Culture is a way of life. It consists of practices, beliefs, rules, habits, and values that are used to guide behavior. Becoming aware of your culture’s influence and using that to make conscious choices that serve both your personal growth and your community is the key to finding balance. Here, we discuss both individualistic and collectivist cultures and how they impact your identity and decisions. (Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes)
“The beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people.”— Unknown
Humans are social beings. We need each other to survive. That’s why we’ve always felt safer in communities that offer warmth, sustenance, and stability.
Our species (Homo sapiens) evolved around 200,000 years ago and spread across the world. In the early stages of our development, human groups were small and nomadic, but over time, various groups settled and developed their own way of doing things.
They formed unique cultures that distinguished them from other groups. Within these cultures, each person had a defined role to play with duties that came with that role. This interdependency created a sense of bonding and belonging among members.
Across the ages, the ties that exist within cultures became weaker. With the rise of technology and capitalism, people began valuing their personal autonomy and placed more importance on their success over group achievement.
The role of culture in society
Culture is a way of life. It consists of customs, practices, beliefs, rules, habits, and values that are used to guide behavior. People gain a sense of identity by conforming to cultural norms.
On a practical level, culture offers simple solutions and structures that simplify our world and decision making. For instance, a person from a culture that promotes conservative clothing will stick with modest outfits and stay away from those that are revealing.
When we talk about culture, we tend to associate it with national culture like music, art, history, national holidays, stories, and symbols that characterize a specific country or region.
But this represents the outer layer of our cultural identity. When we peel it back, we’ll find layers of subculture that contribute to our sense of self. Today, our values and emotions are influenced by a variety of sources: our education, spirituality, work, pop-culture tastes, and hobbies.
Each one of these subcultures has clusters of rules and sensibilities that commingle to form our unique views on life and inform how we conduct ourselves. This can lead to an interesting and multifaceted perspective, but it complicates when there’s a clash in our beliefs.
For instance, a woman who turns vegan after growing up eating a meat-centric diet of steak and grilled pork ribs with her Argentinian relatives might raise a few eyebrows at the dinner table. Rejecting her cultural eating habits may create doubt in her choice.
Her response ultimately depends on how important it is for her to conform to group expectations and whether her collectivist or individualistic culture has a stronger impact on her.
Culture and social orientation
A person’s social orientation determines how they behave in a group and relate to others. Our social orientation is affected by our culture of origin.
Cultures are generally divided into two categories:
1. Individualistic: Stresses the importance of personal achievement and the needs and goals of the individual over the needs of a group. The ideal person from this culture is self-reliant, assertive, independent, and strong-willed.
Countries that tend to be individualistic: United States, Canada, Ireland, Germany, and Australia.
2. Collectivist: Emphasize group and family goals and place more importance on the wellbeing of the collective over the individual. Such cultures encourage qualities such as self-sacrifice, generosity, agreeableness, and altruism.
Countries that tend to be collectivist: Japan, China, Korea, India, and Mexico.
It’s not surprising that these values can be traced back to the teaching of philosophers. Western thought leaders such as German philosopher Immanuel Kant and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau emphasized independence and freedom.
On the other hand, luminaries in Eastern traditions such as Confucius wrote extensively about “obligations that are obtained between emperor and subject, parent and child, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and between friend and friend”.
Both individualistic and collectivist cultures have their pros and cons. Individualists are self-assured and independent but are at risk of experiencing loneliness. People from collectivist cultures have a strong community that offers support, but they are susceptible to sacrificing their dreams.
Becoming aware of your culture’s influence and using that to make conscious choices that serve both your personal growth and your community is the key to finding balance.
How culture impacts our behavior and identity
The cultural values that we absorb spill over into several facets of our lives, including:
Relationships: Individualistic cultures make greater effort to maintain relationships that they choose through personal choice. Collectivist cultures stick with connections made through family and geographical location. They nurture these ties rather than actively try to meet new people.
Social behavior: Research shows that people from collectivist cultures are more accepting of those who are withdrawn and reticent. However, this tolerance is an exception in Latin American collectivist cultures that promote sociability and self-expression.
Seeking support: People from collectivist cultures are less likely to talk about personal issues with those in their circle because they don’t want to cause worry and disrupt the harmony. People from individualistic cultures are more open to discussing their problems with others.
Self-identity: Individualists develop a sense of self that’s more removed from their social roles than those from collectivist cultures. They describe themselves in terms of their personal qualities (I am intelligent, generous, laid back). In contrast, collectivists describe themselves in ways that align with their roles (I’m a sister, cousin, friend).
Willingness to conform: Our willingness to conform is influenced by our culture. It’s more acceptable to stand out and follow your own path among individualists than it is in collectivistic circles that encourage members to blend in and maintain convention.
Creating harmony between our self and group identity
Just like the vegan Argentinian who fears disapproval from her meat-eating relatives, you too might find yourself in situations where your values don’t align with your culture or family.
Finding a balance between my personal and group identity is an ongoing challenge for me. As an individualist, I often have to deal with pressure to conform from certain members of my community with more collectivist beliefs.
Until I was comfortable expressing my truth, I ran on the old cultural programming that I was raised on and tried not to veer too far away from what was expected of me. While some people are happy to fall in line with cultural norms, it wasn’t the case for me.
You’ll know that you’re dissatisfied with the status quo if you find yourself feeling like a pawn, smiling politely, repressing your opinions, and acting in ways that don’t feel right to you.
Instead of outright rebellion, what helped me is taking time to check in with myself every time I was asked to do something that was purely based on cultural standards. If it rang true for me, I experienced a sense of freedom and alignment, telling me that I could make it my own.
Resisting the social standards of your culture, however, is not for the faint of heart. You must be strong, single-minded, and persistent in forging a path of your own. You’ll have to go against your natural instincts to maintain the goodwill of others and be willing to ruffle some feathers.
By asserting your individualist rather than collectivist culture, you risk facing backlash from collectivistic-minded people who’ll say that you’re being selfish by only thinking of your happiness.
What they don’t understand, however, is that if you’re not in a state of joy and self-sufficiency, you can’t bring the best version of yourself to others.
In the end, your mind is your greatest treasure. And you must do everything it takes to protect it. In her book “Educated,” author Tara Westover came to this realization after leaving her survivalist Mormon family to pursue a college education and enlarge her world. She writes:
“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind.”
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What differences between individualistic and collectivistic cultures stand out to you the most? Do you identify with either one more than the other?
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