Bookshelf: The Real Culture Wars

What if all our differences come down to whether we focus more on ourselves or on our community?

By Matt Huston, Mara Model, Bahar Gholipour, published on May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

CLASH!
By Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner

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CLASH!
By Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner

It's no secret that where we grow up shapes how we look at life. But how often do we even attempt to explore the divide between, say, a tight-knit group of blue-collar Alabamans and a flock of loosely rooted Manhattanites? Is it possible to embrace both models of community? In Clash!, two psychologists map the gulf between what they dub "independent" and "interdependent" cultural styles—individualistic Americans versus community-minded Japanese, for example—and urge us to make the best of both worlds. Below, a sampling of clashing cultural mindsets. —Matt Huston

Trade-Off #1: Be Friendly/Back Off

"In the South, there's a whole tradition of trying to relate to other people by delighting them," says Conner, a Tennessee native, about the fabled Southern hospitality. "We see conversation not just as a way of relaying information but also as a way of building relationships." Yet that level of interpersonal effort can take a toll, she says. At school in New England, Conner learned that "being a little less sensitive to all that social information has its benefits." Her classmates, she noticed, exerted less effort on such insistent politeness and weren't so quick to take offense at minor social transgressions.

Trade-Off #2: Relax/Take the Reins

Working-class citizens often know—by necessity—how to roll with the punches, but the Great Recession caught many in the middle class off guard. "We don't recognize how much effort and intelligence it takes to adjust and just make the best of a bad situation," says Markus. Yet many from interdependent, blue-collar communities face the opposite challenge upon entering white-collar careers that prize individual drive and initiative: They must learn how to be in control, to shape their own paths instead of just accepting whatever comes their way.

Trade-Off #3: Shut Up/Speak Up

Many Americans could stand to talk less and listen more. "In the West, we put so much emphasis on expressing our uniqueness that we are often trying to remake the wheel—we don't always capitalize on the genius of others," Markus says. In some Eastern cultures, active listening comes more naturally. One study described in Clash! found that Koreans are much likelier than Americans to think that talking hinders thinking—a reasonable philosophy most of the time. Later studies found that, empirically, this idea is culturally specific: While Asian Americans do better when they solve problems silently, European Americans perform better when they think out loud.

In the self-evaluation below, the authors of Clash! outline eight factors that shape your cultural identity. Are you an independent free spirit? An interdependent communitarian? Or a balance of both? Give yourself a "1" for each descriptor that fits you and a "0" for those that don't, then check your totals to see which way you lean.

Try to Remember

Two books examine the mystery and history of memory.


Permanent Present Tense

By Suzanne Corkin

Henry Molaison was just 27 in 1953 when a surgery intended to cure his epilepsy instead left him unable to form new memories. What was a tragedy for Molaison and his family was something of a coup for science: His neurological problems led to crucial findings about the way we form memories, and until his death in 2008, he was famous to psychologists and students as simply "H.M."—one of the most studied brains in history. MIT researcher Suzanne Corkin describes early theories on memory and explains how Molaison's singular case revolutionized our understanding of the human brain. While Molaison's short-term memory lasted less than 60 seconds, he was able to draw an accurate floor plan of a house he'd moved into after his operation, a finding that taught researchers that amnesiac patients—who cannot encode new memories the way most people do—can unconsciously learn certain information through repetition and consistency. Corkin, who studied Molaison for 46 years, also uses this book to explore the life behind the initials. —Mara Model


Pieces of Light

By Charles Fernyhough

Despite what we may wish to believe, reality is only one part of our memories. Beliefs, stories, and new knowledge can all influence how the raw materials of the past—"pieces of light"—come together when we remember. Memory evolved to help us make decisions about the future; it never had to be loyal to the details of the past in order to be helpful. Twins, for example, tend to believe that embarrassing incidents they remember happened to their other halves—and consign good experiences to themselves. Manipulated childhood photographs can convince us that we have gone on a balloon ride that never happened. While the fragility of memory is well-documented, Fernyhough doesn't leave its quirky strengths unexamined. Andy Warhol kept a collection of perfumes to transport himself back to certain times of his life, and Proust wrote seven volumes looking for the past. Why? Memories are not "mental DVDs stored in some library of the mind"; they reflect not only who we once were but who we are now, and who we hope to be. —Bahar Gholipour