Having lived half my life in the West and half in the East, I have noticed that in the West, we tend to use a lot of numbers in our conversations, while in the East, the conversations are more descriptive.
chart

As depicted by the examples in the table, the Western style of communication is decidedly low context where everything is spelled out in its ultimate numeric detail, whereas the Eastern style is high context where the facts behind the statements and conclusions are implied. In fact, in the high context Eastern cultures, anthropologists have argued that the tone, expressions and gestures of the speaker add significantly to what is being communicated.

Consider the example of a visit to a doctor in the West. They will more than likely collect large amounts of data on the patient starting with their weight, height, blood pressure to blood tests, x-rays and sonograms. On the other hand, in the East the doctor will visually inspect the patient as well as feel the vibrations of their body, a behavior that is not common practice in the west. It is no wonder that modern allopathic science of the West has an intricate system of highly specific numeric dosages of inorganic compounds in various combinations, whereas the ancient ayurvedic science of the East tends to work more on the quality of the curative substances (which lack side effects) and not their specific quantities.

A hundred years of baseball statistics may be an extreme, but there is a definite obsession for keeping sports records so that you are constantly striving to beat them leading to superhuman efforts that are assisted by artificial drugs. In many sports, the difference between a winner and a loser has now come down to milliseconds, and since you are really competing against an already established record, one could argue that the thrill for the spectator to visually observe the competition in action is diminished. Is the day very far when instead of running a race against one another in real time, Olympic contestants will insist that they run it alone and be measured without the distraction in terms of that change in wind direction by another contestant running alongside  which slows them down a fraction of a millisecond making it unfair? This would deprive the spectator of that photo finish moment!

The obsession with numbers also spills into how decisions get made in the West vs. the East. In the West, there is an emphasis on collecting and analyzing reams of data, whereas in the East, decision makers tend to look at the big picture from an intuitive or gut feel. Driven by this obsession, Big Data is being collected and analyzed by myriad Western companies in the hopes of precisely predicting buying behavior to be able to capture a larger share of a specific consumer’s wallet. On the flip side in the East, subjective advertising that uses fewer words continues to capitalize on the impulsive nature of the buyers. A paradox to the Western one-to-one targeted marketing could be that you could miss out on that significant white space where a consumer makes such impulsive buys that may seem to be out of character by just looking at a numeric pattern.

Blindly relying on data without using one’s own judgment does not appear to be any better or worse than relying on experience and intuition and thinking outside the box. Take the case of the recent financial meltdown which well trained Western economists from Ivy League universities were unable to see coming until it hit them in the face. Some are inclined to put forth the argument that the collapse was driven by greed which could not be anticipated or calculated. Au contraire, a high context Westerner, Warren Buffet, states it brilliantly in his famous quote: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book Blink has developed the concept of “thin-slicing” that the human brain goes through which allows one to make snap judgments in the absence of detailed data in any situation. He discusses many experiments which have proved that over-analyzing or performing a detailed mathematical analysis do not make decisions any  better, but they could make it worse. To quote Gladwell, “if we could not make sense of complicated situations in a flash, basketball would be chaotic, and bird-watchers would be helpless.” Think about it!

But while you are thinking, what will you have for lunch today—a 6 inch sub sandwich or a plate of vegetable biryani?

Riz Mithani is a graduate of IIT Bombay and ekes out a living by peddling simple business and technology solutions to highly complex problems that provide a real return on investment. When he is not dancing or traveling, he blogs occasionally at rizmit.wordpress.com

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