“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” (Confucius 551-479 BC)

by Didier Marlier on Saturday October 12th, 2013

Recently I was coaching a Malaysian leader whose job took him all over South and East Asia. We were talking about his experiences of feedback and relating it to some of the key messages in my April 2012 blog on the topic: http://enablersnetwork.com/2012/no-fancy-title-this-time-just-feedback-by-michael-newman/. As I explain in that article, we in the Enablers Network are often frustrated when we hear people using culture as an excuse to avoid giving feedback. The coachee in this case was someone who had demonstrated he could make both sensitive and challenging observations to colleagues from many nations so I was surprised when he brought the conversation back to culture. He talked about the impact of Confucianism and how it underpins much of the education systems in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia. He wasn’t using it to justify any avoidance of feedback, but offering it as the context in which he and his colleagues needed to make it work.

At this stage I felt a bit like a passenger in the conversation. Of course I had heard the name Confucius and had an impression he was an ancient Chinese philosopher, but that is where my knowledge stopped and the extent of my ignorance became clear.

Inevitably my first investigation took me to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confucianism. There are three elements that stood out for me, and that I recognized from my work in East Asia:

Etiquette: In Confucianism, the term “li” (Chinese: ; pinyin: ), is sometimes translated into English as rituals, customs, rites, etiquette, or morals. Li were codified and treated as a comprehensive system of norms, guiding the propriety or politeness which colors everyday life.  Rituals are not necessarily regimented or arbitrary practices, but are the routines that people often engage in, knowingly or unknowingly, during the normal course of their lives. Shaping the rituals in a way that leads to a content and healthy society, and therefore to content and healthy people, is one purpose of Confucian philosophy.

Loyalty: (Chinese: ; pinyin: zhōng) Confucius himself did not propose that “might makes right”, but rather that a superior should be obeyed because of his moral rectitude. In addition, loyalty does not mean subservience to authority. This is because reciprocity is demanded from the superior as well. Moreover if the ruler is incompetent, he should be replaced. If the ruler is evil, then the people have the right to overthrow him. A good Confucian is also expected to remonstrate with his superiors when necessary.

Social harmony: (The great goal of Confucianism)  This results in part from every individual knowing his or her place in the social order, and playing his or her part well. Relationships are central to Confucianism. Particular duties arise from one’s particular situation in relation to others. The individual stands simultaneously in several different relationships with different people; as a junior in relation to parents and elders, and as a senior in relation to younger siblings, students, and others. While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe their seniors reverence, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors.

In Adam Alter’s book1; “Drunk Tank Pink; the subconscious forces that shape how we think feel and behave,” there is an insightful summary of why such Confucian characteristics might feel alien to us Westerners. He suggests that it was the Ancient Greek philosophers who formed the basis for much Western thinking; from Plato and Aristotle’s tendency to analyze objects as separate from their contexts, to Socrates’ encouragement to question or challenge everything. Even after centuries of philosophical evolution, Westerners today generally see themselves as individuals. In contrast, Eastern philosophers were more concerned with the relationship between an object and its context. Today, an Eastern bias towards collectivism manifests itself in a feeling of interconnectedness and overlapping identities; actions should benefit the group over any one individual.

This summary is unlikely to come as a surprise to most readers; it is what we all notice when we work in a global economy. But where is the evidence that it genuinely affects how we think or act?

In one experiment2 in 2008, researchers asked Chinese and American students to study a series of photographs that had a small central object against a background; for example, a tiger in forest or a plane amongst some mountains. When looking at new photographs containing the same object later on, the students were asked if they had seen it in the earlier pictures. Typically they were 70% correct. However there was an exception; when the objects were set against a new background (the tiger on grassland, or the plane in a cloudy sky) the Chinese students found it harder, scoring less than 60%. The researchers discovered the reason when they tracked eye movements. The Americans devoted much of their attention to the focal object, hardly looking at the background. In contrast to this Aristotelian viewpoint, the Chinese had looked through Confucian eyes; focusing as much on the background as the object. Because they had formed memories of an object in its context, it was harder to recognize it when the background changed.

In another series of experiments3&4 between 2008 and 2012, Japanese and North American students were asked to interpret the emotions of a person who stood in the center of a scene with a background of four other men or women. Sometimes all five shared the same facial emotion but in others the figure in the front had a different expression from those behind, as in the example below.


When asked to judge the emotions of the central character, 72% of the Japanese said they were unable to ignore the emotions of the four others. Strikingly, only 28% of the Americans had the same reaction. Inevitably, when asked to rate the level of happiness of the central figure, the Japanese consistently rated him less happy than the Americans.

An (edited) summary of the researchers’ conclusion is: “The cultural variation observed in this study is due to differences in worldview shared by the respective cultural communities. For East Asians, the world is complex and everything is interrelated. Therefore, East Asians apply a holistic strategy to capture the scenes, paying attention not only to the focal image but also to surrounding information that might be considered peripheral by North Americans. The results suggest that, instead of assuming that one’s facial expressions are generated from his or her inner feelings, East Asians assume that facial expressions are a product of complex interpersonal relationships. Therefore, for East Asians, it is informative to attend to surrounding others’ facial expressions and incorporate them into their judgment of the target model’s facial expression. By contrast, North Americans share a worldview in which the world consists of discrete things that are independent from each other. Therefore, North Americans apply an analytic strategy to interpret the scene, differentiating the subject from peripheral information. The results suggest that North Americans assume that one’s facial expression is generated from the person’s inner feelings. Therefore, for North Americans, it is informative to focus only on the target agent to be assessed.”

The message is clear; our habits, assumptions and perspectives can be strengths in one place, allowing us to fit in and interact smoothly with others. Unfortunately, exactly the same characteristics may be weaknesses elsewhere, making us feel and behave like an outsider. However there is one reassuring insight from the 2012 work of Masuda and his colleagues: International students (those with significant experience in multiple cultures) seem to fall between the two extremes identified in the research. So the more immersion we have in different cultures the more likely we are to be able to unconsciously process emotions and make judgments in a way that fits in whichever country we happen to be in today.

This post deliberately does not conclude with a series of bullet points under the heading ‘so what for leadership’. It is offered as a snippet of knowledge for those of us operating more and more in both the Western and East Asian arenas.

From my perspective as a coach, this opportunity to shine a spotlight on an area of personal ignorance has been very useful. I now feel better equipped to bring the subject of cultural difference into the open and challenge blind spots from a position of understanding and empathy.

1. Drunk Tank Pink; the subconscious forces that shape how we think feel and behave. Adam Alter. 2013. Oneworld

2. Chinese and American students remember photos differently: Masuda, Gonzalez, Kwan and Nisbett. 2008.

3. Context in emotion perception for American and Japanese students: Masuda, Ellsworth, Mesquita, Leu, Tanida, van de Veerdonk. 2008

4. Do surrounding figures’ emotions affect judgment of the target figure’s emotion? Comparing the eye-movement patterns of European Canadians, Asian Canadians, Asian international students, and Japanese: Masuda, Wang, Ishii, Ito. 2012

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Digg
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn

2 Responses to ““Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” (Confucius 551-479 BC)”

  1. Thanks, this is really helpful in our work!

    • Thank you Treets!!!


Leave a Reply