Individualism and Collectivism :: Personal Examples

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


Before moving forward with the second part of I or We? How Individual- or Group-Orientation Influences Cultures…and Education, I thought we’d take a break from cultural theory and get personal with a few examples.

When I first studied in the U.S., I (Anamaria) immediately noticed that, as a student, I behaved differently in the classroom than my U.S. American classmates.

why_e-magicphoto by e-magic

The American students felt comfortable asking questions. I didn’t.

They were eager to share a thought, an opinion. I wasn’t – the thought of speaking up terrified me.

And there were many instances when they even contradicted the teacher, openly disagreed with him/her. That made me sooooo incredibly uncomfortable!

I kept thinking: Who do they think they are to contradict the teacher??? or Why is the teacher allowing this behavior?

I also noticed that all students were treated the same – none were given preferential treatment. That was something I was not used to, but that I welcomed.

Years later I learned about the cultural dimension of Individualism/Collectivism.

And I thought back to my U.S. high school experience. Suddenly things started making sense to me. I understood behaviors – both mine and my U.S. classmates’ –  so much better!

As we discussed last week , the Individualism/Collectivism dimension describes the degree to which a culture relies on and has allegiance to the self — or the group.

(Here’s a link to the Geert Hofstede video about Individualism/Collectivism we posted earlier in case you want to watch it again.)

An expectation in individualistic cultures is to be self-reliant, so people are expected to speak up and express their personal opinions, even if they’re contrary to those of the group.

In collectivist cultures, a person’s identity is wrapped up in their group, so they’re more likely to favor promoting group harmony than expressing their contrary personal opinion.

According to Hofstede’s research, the U.S. leans towards individualism, and Romania leans towards collectivism, or group orientation.

There’s nothing right or wrong about either dimension, and of course there are groups – and even individuals – within the U.S. that are more group-oriented. And groups and individuals in Romania that are more individual-oriented.

No matter what our general inclination in our culture (individualism or collectivism), we are all a mixture of both. But in general, we lean more towards one than the other.

And, this dimension is much more complex than it may appear here (we’re really just giving you a taste in these posts).

This being said, knowing about individualism and collectivism will help all of us communicate better with one another – because we’ll better understand our behavioral expectations of others – whether we are in an intercultural situation or not.

One last thought.

I felt ashamed for having judged my former classmates so harshly. After all, they were behaving the way their culture taught them to behave.

And I was doing the same,  really. So then why judge them? What is that American idiom that speaks to exactly this type of situation??? Oh, I know: People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Every person who thinks of themselves as an interculturalist should remember that.

Up next in Culture School:

The cultural dimension of Individualism/Collectivism heavily influences the way we learn, and the way we work with others. As a teacher, it’s very important that we be able to figure out who are the individualists and the collectivists in the classroom, and try to find ways to reach all. More on this next week.


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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