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What Cultural Differences Can Teach Us About Human Nature

What we think of as human nature is a reflection of our limited cultural experience. Working with different backgrounds can help open our eyes.

What Cultural Differences Can Teach Us About Human Nature
[Photo: Flickr user fady habib]

We all view the world through the lens of our own experiences, and our experiences might be vastly different from other people’s.

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But when you notice something that everyone typically does, it is tempting to assume that it’s just part of human nature. It turns out, though, some of the things that you think of as human nature are actually aspects of the way you think that have been programmed into you and everyone around you by the culture you live in. That is, there may be other ways that people think and act, but nobody you know thinks differently, because they all grew up as a part of the same culture, so your view of the world is skewed.

Take personality, for example. We tend to believe that people act the way they do because of a core aspect of their personality. But, any person’s behavior (including your own) is being driven by both elements of their personality and their cultural experience. For example, even the person who is most open to experience might still resist if someone tried to get them to change one of their family holiday traditions.

So, why do most people you know tend to focus on people’s personality characteristics rather than the situation to determine why think the way they do?

A big part of that comes from our culture. The culture in the United States and Western Europe values the actions of individuals. We learn about great people doing great things in difficult situations. We teach the importance of individual responsibility.

This individualist culture teaches us to focus on the properties of people (like their personality) as well as the objects in our world. Look at the way parents read to small children. They often show them books full of objects and spend a lot of time teaching children the words for those objects. That means that from an early age, we are teaching children that objects and their features (and people and their characteristics) are the most important things in the world.

Not every culture is like that. East Asian cultures, for example, tend to be collectivist. They focus on how groups accomplish great feats by working together.

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A key element of collectivist cultures is that members of those cultures often need to pay attention to all of the people present in a situation to know who gets the most respect, and to acknowledge the contributions of everyone working on a project.

As a result, from a young age, children who grow up in a collectivist culture learn to pay attention to people and objects as well as the situation in which those people and objects are interacting. Members of these cultures are much more attuned to the relationship between people and situations than people who grow up in Western cultures.

The point here is not that the style of thought promoted by one culture is inherently better than the style promoted by another. Instead, by spending time with people from other cultures, you can learn a lot about how aspects of thinking that you thought were a part of human nature are actually a reflection of the culture in which you and all the people around you were raised.

This is just one more reason why a diverse workplace can make you smarter.

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