Why do Greeks dance in a group, Indian weddings have hundreds of guests, and Americans do not mind going to a movie or eating a lunch alone? The rationale lies in a definitive cultural difference – individualism vs. group orientation.

During my graduate studies, I used to work as a Graduate Assistant at the University Center for International Education in our university. I was in charge of orienting new international students to the campus life, and organize social events that would provide them an opportunity to mingle with other students.

I noticed at our events that people from certain countries tend to stick together. They came to the events with their group of friends. If many of their friends couldn’t make it, often times none of them would come. I would also see them eating lunches together at the cafeteria, walking to classes in a group, and studying together.

On the other hand, people from some other countries came to the events alone, and tried to find friends once they are there. They would reach out to introduce themselves to others, and find connections by conversing with them. These same people were often seen eating lunches alone in the cafeteria, and studying at a secluded desk in the library. They seemed to easily approach people from other cultures, strike up a conversation, and go to parties where they may know only one other person.

For the longest time, I just attributed this behavioral patterns to a more generic bucket of cultural differences. It wasn’t until I read some books, and took my MBA classes of “Globalization” and “International Marketing”, that I could pin point exactly what causes this behavior. (If you want to read a book on cultural differences, I recommend you start with this one – “Cross-cultural Business Behavior” by Richard Gestland. I love how easy to read and interesting it is!)

Cultures can be defined as either individualistic or collectivist. In an individualistic culture, a person is at the center, and every bigger group such as a family, community, state, country, and the world is an extension of the center.

In the collectivist cultures, an individual is just a smaller part of a bigger group. For example, each nation is a part of the world, a state is a part of a nation, a local community is a part of the state, a family is a part of the community, and an individual is just a member of the family.

Examples of collectivist cultures are Greece, India, and Mexico. In comparison, the USA, Canada, and Germany are individualistic cultures. Like any other cultural distinction, no culture falls completely into one extreme or the other. It usually lies somewhere along the spectrum, some closer to extremes than others.

How does this value exhibit in the behavior?

In addition to the examples mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, here are some other ways you can detect if a culture is individualistic or collectivist.

Collectivist cultures:

If you see people dancing in groups, it is a collectivist culture. Just take a look at the traditional dances in India or Greece or China. Those dance numbers in Bollywood movies where all of a sudden hundreds of people come out of nowhere and start singing and dancing in sync with the couple, may seem so out of place to my American friends. But honestly, I never felt that way. Cheesy? Absolutely! But not out of place. 😉

Another expression of this value is apparently tight knit families. The reason I said “apparently” is because human beings are not that different after all. They all argue, have their differences, and do disagree. But in collectivist cultures, usually those differences are kept within the “group” – in this case the family. Your loyalty should be to the group that you belong to. You cannot let others see if that group is dysfunctional. What may be easily perceived as keeping up the appearances, is actually maintaining the loyalty, and not exposing your group’s weaknesses so that another group does not take advantage of it.

Children from collectivist cultures usually do not become independent as quickly as those from individualist cultures. You will see that in India, parents paying for children’s education is pretty commonplace. Consequently, they also do not make decisions alone. They are often found consulting with other group members that they trust – elderly, more experienced family members, like minded siblings etc.

Individualistic cultures:

Notice how in American clubs people dance whichever way they want with no regard to how others are dancing? This is a distinct characteristic of an individualistic culture.

Children in such cultures are groomed to be independent right from the childhood. If you visit a restaurant in the USA, you will often see parents asking their children what they want to eat, and children expressing their preferences. I can never imagine my Indian parents doing that in my childhood. For as long as I can remember, they ordered for me when I was a child.

Independence, and freedom of thinking and action are highly valued, respected, and in fact, necessary in such cultures. If you fail to voice your opinions, you may be perceived as weak. This was lesson, I needed to learn. Coming from a collectivist culture of India, I did not see a point of always vocalizing what you feel. But when I realized how that is perceived as my lack of knowledge or strength, I changed my behavior. That seemingly small change, opened doors of opportunities for me.

The behavioral motto of individualistic cultures is every individual for their own! You will see people eating lunches alone, going to movies alone, and traveling alone. At work, they strive for individual progress and standing out from the crowd.

Quick Tips:

I have found that this particular cultural distinction matters the most while motivating others, and bringing them out of their shell.

If you are dealing with somebody from a collectivist culture:

1. Hang out with them. Try not to decline invitations that they extend toward you for their parties, weddings, or a simple coffee. That is an effective way of becoming a respected and trusted member of the clan.
2. Get to know a group that they associate themselves with. For example, their national origin, their food, their family members etc. Slowly they will start considering you, “One of them” and you will have more influence on their thoughts and actions.
3. Use their attachment to a group (their team, their company) to motivate them to perform their best. For example, “Our team is relying on you to produce this report by tomorrow. Thank you for doing it!”
Combine these tactics with those that I shared about relationship-oriented cultures, and you will be a beloved colleague or a friend. 🙂

If you are dealing with somebody from an individualistic culture:

1. Make sure you learn how to communicate your opinions respectfully yet firmly. If you don’t, you will be perceived as weak. Toastmasters International is a great place to start learning communication skills!
2. Start becoming comfortable with approaching strangers at professional events, introducing yourselves to random people at parties, and continuing small talk. These skills will come in handy in your career and life.
3. Be independent in your thinking and activities. You can, and do most of the activities alone. It may seem weird at first but once you do it a few times, you will become more confident. At work, learn to think and work on your own just as you work in teams.

How Cultural Understanding Can Increase Your Productivity:

At the university, when a new, international student arrived, I used to help them fill out some forms and explain some procedures such as where they can get their campus ID, and how to open a bank account.

One quarter, we had a cohort of 40 Chinese students who came to study MBA. Many of them understood English but were not comfortable conversing in it. They would come to the international center with a couple of friends, but when it was time to fill out the forms, I naturally would invite only the new student to come to my office. I almost always ended up explaining the same procedures to them 3-4 times. It would take me considerably more to finish their orientation as compared to the other students.

At first, I attributed this to the lack of their English speaking skills. But after orienting all 40 of them, I realized it is more than that. For some reason, they just were not comfortable working with me alone. I also felt that they were not 100% sure if I would provide them the right information, hence they were confirming the same procedures by asking me multiple times.

In the next quarter when a new cohort of MBA students arrived from China, I decided to implement a different approach. I set-up a time, and invited all of them together to go through their orientation. As expected, they were happy to come together. They seemed more confident with their friends.

When they arrived in the conference room, instead of directly jumping into the forms, I chatted with them a bit and shared some embarrassing and funny experiences I had when I first arrived here. That instantly made them comfortable, and perceive me as one of their own who is willing to share dysfunctional experiences with them.

Then I asked them who speaks the best English. All of them happily pointed out to this one enthusiastic girl. I invited her to join me, and translate everything I say in Mandarin. Their friend being on my side, gave the group trust in me.

That day, I oriented 40 students from a collectivist culture in the same time that would take me to orient 4 students from an individualistic culture! All I needed was a little planning in advance, a few more emails than usual, and clear understanding of how I can get Chinese students to trust me and consider me one of their own. My productivity shot through the roof, and since that time, I had not only become “the GA” to orient student cohorts from China, but also the go-to person for all those cohort students for the rest of the year.

The friendships I made with them are still intact, and I am confident if I ever want to do business in China, I already have my network of trustworthy business connections.

In conclusion:

Understand that cultural backgrounds and personal preferences will have an influence on how comfortable people feel working in groups or working alone.

If you can decode their comfort level, and learn how to communicate with them, you will have a clear pass at motivating them to perform their best.

Today’s question:

Share in the comments what you think your home country’s cultural orientation is. Is it any different than how you behave personally?

I would love to hear where you are from, and if you have changed over the years.


Image credit: Varun Kakde of Aperture Adventures