"At home, a young man should be dutiful towards his parents; going outside, he should be respectful towards his elders." -Confucius (Chinese philosopher, 551-479 BCE)

"Your real boss is the one who walks under your hat." -Napoleon Hill (American author, 1883-1970)

Those two quotations reflect a cultural difference in how people construct their own conceptions of who they are and how they interact with others. That the particular culture an individual is raised in helps to determine the way they understand the self is clear. Western cultures, such as in America or the UK, tend to focus on individualism and autonomy; they emphasize the self as unique. This is what is known, in social psychology, as an independent self-construal. By contrast, Eastern cultures such in China are characterized by interdependent self-construal. That is, they understand the self in terms of its relationship to others within the social sphere, and particularly emphasize the critical importance of respecting elders within the community.

A group of researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (disclosure: I am also a grad student at USC) and Peking University in Beijing wondered: given the known cultural differences in self-construal, how do American and Chinese graduate students relate to their advisors? And what can that tell us about how employees relate to their bosses?

In order to address this question, USC neuroscience graduate student Sook-Lei Liew and her colleagues took advantage of a well known finding in experimental psychology: that human adults respond faster to images of their own face compared with those of others' faces. The accepted explanation for this phenomenon is that people implicitly think positively of themselves. Forty graduate students participated in this study: twenty with European-American backgrounds in America, and twenty with Chinese backgrounds in China. Each group had equal numbers of males and females.

The main part of the experiment was called an implicit self-recognition task. Each participant was shown a series of photos via computer screen of his or her own face followed by his or her advisor's face or another faculty member's face. In some of the photos, the individual was facing left, while in others, they faced right. The participants were simply asked to press one button if the individual in each photo was facing left, and a different button if the individual was facing right. What the researchers were actually interested in, however, was the reaction time - the amount of time it took between the presentation of the photo and the subsequent button-press.

Following this, participants completed a questionnaire designed to assess their fear of being negatively evaluated by their own advisor as well as by another faculty member whose lab was within the same department, but with whom the participant did not work. In addition, each participant was asked to rank their advisor's social status and the status of the other faculty member, which was defined as their "ability to exert influence over other people and institutions."

Both the American and Chinese grad students had comparable perceptions of their advisors' social status. Both groups were also more fearful of negative evaluation by their own advisors than by other faculty members. However, Chinese grad students were significantly more fearful of negative evaluation by their own advisors than were the Americans.


In other words, even though students in both cultures were more afraid of negative evaluation by their own advisors ("boss," compared with "faculty"), there was a greater difference between the two for the Chinese than for the Americans. Given what we know about how individuals understand their relation to authority figures in either culture, this should not be particularly surprising.

When it comes to the reaction time data, however, things get just a little bit more interesting. American graduate students were significantly faster in responding to photos of their own face compared to photos both of their advisors and other faculty members. When comparing reaction times under conditions of high threat (evaluation by the advisor) and conditions of low threat (evaluation by the other faculty member), there was no difference for the Americans. In other words, American students do not feel particularly threatened by negative evaluation by their advisors, at least relative to any other person of authority.

The story for Chinese students is a bit different. When confronted with a low-threat situation, such as evaluation by another faculty member, they preserve their speed: they are faster at responding to photos of themselves than of others. However, when confronted with a high-treat situation, the results are reversed: they are actually faster at responding to photos of their advisors compared with their own photos! Since Chinese people tend to be more aware of others' judgments, they were actually slower in conditions where the others' judgment actually matters. Or, as Liew put it, "they tend to care more about what other people think [compared with Americans]. So when the advisor is there, instead of responding faster to themselves, they respond faster to their boss."


Click to enlarge.

This finding suggests that the very concept of "boss" has different meanings in each culture. The boss seems to represent a significant social threat in Eastern cultures, while only representing social dominance in Western cultures.

Liew and her colleagues dug deeper. Even though, as a group, the Americans don't appear to feel uniquely threatened by their advisors, an interesting trend emerges by investigating the relationship between the difference in reaction time between responding to one's own and one's advisor's photo, and the student's perception of the advisor's social status. As the advisors increased in social status and looked more and more like the stereotypical "Professor Big-wig" or "Dr. Greybeard," participant reaction times increasingly look more like the Chinese pattern: they were faster to respond to their advisors' photos than to their own.


This study has some important implications. First, even though advisors and other faculty members generally have the same social status, advisors universally constitute a greater social threat, though the effect in Chinese culture is far greater than in American culture. This is consistent with other findings that interdependent self-construals can be more affected - positively or negatively - by evaluation from others, and that independent self-construals are less easily influenced by others' opinions.

This is important when considering advisor-trainee relationships in academic science, but these findings are likely applicable to boss-employee relationships more generally. Individuals may respond to evaluation and criticism from advisors differently depending on the culture in which they grew up. This can be particularly troublesome when advisors and graduate students have different cultural backgrounds. Liew noted, "the tactics and work culture is different and often incongruent" when the advisor is used to one culture, and has students of another. For instance, American students who are unfamiliar with the Chinese work culture may compare their Chinese advisors to tiger moms. Conversely, Chinese students with American advisors may be left wanting more feedback if they aren't used to the habits of American advisors, who, according to Liew, "tend to pride themselves on being congenial and collegiate and fostering independence in their students."

Of course, the argument is not that one approach may work better than another - simply that the two approaches are different and can give rise to misunderstandings.

For her part, Liew considers herself a bit of a hybrid. She calls herself Malaysian Chinese American, though she grew up in Texas. In the US, since her advisor is American, she tends more towards an individualistic approach. While doing a research fellowship in China with third author Shihui Han, however, she felt herself "adapting to a more collectivist mindset."

As globalization increases, and there is more opportunity and necessity for cross-cultural collaboration, such as in addressing climate change, ocean acidification, conservation, political unrest, economics, trade, or banking, people will have to learn to alter and adapt to different working environments, just as Liew has. While engaging with each other in within a multicultural context, it would be prudent to take into consideration our partners' cultural backgrounds. "Otherwise," Liew warned me, "there may be unnecessary misunderstandings or fist fights or tears."

Liew S-L, Ma Y, Han S, Aziz-Zadeh L (2011) Who's Afraid of the Boss: Cultural Differences in Social Hierarchies Modulate Self-Face Recognition in Chinese and Americans. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16901. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016901

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