Pittsburgh Technical Council

A Cross-Cultural Look at Advice Seeking

A Cross-Cultural Look at Advice Seeking

Article Published: May 20, 2014

By Raul Valdes-Perez, Contributing Writer

My prior columns developed a how-to of advice seeking, i.e., of bringing the knowledge and experience of fellow humans to bear on our own challenges through good social (not social media) means, person-to-person. To complement the how-to, I’ve tried to convey an understanding of the social and emotional phenomena of advising, both from my own academic and entrepreneurial experiences and from research scholarship. Here, I’ll look briefly at how advice seeking varies across national cultures.

A personal observation: Advice seeking from acquaintances or even strangers is practical to the extent that a society practices civic solidarity. It’s hard to imagine any national culture in which family members are distrusted, but in some cultures only family can be trusted whereas non-family are suspect. Consider the foreign saying: “Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger.” As a thought experiment, imagine someone who has made a profitable sale of an asset by skilfully deceiving the buyer. In a civic-solidarity culture, that seller would likely hide the fact, whereas in a culture low on fellowship, the seller might even brag about it. I personally have heard, while on a visit to another country, someone brag unembarrassedly about having made a good sale by deception.

I believe Pittsburgh has a real asset: It’s part of a country with strong traditions of civic fellowship and trust, and our city’s smaller size and stable residential patterns enhance the effect, even more so for the tech community.

But enough with personal observations. What interesting cultural phenomena relating to advice or help seeking have scholars reported?

A fascinating theme concerns differences in help-seeking behavior between East Asians (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Koreans—but not Indians) and European Americans that were reported in a 2010 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “Culture, Distress, and Oxytocin Receptor Polymorphism (OXTR) Interact to Influence Emotional Support Seeking” and in a 2004 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Culture and Social Support: Who Seeks It and Why?”.  Biologists have studied a gene that is related to social and emotional connectedness. It turns out that European Americans who have that gene (that is, that genetic allele) tend to seek help when they are in stress, more so than those who lack that gene. However, East Asians who possess that gene are less likely to seek help when in difficulties. The authors’ explanation is that in East Asian cultures, social or group harmony is highly valued, and an individual who is socially attuned will hesitate to bring his difficulties to the attention of a social group in order not to burden them with his own problems. To clarify: The claim is not that Europeans and East Asians have different genes, but that a genetic trait, when passed through a cultural filter, leads to divergent behaviors. The study was not per se about advice-seeking, which can happen on an intellectual plane, but about general help-seeking, but I figure the two are close enough.

Lack of space precludes examining other reported cultural variations, e.g., between Russians and Americans. Curious readers are referred to my book “Advice is for Winners: How to Get Advice for Better Decisions in Life and Work”.

Cultural variations don’t shake my conviction that advice seeking is not practiced often enough nor well enough, but is a universal human good, even if a Russian, Mediterranean, sub-Saharan, or Korean guide to advice seeking might be written differently.

My next column will look at how some specific, common tasks can greatly benefit from advice-seeking.

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