Sep 22

The Geography of Thought

by in Books, Reviews, Travel



The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why

by Richard E. Nisbett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



While this book certainly sheds a lot of light on the different approaches in the thinking of Easterners and Westerners (and the origins of both), that does not necessarily add up to an enjoyable or engaging read. This book comes off a bit like a graduate thesis and certainly has done the homework to back everything up.

Having lived in South Korea for the last two years, I have often wondered about (and even laughed out loud at) the subtle cultural differences in my day-to-day life here that touch many aspects of life. What has up until now seemed to me like a case of inconsiderate behavior, can now be more easily explained and understood in the context of Eastern thought as outlined early on in this book. I have often times referred to Koreans as completely UN-considerate (sic) as a whole while at the same time being polite (often to a fault) on an individual or professional basis.

For example, my ability to enter or exit elevators, escalators, and public transportation easily is sublimated (i.e. trampled) for the greater good of everyone else to get on or off quickly and with little fanfare. What I have for so long perceived as a rude and thoughtless lack of common courtesy is actually a much larger perspective of societal harmony at work. Ironically, this is something I had always thought I wanted. Once I learned to literally go with the flow and not take the overall absence of any awareness of me as an individual, I began to not only release my anger and outrage, but I have been able to use their Eastern logic to my advantage moving forward. It is everyone for themselves, so if you are late for the elevator or too slow in grabbing a seat, too bad.

What the book does not address, however, and what I still cannot understand is the paradox that results when traditional Eastern philosophy clashes with South Korea’s extreme focus on appearance and the unabashed vanity that results from it. Traditional appearances masked by rampant plastic surgery, excessive make-up, and all-out worship of brand-name fashions seem to directly contradict Eastern logic and instead embrace the Greek-based idea of agency or individuality. I also have likened it to an entire country of purebreds that sadly want to remove distinctive traces of their genetic heritage and in fact be mutts modeled after the unattainable ideal of Western beauty.

My line of thought before reading this book was a desire to understand what real difference appearance makes if you are all simply cogs in the machine, forever linked to your part in society? Why is individual attractiveness important when Asians do not view people out of the context of the particular role they happen to be in? It seems to me now it is actually the result of a desire to not stand out and therefore going to drastic lengths to NOT be different from anyone else.

I have also felt that South Korea as a country suffers from a massive inferiority complex and that chip lives largest on the shoulders of the post-war generation. Given the tumultuous history of the peninsula, this is understandable, and may have been the driving force behind the amazing success of their economy since then. However, the second-class status of women in this society and the don’t ask-don’t tell taboo and double standards of sexuality and prostitution, makes the generalizations of this book all the more confusing.

What’s even more interesting is that neither philosophy seems to have led to a society filled with happy and contented citizens. Koreans seem work very hard to live lives centered on the good of the family. While overall, Korea does seem to be harmonious as a society, most of my co-workers seem to dread time spent with their family and truly resent the expectations that erase their individual desires and freedom. Most Salary Men (life-long corporate employees) and people I encounter walk around like tortured mindless zombies, incapable of even imagining an escape from their sad destinies.

Westerners on the other hand maintain relationships with their families in relation to their status as free thinking and self-motivated individuals. As a result, American society is in the final stages of a massive collapse as a result of greed, corruption, and unchecked selfishness. Depression, health issues, obesity, and massive consumer debt are all the direct result of the failure to think of the good of the whole versus the rights and perspective of the individual.

Ultimately, I came away with the feeling that both sides have something to learn from each other, especially with regard to what some would call “common sense.” It turns out that depending on how you were raised and where you are from, this term can mean two completely different things, and that explains why my particular version of it is always in short supply while traveling throughout Asia. It also explains why now I will have a whole new definition of it should I ever return to the United States.

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