Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Permission or forgiveness

Erik pointed out to me yesterday a key cultural difference between (and i'm generalizing here) Asian and Western societies:

In America, we tend to assume that we can do something unless we are told that we can't do it. And usually we won't ask before, because "it's easier to get forgiveness than permission." So when you're driving and you want to do something, you figure you can do it unless there is a sign or law stating that you can't. And even then, we find ways around it.

In Asian cultures, people tend to assume they can't do something unless they are told that they can. For example, it is safe to assume that you cannot make a U-turn here unless there is a sign saying you can. This came up when we were wondering whether or not you can turn left on a red light (remember, that's like turning right on a red light for most of you). We figured since there's no sign saying you can, you probably can't.

This affects not just driving, but the way people operate in other areas, like work. Singaporeans are known as maniac hard workers, but are not known for their ability to think outside the box. I don't know this from experience, but I'm told by friends who work with Asians thatthey will do thing strictly as they are told. If they come upon something outside of what was expected, they'll either wait for you to tell them the next step or quit (usually without telling you, because that would cause one or both of you to "lose face.").

I'm no expert, but that's what it looks like from where I stand. So there's your cultural insight lesson for today.

No comments: