Collectivist vs individualist cultures

I’ve recommended this course a few times, and I have to recommend it again:
Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are
Written by: The Great Courses , David Livermore
Narrated by: Professor David Livermore
Length: 11 hrs and 59 mins
Series: The Great Courses: Better Living
Release Date:08-13-13
Publisher: The Great Courses

I got mine through Audible, and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you have any interest or possibility in working with people from other cultures or in understanding your own. I have read two of the author’s books and they are not nearly as useful.

Livermore, in conjunction with a couple other intercultural and cross cultural scholars (I believe he borrows heavily from Professor Geert Hofstede, among others), believes that we can categorize some key cultural differences in specific ways, which he calls cultural value dimensions. They are:

1. Identity—Individualist versus Collectivist
2. Authority—Low versus High Power Distance
3. Risk—Low versus High Uncertainty Avoidance
4. Achievement—Cooperative versus Competitive
5. Time—Punctuality versus Relationships
6. Communication—Direct versus Indirect
7. Lifestyle—Being versus Doing
8. Rules—Particularist versus Universalist
9. Expressiveness—Neutral versus Affective
10. Social Norms—Tight versus Loose

Regarding the individualist vs collectivist cultures, here are some of my notes, observations, random thoughts:

This is not about communism vs capitalism. Get that out of your head immediately. It’s really more about identity- do you identify more as an individual or part of a group. This difference is why in most Asian cultures (not the Philippines, but most others), the family surname is the first name. Your given name comes last. It’s why in Western cultures, your given name is first. We were visiting with a Filipino friend in his 30s or 40s I think, and we had asked him about his siblings, whom we had never met. His entire conversation switched from first person single to collective. “Our first sister,” he said, “lives in … and she works at….” He continued in the same vein, “Our second sister is over in… and our youngest sister is….” Americans wouldn’t do that. I might or might not refer to the Progeny as my daughters or our daughters, and either way would sound correct, but the Progeny themselves would not refer to ‘our sisters’ to outsiders, only among themselves or in a group where some other siblings were included. In a personal conversation they would say “My oldest sister” and perhaps, “The baby of the family is…”

America, as an individualist culture, values independence. So we put our babies in cribs and have them sleeping in their own rooms from infancy (not this American, but you probably know that. Our babies slept with us. Often, so did our toddlers and preschoolers and if I had to do it all over again I’d only keep them longer). We’ve actually raised this cultural preference to ridiculous levels, insisting it’s a medical and psychological necessity, even though in Asian cultures and others as well, children have slept with their parents or grandparents for millenia with no ill effects. We are actually the minority in this regard, but you would not know that if you read our medical literature and parenting advice literature. Collectivist cultures put a higher value on relationships, togetherness. Livermore tells the story of a conference an American organization offered to African pastors. The hosts really wanted to bless the pastors and they put them up in a wonderful hotel with all their meals covered, and every attendant was given his own room. But by the second or third day, they were all doubled up, or sometimes staying four to a room. It wasn’t a treat for these adults to have a room to themselves. It was a stressful, unpleasant experience. One of the men explained to Dr. Livermore, “I’ve never slept by myself in a room in my entire life. I don’t like it. It’s lonely.” It is hard for people from one group or the other to really understand the feelings of the other- it is so ingrained in us that we are thinking, ‘But surely, if they really had a choice, they’d rather….’ But no. Mostly, given a choice, people prefer their own customs over the long term.

I mentioned how our aggressively individualistic culture has actually turned what is only a cultural assumption into a medical and psychological necessity when it comes to sleeping arrangements in families. It happens in other cultures as well- just as an aside, whereas currently American parenting literature has a good deal to say about the benefits of kids getting dirty and playing outside in the mud, a friend with ties to another culture tells me she cannot find any corresponding advice in the literature of that other culture- it’s all about the importance of the mother keeping the children and their environment pristinely clean, and a mother in that culture who deliberately lets her kids get dirty is viewed as a very bad mother.

An example of this sort of cultural presumption is seen in psychology in the U.S. You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you haven’t, here’s a description:
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has often been represented in a hierarchical pyramid with five levels. The four levels (lower-order needs) are considered physiological needs, while the top level of the pyramid is considered growth needs. The lower level needs must be satisfied before higher-order needs can influence behavior. The levels are as follows….

Self-actualization – includes morality, creativity, problem solving, etc.
Esteem – includes confidence, self-esteem, achievement, respect, etc.
Belongingness – includes love, friendship, intimacy, family, etc.
Safety – includes security of environment, employment, resources, health, property, etc.
Physiological – includes air, food, water, sex, sleep, other factors towards homeostasis, etc.”

You can find images of the needs pyramid all over the internet. Here’s one.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not universal.
Honestly, this simultaneously blew my mind and didn’t. There was this explosion in my head and then, as the sparks settled it was totally obvious. Of course it’s not universal. IT’s so western that only a westerner could assume it is universal. It’s completely representative of an individualistic culture’s way of thinking. And American psychology is so weird. I should have known. I feel like somewhere, at some level, I did know. Understand, I am not anti-American, and I’m not one who thinks its useful to grovel and apologize for ones country. But what’s functional or even successful in my own country isn’t necessarily going to be the most effective and positive way of doing things in another culture.
In Maslow’s pyramid- the top level is self actualization. But if he’d been Asian, the top would be social harmony within one’s group.

Making personal choices for yourself is highly valued in individualist societies, which also tend to have a higher regard for fast decision making, and young people (and employees) taking off and doing things on their own.  But these things are not necessarily, objectively, the one best way of doing things world wide.

Collectivist cultures differ in some of these ways- the ‘locus of control’ is with the in group, social networks matter most. They would rather work from a place of building consensus and creating lasting relationships, and this works really very well for them.

This feeds the ideas I’ve been grappling with regarding cultural differences. I’ve been thinking about the way people will try to pluck one cultural attribute out of its ecosystem and graft it into their own- “I wish Americans were more like that, I wish the Filipino people were more like this, I wish we did things your way, I wish you did things our way…” But it doesn’t work very well, this trying to willfully and somewhat ignorantly push individualistic methods, goals, and values on collectivist cultures and vice versa. It’s because, at least in part, those customs and traits don’t work in isoloation. They don’t grow in isolation, they don’t sustain themselves in isolation, and they are not easily cut free of the cultural background which created and sustained them and transplanted into a culture with a totally different type of cultural ecosystem. It’s like trying to transplant a plant into a habitat where it has no natural pollinators, or no natural inhibitors. It’s either going to die a quick death or it’s going to be like Kudzu and kill off many other valuable parts of the culture.

Livermore shares information about this study of groups of American kids in the same school (or maybe the same city). They were all American kids, but some were anglo-American and some were Asian-American. I feel like they were probably first or second generation American at most, but I am not sure.

They all were given a colouring project to do, and they were given the exact same assignment. One group were told they could choose which colours to use or which activities to complete (I forget the details, but the point is the choosing and who did it), and one group were told their mothers had been consulted in advance and made the selections for them.

The thoroughly western kids did better and were less stressed when they made the choices, but the Asian American kids were happier and more confident when told their mothers had chosen for them. It wasn’t that one or the other was better, it was that one or the other matched their cultural backgrounds and expectations better.

I have had an interesting discussion here with a couple of my Korean friends here. A parent had asked a teacher for some back up in requiring a teen aged student to do some after-school tutoring in a subject the student wasn’t doing well in. The (American) teacher had refused, saying that would not be best for the student as the student needed to be making their own wise choices, and if made to take tutoring now, when they went to college they wouldn’t have the background and habit of making wise choices on their own. Both the Koreans were absolutely floored by that attitude. As it happened, the parent disagreed and insisted on the tutoring, reasoning that it wasn’t likely this one decision was going to hinder or help the student from becoming wise, and that in any case, it was not likely the student was going to gain wisdom in that semester that hadn’t been gained in the previous 11 years, so the student could either go to college with bad habits and poor knowledge in this weak area, or bad habits and at least some better understanding of the weak area, and the tutoring occurred, although less often than the parent would have liked. I agree with the parent, fwiw. But the point here is how very, very shocking the Koreans found it that an American would typically expect that much wisdom and independence of a high school student, or even value the idea that a student should be making independent decisions about when and how much to study. They couldn’t see why anybody would think it a bad thing for a parent to get involved to the point of requiring after school tutoring.

As westerners or members of individualistic cultures, generally, the idea that somebody else is going to make choices for us makes us nuts, and we assume that means it’s wrong. We make nasty cracks about adults in their 20s still living in their parents’ houses, but in many other cultures it is the norm, the respectable thing to do for children to live with their parents until marriage, and if they cannot live with their parents, then living with siblings, other relatives, or friends is valued, and not just for saving money. Living alone is not the aspiration of most in collectivist cultures, nor is there any reason why it should be.

Collectivist cultures value the idea that there are trustworthy people in schools, in families, in jobs, to make decisions for us or to help us make decisions and provide some impetus to push us in the right direction.

It’s really interesting to examine how this underlying cultural assumption exhibits itself in various ways within a culture, from how parents involve themselves in their kids’ school, to traditional stories, to weddings, to literary heroes and the story arc of dramas, even to menu choices at a restaurant, to types of restaurants.

Buffets are more popular in individualistic cultures. Set menus, where you don’t have a choice but order from a set menu for your group (the appetizer, side dish, and a couple of main dishes, and maybe even the drinks are predetermined), are more common in collectivist cultures. Because of globalization, both are available now in most developed areas, but here in Davao, buffets remain somewhat new and something of a novelty, and more often than not will be based on a foreign food menu.

We do not all do best when we make our own decisions, and it is not automatically best for all individuals to do so. If one is from a collectivist culture, being forced to make your own decisions in some circumstances actually communicates debilitating, difficult messages- you are not well loved, well cared for, supported, valued, your contributions don’t matter than much, you don’t matter much, it does not matter what you do, your superiors or parents and teachers don’t care about your success. It doesn’t automatically help people grow into independence at all. It also does not communicate respect so much as abandonment.

Letting people make their choices is not necessarily the highest good. It’s just a cultural preference. Some cultures find it stressful. It’s not always the worst thing, either, of course.

More here

And here

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  1. Linda lawhorn
    Posted September 9, 2017 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    I rarely ever comment, but I love reading your blog. I visit every day and love reading your thoughts. Thank you for giving this information about collective vs. individualistic societies. More thing that make sense! Of course the modern things aren’t universal, only Scripture is universal! I do have a question, what about introversion /extroversion? Do you see these traits as western or universal?

    • Headmistress
      Posted September 9, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      That is an interesting question, and one I’ve been wondering about myself. My current thoughts lead me to think they are essentially universal, but manifestations and how they are treated are culturally specific.

  2. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted September 9, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    This is the type of thing that should be taught in social studies in schools everywhere and at home!

    • Headmistress
      Posted September 9, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      I think so, too.

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