So different and yet so similar – the irony of culture

April 24, 2015 Risa Shibata
ILI  participants celebrating a member's birthday.

ILI participants celebrating a member’s birthday at the Stadium Field Club.

This semester has been zooming by, and it is unbelievable that the ILI spring session is already gearing towards the end. The biggest thing I was able to grasp from the ILI is undoubtedly the “irony of culture.” Although we tend to look at differences, point them out, and mark them as a source of categorization, I was able to realize that, at the end of the day, we are more similar than we are different. We should not stigmatize each other just because we are from entirely different parts of the globe, but instead we should examine our similarities.

One of the most intriguing sessions for me was when we learned about direct and indirect speech. Although many people tend to focus on the categorization of the two types of speech, the fundamental values lying beneath both types of speech were the same: to respect each other and be polite. In American culture, direct speech is rather prominent, as people fully express their opinion and belief.   Where I am from in Japan, it is rather impolite to directly express your opinion due to the “honne and tatemae” culture.* We are not supposed to truly reveal ourselves, except for in our homes. Ironically however, even though these two cultures seem so different, we share a common belief: to be polite and respect others.

The opposite can also be said about cultures. For instance, many people tend to group China, Korea and Japan as a monoculture under the label, “East Asian culture” just because of geographic proximity. However, through multiple ILI discussion sessions and country presentations, I realized that this is undoubtedly a mark of stereotyping. Even though we all share the common root of revering Confucianism when dealing with leadership styles, Chinese people revere power, Korean people prioritize group consensus, and Japanese people ensure courtesy. I felt that rather than grouping cultures in this way, it is crucial to examine cultures from a neutral perspective because in that way, we are more prone to new investigations and discoveries.

The ILI experience has been truly rewarding, and I feel that it has not only helped me develop as a leader, but also as a person. Unconscious stereotyping and ethnocentric beliefs are rather normal, but I learned through my ILI experience that acknowledging  this, and trying our best to refrain from it leads to a more holistic perspective.


*Honne and tatemae are Japanese words that describe the contrast between a person’s true feelings and desires (本音 honne) and the behavior and opinions one displays in public (建前 tatemae, lit. “façade”).


Filed under: Intercultural Leadership Initiative (ILI) Tagged: Center for Intercultural Leadership, CIL, Friendship, fun, I-House Life, ILI, Intercultural Leadership Initiative, international house
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