I or We? How Individual- or Group-Orientation Influences Cultures…and Education

Culture School is in session! In this series, we take an aspect of intercultural theory and apply to daily life. Basically, our goal is to expose those cultural moonwalking bears. And because this blog is about culture and education, we consider each topic in the context of the classroom.

photo by maryatexitzero

I (Anamaria) first studied abroad in Charleston, South Carolina when I was 16. That was the first time that I had ever left my country, so, needless to say, everything was new and exciting.

But these new, exciting things were also confusing sometimes. For instance, the classroom behavior of my American classmates was puzzling to me back then. I remember thinking: Why are they asking all these questions? Why aren’t they sitting properly at their desks? Why is the teacher allowing them to slouch? Why aren’t they trying to hide a yawn?

Back then I just couldn’t figure it out. It had never crossed my mind that students didn’t all behave the same way, wherever they lived. A few months into my experience I stopped asking questions, and I just accepted this new behavior as different.

And I moved on, without giving it a second thought. Until years later, when, as a graduate student I started learning cultural theory. Until I started learning about cultural dimensions. And this new knowledge instantly took me back to the 5 months that I spent in U.S. classrooms as a teenager.

photo by aussiegall

The cultural theory that I was learning clarified all those things that had been left unexplained, all of those questions I’d just put aside.

I remember learning about the difference between individualism and collectivism (or: individual orientation and group orientation) and having a HUGE “aha-moment”: So THAT explains why my American classmates felt comfortable asking the teacher questions, while I was just petrified at the thought!!!

We strongly believe that cultural theory helps everyone understand their own international and intercultural experiences better.

So, in the next few weeks we are going to take a look at Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, which are often the starting point of many conversations about cross-cultural differences. And we are also going to explore the ways in which each dimensions manifests itself in the classroom.

So who is Geert Hofstede and what are these cultural differences?

Great question. In an effort to find an explanation for cultural difference, the Dutch cultural anthropologist Geert Hofstede collected cultural data in the 1970’s from people working for IBM in over 40 countries. His research resulted in distinct cultural dimensions which serve to distinguish one culture from another. The five dimensions are:

  • Power Distance
  • Individualism
  • Masculinity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Long-Term Orientation

Hofstede scored each country using a scale of roughly 0 to 100 for each dimension. The higher the score, the more that dimension is exhibited in society.

Let’s start with Individualism/Collectivism.

This dimension describes the degree to which a culture relies on and has allegiance to the self — or the group.

Er, what? Basically, this dimension refers to the degree to which a person identifies with, derives their identity from, and feels they are supposed to be taken care of by their group, which could be their family, community, village or even an organization.

In cultures that are highly individualist, people have more of a sense of separation from family and community. They expect to be more self-reliant. (Think about these common expressions: Pull yourself up by our bootstraps. Stand on your own two feet). People tend to develop a personality independently of their family or any groups they belong to.

Cultures that score highly on individualism, are also considered guilt-cultures: people who break the rules of society will often feel guilty for their individual actions. Guilt is individual in nature, as opposed to shame, which is more commonly felt in collectivist – group oriented – societies.

In collectivist cultures, a person’s identity is wrapped up in their group. In such cultures, there is a strong feeling of involvement in each other’s lives, as well as a strong feeling of loyalty and responsibility.

This means that people in collectivist cultures will often ask for favors, borrow money, or take advantage of a high-status person they know without hesitation. All these things could be considered highly unethical in an individualist society.

And, as previously mentioned, collectivist cultures tend to be shame cultures: people who break the rules of the group will feel ashamed, based upon a sense of collective obligation.

Maybe this video of Geert talking about this cultural dimension will help:

This is a pretty dense topic.


So we’re going to end here and come back to individualism and collectivism a few more times in upcoming posts. We’ll provide you with some examples and we’ll of course address how this dimension plays out in the classroom.

In the meantime, here are two websites that explore this cultural dimension:

Do you think your home culture leans more towards individualism or collectivism?

About the Author: Anamaria Knight

Originally from Romania, Anamaria studied and taught in Romania, France, and the US. After earning a Master’s degree in intercultural communication she moved to North Carolina, where she works as an advisor for international teachers coming to teach in the U.S. and delivers intercultural workshops to K-12 teachers. Anamaria is @AnamariaKnight on Twitter.

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