Who do you save?

Here is an interesting approach to motivating people to understand that other cultures approach problems differently. A question is asked: "if a boat sank, who to save?" Survey results showing Asian vs. American cultures differ greatly in their answers, surprises people and forces them to consider that not everyone thinks the same way.

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My job is to make software work well for other cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Middle Eastern, etc.). Some of the task is to make the software support different languages, but often it requires understanding how users might have different viewpoints and also different approaches to solving problems (such as those the software was designed to help with). I often need cooperation from other development teams, as well as QA, documentation, marketing, and other personnel. Sometimes cooperation comes easy. For some groups or individuals, it does not come easy. I use different techniques of persuasion depending on the personalities involved. Technical engineers are persuaded by strongly logical or technical arguments. If A then B... Marketing and executives tend to do better with business cases and seeing where the Dollars (or Yens) go. Some folks need to understand usage scenarios or the target audience more clearly. ("A person walks into an ATM kiosk...")

Some people find it hard to accept that given the same facts and choices, someone else can legitimately come to a completely different conclusion, and not be "wrong". I find the following story wakes these people up to the extent of the difference. I ask the following question in a large group where there are usually a mix of ethnic backgrounds. When people see that even among coworkers they have known for a long time there are unexpectedly different answers, they find it shocking. They simply could not imagine others would think so differently from themselves.

(I am not recommending others try this. It requires a bit of finesse, or you can end up embarassing some individuals that are uncomfortable being singled out as different. It is also very difficult to find the right people in the audience that can verbalize why they made their choices clearly. I only use this approach in very informal settings.) The question comes from a survey that I read about in 1990 or so.

Supposing you are on a boat with your mother, your spouse and your child. Suddenly the boat begins to sink and you determine you can only save one of them. Who do you save?

Do you have an answer yet? Most people answer quite immediately. Click here for the survey results.

According to survey results, 60% of Americans save their spouse, 40% save their children. The reasons offered go along the lines of:

However, among Asian cultures, or Americans of recent Asian descent, the answer is nearly 100% to save the mother. The rationale I have heard offered is:

So we have two very different views. For some of the people I have worked with, the difference is startling and at first the logic is incomprehensible to them. I was trying to shock them, of course, because it is the first step in understanding that not everyone has the same values and the same way of solving problems. This opens the door for them to considering how software may need adaptation for other ways of solving problems and begins the questioning of assumptions in the design of the software.