Could a person who appears socially skilled to members of one culture, appear socially unskilled to members of another culture?

Different cultural traditions value many of the same qualities of personality around the world. 

In the Confucian tradition, for example, one is taught to bring out the best in others, to observe moral principles in oneself, and not to compare others idly. Self-betterment through learning is demanded.  These characteristics seem to be valued near universally. 

In several posts (1, 2, 3, 4), I have been investigating what Confucianism teaches about judging ourselves and others.

Confucian teachings promote other universal-seeming values too: knowing one's place in society and how to relate to others in the social hierarchy, and harmoniousness with others. The tradition further emphases showing respect to those above one, and humility and kindness to all.  Although these also reflect universal values, the relative emphasis Confucianism places on them may be different than the emphases found in other cultures.

In many parts of the world today, people with diverse cultural backgrounds coexist. Culturally-sensitive psychotherapists believe in using different approaches to clients depending upon those clients' cultural backgrounds.

Can a given religious or cultural background such those of Confucianism, Hinduism, or Christianity change how people judge one another?

The answer is yes according to a recent study by researchers at Heidelberg University. The researchers, Elke Willmann, Kimberly Feldt, and Manfred Amelang, asked Chinese residents of Shanghai to describe the things people do (technically, "act nominations") that exhibit a great deal of social intelligence. The descriptions then were carefully translated from Chinese to German and back again to Chinese (to make sure the translation was consistent and correct across both languages).

A new set of study participants - both German and Chinese -- then read the vignettes in their native language and rated the story characters according to their levels of social intelligence. The Chinese participants agreed among themselves as to who displayed social intelligence; the German participants likewise agreed among themselves.

Surprisingly, however, there was much less agreement between the groups as to which story characters most exhibited social intelligence. The Chinese group regarded some people as high in social intelligence and others as lower, and the German group agreed with the Chinese in some instances but not others.

The similarities and differences between the Chinese and Germans did not appear random but rather reflected the different cultural teachings to which the groups had been exposed including, I suspect, Confucian and Christian thought, respectively.

The Chinese and German groups both agreed that common courtesy and the capacity to understand the thinking of others reflected social intelligence. For example, the following description of a supervisor was regarded as high in social intelligence by both groups:

When one of the workers thought that the work was completed but in fact was not yet finished at all he saw this and instead of scolding him he forced him to continue just by asking him politely when he would continue.

Another point of agreement between the two cultures was that manipulative self-interested behavior reflected low social intelligence:

Since he didn't like the curfew in his dormitory he established a "useful" relationship with one of the nightguards.

On the other hand, a bit of manipulation can be socially intelligent -- in Germany -- if it serves justice, but is less acceptable in China. The members of the German group regarded the actions of the industrious hotel worker described next as high in social intelligence; the Chinese group saw the actions as lower in the intelligence:

He is working in an international hotel where it is forbidden to take tips in the form of money. When one guest wanted to say "thank you" to him in front of the reception the manager informed this guest about the rules of this hotel. So he started to talk about the good quality of western cigarettes and got a pack which he later exchanged for money.

Those in China found the following friend high in social intelligence:

When his foreign friend made a big mistake in his behavior he was the only one who did not laugh at him but explained to him nicely and openly what was wrong.

The German group, however, did not see the nice and open critic as being particularly high in social intelligence; perhaps they were more tolerant of finding some amusement in the situation, or perhaps they thought that stating a nice, open explanation of the big mistake wasn't the best possible approach.

Here is another difference: the Chinese group was more forgiving of a bit of deceit to preserve someone's self-respect than were the Germans, seeing an interpreter's intentional mistranslation as high in social intelligence:

When she was working as an interpreter she once translated incorrectly on purpose because by what he has said he would have lost face in her culture and would have embarrassed everybody.

The Germans rated the interpreter as lower in social intelligence, troubled by the change in the problematic meaning: Interpreters, watch out!

Finally, given the emphasis that Confucianism places on the careful judgment of people's different strengths and abilities, it may be meaningful that the following description was rated as higher in social intelligence in China than Germany:

He was able to collaborate very well with people of different characters.

It is an idea well-known to world travelers that socially intelligent behavior in one culture may not be so intelligent in another culture. Patterns of personality such as covering up another's error may be regarded as wise in one culture, but as deceitful in another; permissible self-interest in one culture may be regarded as overly self-interested in another.

So, Confucius, for example, set out to teach his disciples to judge the character of those around them as to whether they would be good at one task or another; to understand each person's strengths and weaknesses, and to bring out the best in others.

Such judgments, however, might not translate exactly from one culture to another.

Some human characteristics, such as our courtesy and understanding of other's intentions, may be universal across cultures (although the exact form of the courtesies may vary).  Other characteristics of people, however, may be more subject to local values, such as the tradeoff between honesty, on the one hand, and protecting another's feelings, on the other.

Such trade-offs are difficult to resolve not only in one's own culture, but also may vary in how they are judged from culture to culture (and from individual to individual). 

Although the participants in this study were asked to evaluate social intelligence, intelligences are notoriously difficult to observe because the person's mental processes and problem solving abilities are hidden.  This is why intelligence tests, which can assess problem solving ability itself, are so critical to the measurement  of any intelligence. 

As we observe the others around us, we do not likely register their social intelligence.  Rather, we pick up on a person's value system (and other qualities) as those values are expressed in everyday social interactions.

How we judge another person is a product in part of how well the individual lives up to the cultural values we ourselves have learned from our parents, teachers, and the others of significance around us. 


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Notes: Willmann, E., Feldt, K., Amelang, M. (1997). Prototypical behaviour patterns of social intelligence: An intercultural comparison between Chinese and German subjects. International Journal of Psychology, 32, 329-346. The influence of Confucianism on contemporary Chinese is discussed by Huang, H. D. & Charter, R. D. (1996). The origin and formulation of Chinese character: An introduction to Confucianism and its influence on Chinese behavior patterns. Cultural Diversity and Mental Health, 2, 35-42. A second reference was: Ho, D. Y. F., Peng, S-Q., Lai, A. C, & Chan, S. F. (2001). Indigenization and beyond: Methodological relationalism in the study of personality across cultural traditions. Journal of Personality, 69, 925-953.

Copyright © 2009 John D. Mayer

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