You might expect someone’s cultural background to influence their speech, their appearance, their musical tastes, and the foods they like. You’d probably also expect culture to have an impact on values and beliefs, on stories and traditions. But what about their bodies — not just physical features like skin color or hair texture, but attitude towards the self? If culture touches on so many aspects of an individual, perhaps it can also impact the subtle ways people think about of their own bodies.
Consider this fairly well-established difference between Euro-Americans and Asian Americans: Euro-Americans tend to believe that they should be concerned primarily with their own self-interest: they should consider their own needs before those of others. Asian Americans tend to believe that they should adapt their actions to the needs of others: they should “harmonize” with those around them. While in some ways this distinction is a stereotype, it has been supported by research — even if it doesn’t apply to every member of each culture.
It’s not hard to see how this difference between two cultures might be expressed in Euro-Americans’ and Asian Americans’ attitudes about their bodies: Euro-Americans might take their own perspective, while Asian Americans might be more likely to take the perspective of others. In English (and many other languages), different language is used depending whose perspective you’re taking: From my perspective, you come to my house, but from your perspective, you go to my house.
Angela Leung and Dov Cohen had 131 Euro- and Asian Americans read eight stories sentence by sentence on a computer screen. Half the stories took the perspective of the reader, and half took the perspective of a friend chosen by the reader. Each story had two key sentences involving the “coming/going” (or a similar “taking/bringing”) distinction — an object or person was either depicted as “coming” or “going” towards the protagonist in the story. The researchers measured how long it took readers to read these sentences, and here’s what they found:
The graph shows the difference in reading time for “go” and “come” sentences. A longer reading time suggests more difficulty in processing that sentence. If you take a shorter time to read a “come” sentence than a “go” sentence, that suggests you’re taking the perspective of the protagonist in the story, since normally you’d say another person “comes” toward you. In these graphs, the relationship is reversed because the authors want to show how much their participants took the perspective of the protagonist — a taller bar suggests they take the protagonists’ perspective.
As you can see, Asian Americans were significantly more likely to take their friend’s perspective than their own, while the opposite pattern held for Euro-Americans.
Interestingly, the pattern was different when stories were not social — instead of playing basketball with a friend, for example, the protagonist practiced alone. Instead of another person coming or going towards the protagonist, an object (like the ball) did. Here are those results:
Now the pattern is reversed, with Asian Americans more likely to take the perspective of the themselves as protagonist.
In a second experiment, Leung and Cohen asked a new group of 114 Asian and Euro-Americans to produce sentences instead of reading them. They were given concepts expressed as series of words and asked to write down a complete sentence with the same meaning. For example, they might be given the following prompt:
restaurant — I — waved at — my friend — to my table
Then respondents would write a response, something like:
I was at the restaurant and waved at my friend to come to my table.
I was at the restaurant and waved at my friend to go to my table.
As before, some of the prompts were non-social and some were social. Here are the results:
Once again, we see the same pattern: in social situations, Asian Americans are more likely than Euro-Americans to take the perspective of a friend (by using “come” instead of “go” when someone is approaching them), while in non-social situations the pattern is almost reversed.
Leung and Dov say that these demonstrate that cultural values are not only displayed in overt behaviors and actions, but are also embodied in the way view our physical selves. These values, because they are so subtle, may be more difficult for members of a cultural group to address directly. Even if a member of a cultural group believes that some aspect of that culture is undesirable, because of the subtle ways culture can be expressed, challenging that culture can be difficult.
Leung, A.K., Cohen, D. (2007). The Soft Embodiment of Culture: Camera Angles and Motion Through Time and Space. Psychological Science, 18(9), 824-830. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01986.x