The Culture of Optimism

Why are some cultures more optimistic than the others

During my time working with North American companies and colleagues, I am always impressed by how positive the tone of every internal communication is.

We are going to be the best in X.”

We will be in it to win it.”

X will be the gold standard for every company in the world.”

I think in general every company and leader should be optimistic about their outlook, but this is kind of different. Not only they are optimistic about the product, but they’re optimistic about dominating the world with it. There is hardly any sense of regionality. It’s always about winning all.

On the contrary, when I worked at an Asian company (Singaporean or Indonesian), there is some optimism, but not so much. There’s a bit of pride in past performance, e.g. being the best company as per X award, or per milestone, but there is hardly any obsessive outlook about winning it all, at a global scale.

Turns out, my feeling is sort of validated. I found this article.

“Anyone visiting America from Europe cannot fail to be struck by the energy, enthusiasm, and confidence in their country’s future that he or she will meet among ordinary Americans—a pleasing contrast to the world-weary cynicism of much of Europe.”

There was it, and I found out that most of my past European colleagues tend to be a bit wary about the world, putting some preps for the worst. I also remember that one of the directors in my previous company was European, and he was known to have a pessimistic outlook at the business, so much in contrast with the American counterparts.

I was born to a Javanese family. In my family, we are educated to always take caution and not be too optimistic. Anything that might happen will happen, and while we prepare for the worst, we might still end up not doing well in life. In the end, ultimately, we’re educated to be thankful and accepting to whatever the world throws at us, and make do with what we have. We call it nrimo (“accepting”). There is a little ambition, but no obsession about winning. I believe this applies to most Javanese families, and perhaps more families in Indonesia in general.

I always remember my parents always say to me, “there’s time to be optimistic and happy, but remember: don’t be too happy, you’ll fall,” or something along the line of “if you walk, don’t keep your head up too high, you might stumble.”

If you learn about Indonesian proverbs, there is a strong nuance of carefulness and emphasis on “playing it safe”, such as:

Sepandai-pandainya tupai melompat, akhirnya jatuh juga

“As clever as a squirrel jumps, it will fall again”

Tak ada gading yang tak retak

“Nothing’s perfect, because even the finest ivory has its cracks. Therefore, do not judge others too harshly or have too high expectations.”

There’s a high degree of accepting your fate, on being conservative with your goals, and not too overindulge in overoptimism or happiness. I think that’s kind of the core values of some cultures, and I find a lot of similarity in Asia.

Back to The Atlantic article, apparently this optimism does not affect every country, and doesn’t seem to be related to prosperity. Take for example Japan:

As you see above, the percentage of Japanese saying they’re having a good day in any given day is less than 10%, compared to United States. However, it’s interesting that even some of the lower-income countries still see their days a bit more optimistically.

And if we think about it, why isn’t equally prosperous country be equally exuberant and optimistic?

“When you think about American culture broadly, it centers entirely on the independent self and the happiness of the self, and not just in a general way,” Chang explains. “It’s ingrained in the culture as an explicit, essential value — we’re hit over the head with American freedom and liberty and rugged individualism so much so that explicit pessimism isn’t actually tolerated that much in our society. It’s treated as a mental illness, a sign of depression.”

This drive for optimism eventually comes to the daily grind. When you talk with optimistic people, they will take a hint on every single muted tone you have, and think you have a problem. This can be as simple as answering “Just OK” to a question of “How are you?”. To me, “just OK” is a good answer, being just a mediocre, not-too-optimistic kind of person. For the optimists, they can’t take that answer.

A few days ago, I found this article that I find interesting. Again, it’s about an Asian-educated designer who started a job in a diverse, western-looking company.

There is a strong tendency in such companies that extroverted and opinionated people win by miles, at least they bring an advantage at the beginning.

You ought to be super-vocal and opinionated to exist. You can’t be silent and observing.

The author put a concrete example:

As a child I was told: 

Don’t speak too loudly.

Don’t speak too much.

Just listen and do what your elders tell you to do.

Be humble. 

In corporate America, I was told the opposite.

You’re too quiet!

You need to speak up more and be more vocal! 

Be more opinionated!

Fight for your opinions!

Build your brand! 

Sell everything that you do!

What I like about the article the most is that the author drives the conclusion to something more of a compromise: we don’t have to follow that culture of exuberance and extroversion. We can be ourselves. There are ways to do this, including for everyone to learn the culture of every other person, starting small for difficult communication, alternative ways to express opinions, or you know, just being fine with people not feeling good about their thoughts and days.

Blind optimism is a result of ignorance and laziness to learn all the context. Good optimism takes all context into account, including the limitations and challenges.

Image from Unsplash