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About Our Antagonisms

Perhaps humankind's conflicts arise from two styles of self-definition.

Photos: Linda A. Cicero

By Kara Platoni

Professor Hazel Rose Markus and science writer Alana Conner, PhD '02, are cultural psychologists focused on the questions posed by a conflict-ridden world. In Clash! Eight Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are (Hudson Street Press), Markus and Conner discuss how your tax bracket, your house of worship or your place of birth deeply shape how you see the world and your place in it. And they argue that while these cultural differences matter, they don't have to be divisive.

Clash! posits that there are two basic ways of being a self—the thinking, feeling agent that selectively deciphers information from the world around you and constructs your version of reality. Independent selves see themselves in terms of uniqueness and ability to influence others, the authors write. Interdependent selves prioritize relationships and adjusting to others.

"All humans are always with other humans, in groups, networks, communities—that's our state. There seem to be two ways you can make sense of that. One is to connect, be in relationships with others, to see yourself as one finger on a hand or as part of a net," says Markus. "But another way to think about the self is to say, 'Well, yes, I'm a self among others, but I am relatively separate and independent from them.'"

"All of us actually contain both of those stories," Conner adds. "It turns out those two different ways of being, those two different roles, those two different kinds of self, are differently effective in different situations."

Their book examines how interdependent and independent selves can clash in eight cultural contexts—between genders, or religions, or even between the corporate and nonprofit business worlds. It uses social science studies to show how these behaviors are expressed, and often valued, differently in disparate environments. For example, in the chapter on regional cultures in the United States, they write that in the more independent American West, where residents move more frequently, people make more—but looser—social connections. In the more interdependent Midwest, the culture reinforces the importance of lasting networks.


Their chapter on class focuses on how economic disparity plays out in the classroom. American schools typically reward assertiveness and pay attention to squeaky wheels. That benefits students who grow up in upper- and middle-class backgrounds, which tend to emphasize independent qualities like individualism and choice. Those kids feel comfortable expressing opinions and asking the teacher for help.

But students from working-class communities, many of whom become the first in their families to attend college, can face a hard adjustment to these expectations. The authors note that "first-gen" students are more likely to drop out than their peers, and often feel perceived as "different, passive or even slow." Conner experienced this culture gap herself during her first years as a Yale undergraduate after growing up in a lower-middle-class Memphis neighborhood. "I had been taught about what made a good person were these interdependent things about being respectful and being reserved and not speaking if you're not sure," she says. "I spent three years at Yale not saying anything and being shocked to the roots of my hair" at how classmates would throw themselves into discussions.

The chapter on differences between Asian and European-American cultures builds on ideas that Markus has explored throughout her career. As an assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in the 1980s, Markus taught in Japan through an exchange program. She was exposed to a workplace and social culture that valued hierarchy and social harmony in ways that sometimes jolted her American expectations.

She noticed the little things: the times when the hairdresser would ask her if she wanted the "ordinary" haircut ("No! I want one that is special for me and that makes my hair work!") or the art vendor who praised her for picking out the watercolors that were "the ones that all the American women like." (She bought them, Markus says laughing, but "I don't like them to this day.") She also noted differences of greater import, such as the way that leadership roles primarily connoted responsibility for the welfare of the group, not just individual success.

These differences influenced one of her most cited works, 1991's Culture and the Self, written with frequent collaborator Shinobu Kitayama. They argued that "the so-called Western view of the individual as an independent, self-contained, autonomous entity" is not the default setting for human experience. Her Japanese experience "crystallized" her awareness that "you can have a very different type of self—this self in which relationships with others are the key to the self."

The idea that there is "more than one way to be a self" had been explored in other contexts before, she readily points out—in particular, feminists have long argued that male experience is not universal. But her work caught the public imagination because it was written when Japan was rising as a world economic leader. "Now all of a sudden they were kicking our butts in all kinds of ways, with their cars and their computers and their cameras, and their kids were getting high scores," she recalls. "And so all of a sudden it's like, 'Hmm, well, could it be that they're doing something that's right, that's important? '"

Paying attention to different ways of being in the world, the authors argue, is valuable, despite well-intentioned arguments that people should consider themselves "blind" to race, gender and other differences. They suggest that people who consider themselves culture-free are more likely simply enjoying cultural privilege. For example, they write, whites may think of themselves as "without color—the default, natural, neutral humans. Remember the 'flesh' crayon? It was pinkish peach, as if this were the only color of human flesh."

Each chapter ends with ideas about how people and organizations can harmonize between these two modes. For example, both at home and in the workplace, people can continue to blur the historical division between typically independent "men's work" and typically interdependent "women's work." People of different religious faiths can be urged to commune over mutual concerns rather than to debate politics and doctrine. (There's also a scorecard at the back of the book to help readers calculate their personal mix of independent and interdependent traits.)

And because humans make culture, we can change it, they write—and that matters increasingly in the global community. People will need to become more culturally flexible in order to tackle the kind of problems—climate change, food supply issues—that affect the entire planet.

"I think the deep takeaway of our book is there is no such thing as a 'general' human being. We are all cultural creatures," Conner says. "And rather than running away from that, embracing it and harnessing it and leveraging it and turning it into something good, rather than something fearful, is an excellent project for the 21st century."

Kara Platoni, a journalist in Oakland, is a frequent contributor.

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