Social Collectivism and Social Individualism

“According to Hofstede (1980), individualism-collectivism is one of the main dimensions that differentiate cultures.” (Samovar and Porter, 2001, 63). This essay will compare an orientation toward social relationship with an orientation towards individuals in regards to communicative behavior between North Americans and East Asian, Hindu, Maasai, and Greek cultures.

Although the difference between the East Asian preference for social relationships and the North American preference for individualism doesn’t quite fit Hofstede’s statement from above, it does give us a basis to start with. To understand the differences between East Asian and North American views on social relationships, background about the East Asian cultures is warranted. The East Asian culture is rooted in Confucianism. Confucianism is a” philosophy of human nature that considers proper human relationships as the basis of society.” (Samovar and Porter, 2001,64). Codependence is the principal of the Confucian i. This codependence requires that each individual be associated with “small and tightly knit groups of people over a long period of time.” (66). The success of these groups is based on the philosophy that each person relies on the other, and that sooner or later the individual will need the assistance of the group and vise versa. Because this group is so dependent upon each of its members, forming an extended family, there is a great distinction between the “in-group” and the “out-group.” Often these groups create their own dialect and vocabulary to prevent outsiders form overhearing group information. When trying to compare the East Asian collectivism philosophy for social behavior and its emphasis on the “in-group” and “out-group” to the North American individualism philosophy and its distinction between the “in-group” and the “out-group” is complex.

First, there is an obvious difference. East Asian’s prefer to be a collective group and depend upon its group members, where as North American’s prefer to be individuals, and only join groups when it is voluntary and they can easily leave or join another group, or several groups if they so desire. That’s an obvious difference, but when you look at the terminology used in this comparison of “in-groups” and “out-groups,” they really have two difference meanings. For the East Asian culture the “in-group” is their social group, their extended family in society, and the “out-group” is a different social group in society. In North America the term “in-group” has a slightly different connotation. It is a term for a popular group of people, or the type of person that is in vogue for the moment. People in this group don’t have the extent of codependence as the East Asian “in-group” does.

This difference in social behavior between social collectivism and individualism can cause difficulties in intercultural communication. The East Asian culture has differentiated linguistic codes, they prefer to use indirect communications, the meaning of their communication is interpretive, and they emphasize sensitivity, listening, and not forming preconceptions; whereas North Americans prefer concrete meanings of words, they like to communicate directly, they focus on “I” statements, and emphasize formulating the best messages, improving credibility, and improving delivery skills. When listing these differences, it is clear that North American and East Asian communication patterns are almost complete opposites of each other.

The next comparison is between Indians and North Americans. The question that may be asked here is how the Hindu’s perspective of the universe and of humankind’s role in the universe affects intercultural communication between the two cultures? First let’s look at the Hindu’s world view. It contains three main concepts: (1) undivided wholeness and ultimate reality, (2) levels of reality, and (3) the normative dimension of reality. Concept (1) says that the ultimate reality is not a separate thing but a part of everything, all possibilities may coexist at one time without including or compromising another, “the ultimate reality is so profound that reason is incapable of apprehending it” (Samovar and Porter, 2001. 82), finally “the ultimate reality has no form and no name.” (83). Concept (2) presents that there is an undivided wholeness of the totality of existence, and that there are various levels of reality. Concept (3), the deepest level of reality is normative. The Hindu view of the aims of human life are four fold: (1) kama, pleasure or enjoyment, (2) artha, wealth or success, (3) dharma, righteousness, faithful duty or code of conduct, and (4) moksha, liberation or salvation. These four ideals are the basis of the Indian value system.

Now how do these unique views affect intercultural communication between Indians and North Americans? The ideal that each person is part of a whole, again a collectivism view, differs form the North American individualism view. The view that many truths can exist at the same time may be difficult for most North Americans to understand. The common theory in North America is that there is one truth that exists. Or the philosophy of, “it’s my way of the highway.” The Indians tend to be tolerant and willing to adopt new perspectives. They don’t get rid of their old positions; they merely add the new to the old.

Now let’s take the same question and apply it to the Maasai. How does their worldview affect intercultural communication? “The Maasai’s worldview has three components that greatly control their life and hence their perception of the universe: coexistence with nature, religion, and death.” (Samovar and Porter, 2001,94).

The Maasai insist that nature should always be held in the highest regard. It is their belief that their very existence solely depends on nature’s grace. Because of this strong connection with nature, their religion is also closely tied to their perception of nature. The Maasai believe that nature is God, and therefore they must live in harmony with God (nature) and they must work together. T he third concept is how the Maasai perceive death. Because of their “circle of life” philosophy that there is a “circular, mutually beneficial relationship between nature and humanity” (Samovar and Porter, 2001, 95), corpses are left out in the sun to be scavenged and the nutrients form the bodies to nourish the earth. These views differ greatly form most North Americans who do not hold nature to be God. The Maasai’s view that God and people live and work together also differs form Christianity and Judaism in which “God is separate from humans and is even from a different world.” (95). The Maasai’s social collectivism is based on the “the circle of life” that nature, god, and humans all live and work together to survive. The North American view again is of separatism and individualism. They separate themselves form nature, god, and even other humans, and believe their existence is dependent on their own efforts.

Our final culture to evaluate is Greece. When looking at the Greek culture on must note the significant role conflict plays in Greek interaction. Traditionally and contemporary Greeks view conflict as a way of life. A feeling that life is an ongoing contest is prevalent, and infused in almost every aspect of the Greek lifestyle. “âÂ?¦Greek identity as a whole (is) best seen as a constant oscillation between just such opposites as theses. The spirit and the flesh, ideal and reality, triumph and despair – you name them and the Greeks suffer or enjoy them as the constant poles of their being, swinging repeatedly from one to the other and back again, often contriving to embrace both poles simultaneously, but above all never reconciled, never contended, never still. This perennial sense of tension between diametrically opposed forces is the essence of their existence – the one absolute consistent feature of their identity since Greek history began.” (Samovar and Porter, 2001).

Greek culture is a society of social collectivism, and emphasizes distinction between the “in-group” and the “out-group” more so than North Americans. Greek social behavior is greatly affected by whether or not the person they are communicating with is in their “in-group” or not. Problems arise in intercultural communication between North Americans an Greeks, because if a Greek does not accept the person as a member of their “in-group” they will use concealment and deception in their dealings with the outsider. The term lie does not carry with it the negative attributions in the Greek society as it does in North American cultures, and is used freely in everyday life.

In terms of communication behavior, an orientation toward social relationships gives the individual support by the group but it also greatly biases communication between groups, whether they are domestic or international. An orientation towards individualism as a communication behavior gives more of an unbiased form of communication but lacks the support of the group.


Samovar, Larry A. and Porter, Richard. (2001). Intercultural Communication Reader. New York: Thomas Learning Publications.

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