In this article, I will focus on the following topics within understanding “What is Individualism.“
- What is individualism
- What is collectivism
- Individualistic culture or individualistic society
First, let’s start with a definition when answering the question What is Individualism?
“The belief that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group”
An individualistic culture will put the emphasis on viewing the world like this; the I is more important than the We.
A collectivistic culture will put the emphasis on putting the group before the individual. With this, I have also put a definition on answering the question What is Collectivism.
Individualism is the second dimension that Hofstede describes out of the first four dimensions of culture (the other three are Power Distance, Masculinity, and Uncertainty Avoidance). On the other side of Individualism, you can find Collectivism.
So, on the other side of an individualistic culture, you can find a collectivistic culture.
Another way of looking at Individualism and Collectivism is to think about this dimension as We (collectivistic) oriented versus I (Individualistic) oriented. So now let’s start answering the question What is Individualism and what is collectivism, but then in a more practical way.
Can I Ask You…?
Let’s start with a Question:
A simple question to answer right? Although your answer will vary depending on your culture.
In an Individualistic culture (mainly Western Europe, North America, and Australia & New Zealand), the answer will be something like: “I’ll keep my distance“, or “I’ll leave them to themselves“.
In a more Collectivistic country (pretty much the rest of the world!) the answer will be different. Of course, people in Collectivistic cultures will also keep their distance, but the ties that people have and keep as neighbors will be much stronger (also over time) as in an Individualistic society.
To put it Simple (which it never is):
- An Individualistic culture: My loyalty lies with me first. Nuclear families; yourself, your parents, and your children.
- A Collectivistic culture: My loyalty lies with my group first. Extended families; brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins nephews, etc.
So What is Individualism and What is Collectivism in Detail:
What is Individualism (characteristics)?
- Me, myself & I (as opposed to “We” thinking)
- Own opinion is important (over the general group opinion)
- Direct communication (I ask a question and would like a direct answer)
- loss of self-respect, guilt
- Task over relationship (this does not mean that relationships are unimportant, it’s just that the importance lies at the task at hand and less on the level of relationship)
What is Collectivism (characteristics)?
- We versus them (In-group versus Out-group: if you’re part of “this” group, you’re not part of the “other” group)
- Group opinion is important (versus one’s own opinion; this does not mean of course that people from Collectivistic cultures have no opinion of their own. It is just that the opinion of the group is more important)
- Indirect communication (one of the most difficult issues to deal with when working with people from Collectivistic cultures: not getting a direct answer (in the eyes of the individual from the individualistic culture))
- Loss of “face“, shame (if you analyze the literal words in “Loss of face“, you’ll see that you can only lose your face in the presence of others, in other words, in a “Collective” of other people)
- Relationship over task (the relationships that one has prevailed over the task; tasks are not unimportant, the relationship you have with someone else is just more important)
Examples of Countries Scoring High on Individualism (Individualistic Culture)
- United States (highest scoring in Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions)
- United Kingdom
- Nordic countries
- Australia & New Zealand
Examples of Countries Scoring Low on Individualism (Collectivistic Culture)
- Guatemala (lowest scoring country in Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions)
There are many more countries that are Collectivistic than there are that are countries that are Individualistic. It is safe to say that about 20% of the World’s population is Individualistic, the rest would be (relatively) Collectivistic.
Below is a video that Illustrates another typical Individualistic trait: Personal Space. In an Individualistic Culture people “value” their Personal space a lot. Take a look.
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Read this article on Mexico if you want to learn more
An article on task orientation and relationship orientation can be found here.
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Interesting article and liked the advert!!! I am from the North of England. I’d never thought about the expression “loss of face” in that way before – fascinating. I work full time as a Costs Lawyer but I’m also studying with the Open University at the moment – International Studies combined with French. We are just covering “the discourse of individualism” at present. It’s also interesting that you have lived in the US, Holland and Belgium as I am going to the US in the summer (3rd trip) and have very recently returned from Belgium having visited Amsterdam whilst over there. There are big differences in all three cultures in my eyes. I note you are Dutch and don’t wish to offend, but I felt quite uncomfortable in Amsterdam as a pedestrian and tourist. I felt the city was very biased towards the young and 2-wheeled variety leaving pedestrians to negotiate their way round trees and dog-dirt sandpits whilst hoping not to get mown down by cyclists or mopeds. Brussels by contrast seemed to say to me – you can do anything you like here – we like everyone and everything. The US, from what I’ve seen, could use a few more pavements so people can redevelop a sense of community. That’s my take anyway. But congrats on the article.
Thanks for your comment.
I’ll elaborate a bit more on Individualism in future posts, so stay tuned!
I’m not sure about traffic behavior in the Netherlands and Belgium.
I do know that in LA pedestrians are kind of “holy” when crossing the street…
Hi Chris, quite interesting article you wrote. As an african, the culture of extended family is much more a way of life than a choice. Having grew up in poverty stricken situation myself, our parents thought us to share even a smallest gift made one – like we would slice a an orange amongst seven (7) of us.
Thanks for your comment.
I like the way you phrased that Extended Family is “more a way of life”, rather then a choice.
It shows just how difficult it is for Individualistic cultures to “understand” Collectivistic cultures and vice versa.
In the near future I’ll add some more post on this topic.
Goede dag Chris! Geweldig onderwerp!
Like you, I also have a thirst for cultural topics. This passion has taken me to many places away from my birth place in Latin America. I have lived in the Netherlands and also in the US. From all this traveling, I have come to realize that every place is unique, and even people from Nijmegen act different from people in Rotterdam. The same is true in a country as large as the US. I would never generalize people’s behavior in countries, maybe use small towns as a baseline.
I also think that only children who spend time among different types of cultures can really skip cultural “misunderstandings” as adults. As adults we realize differences in cultures, but unfortunately, we will always feel a sense of separation with people from a different cultural background. If you know of any tips to bridge this gap, I will be happy to know them. There are more to say to this, and of course, scientific data to compare. This is an ongoing study.
Thanks for your comment.
I agree with you that people from Nijmegen would be different from Rotterdam.
These are so called “IntRA-cultural differences”. Not IntER-cultural differences.
If you (or one) has not lived in a country for a real long time those Intra-cultural differences do not appear as strong as the Inter-cultural differences.
As an example: for a Dutchman, a Chinese is a Chinese. For a Japanese, a Frenchman is a Frenchman, irrespective where they are from in France.
Bridging the Cultural Gap is what it’s all about. True.
For this we need (in this order) Awareness (of our own culture), Understanding (of the other culture, relative to our own), Acceptance (of the other culture), Skills.
In this sequence.
The Acceptance is crucial. What usually helps is to understand Why people do what they do. As the saying goes: “I can live with the What, if I know the Why”.
This is where formal Cultural Awareness Training comes in (which we supply 🙂 ).
I’ll elaborate further on What is Individualism in future posts.
Thank you for this interesting discussion.
I would differentiate among individualism in the short or in the long distance. Or rather abstract or concrete collectivism. What I mean is that germans tend to act in a more individualistic way than spaniards in daily life, with the people we have to do with. But they have a very strong sense of the state and social wellfare. It is the other way round in many latin countries. People tend to feel committed to people they know personally but not that much with abstract groups, in anonimous relationships.
Thank you for your comment.
I would fully agree with you on the differences between Germans and Spaniards.
It is Task over Relationship in Germany and the other way around in Spain.
Yes. It is in Hofstede´s work too: individualistic communication focusses on task and topic, and collectivistic communication focusses on the relationship. I have gathered many little narratives describing puzzling situations where this becomes very clear in a funny way. When I tell them to spaniards they laugh and feel reflected. German´s feel reflected too, but they have more problems with being “labelled”. A consequence of individualism ;-)?
By the way, the fact that germans and USA americans are world champions in club membership is for me also a sign of individualism. In Germany clubs (Vereine) tend to gather around a hobby. That means that the individualistic person has taken a decission first, has chosen the way he/she wants to walk along. And then he/she looks for people walking in the same path. If you do it the other way round you risk meeting people who bring you out of your way.
Nerja is a lovely village in the spanish Costa del Sol. It is full of germans, british people and other northerners. When they get there they quickly get a social life through clubs. Nerja´s web site contains a large list of clubs with a wide range of interests. I told this to a andalucian man who works in Barcelona, and wants to retire in Nerja. I said: don´t you think it practical. This english man arrives here on July the 1st. and by July the 15th. he has an appointment every monday, wednesday and thursday, to play cards, talk about history or whatever. He wasn´t delighted by the idea: “Every thursday at 6 in a place! How terrible! I want to decide every day if I feel like going somewhere or not. If I feel like seeing people I go to the bar, any day, any time.”
Being social looks different if you like predictability or rather prefer improvisation.
Thanks again for your comments.
I really like your story/stories. They always illustrate the issue real good.
(BTW, it’s hard to get George Simmons to leave his comments here)
I thank you for your comments about Hofstede´s dimension of masculinity and femininity. I had a discussion about that long ago with George. Every time I try to defend Hofstede´s or Trompenaars dimensions I get atacks from all sides. That is why I am always relieved when someone defends, as you do, my point of view: Hofstede describes without judging.
I sent Hofstede a list of differences between useful generalizations and harmful stereotypes. He agrees with it. That is why I am sure that he pursues reconciliation with his work, and not colonization. I am sick and tired of the politization of the intercultural field. I want to analize behaviours, interpretations etc. in an empirical, not ideological way. And I know that deep inside George agrees with this, because he has a vast intercultural experience. The ideological biased ones, have hardly any.
Once again thanks for your contribution. And you compliment (I guess).
If possible I’d like to write an article about the comparison list you write about. Could you send me a copy?
Interesting video and comments. Lot’s of eyeopening comments and I particularly like those of Rebecca (on linkedin) and the one shared by Natalia (Hola).
Referring to the video, I’ll share a similar experience with you. The same happened to me but in a train. AT first I woke up the person because I felt uncomfortable but since the person fell asleep again I decided to overcome my personal discomfort and let the person use (unconsciously)my shoulder for his sleep.
When that person woke up again he apologized realizing what happened. The situation initiated a pleasant discussion before we separated when reaching our destination. By overcoming my initial difficulty I entered the other person’s reality and I looked at the situation in a very different way : it is just about sharing a human moment.
That brings me to the key concept of “judging”. I don’t like this at all. The Frenchman André Malraux once said “Judging is not understanding, because if we do understand we would no longer judge.” I often refer to him when dealing with different cultural perceptions/concepts. Doing so, I try to make people understand that things “are” ,not for good or for bad, but simply to illustrate a reality. If one can accept that, the next step, which is to enter that different reality, becomes easier. Looking at differences without feeling threatened, or fearing threats, enables to enjoy moments one would normally oppose or avoid.
(I would still prefer Nicole Kidman using my shoulder that Arnold Schwarzenegger)
Thanks for your comment and excellent story.
I would also prefer Mrs Kidman… 🙂
Southern State Americans are very collectivist and manipulative because they are deeply rooted in religion and culture.
You cannot simply say that the Southern States are very collectivistic.
You can only talk meaningfully about culture when you’re comparing one culture with the other.
So you might say that Southern States are more collectivistic compared to Northern States. That could be true.
However, when you’re talking about INTER-cultural differences (differences between countries, not regions), you will find that overall the US is much more collectivistic than e.g. Mexico, or the Netherland, or Germany.
Hope this helps.
I am sister susana o. turingan, a franciscan apostolic sister from the philippines presently preparing for my dissertation paper in my philosophy in education major in educational management program at Cagayan State University Tuguegarao,Cagayan,Philippines (Caritan campus) am so happy to share with you my PROPOSED Title “FRANCISCAN APOSTOLIC SISTERS SCHOOL SYSTEM:RESPONSE TO THE CULTURE OF THE WORLD”
and WHAT ARE THESE CULTURES?
– superficiality/ appearance
– noise/empty chatters
– being lord of the poor
– artificial relationships
your published work will help me a lot for this preparation and may i request permission to make reference of your materials .
sister susana o. turingan,fas
Dear Sister Susana,
Thank you for your kind words.
I’m glad I could have been of service to you during your studies.
what is jean paul sartre’s theory of individualism is it related to your topic? please help me, im doing my thesis now.
Can you first tell me in your words what the theory of Jean Paul Sartre is about Individualism?
India is mentioned with the countries with a low individualistic score. However, an individualistic score of 48 is not low. it can be considered as a middle level.
We must not forget that India has a 14% Muslim population and Muslims around the world score low on individualism. So, if we take the Hindu population (80%), then the Indian individualism is somewhere in mid 50’s which is high.
Thank you for your comment.
I understand where you’re coming from, but still your comment is flawed.
Here are a couple of reasons:
Muslims (and Hindu’s) in collectivistic cultures are collectivistic. I can assure you that the Muslims (and Hindu’s) in the US are much more individualistic than the Muslims (and Hindu’s) in India.
Second, you’re making the classic mistake to talk in an absolute way about a culture. You can’t. You can only say something meaningfully about another culture by the grace of comparison.
So saying that 50 (the numbers/scores are not (!) percentages) is high is only true if you compare it with a lower score. 50 is still low if you compare it with 90, the score of the US.
Hope this helps.