Business Communication Quarterly
66:3 September 2003
Leiter, M.P., & Maslach, C. (1988). The impact of interpersonal environment on burnout and organizational commitment. Journal of Organizatiorud Behavior, 9(4), 297-308. Vik, G. N. (2001). Doing more to teach teamwork than telling students to sink or swim. Business Communication Quarterly, 64(4),112-19.
The Geography of Thought: How Asians and westerners Think Differentiy and Why
Richard E. Nisbett. New York: The Free Press, 2003. 263 pages. Reviewed by Aifred N. Page
University of Missouri-Kansas City
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT UNIVERSAL VALUES in human
communication are challenged in Richard Nisbett's The Geography of Thought. Drawing on empirical evidence taken from Asia and the West, Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, provides a convincing case that regional differences in culture imply regional differences in appropriate communication techniques. Although starting out as "a lifelong universalist concerning the nature of human thought" (p. xiii), Nisbett states that "my research has led me to the conviction that two utterly different approaches to the world have maintained themselves for thousands of years" (p. xx). As a result, this book has implications for such matters as framing communication research, developing appropriate classroom discussions, and being confident that students have actually benefited from what they have been taught about communication. Overview Chapter One, "The Syllogism and the Tao," establishes the basis for the author's arguments about culture and perception. By examining the foundations of both Western and Eastern thought laid down by the ancient Greeks and Chinese over 2500 years ago.
including the fact that in Chinese there is no word for individualism. The author challenges American assumptions that most individuals in the world want to have a distinctive set of attributes. and believe the same rules apply to everyone. the West. it is argued that the Western influence was not nearly as significant as one might think. Such assumptions also underlie typical American trade books on how to use verbal skills to negotiate anything or to stand up for your rights. based on its Greek roots. From the Greeks comes the idea of unique individuals and distinctive attributes and individual goals. and the closest word is the word for selfishness. From the Chinese comes the idea of harmony and the notion that individuals are primarily members of a group or collective where debate and other forms of confrontation are inappropriate. "The Social Origins of the Mind. While the intent of such class guidelines is to teach students to be more verbally effective.Book Reviews
Nisbett shows how over three billion people. a billion people in the West and over two billion people in the East. Chapter Two. "Living Together Vs. they are asking these students to engage in rude behavior. Going It Alone. Chapter Three. prefer equality in personal relationships. wish to be largely in control of their own behavior.
. are oriented toward personal goals of success and achievement. look at the world quite differently. influenced the East." provides an analysis of the ecological and economic differences between Greece and China that Nisbett believes caused the significant cultural divergence between the regions in ancient times. as it was filtered through an Eastern cultural perception. it is arguably the wrong communication skill to teach Asian students unless they are going to work in an American setting. strive to feel good about themselves. So when American instructors urge their Asian students to speak up in class in order to be graded on their class oral participation." is a key chapter for communication instructors. Nisbett provides plenty of linguistic facts about how such assumptions do not apply in the East. In such a world. debate and questioning are not positive traits. Though in later years.
The functioning is dependent on these relations. An examination of how a particularly egregious action on the part of an individual was covered by newspapers in China and the US yielded surprising results. Nisbett sites a study that asked middle managers which statement was more correct: "(1) A company is a system designed to perform functions and tasks in an efficient way. The people have social relations with other people and with the organization. People are hired to fulfill those functions with the help of machines and other equipment. ahout 66 percent of Japanese chose (2)." or "(2) A company is a group of people working together. and American audiences respond more to discussions ahout rational efficient hehavior on the part of the organization and its executives. and the Chinese press focused on the various outside influences and extenuating circumstances. The moral of this study and other studies cited in the chapter (for teaching students how to make effective business presentations) is to realize that Asian audiences are more interested and receptive to analysis ahout group relationships." deals with how the press in the West and the East covers sensational stories. These and similar examples found throughout the hook bring into question the very
. Europeans exhihited roughly a 50-50 split. Whether the action was hy a Chinese individual or an American individual." deals with how different societies interpret information based on their social construct. based on their holistic cultural background. "'Eyes in the Back of Your Head' or 'Keep the Eyes on the Ball'. They are paid for the tasks they perform. Furthermore. "'The Bad Seed' or 'Other Boys Made Him Do It'. For exatnple.140
Business Communication Quarteriv
66:3 September 2003
Chapter 4. The cognitive processes the Americans used led the vast majority of them to assume that trend would continue forever. Chapter Five. the American press focused on the individual's attributes leading to the action. Another study cited in the chapter compared the reaction of Americans and Chinese to a graph that had a slight upward trend for several periods. The Chinese tended to assume the trend would level out." Ahout 75 percent of Americans chose (1). each group may interpret graphs differently.
The lesson here for communication teachers is that when we instruct our students to logically organize their arguments or salient points for their oral presentation. and hay. in the East. Alternatively. Nisbett relates the Eastern interest in contradictions to three forces: the constantly changing nature of reality. "Is the World Made Up of Nouns or Verbs?." deals with the logic of the West versus the emphasis on experience in the East. Chapter Six. the very way they organize that information may depend on their cultural background. A simple but illustrative example involves showing individuals pictures of a cow. making an abstract argument apart from its context. paper. and Easterners group the cow and the hay (a relationship as the cow eats the hay). We may teach students there is a right way to organize material that in fact is only right because either we believe it is so or it is believed to be so in our culture. Chapter Seven. Westerners tend to group the chicken and cow (as animals). The chapter refers to many studies demonstrating the point and then goes on to provide evidence that those in the West look for clarity in arguments but those in the East are more comfortable with exploring contradictions.Book Reviews
specific notions in the US of the proper way to teach people to communicate as leaders. The basic thesis deals with the fact that the Greeks developed and utilized logic because it was useful in argumentation. and that nothing exists by itself—everything is interrelated.
. or the proper way to write effective press releases. or debate. the lack of interest in logic relates to a distrust of decontextualization. '"Ce N'Est Pas Logique' or 'You've Got a Point There'. The author expands on experiments that illustrate the American preference for logical arguments and the Chinese preference for arguments that are holistic and dialectical. paradoxes and anomalies must constantly be created. When asked to put two of the objects together." provides a historical background and experimental evidence for the tendency for Westerners to classify objects into categories by similar properties and Easterners to classify objects into categories by relationships. a chicken. given that change.
we are quite likely to come to wrong conclusions about what we believe are the principles of communication. a landmark
book"). A third implication is that the communications skills we impart to our American students may not serve them well when they are making presentations abroad. and the perceptive reader will find useful insights in every
chapter. some readers may conclude that Nisbett's arguments are interesting but wrong for the modem business world.142
Business Communication Quarterly
66:3 September 2003
Chapter Eight. where the English language dominates and the West seems to be winning the economic contest among nations. one that may modify if not dramatically change your views on universal communication skills. "And If the Nature of Thought is Not Everywhere the Same?. The second implication is that we need to reassess how we teach communication skills to the intemational students in our classes.
. Readers may also find that Nisbett's analysis doesn't square with their classroom experience because their classes have had students from the East who have traveled more than others from their country and thus are more worldly. Nevertheless.
Finishing the book. Nisbett's book has been very well received by his colleagues in psychology ("groundbreaking. they can leam Westem communication skills usefully just as they have leamed English as a second language." summarizes a numher of implications for various academic specialties from the entire book. The first implication for those of us interested in communication is that if we only test our theories on Westerners. As such.