Have you ever thought about the major differences between East and West cultures? Perhaps the differences are not just between chopsitcks and knives and forks. The greatest divide of all, between East and West, is not in eating utensils or geography, but it may be the traits of collectivistic and individualistic cultural behaviors.
In a book by William B. Gudykunst, Bridging Differences: Effective Intergroup Communication, (2004), Chapter three deals with “Understanding Cultural Differences.” Within this chapter he discusses individualism and collectivism, which he considers to be “the major dimension of cultural variability used to explain cross-cultural differences in behavior.”
Cross-cultural behaviors, once easier to pick up with face to face communication and persons separated by cultural differences, is worth delving deeper into because of the many other ways there are to communicate across cultures besides face to face. Long-distance telephone communication, telegrams, and letters were not face to face, and they took longer periods of time to reach recipients. Today with internet things have changed drastically in the ways we are able to communicate cross-culturally. Click on the illustration to enlarge.
If we are not familiar with a language, we can have our messages translated in seconds so that those we don’t share culture and language with are able to receive and understand our messages. The color-coded visual here shows methods of communication online. Click on the pictures for a larger view.
Even in non-face-to-face communication, dimensions of variability of collectivism and individualism may still preside. In Dr. Gudykunst’s book, he has a self-construal questionnaire for students to take to decide if they are more collectivistic or individualistic individuals. Gudykunst points out, “The focus of self-construal is important because how we conceive of ourselves is one of the major determinants of our behavior.” The questionnaire asks students to rate how important values such as being helpful, being obedient, being polite, being independent, having harmony with others, being ambitious, experiencing pleasure, and so on, are to them. They score themselves by numbers which when added together give them an idea of their tendencies towards either individualism or collectivism.
The main differences in the two behavior styles is whether the culture focuses more on the “we” or the “I.” Some of the characteristics of collectivistic cultures are: emphasis on group goals, group activities dominate, responsibilities are shared, harmony and cooperation are emphasized, group members are looked after in addition to family members, accountability is collective rather than individual – if a company fails, then all the individuals within the company have failed too. One person is not to blame. “Collectivistic cultures emphasize goals, needs, and views of the in-group over those of the individual; the social norms of the in-group, rather than individual pleasure; shared in-group beliefs, rather than unique individual beliefs; and a value on cooperation with in-group members, rather than maximizing individual outcomes.” (Gudykunst 2004)
Characteristics of individualistic cultures, such as the U. S. are emphasis on individual goals and personal self-esteem. Individuals are valued as being unique in potential and talents, and the individual is more important than the individual’s group memberships. Members of groups are not as important as the individual and the individual’s family members; there is great value in freedom and equality, and accountability is most often individual. When a company fails the CEO (an individual) is usually to blame. “The emphasis in individualistic societies is on individuals’ initiatives and achievement, . . . People in individualistic cultures tend to be universalistic and apply the same value standards to all.” (Gundykunst 2004)
The traits mentioned are a few out of many, which may exist within collectivistic and individualistic cultures. These are not molds that we automatically fit into within the cultures where we live. All people most likely exhibit collectivistic and individualistic behaviors at various times.
Age and gender differences may also contribute to how such traits are acted out. It is very important that we be aware of these traits as we communicate in the virtual spaces of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, etc., and not to forget the many blogging communities that we visit.
Our cultural identities will often be identifiable by collectivistic or individualistic traits, even within the great cyber abyss.