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Understanding others and understanding yourself

Author: Yasuhiro Kotera

Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham

It’s been 13 years since I left Japan. The first 3 years were spent in the United States, and the rest was in the United Kingdom. During this time period, there were frequent visits to the Netherlands, where my in-laws live. Those 3 countries have a very different culture from the Japanese culture.

For example, one salient difference would be individualism and collectivism. Those 3 Western countries are known to have an individualistic culture, where individual’s needs are prioritised over the group’s needs. As discussed in my previous post, their work cultures are underpinned by each individual employee’s needs. If they need to pick up their kids from school, the organisation often allows them to do so (unless that is judged to cause a problem at work). In many individualistic cultures, expression of individual differences is welcomed, and requesting help you need is accepted (or often encouraged). While there is a Japanese proverb “The stakes that come out are struck”, a proverb “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” is more true in individualistic cultures. In my experience, I felt that I needed to be what others expected of me when I was in Japan, but today (while I still have that tendency compared with my colleagues here) I focus more on how I want to be.

Another difference may be success-focused culture and quality-oriented culture, which is salient between Japan and the Netherlands. In Japanese culture, how successful you are (e.g., your social or professional status or position) is linked with how you are accepted or respected in the society. So, when introducing yourself, it is very common in Japan, you say your organisation and post. That is what people are interested in the success-focused culture. On the other hand, in the quality-oriented culture such as the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, doing what you love is important and what people are interested in. So, when introducing yourself, you tend to say what you do (e.g., I make video games, I programme shopping websites). You hardly hear people say their company name etc. Whether you do what you love is more important than how successful you are.

In my mental health research, I often compare different cultures and their mental health statuses. There are some exceptions but overall, collective culture is linked with higher shame about mental health problems (which is associated with poor mental health) compared with individualistic culture. Success-focus culture is linked with extrinsic motivation (which is also associated with poor mental health) than quality-oriented culture. Culture matters to mental health.

Japanese culture is unique in a way that it’s highly collective and success-focused. In my life in the UK, those two cultural dimensions are what I often experience. Living in different cultures, I have become more aware of my natural thoughts being in line with collectivism and success-focused. What I have been doing consciously is trying to get the best of those different cultural impacts depending on the context I am in. I find living in different cultures helpful because I have diverse cultural referential experiences. I can use these experiences to create new ideas and put me in a different perspective (which is often helpful to my mental health). What seems to be a difficult situation in one culture may be a great opportunity from another cultural perspective. Having different cultural experiences helps me do that.

If you encounter a cultural difference, it may be helpful to think about why they think differently than you do. This will help you understand their culture better. Moreover, you will understand your culture and yourself better too.


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