active behavioral styles that, though differing in various respects, share the common traits of nonlinearity, acute human relations orientation, strong family ties and respect for elders, impulsive modes of conduct, and compulsive desires to live and work in groups. Non-European multi- actives (e.g., Africans and Arabs) have distinctive localized mindsets. Those of Western or European ancestry (Slavs, Greeks, and Latins, including Central and South Americans) share many values and core beliefs (including religions) with the linear North, but their cognitive processes do not in fact align with Northern European or American, inasmuch as a more emotional worldview prevails. To illustrate this difference in ways of thinking, we took a closer look at one multi-active group that has been separated physically from its European cousins and which, moreover, has received a significant “blood transfusion” from a reactive culture. That interesting example was Mexico (see “Case Study: The Mexican Mindset” at the end of chapter 4).

Now we will consider another aspect of cognitive processes— time.

Concept of Time

If you go to New Mexico, you can find a variety of concepts of time that depart wildly from the linear-active or the multi-active. With the Navaho and Hopi peoples, we are back among reactive or Asian concepts of time that found their way to the American Southwest via the Bering Strait thousands of years ago. Benjamin Lee Whorf, the famous American scholar who studied Hopi, Aztec, and other Indian languages, reported that among these cultures there is no general notion or concept of time as a smooth- flowing continuum. The Hopi language allows for no reference to time or to the past, present, or future.

In his long and careful study of the Hopi, Whorf found no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions referring to what we in the West conceptualize as time. There are no tenses, as we understand them. The Hopi strives to influence events by concentrating, hoping, and so forth, but there is no notion of kinematic access to a future; rather, the future is experienced as a dynamic process or interplay of feelings and existing phenomena, all rooted in the present. Returning to the question of what is not knowable, the Hopi goes further than the Malagasy. In Madagascar the future is considered unknowable; the Hopi considers even present events unknowable if they take place at a distance. Distant events cannot be contemporaneous with near (observable) events; therefore they take place in what we would call the “past.” The diagram below and the one on page 150 illustrate this.

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Hopi View of Time

The wedding in the distant village which can only be known later, is a later event.

For the Hopi there is no past and no future—only the observable and the unobservable. They conceive of these two categories not, as linear-oriented cultures would, along a horizontal axis but on a vertical axis. The manifest, the observable—their “present”—is on the surface of the earth, in close proximity. Looking up, they see the sky and the stars, but what is known and said about them is suppositious or inferential. In a similar manner the myths and legends they believe in originate from a corresponding distance below the surface of the earth (see the diagram on page 150).

The Hopi view our past and future as subjective—not pragmatic or real—just as we see the Hopi perception of time as strange indeed, and certainly not real.

The different ways of thinking about time are discussed in detail in my book When Cultures Collide (2000, 52–64). Here are a few more samples. The cyclical concept of time dominates in India, Thailand, and most of East Asia. Chinese, Japanese, and Malagasy peoples have specifically unique attitudes toward time due to diverse cognitive processes. The Chinese are preoccupied with not wasting time as well as with not stealing it from anybody, but they want to make sure that adequate time is devoted to any transaction or relationship. The Japanese are less concerned about amounts of time than about the order in which events take place; the unfolding of time is of major importance. The Malagasy see the past in front of them (known and visible), but the future is located behind their heads (invisible and unknowable).

No one thinks of time in exactly the same way, though the Swiss would like us to.

Changes in Cognitive Habits?

It is evident that Westerners and Asians have maintained quite diverse thought systems over thousands of years. What reasons do we have to believe that the twenty-first century will witness substantial convergence or alignment of these systems? Will some aspects of the current globalization of the economy encourage Easterners to think in a more linear fashion or Westerners to perceive things more holistically?

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The Cosmos

It is exciting to speculate. Will Asia continue to be a mystery, even to those who live nearby? Will globalization nourish the great “global tribes” of the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese diaspora? Will Asians continue to see equality as a child of Western civilization (not in nature)? Will literal-minded Asians ever comprehend Western humor? Will units such as international teams ever develop cognitive biculturalism to the extent that they can tackle problems from both ends? Can the internalization of more than one cultural style give one the ability to communicate and act flexibly from each cultural context? Will Asians begin to use the five senses for problem solving instead of looking back for the best past precedents? Is it even feasible to envisage any changes in cognitive processes in such a short period as one century?

Linear-active cultures are hardly seeking change. Their successful economies and pride in their democratic institutions bolster their belief in Western logic. This does not mean that they are right or as successful as they think they are. Their civilizations are younger than Eastern ones, and their colonial dominance was, in retrospect, bewilderingly brief. Asian cultures, for their part, are unlikely to abandon their basic thinking styles. The Chinese and Japanese languages will be used increasingly in this century and their ideo- graphic depiction will continue to mold Asian mindsets. The concept of cyclical time, Eastern aesthetics, direct communication style, collective effort, sense of shame, use of silence, protection of face, and avoidance of confrontation will persevere throughout the twenty-first century, as it has for centuries in the past.

Some swings, however, might occur. The rapidly growing East Asian, Indian, and South American populations tilt the balance against a linear world, where numbers are stabilizing. On the other hand, Japan’s slowing population growth and the tendency of the younger generation toward individualism (corresponding to modernization, Westernization, and welfare) may have some effect on traditional thinking patterns not dissimilar to that observable in India. The advent of the Internet has certainly empowered individuals—they can now bypass traditional authorities, even governments, in certain transactions—though the “global village” created by the Internet has in a sense increased the contextualization of actions, and it encourages a holistic approach.

Some factors that may encourage reactive and multi-active societies to embrace a modicum of Western linear-active thinking are (1) the success of globalized multinationals in outgrowing (almost “outsmarting”) many governments, (2) the observed alacrity of Western colleagues in international teams, (3) the sub- sequent speed to market (so essential in the high-tech age), and(4) the swing toward a capitalistic structure in China.

This last development—seemingly irreversible—will not only involve more linear processes of wealth creation (following shining examples in Hong Kong and Singapore) but will also impose modern (Western) legal regulations governing international trade, investment, and corporate and property laws, thereby reducing the exaggerated submissiveness to authoritarian hierarchy (whether Confucian or communist), which for so long suppressed individualism and creativity. Gaining increased freedom while “making money” will also lessen fear (of job loss or prosecution) and foster more individualism, comparable to that seen in Over- seas Chinese communities.

Having said the above (in relation to the swing to Western linear processes), I forecast that in the twenty-first century cultural trends will increasingly head in the other direction, that is to say, Asian and other reactive and multi-active values will be in ascendance and will be ultimately imposed to some degree on the currently triumphant but morally dubitable Western linear- active cultures. One reason is that linear-actives, already outnumbered by six to one, will soon constitute less than 10 percent of the world’s population. Another factor is the ascendancy of feminine values at cross-century, largely due to widespread public disaffection with politicians, governments, and “ruthless” impersonal conglomerates. This disaffection, or disgust, is as pervasive in Western societies as in others and has nothing or very little to do with political affiliation. Feminine values correspond to a striking degree to Asian (and multi-active Latin and African) family values. It has been estimated that in twenty-five years’ time females, non-Westerners, and nonwhites will constitute 80 percent of managers worldwide. Their cognitive patterns will have an enormous effect on the way business is conducted and, simultaneously, on the nature of international social intercourse.

As the power of states and politicians recedes, globalized concepts (free movement of capital, mobile labor markets, cross- border projects, mergers and acquisitions, virtual teams, and standardized production, accounting, and reporting systems) will take over, but they will be increasingly collective and popularly supported. Early twenty-first-century statesmen have already recognized this trend, and countries such as England, Germany, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, and France have struggled to find the “Middle Way.” Both leftist and rightist parties have moved toward the center; even U.S. Democrats and Republicans find it hard to differentiate many of their policies. The rise of feminine values, which has been a catalyst for the disaffection with political extremism, has also engendered increasing interest in religion and related philosophical doctrines or pursuits. Buddhism, tai chi, yoga, Zen teachings, and Islam are attracting more adherents than ever before.

Collective thinking and cognition is not going to die away. Collectivism is the most ancient of human social behaviors. In the Stone Age tribes had lifelong companionship with small groups consisting of kin and, presumably, friends. This type of relation- ship is mirrored in modern Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Indian societies. We may not be sufficiently familiar with the chronology and ramifications of our past to be able to project our future paths, but culture knows the way. We humans have powerful innate social tendencies, compelling us to seek the member- ship of a group. The small Western nuclear family leaves many people with a lack of the sense of belonging, a lack of rootedness. The human mind is designed with a fair amount of empathy, generosity, and a sense of companionship. As indicated by W. Damon (1999), these feelings are present from a very early age. Newborns cry when they hear others cry and show signs of pleasure at happy sounds such as cooing and laughter. By the second year of life, children commonly console peers or parents in times of distress.

But, perhaps unfortunately, many of us (especially in the West) live under conditions which are different from those to which our genes are adapted. Industrialization, overcrowding, and separation from spouses or loved ones through work cause us stress, because these factors are suboptimal for our innate cooperative inclinations. In this age we are short of time, and what little we have is devoted to making money. It may be that when we invented industrial production, we were expelled from Paradise, and the gap between our genetic constitution and the way of living widened.

Asian cultures, consciously or not, have gone a long way toward organizing society in a way that caters more to our innate social tendencies. The problem has been to ensure that social arrangements were in harmony with those aspects of personality that were genetically determined during the long period of human evolution when we were members of small, relatively homogeneous kin groups typified by altruistic behavior. China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, and other East Asian countries have continued this lifestyle. This is the history of collectivism and the mindset that controls thinking processes.

The evolution of culture (and also biological change) never stops. Ultimately our genes, environment, and habits will balance, but we cannot expect evolution to come to our rescue any time soon. The process is too slow—and it may be heading in the wrong direction. The twenty-first century, with the population and economic balance tilting toward East Asia, will inevitably rise to the challenge of bringing society and human nature into harmony. But has evolution equipped us with the mental and cognitive tools needed to handle the challenge? Obviously we cannot afford to neglect or ignore any of the cognitive options on offer.

Cultural Imperative
Cultural Imperative: Global Trends in the 21st Century
ISBN: 1877864986
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 108 © 2008-2020.
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