Most of us think that resolving cross-cultural conflict is about spotting and dealing with differences. Thus, we pay attention to the behaviours and customs we find odd and strange. I think this is wrong because cultural differences invite us to be careful with our judgments and to enquire on our counterpart’s intentions and motivations. In contrast, cultural similarities tempt us to assume that we already know the intentions and motivations of our counterpart. As in the following anecdote, this could be the mother of all cross-cultural mistakes.
A couple of years ago, a friend told me a story about a Colombian woman and her Japanese boyfriend who reported to the same boss at a German university. At the institution, the woman did what anyone in her culture would do: work hard, do her best and stand out. Given her talent, she soon earned praise from both supervisors and colleagues and became noticed and respected.
Her boyfriend, however, did not seem happy about it. Not only did he refuse to cheer her successes, but he also put her down in front of her boss and colleagues. Moreover, he would point out her mistakes and even contradict each positive comment she received. To make things worse, he tried—and actually expected—to keep their romantic relationship intact! Eventually, they broke up.
Interestingly, the Colombian friend who told me this story was not really surprised at the boyfriend’s behaviour. After all, professional jealousy is not strange in her culture. In fact, my friend was more puzzled by the man’s willingness to maintain the romantic relationship, while “casting rain” over his girlfriend’s career. In contrast, I was confused by the boyfriend’s competitive attitude, for it did not reflect what I read about the Japanese culture . Typically, Japanese don’t feel bad about someone else’s superiority and don’t even take pleasure in being superior to others. Unlike Colombians and other Westerners, they affirm their individuality by emphasizing positive attributes of others, especially significant ones.
So, was this Japanese guy really sabotaging his girlfriend’s career out of professional jealousy? I don’t think so. I am more inclined to think that the boyfriend failed to recognize how important it is for Colombians to promote and maintain a positive view of themselves(1). Perhaps he wrongfully assumed that his girlfriend would appreciate the negative feedback in the same way Japanese do ; or maybe, he simply thought his girlfriend was short of information about her weaknesses—something that Japanese find more reliable and useful than compliments [1,2]. Any of the above could explain both the man’s nonchalant criticism and his unrealistic romantic expectations.
Similarly, the girlfriend (and also my friend and I) might have misread the boyfriend’s behaviour, by wrongfully assuming that this man’s ego was threatened by her success. Nothing could be further from research findings : unlike Colombians—and other Westerners, who cultivate their self-esteem by individual achievements and distinctiveness, Japanese people nourish their self-esteem mainly by preserving relations and fitting in. To put it simply, in Japan “the nail that stands out gets pounded down” .
Regardless of the real motives, this story offers one important lesson in cross-cultural conflict: when dealing with people from different cultures, we should be inquisitive about both differences and similarities. Cross-cultural similarities are trickier than we think.
(Updated on July 21, 2010)
Some cultural psychology scholars might reply that Colombians cannot be placed so neatly in the individualistic category, nor be regarded as culturally similar to other Westerners . They are right. However, my analysis focuses con how people perceive other individuals from other cultures. For a cultural psychologist, who sees “the big picture”, East Asians and Latin Americans are very much alike, because she or he is comparing the two with Euro North Americans. In contrast, a lay person in Japan might find his or her culture very from the Latin American one.
To put it in more eloquent words:
Two things are similar by virtue of their difference from another; or different by virtue of one’s similarity to a third. So it is with individuals. A short man is different from a tall man, but the two men seem similar if contrasted with a woman. So it is with species. A man and a woman may be different, but by comparison with a chimpanzee, it is their similarities that strike their eye―the hairless skin, the upright stance, the prominent nose. [4, page 7]
Perhaps I should add, so it is with cultures.
 Markus, H.R. & Kitiyama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for Cognition, Emotions and Motivation. In Psychological Review, 98, 2, 224-253.
 Heine, S.J., Kitayama, S. & Lehman, D.R. (2001). Cultural differences in self-evaluation: Japanese readily accept negative self-relevant information. In Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32, 4, 434-443.
 Lehman, D.R., Chiu, C. & Schaller, M. (2004). Psychology and culture. In Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 689-714.
 Ridley, M. (2003). The Agile Gene. New York: HarperCollins)