“Compared to much of the world,” writes Joseph Henrich in his book The WEIRDest People in the World, “WEIRD people report behaving in more consistent ways … across different types of relationships, such as with younger peers, friends, parents, professors, and strangers. By contrast, Koreans and Japanese report consistency only within relational contexts – that is how they behave separately toward their mothers, friends, or professors across time.”
In the United States, we care a lot about the idea of our true self. We want to be able to be our true self in all of our relationships and in all of the various situations and settings that we may find ourselves in. It is important for us to understand this one true self and to be that person wherever we are. To fail to do so is to be inauthentic in our relationships with others, possibly dishonest with ourselves, and at worst a hypocrite.
But this is not a universal way of thinking about the self that all humans share. As Henrich notes, this is a pretty WEIRD (as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) way to think about the self. Many other cultures don’t focus on being a single true self across various relationships. In the United States we try to be the same person with our co-workers, family, social groups, and grocery store strangers. We frown on the idea of being nice and sociable with our friends but cold and hard to engage when talking to a mechanic or grocery store clerk. We would criticize someone who is endearing around their mother or grandmother, but then tries to be a gangster around their friends. Other countries and cultures, however, do not share these concerns.
Henrich continues, “while Americans sometimes see behavioral flexibility as two-faced or hypocritical, many other populations see personal adjustments to differing relationships as reflecting wisdom, maturity, and social adeptness.”
Is it two faced to be highly respectful of your boss and to change your propensity for cussing when around them? Is it a display of social adeptness to be goofy and funny around small children but reserved around professional colleagues?
To me, it is really interesting that something so central to American culture can be such an outlier across the various cultures of our planet. It feels obvious to me that we should strive to be one person and not someone who presents different faces or different personalities and general dispositions to different people. But it is also incredibly difficult to always be the same person we strive to be across different contexts. It is incredibly emotionally challenging to be friendly and bubbly all day long and to maintain that attitude when running in for last minute groceries at the end of the day. Perhaps we don’t need to try so hard to be the same person all the time, perhaps we can remember that it is a WEIRD pressure that we feel when we feel a need to unify ourself across all settings and relationships. Perhaps we can step back and look at these different cultural approaches to the idea of the self and sometimes ease up on our WEIRD worries. But then again, maybe this WEIRD focus of ours is helping us and our culture move in better directions. Maybe it helps us be more thoughtful and considerate of others, and maybe it helps us strive to be better people in all that we do.