Do not be concerned with the faults of other persons. Do not see others' faults with a hateful mind. There is an old saying that if you stop seeing others' faults, then naturally seniors and venerated and juniors are revered. Do not imitate others' faults; just cultivate virtue. Buddha prohibited unwholesome actions, but did not tell us to hate those who practice unwholesome actions
- Zen Master Dōgen -
According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, forgiveness is “a dyadic relation involving a wrongdoer and a wronged party, and is thought to be a way in which victims of wrongdoing alter both their and a wrongdoer’s status by, for instance, acknowledging yet moving past a moral transgression”: while most sources appear to agree on such definition of “forgiveness”, it must be noted, however, that the concept of forgiveness is culture-bound [deep culture/below the water line knowledge]. and that it takes specific meanings in different societies.
This week we’re going to discuss about how culture shapes conceptions of forgiveness, as explained by a study conducted among members of individualistic and collectivist cultures (US and Japanese participants respectively).
The study suggests that “compared with Americans, Japanese participants focused more on aspects related to relationship harmony; they seemed to emphasize an adjustment motive and decisional forgiveness. They also put less emphasis on emotional forgiveness and attention to individuals in comparison with Americans”: while members of EAH (East Asian Heritage) societies practice forgiveness in order to “restore closeness and group harmony”, for members of WEH (Western European Heritage) cultures forgiveness is a concept linked to personal (individualistic) self-improvement. The research does also propose that “in EAH contexts, free expression of one’s emotion (especially negative emotion) can be inappropriate, as it may disturb interpersonal relationships”, a notion introduced in a previous post about the importance of harmony and group consensus in the Confucian Asia cluster (on a related note, a study on the implications of apology comparing law and culture in Japan and the United States argues that “the Western insistence on protecting the rights of the weak against the powerful is based on the illusion that individuals are autonomous and free to choose their social commitments rationally, just as the Japanese perspective on enforcing promises is based on the tatemae of wa, the illusion that social life reflects a strong order hierarchically connecting individuals and groups and that the aim of law is to realize the inherent harmony among the parts”).
In order to fully understand the role of forgiveness in collectivist and individualistic cultures, we must first define the nature of interpersonal relationships in both contexts (according to Hofstede, the distinction between an individualistic and a collectivist society is the extent to which individuals are integrated into groups).
- collective interest is more important than personal well-being. The focus is on preserving harmony and respecting hierarchy within the community;
- self-control is extremely important, as members of a collectivist society are fully aware that their words and actions have an impact on others;
- one’s identity and reputation is defined in terms of social roles ("I am a good son ");
- the group takes care of individuals, individuals are loyal to the group they belong to.
- the focus is on personal priorities and self-realization. People emphasize individual freedom and achievement;
- independence and self-reliance are highly valued. People are expected to take care of themselves and a few loved ones and to take responsibility for the outcomes;
- confrontation is accepted, people are encouraged to express their opinions and to be assertive.
In individualistic societies, where self-realization and freedom are paramount, relationships are voluntary, formed by choice; in collectivist societies, on the other hand, relationships are usually formed within the group individuals belong to and they’re not easily dissolved: forgiveness may therefore be the only possible option to preserve the group well-being.
To conclude, as suggested by a research on the topic of forgiveness across cultures, it would appear that there is a clear distinction between decisional and emotional forgiveness: the former, described as “a behavioral intention to resist an unforgiving stance and to respond differently toward a transgressor”, is a prerogative of collectivist cultures (“is granting forgiveness going to serve the purpose to benefit the group?”), while the latter, defined as “the replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions”, is granted to the offender to satisfy the emotional need of the victim for reconciliation and is most common in individualistic societies (social well-being vs personal well-being, culturally expected behavior vs personal, independent choice).
It should be noted that while the US culture is dignity-based and one’s well-being is not linked to social status and not dependent on collective expectations, the Japanese culture is shame-based: self-worth is dependent on people’s ability to fulfil expected social roles, one’s respectability is earned and granted by others (see also: face).
With regard to forgiveness in collectivist cultures, I would like to talk about a 2003 research on "Indigenous Forgiveness and Hmong Culture" to highlight the issue of ethnocentrism (*) and cultural bias in psychology, and to bring attention to the importance of linguistic and cultural relativism in a cross-cultural context.
The study, according to which "most positive psychology research has studied predominantly White populations", laments "a lack of attention to diverse social and cultural contexts" and proceeds to explain that for members of the Hmong community in the Unites States forgiveness is a concept that encompasses four interrelated dimensions: a) spirituality, b) collectivism, c) third-party mediation, and d) acculturation conflicts.
"For traditional animistic Hmong, there are several types of spirits that can influence human life, including ancestral spirits, nature spirits, house spirits, and evil spirits.
The cultural embeddedness of models of forgiveness is revealed in the fact that a common question considered by Western therapists and researchers interested in forgiveness is whether one can forgive a deceased relative for the sake of emotional well-being of the survivor. From an animistic Hmong worldview, the questions are much different and focus on how a family or clan can pay respect and guarantee they will, in a sense, be ‘forgiven’ by the deceased to prevent calamity.
The animistic worldview of traditional Hmong is obviously very different from the dominant paradigms of Western medicine and psychology, which can create conflicts in health care and social service settings."
"[…] individualistic models of forgiveness would emphasize the personal health benefits of forgiving. From a collectivistic worldview, like that of traditional Hmong, forgiveness would only make sense if it benefited one’s group or community.
Traditional Hmong value group harmony, so Hmong communities often attempt to contain conflict and loss of face to preserve group harmony (Gates et al., 2000). However, the Hmong emphasis on collectivism can mean that serious interpersonal offenses cause humiliation and loss of face not just for an individual but also for that person’s community (i.e., family and clan). Therefore, it could be inappropriate to accept an offender’s gesture of apology unless the offender performs a formal act of apology and restitution to ‘buy back’ the loss of face for one’s community".
Note: elements of both face/shame and honor/shame cultures seem to coexist in this particular scenario ("Like Confucian-based cultures of modesty, cultures of honor are collective —groups and group membership matter and reputation is both gained and lost not only through one's own actions, but also through the actions of others with whom one is closely associated". Uskul et al., 2010). For additional context on this point, please refer to the post "Shame, Honor, and Two Different Flavors of Collectivism".
"Collectivistic groups often utilize (or triangulate) third-party mediators to negotiate conflicts and the crucial dynamics of honor and face (Augsburger, 1992)".
"Acculturation challenges can shape the context of family conflict and what might be considered ‘unforgiveness’ or disrespect.
[...] For example, the younger generations usually develop a better grasp of both the English language and the dominant American customs than the older, more traditional generations. Traditional Hmong social relations are hierarchical in nature. Children are to respect and defer to parents and elders. Hmong American family conflicts frequently involve complaints by parents and elders that a particular Hmong adolescent is disrespectful or repudiating Hmong culture, an obvious generativity concern of the elder generation. In such a scenario, social status tends to determine norms about how conflict is to be resolved and who is supposed to seek forgiveness.
The family member with the higher status (e.g., parent or male family member) would find it extremely difficult, if not implausible, to seek forgiveness from the lower status family member (e.g., child or female family member). Encouraging a college student to ‘forgive’ a parent, as happens in some college-based forgiveness studies and counseling interventions, might seem countercultural to some Hmong individuals and families and may depend on acculturation factors for the student.
Note: here we are looking at the differences between a high- and a low-context culture, and between a high- and a low-power distance society (Hmong and North-American respectively. See also slides on the Confucian-Asia, Southern Asia and Anglo-American culture clusters for additional info on the main differences among the culture clusters object of this article).
Finally, with respect to linguistic relativity - the hypothesis that people understand the world through the lens of their own language -, the article points out that "Forgiveness may not be a term with common equivalents in many Hmong communities. Attempts to repair interpersonal conflict in the Hmong community might more commonly involve the use of language like restoring ‘respect’ rather than the explicit term forgiveness. The language of ‘respect’ and its role in forgiveness-like repair is connected to the restoration of social face." Here it is important to note that "face", as intended in Asian cultures, is a foreign concept to Western cultures.
(*) We’ve previously discussed about the Hmong community in a post concerned with the effects of ethnocentrism on cross-cultural advertising.
- Hofstede, G. (1994). “The business of international business is culture”. International Business Review, 3, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/0969-5931(94)90011-6
- Hofstede, Geert H. (1997). "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (second ed.)". New York: McGraw-Hill
- Joo, M., Terzino, K. A., Cross, S. E., Yamaguchi, N., & Ohbuchi, K.-i. (2019). “How does culture shape conceptions of forgiveness? Evidence from Japan and the United States”. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 50(5), 676–702. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022119845502
- Worthington, Everett & Witvliet, Charlotte & Pietrini, Pietro & Miller, Andrea. (2007). “Forgiveness, Health, and Well-Being: A Review of Evidence for Emotional Versus Decisional Forgiveness, Dispositional Forgivingness, and Reduced Unforgiveness”. Journal of behavioral medicine. 30. 291-302. 10.1007/s10865-007-9105-8.
- Wagatsuma, H., & Rosett, A. (1986). “The Implications of Apology: Law and Culture in Japan and the United States”. Law & Society Review, 20(4), 461-498. https://doi.org/10.2307/3053463
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