Harmony is one of the most central ideas in many collective cultures.
Recently, me and my classmates had an interesting conversation about a situation that happened in a class-setting. There was a professor who reacted very emotionally and defensively on any suggestion made by the students about how to improve the structure of the class.
At one point the discussion with the professor went somewhat out of hand, with the teacher and the students both feeling that they had been treated disrespectfully by the other side.
After this happened, the students met in order to discuss what to do since it simply could not continue this way.
Most of them were of the opinion that it would be pointless to make further suggestions in class, and instead to just let it be even if the class was not going to achieve the learning objectives they were looking for.
One student, however, had a completely different opinion. In his perspective, the students should collectively apologize to the teacher and then send one of their representatives to talk to the professor and make the same suggestions. He was convinced that this would not only recreate harmony in class, but also lead the professor to adjust his teaching style.
He was not able to convince the others, though. As the only person from an East Asian culture, he simply wasn’t able to get his point of view across to the group which primarily consisted of Europeans.
But the most interesting observation for me was to see how much of what he cared about was different from the European students.
To the Europeans, the most important factor was to actually get the most out of the class in terms of their learning objectives, so the teaching style of the professor was incredibly important to them. To the East Asian student, although he cared about this as well, the most important factor was to simply maintain the harmony within the group.
Why? Well, because it made him extremely uncomfortable.
Being from a culture where harmony is one of the most important values, seeing it break down is causing extremely negative feelings.
What is the real meaning behind the idea of harmonic relationships?
Cambridge dictionary defines harmony as “a situation in which people are peaceful and agree with each other, or when things seem right or suitable together”. While this is a good beginning, I believe that there is much more behind this concept seen from the perspective of people from a collective cultural background.
One reason why concepts central to a culture such as ‘harmony’ are difficult to understand from cultural outsiders is the fact that they are interrelated with other values, beliefs and assumptions that form a larger whole together.
For instance, let us take the example of a ‘collective unit’. In most European cultures a group is seen as a collection of individuals that are temporarily striving towards a mutual goal.
In a collective culture, however, a group may form a collective unit that is not only striving for a mutual goal, but that also exists for much wider purposes such as a common support structure, loyalty to something larger than the individual, and a common set of values and beliefs.
As such a situation in which peace and a minimum level of agreeableness among group members is maintained, is simply not sufficient from the perspective of building harmonic relationships in a collective culture.
There will be other elements that contribute to ‘harmony’ such as having a clear set of roles among group members, ensuring that group members are following a common set of beliefs and practices, having a clear purpose that all group members understand and follow and so on and so forth.
How can we put ourselves into a mindset of harmony?
In order to be able to act successfully in an environment where harmony is one of the key values, we first have to internalize its meaning according to the people of the country we live in. And what that really means is to understand the concept completely and how it relates with other prominent values and beliefs.Acting competently in another cultural environment first requires understanding of its most central beliefs.
In order to reach this stage, the following questions can help us:
- Looking at these particular behaviors, what beliefs and values are likely to be underlying them?
- How do these values and beliefs relate to other things you have observed in your new environment?
- Which source of information can you turn to in order to get a much clearer understanding of this belief system?
Once we have reached an intellectual understanding of what harmony and related concepts really mean, we then need to go through a phase of trial and error in which we try to apply behaviors reflective of these values and beliefs as much as possible.
The reason why this is important is that in the process of doing so, it refines our mental model of these concepts and strengthens the associations between them.
To understand what mental models are, let’s paraphrase James Clear, author of “Transform Your Habits” and “Mastering Creativity“. He defines a mental model as “an overarching term for any sort of concept, framework, or worldview of how something works”.
In this case, we are talking about mental models of how the belief system of a particular group of people works.Through pure intellectual understanding, we can never get a real sense of what a culture is like.
For example, one thing that really fascinates me about one of my friends from East Asia is how strongly he empathizes for other people who he feels as part of his group. He says that when he looks at somebody who is sad, he does not only immediately understand his or her feelings, but also that he can literally feel these feelings himself.
Of course, we all have a sense of empathy. But the degree to which for him (mundane) problems of other people in the group become his own problems and affect his own feelings is just incomparably stronger compared to people from an individualist culture.
While I have a cognitive understanding of his reactions to situations like these, I can not experience similar feelings myself since they do not correspond with my own belief system. Therefore, I wouldn’t able to act in the same way as he does, even if I wanted to.
You need to experiment with different behaviors until you have internalized the concepts and beliefs fully
When I was talking about the phase of trial and error, I was really talking about experimenting with different behaviors we believe to be in line with the belief system which we are trying to internalize.
Even if we have a relatively good intellectual understanding of these concepts and beliefs, we will inevitably make a lot of mistakes here and act in ways that cause a lot of misunderstandings.
It is exactly this phase of trial and error which is putting most people off when it comes to adapting to a new cultural environment. Because during this time we actually cause more misunderstandings than if we had just stuck with those behavioral patterns that we already know, at this stage it feels like we are actually developing “backwards”.
But rather than developing backwards, what actually happens at this stage is that we are slowly starting to build mental connections between the behaviors we are testing, the values and beliefs which are underlying these behaviors, and the responses of the people we are testing these behaviors with.
All this results in an emotional response which will remain stuck in our mind on a long-term basis.
It is only when we are combining a behavior and a belief with an emotion that we are actually starting to integrate this behavioral pattern into our mental model of the culture we are trying to understand, and subsequently of our very own perspective of how the world works.
So, what are the next steps?
If you want to understand the concept of harmony (or any other cultural concept) better, then follow the four steps outlined in this article.
- Try to get an intellectual understanding of what the concept means
- Try to understand the values and beliefs that are interrelated with these concepts
- Through trial and error, try to imitate the behaviors of the local people until you get a good feeling for how they are used in any particular situation
- Try to integrate your cognitive understanding of the concept with the feedback of the people you have been getting until they together form a clear mental model of the belief system you are trying to understand
I hope this article has been helpful for you. Let me share a little bit of my thoughts on how I am going to continue with this writing project on intercultural communication.
I have recently launched my campaign on Patreon, where I am trying to collect funding for my upcoming book “Intercultural Mindset: how to adapt to any culture quickly“. The reason why this is important to me is that I am currently still dependent on other sources of income than my writing.
With the funding from Patreon, I could focus completely on my passion for intercultural communication and helping other people to adjust to different cultural environments. Any help from your side would be greatly appreciated ! 🙂
Lastly, I also would like to invite you to have a look at my medium page, where I am publishing more free content on intercultural communication on a weekly basis. You can find the link here.
Have a lovely day!