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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Seeing Another Person's Point of View

 We have a 15-year old French student staying with us for a fortnight to improve her English, see something of our culture and experience British family life. There's nothing like someone from outside coming into your home to make you see yourself and your way of life from another perspective. Charlotte is a charming, polite girl who fits in with whatever we're doing, but her presence has really made me question -- everything, really, from my parenting style, levels of empathy, domestic routine and cooking skills, to my ability to explain the idiosyncracies of the English language with its irregular grammar and often bizarre idioms.

Apparently, Americans and people from Western cultures are more challenged than others in our ability to understand someone else’s point of view because our culture encourages so much individualism. By contrast, the Chinese, whose culture encourages a collectivist attitude, are much better at understanding other people's perspectives.

 Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago, says that our Western problem in seeing another's person's point of view is partly to do with communication. “Many actions and words have multiple meanings. In order to sort out what a person really means, we need to gain some perspective on what he or she might be thinking and, Americans for example, who don’t have that skill very well developed, probably tend to make more errors in understanding what another person means,” Keysar said.

Keysar is the co-author with graduate student Shali Wu of “The Effect of Culture on Perspective Taking,” which discusses their research and is published in the journal Psychological Science.

We know from studies of children that the ability to appreciate another person’s perspective is universal, but it seems not all societies encourage their members to develop the skill as they grow up. “Members of collectivist cultures tend to be interdependent and to have self-concepts defined in terms of relationships and social obligations,” say Keysar and Wu. “In contrast, members of individualist cultures tend to strive for independence and have self-concepts defined in terms of their own aspirations and achievements.”

To study this cultural difference in interpersonal communications, their team devised a game that tested how quickly and naturally people from the two groups were able to access another person’s perspective. They chose two groups of University of Chicago students, one consisting of 20 people from China who grew up speaking Mandarin, and another including 20 non-Asian Americans who were all native English speakers.

They were testing the hypothesis that interdependence would make people focus on others and away from themselves, and did this by having people from the same cultural group pair up and work together to move objects around in a grid of squares placed between them. In the game, one person, the “director,” would tell the other person, the “subject”, where the objects should be moved. Over some of the squares, a piece of cardboard blocked the view of the director, so the subject could clearly tell what objects the director could not see. In some cases there were two similar objects, one blocked from the director’s view and one visible to both people playing the game.

The Chinese subjects almost immediately focused on the objects the director could see and moved the correct objects. When Americans were asked to move an object and there were two similar objects on the grid, they paused and often had to work to figure out which object the director could not see before moving the right one object. The Americans spent on average about twice as much time completing the moves as the Chinese, and often ignored the fact that the director could not see all the objects; 65%of American subjects failed to consider the director’s pespective at least once during the experiment.

Although we'd all like to think that we can put ourselves in other people's shoes better than the American students above, I have found myself questioning my assumptions about what a French student would want to experience and achieve from two weeks in England - and how well I'm fulfilling those desires.

Of course, different languages and cultures do add to the difficulties of seeing another person's point of view, and in a separate piece of research, Boaz Keysar with Anne Henly showed that speakers readily overestimate their effectiveness in communicating meaning. They asked speakers to read an ambiguous sentence (such as “Angela shot the man with the gun”) in a way that communicated one of its two possible meanings. The speakers routinely overestimated their listeners’ accuracy in perceiving the intended message and presumed that what was obvious to them would be similarly obvious to their audience. 

I become particularly aware of this when I hear my children talking to Charlotte far too fast and indistinctly for her to understand, and using phrases and metaphors that make no sense to her. Suddenly the ordinary seems ridiculous - how could any non English person be expected to understand what "It's chucking it down" or "In yer face" means? Not to mention, "A military legend" - a phrase my 9-year old has inexplicably latched onto, but completeIy misunderstood!

 It may not be comfortable, but it's certainly salutary when something or someone comes into your life and makes you question your abilities to empathise with others and see things from their point of view. The question is, will the insight enable me to make Charlotte's English experience the best it can be.

Posted by Lucy

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