The self in ‘face’ and ‘dignity’ cultures

Two interesting articles by Young-Hoon Kim and Dov Cohen: "Information, Perspective, and Judgement about the Self in Face and Dignity Cultures" in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2010 36: 537-550) here; and, with Wing-Tung Au: "The jury and abjury of my peers: The self in face and dignity cultures" in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (Vol 98(6), Jun 2010, 904-916) here. The latter begins:

"There are two ways to know the self: from the inside and from the outside. In all cultures, people know themselves from both directions. People make judgments about themselves from what they “know” about themselves, and they absorb the judgments of other people so that the judgments become their own. The process is one of constant flow, but there is variation, from both person to person and culture to culture, in which direction takes precedence. In this article, we outline the way face cultures tend to give priority to knowing oneself from the outside, whereas dignity cultures tend to give priority to knowing the self from the inside and may resist allowing the self to be defined by others. We first distinguish between face cultures and dignity cultures, describing the cultural logics of each and how these lead to distinctive ways in which the self is defined and constructed. We discuss the differing roles of public (vs. private) information in the two cultures, noting the way that such public information becomes absorbed into the definition of face culture participants and the way that it can become something to struggle against among dignity culture participants—even when it might reflect positively on the participant. Finally, we describe three cross-cultural experiments in which the phenomena is examined and then close with a discussion of the different ways our selves are “knotted” up with the judgments of other people."




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  • comment-avatar
    Karen Lofstrom 13 June 2010 (02:22)

    The article is accessible only to those who belong to subscribing institutions. Too bad. Looks interesting.

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 13 June 2010 (10:47)

    You are right; it is a pity (to put it kindly). I have written the authors asking them to put their articles freely online. If and when they do, I will post the news here.

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 15 June 2010 (09:41)

    At our request, the first author, Young-Hoon Kim, has made the two articles available on his newly minted webpage at (Go to “PUBLICATIONS”.) Thank you!

  • comment-avatar
    Karen Lofstrom 15 June 2010 (11:32)

    Hullo, I did manage to get the articles (which I will read in short order) but I had to do some surgery on the URL. iuuq://iuuq// is not a valid URL. I removed the iuuq://iuuq// and found the site. (I’m not sure the URL will display correctly, so I replaced the http with iuuq. Need a preview function.) [Fan Sperber: Thanks! I have now corrected my earlier comment]

  • comment-avatar
    Karen Lofstrom 22 June 2010 (03:08)

    Thanks to Young-Hoon Kim for making those papers available. I finally got a round tuit and read through them both. I thought the subject interesting but the presuppositions in the studies made me quite irate. In “Information, Perspective, and Judgments About the Self in Face and Dignity Cultures”, the authors contrast Face and Dignity cultures, assuming that there is a bounded entity called a culture and that participants can reliably be sorted into one of the two categories by descent. Asian-Americans are assumed to belong to Face culture and Anglo-Americans assumed to belong to Dignity culture. The existence of the two “cultures” is proved, not by any real evidence, but by appeal to the authority of various other academics who pontificate about the characteristics of bounded cultures (assumed to exist). However, in “The Jury and Abjury of my Peers: The Self in Face and Dignity Cultures”, the authors change their definitions. In this study, anyone attending school in Hong Kong is assumed to belong to the Face culture, and anyone attending school in Illinois is assumed to belong to the Dignity culture. Huh what? Surely some portion of those Illinois students are Asian-Americans, previously classified as Face culture. Here, the criterion used seems to be residence. If you live and go to school in Hong Kong, you’re Face. And so on. Surely one’s culture (socially-acquired beliefs and behaviors, to throw off a provisional definition) is *defined* neither by residence nor descent. People move; people change. Nor is culture monolithic and unitary. People disagree; they clash. Any time you make a statement about Culture X (all member of Culture X believe Y), you’re going to find someone who otherwise looks like a member of Culture X who in fact believes Z. “Cultures”, like “races”, are a construct that groups people by family resemblance (as per Wittgenstein) not by a strict Boolean logic of set and subsets. What the investigators should be looking for is what other beliefs, practices, dispositions lead people to accept or reject others’ judgments. Surely a questionnaire designed to elicit some core beliefs, or perhaps personality traits, would be a more reliable gauge than pigeonholing people by descent or residence. (I should note that at the end of “Jury”, the authors admit that their conclusions are limited and flawed. “However, variation within Hong Kong and the north of the U.S. is huge, both because there are subcultures within each and because in any culture people vary in how much (and in what situations) they conform to or reject the values of their culture.” But this is an after-thought; it’s not considered in the experimental design.) Furthermore, the definition of “others” seems to slip and slide in these experiments. In one experiment, the others are people who are significant or close; in another, they’re fellow students who happen to have signed up for the same experiment. It seems to me that it’s necessary to identify WHO are the others, and HOW one is connected to them. (Again, this is recognized in “Jury”, but as a limitation, not as something that might vitiate the whole experiment.) Self-estimate versus other-estimate is a intensely personal question for me, in that I am all the time wondering whether or not I should trust the negative or positive feedback from others (which is probably why the papers’ topic interested me). My mother lost no opportunity to “cut me down to size”; does that mean that I’m irretrievably flawed? Or should she be distrusted? I tend to give some people greater weight than others (Zen teacher more, random online commenter less) but even then I’m not completely sure that my assessments of who to trust are themselves trustworthy. I also wonder that the authors did not investigate the influence of religion, political beliefs, and the like. Are Confucianists more likely to revise their self-estimate in the light of outside views than are Presbyterians? Are Southern Baptists more influenced by others than Unitarians? And what about people who insist on reinterpreting what they’re taught, or even adopting a new belief? People are capable of resisting intense pressure from families and neighbors when they believe that they have found the right path, whether it’s Salafism or Communism. My apologies to Young-Hoon Kim for repaying his/her kindness with this unsparing critique. I hope that some of it will be useful.

  • comment-avatar
    Young-Hoon Kim 9 August 2010 (23:46)

    I really appreciate the comments by Karen Lofstrom. More of importance, I totally understand and agree with the comment. Yes, it would be wonderful if I could show a proposed mechanism where Hong Kong participants endorse what I call “face” and American participants endorse what I call “dignity” and the difference in the extent of endorsement on face vs. dignity mediates the findings. Actually, one of the reviewers come with this comment as well. I really hope that I can address this issue in future studies. Also, as you might guess, I was not trying to define dignity and face cultures by residence (where people live in) or descent. In one earlier version, I had one paragraph clarifying this issue a bit (see below), but under revision, I think that I took that off for the purpose of shortening the manuscript. ___________________________________________________________ “A note on participants. The experiments below use students from Hong Kong and Illinois as representatives of Face and Dignity cultures, respectively. The discussion above presented Face and Dignity cultures as “ideal types” (Weber, 1997). In the real world, such ideal types do not exist, and beyond this, people vary in how much (and in what situations) they conform to or reject the values of their culture (Hong & Chiu, 2001; Leung & Cohen, 2009a; Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2002; Oyserman, Kemmelmeier, & Coon, 2002; Oyserman & Lee, 2008). So sweeping generalizations about Americans or Asians are not called for. Instead, the experiments below use students from Hong Kong and Illinois as samples that are relatively comparable but that differ in terms of their membership in societies that are structured more as a Face culture vs. those that are structured more as a Dignity culture (see also Ayers, 1984; Leung & Cohen, 2009a; Cohen & Leung, 2009; Ho, 1976; Kim & Cohen, 2009, Triandis, 1994).” __________________________________________________________ Also, I selected only whites as American sample. Again, thank you for your comments and suggestions. Young

  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 10 August 2010 (09:39)

    Thank you very much, Young-Hoon Kim, for replying to Karen. I am glad to read from you that “sweeping generalizations about Americans or Asians are not called for”. Allow me to enlarge the discussion you are having with Karen Lofstrom, in which I share Karen’s worries about cross-cultural experiments. Discussions like the one we are just having repeatedly occur on this blog, and elsewhere. Typical scenario: study X found a small-but-significant difference between American students and Chinese students. Study X gets a lot of attention because of its apparent cultural implications. Headlines: “Asians think differently”. Critics, like Karen, get ‘incensed’ by what they see as unwarranted generalizations from ambiguous evidence. But study X, its authors reply, has been misunderstood. What we had in mind was just a statistical difference between two particular groups of students. We never intended to make grand culturological conclusions about the Asian Mind. Look at our paper, there is a section that says so (in fine print). They are not being hypocritical: cross-cultural psychologists are honest scientists who try to avoid the pitfalls of cultural essentialism, and to interpret their data in anthropologically relevant ways at the same time. They also try to get their work known and published, which may lead to the usual misunderstandings with the public. This happens in every field where cross-cultural differences are studied (though anthropologists do much better in dealing with misunderstandings). The same discussion occurs over and over on this blog and elsewhere: see Simon’s [url=]critique[/url] of Richard Nisbett’s Asian thought hypothesis, and Nisbett’s reply below the post. Elsewhere, see [url=]this critique[/url] of ‘experimental philosophy’ work on Asian epistemology, and [url=]this reply[/url]. If only the fine print were more obvious…