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What does your Facebook Picture say about your Culture?

Do you see yourself first and foremost as an individual, or primarily part of something much bigger? Chih-Mao Huang and Denise Park published a study they conducted on the differences between Chinese and U.S. Facebook pictures in a 2012 edition of The International Journal of Psychology. After analyzing 200 pictures of Facebook users based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the National Taiwan University in Taipei they found that there were significant cultural differences in the style of picture, even though half of the Illinois students were from Taiwan and half of the students in Taipei were from the U.S.

What they discovered was that Americans preferred a picture that zoomed in on their beaming faces. Taiwanese, however, preferred a picture that also showed the surroundings, providing contextual nuance to the profile, and displayed a more subdued smile. This study complements numerous earlier studies showing that East Asians were more focused on contextual information than Westerners.

Richard Nisbett, for example, in his book, The Geography of Thought, detailed a study which had Americans and Japanese describe a picture they had seen earlier.  Americans zeroed in on the focal point of the picture, mostly remembering that central element. Japanese, on the other hand, started by describing the setting (the context) and made mention of background components of the picture 60% more frequently than Americans. Japanese could more easily determine changes in the background and Americans the foreground. Americans saw elements as separate objects, Japanese saw all components as interconnected. The "big picture" for the Japanese showed all the relationships and connections.

Japanese also preferred anonymous pictures, using the photo of a pop singer, an anime character, or some other celebrity. Some said this would give a better "understanding" of them than their picture which seemed too individualistic and lacked substance.

What does this have to do with intercultural business? Well, for starters, if you are trying to present a proposal to the Japanese, and launch right in with the main point, they will probably feel you have limited reasoning ability or inadequate understanding of the full picture, and you are likely to get nowhere fast. Although it may take a little longer, you will have much better success if you research and present background information (including failures as well as successes), what was learned from the failures, peripheral factors that influence the idea being proposed, alternatives with their pro's and con's, and finally your proposal along with its pro's and con's. It may seem illogical to sell your recommendation by also presenting its downside, but as Japanese anthropologist Nobuhiro Nagashima remarked, "To argue with logical consistency may not only be resented, but also be regarded as immature."

As for Facebook, perhaps it would have been accepted in Japan sooner if it had been called "Anythingbook"!

By Diana Rowland, author Japanese Business: Rules of Engagement

also see Five Tips for Giving Presentations to Japanese

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