The view that Western countries are more individualistic while Eastern countries are more collectivist is still one of the most popular ways people interpret the cultural difference between East and West.
Academic works seemed to confirm this myth. For instance, studies from the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s found that Chinese, Japanese and Chinese-Americans tend to perform better in groups than when alone, while the opposite was the case for Westerners (see Leung / Au 2012, p. 500).
But is this really true?
First of all, we should clarify what we mean when we say individualistic and collectivist. In fact, these words are very ambiguous.
The Oxford English dictionary gives two definitions of collectivism. The first one is “the practice or principle of giving the group priority over each individual in it“; the second is “the ownership of land and the means of production by the people or the state“. We see that this word can be applied to both the social and the economic sphere, creating some confusion.
The Oxford dictionary has three definitions for individualism: 1) independence and self-reliance; 2) self-centred feeling or conduct; egoism; 3) a social theory favouring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.
So, what do we mean when we say the West is more individualistic and the East more collectivist? Usually, we imply that Western people are more self-centred while Asians are more “group-oriented”. But what does this really tell us about the difference in the way people think? It actually doesn’t tell us very much, because individualism often tends to be mistaken for either “selfishness” or, in political terms, for self-determination (and individual-based human rights); on the other hand, collectivism often times sounds like a synonymous of “solidarity” and sacrifice, or of repression of the individual.
That is why these two categories don’t help us. I often talked with Koreans who stressed the fact that in Korea people are “like one”, that they help each other, while Western individuals just live for themselves. Then I asked them: “So, if a Korean gets a good job, buys a house and a car, will he share his wealth with people who are poorer than him?” They looked at me and realized that what they were saying had in inherent contradiction. In fact, you will easily see that Asian collectivism is not about morality, universal solidarity and disinterested self-sacrifice, at least not more than you will find in the West.
As a matter of fact, East Asian countries are more unequal than Western countries such as Sweden or Germany. In Northern Europe, people accept that they should pay higher taxes in order to finance the standard of living of unemployed people and egalitarian education opportunities. In this respect, they are therefore more collectivist than Asian societies.
In order to explain these apparent contradictions we must free our mind from the assumption that we can discuss the difference between East and West in moral terms. In fact, selfishness and altruism are to be found in both cultures, depending on the individual. Selfishness and altruism are moral, individual characteristics. The real difference lies in the degree of conformity to social norms.
Conformity is something Westerners experience, too. I guess that many of us know it from our school years. The pressure to be cool and obtain social status is strong, and we often choose to do what makes us appear best in front of others. In most cases, no one forces us to speak or act in a certain way. We conform to the norm because of our own desire to be accepted and enjoy social status.
The difference between East and West is therefore to be found in the different degrees of conformity and in the different situations in which conformity is stronger.
For example, Eastern societies tend to stress the importance of marriage to define the self-esteem of the individual. Often times, if you are single you will be considered a loser. Your parents will put a lot of pressure on their children to get married and have a baby, to achieve a formally stable lifestyle accepted by the society. This pressure is extremely strong.
In a recent article from the BBC, a 30-year-old Chinese woman explained: “I’m under lots of pressure. My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I’m not married. When they call me, I’m scared to pick up the phone.“
If you have lived in Asia, you might have experienced the enormous and pervasive strength of such social pressure, which comes from parents, relatives and friends alike and makes you feel like an outcast if you don’t comply.
But as I said, calling the yielding of the individual to this pressure “collectivist” might be misleading, because collectivism means different things and somehow this word seems to maintain the mystification of Eastern thinking instead of giving a neutral explanation. It also prompts people to conclude that yielding to social pressure is morally motivated.
But you will have definitely noticed various kinds of selfish behaviour in China. I have met several people, among them business men, who didn’t really care much about others, and who wanted to enjoy power and wealth for themselves, to which the recognition of the family and the society as a whole is vital. It is hard to reconcile the category “collectivism” with a behaviour that is clearly motivated by ambition. In fact, personal ambition is what drives people to be successful. Collectivism suggests the tendency towards equality and self-repression. But in Asian societies you will rather find a harsh competition between individuals, in which ambition is the motive of their action.
The second point is that moral standards are different in East and West. For instance, Westerners often perceive Asian people as “deceitful”. The reason is that we, generally speaking, have different communication strategies. This doesn’t mean that Westerners don’t deceit. But as far as I can judge, in Asian countries not sharing your true feelings is way more normal than in the West, and it is often even seen as an acceptable way of handling personal problems.
The reason why Westerners see Asians as deceitful is that in Asia putting pressure on others while not articulating your true feelings in order to let others understand exactly the motives and purpose of your will is more widespread and more acceptable than in the West. It is often assumed that Asians are less direct; but you will find many situations where Asian people are very direct. If they want to get married and you don’t, they will just say what they want. This is the condition to keep the relationship, otherwise they will find someone else. If they want to get married with you and have no one else, they will just say what they want. They will make comments on their friends’ appearance, and they will even criticize each other fiercely, provided that they know each other well or are in a hierarchic work relationship. That doesn’t mean everybody does this sort of things. Just like in the West, every individual has a different personality, and so there are gentle people, aggressive people etc. The difference lies in the fact that in Asia, people are more used not to express their feelings, but rather to control each other through pressure.
For instance, if your parents asked you to marry someone you don’t love (though you don’t dislike him or her), what would you think? I would think my parents are selfish. So, you see that moral standards can differ very much. Asian parents, by stressing social status and material stability over love, on the one hand follow social prescriptions, and on the other are acting against your own instinct and desires. They are not more altruistic in doing so, for they will accept the possibility of your unhappiness or frustration. But Asian moral standards would not condemn parents for this.
At the same time, while this pressure is extremely direct, it isn’t based on a form of communication in which the parties involved share their feelings. There are two parties with their their own position. If children yield to parents’ wishes, it’s because parents manage to convince them or because children are not strong enough to resist. But, of course, there are children who go their own way, and parents who don’t care about social norms.
It would therefore be wrong to assume that Asian people have higher moral values or a more altruistic mindset than Westerners, and vice versa. The most important thing for both Asian and Western people is to try to understand each other’s communication strategies and moral categories, bearing in mind that “good” or “bad” do not depend on culture, but on every individual’s character and moral standards.