Culture Points is a series of posts that quickly explain broad cultural concepts, communication styles, norms, values, and orientations, which help us make sense of cultural differences and suspend judgement. These posts are like overlooks or viewpoints that can help us pause and gain perspective on any intercultural journey. They are part of our step-by-step guide to living abroad, Culture Trek.
Cultures inform how we understand our relationships and interact with other people. One of the most widely-recognized distinctions between types of cultures is that between individualism and collectivism.
Individualism values personal independence. Within individualist cultures, people are more likely to “see themselves as separate from others, define themselves based on their personal traits, and see their characteristics as relatively stable and unchanging.” An individualist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are on the “inside,” minimizing the influence of factors, contexts, and people “outside” the individual. Individualists tend to communicate in direct styles—they say what they mean, prioritizing that information is conveyed explicitly and unambiguously. European and “Western” cultures are typically more individualist.
Collectivism values personal interdependence. In collectivist cultures, people are more likely to “see themselves as connected to others, define themselves in terms of relationships with others, and see their characteristics as more likely to change across different contexts.” A collectivist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are with other people, or by their membership in a group. Maintaining social harmony, getting along with others, and meeting social expectations are more important in collectivist cultures. They tend to communicate in indirect styles—collectivists imply what they really mean, but might say otherwise to avoid conflict or embarrassment. Asian and African cultures tend to be more collectivist, for example.
The individualist idea of having a more immutable, authentic private self is not as appealing in collectivist cultures. Individualist self-expressions and styles may even seem selfish, disruptive, or alienating to a more collectivist person or group. Inversely, the collectivist priority for social agreement and cooperation may seem stiflingly conformist to someone who’s more individualist. In general, collectivists tend to fit molds, while individualists break them (or at least value and imagine doing so).
Just because someone’s cultural background is individualist, you shouldn’t assume that they are. Everyone falls somewhere on the individualist-collectivist spectrum. Even within a very collectivist culture, you will find people who are more individualist. Furthermore, psychology research has shown that people shift along this spectrum, leaning more collectivist or individualist depending on the situation. This adaptability is more common in multicultural communities and contexts. It’s partly why we seek intercultural exchange: to adopt multiple cultural frames and learn to apply them in relevant communities and circumstances.