Funny Thought

We all know that people have different ways of looking at the world. But especially when we are in conflict with another person, it’s hard to remember that they might actually think differently.

It’s not just that they have their own thoughts, or express them differently, but they actually having a different way of thinking.

Ian MacDuff of the Center for Dispute Resolution at Singapore Management University, in his blog MediAsian, reviews Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought in his post Morality, Culture and Mediation.  The post is a great read for anyone interested in the cultural context of dispute resolution.

MacDuff describes Nesbitt explaining that people east and west don’t just communicate differently and they don’t just perceive differently.  They actually have diversity in their patterns of cognition.

So that reminds me of a story.

I spent a pleasant evening in Hong Kong with a group of people who all worked together in a small department of an international company.  They all spoke Cantonese.  But each of the five people came from a different place.  They were from all over: Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, mainland China, Canada.

During the laughter and the stories, fueled by an amazing meal and just enough beer, we got to talking about their perceptions of each other.  The Singaporean woman said she thought Hong Kong was busy and noisy and unkempt and all the people cared about was money. The Hong Kong and mainlanders thought the Singaporeans were uptight and closed. The Korean woman teased the Canadian about eating his pet dog.

The leader of this workgroup, the Chinese-Canadian, had been born and raised in British Columbia.  He grew up bilingual.  He had lived and worked most of his life in Canada, and had only recently come to Hong Kong to work for this company.  I was curious how the others heard his Canadian-Chinese speech, if they noticed an accent, or maybe heard regional differences in pronunciation or idiom.

So I asked one of the group, the woman from mainland China, about her Canadian boss — does he talk funny?

Her answer broke us all up: “He doesn’t just talk funny — he thinks funny.”

She could hear, sharing a common tongue, that she and her boss viewed the world differently at a very basic level.  Growing up on opposite sides of the world, in different cultures, she could observe that she and her boss  have different ways of processing thought.

It’s not just what he says, or how he says it, what words he uses or that he has an accent.  It’s how he thinks about it that’s different.

In our conflicts with each other we may not have such significant differences in background as having been born and raised in different hemispheres.  At times we may.  But even when we don’t, what small differences among our cultures may have had some small effect on our thought processes?  What of our differences — which we may in our ignorance attribute to improper motives or bad intent — are actually based in a fundamentally different way of thinking?

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