I and my roommates were having a quiet dinner when our American neighbor decided to drop by. Now, he is someone you can talk to on a variety of topics and our conversations continue long into the night. So, when we came by we knew we were in for another intellectual discourse. So, we got talking and he asked us a casual question, “In a recent survey, individualists were compared to collectivists. Who do you think would have been the happier one?” Something in the back of my head told me that it had to be equal. If not we would have been dominated by one culture, right? So I answered the same, and to all of our surprise, it was correct.
So you may be wondering what is an individualist and a collectivist. A better question would be ‘who’ is an individualist and ‘who’ is a collectivist. From the terms itself, the simplest definition would be an individualist is someone who likes to stay alone and be ‘an individual’, while a collectivist is someone who likes to be among a group or stay ‘collectively’. But such a definition would merely be scratching the surface. Individualists are people who often think of themselves being independent individuals putting their needs and goals before anything else. Collectivists are people who put their relationships and family ties before their personal needs.
From a perspective which has seen both the cultures first-hand, I will say that the cultural difference is quite striking. The main thing you will find lacking in collectivist cultures is the public spirit. Whether it be in schools, government institutions or the country as a whole, there is a lack of public spirit among people. That is not to say that it is the same for all people living here. A culturally diverse country such as the USA is sure to have these dichotomies.
Individualism is a major characteristic of people in the United States and Western Europe, while collectivism is epitomized by people in Asia (predominantly India and Japan). Individualism stems from political factors and ideologies of political leaders. For a long time, leaders emphasized the spirit of individualism and implored people to follow it. Collectivism stems from mythological factors. When people are bombarded with stories revolving around families and relationships since an early age, they tend to believe that it is right. It is remarkable how things perceived during childhood tend to affect your behavior.
A parent-child relationship in an individual culture is quite different from those in a collectivist culture. In places like the USA, children, in their mid-teens, tend to leave their parents and set about becoming independent. They want to carve out a name for themselves in the world and put their goals and ambitions before anything else. A sure sign of individualists. But, in places like India, children often stay with their parents till their death and it is quite common for 2-3 generations of families to live together in a household. Collectivists make life decisions based on the happiness of close ones and will do what is right from a society’s point of view rather than their own.
A marital relationship is something which exhibits the cultural difference too. People in individualist cultures will end their relationships with their loved ones if the relationship does not make them happy. They tend to see their happiness above all, which is not to say that they are selfish. And so getting divorced is quite common. It is not uncommon to have divorced parents living in different places and the children themselves living somewhere else. The society too accepts the fact and lets the person move on ahead in his life. In collectivist cultures, relationships are a lot more stable since the other person’s happiness is considered more important than the individual’s own happiness. But that is not to say that all relationships are happy and cheerful. Having a collectivist culture could also be the reason why people do not get out of relationships if they are unhappy. People contemplate a lot before ending relationships because it changes the way the society perceives them. Many times a person is not able to get out of a relationship even if he wants to. This leads to more resentment and builds up anger and frustration. Keeping a relationship for the sake of society is not something I entirely agree with.
Individualists, as mentioned above, tend to remain alone and do things according to their pace and convenience. They are seen as people with good rationale, assertive, competitive and whimsical. Individualist people are self-confident and do not need the opinion of society to feel good about themselves. But it could also lead to depression and built up feelings of having no support. On the other hand, collectivists are people who like staying together in a group and have strong relationship ties with people around them. They greatly worry about the opinions of the society and act according to what they feel would help them be a part of the society. This is one of the reasons why they do not like to stand out, in fear of hurting the sentiments of those around them. Usually perceived as honest and sincere people, collectivists favor team efforts over individual accolades.
One could argue that the environment in which they grow up and spend most of their lifetime is the one which decides their cultural characteristics. But I feel that it’s up to an individual to decide what type of culture suits him. Even the situation plays a factor in how humans behave. In a recent survey, it was found that depending on the situation, people tend to alter their cultural behavior. It can be epitomized by people, especially students who migrate to other countries with different cultures. I am of the opinion that Asian students, especially Indians, who migrate to the USA are able to portray characteristics of both the cultures over time. From having a culturist environment in the Asian countries to the individualistic culture of the USA. From having family meals to self-serving buffets, the contrast may seem overwhelming at first. But the inner human structure is made to adapt to different cultures. Humans are constantly molding and changing themselves according to the culture of the society. A culturist by heart wouldn’t you say?