Understanding Collectivist Cultures

collectivistic culture traits

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Collectivist cultures emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual. In such cultures, relationships with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between people play a central role in each person's identity.

Collectivistic Culture Traits

A few common traits of collectivist cultures include:

  • Individuals define themselves in relation to others (for example, “I am a member of…”).
  • Group loyalty is encouraged.
  • Decisions are based on what is best for the group.
  • Working as a group and supporting others is essential.
  • Greater emphasis is placed on common goals than on individual pursuits.
  • The rights of families and communities comes before those of the individual.

Countries that are relatively more collectivistic include China, Korea, Japan, Costa Rica, and Indonesia.

In collectivistic cultures, people are considered "good" if they are generous, helpful, dependable, and attentive to the needs of others. This contrasts with individualistic cultures, which often place a greater emphasis on characteristics such as assertiveness and independence.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

Collectivist cultures are usually contrasted with individualistic cultures. Collectivism stresses the importance of the community, while individualism is focused on the rights and concerns of each person. Where unity and selflessness are valued traits in collectivist cultures, independence and personal identity are promoted in individualistic cultures.

These cultural differences are pervasive and can influence many aspects of how society functions. How people shop, dress, learn, and conduct business can all be influenced by whether they are from a collectivist or individualist culture.

For example, workers who live in a collectivist culture might strive to sacrifice their own happiness for the greater good of the group. Those from individualistic cultures, on the other hand, may feel that their own well-being and goals carry greater weight.

Self-Perception

Culture influences how people behave, as well as their self-concept. While those in individualistic cultures might describe themselves in terms of personality traits and characteristics (e.g., "I am smart, funny, athletic, and kind"), those from collectivist cultures, on the other hand, would more likely describe themselves in terms of their social relationships and roles (e.g., "I am a good son, brother, and friend").

Relationships

Research shows that collectivist cultures are associated with low relational mobility, a term to describe how many opportunities individuals in a society have to form relationships with people of their choosing.

Low relational mobility means that the relationships people have are stable, strong, and long-lasting. These relationships are usually formed due to factors such as family and geographical area, rather than personal choice.

In a collectivist culture, it's difficult to build relationships with new people, partly because it's generally more difficult to meet them. Strangers are more likely to remain strangers in a collectivistic culture than they would be in individualistic cultures.

Maintaining harmony within interpersonal relationships is of utmost importance in a collectivistic culture. This is likely because these relationships are extremely difficult to change. Failing to keep the peace can mean long-term unhappiness for everyone involved.

Paradoxically, this means that people in individualistic cultures devote more effort and energy toward actively maintaining close relationships, often through increased self-disclosure and greater intimacy. Unlike collectivist cultures where stable relationships are more expected, relationships in individualistic cultures tend to be more fraught and fragile. People must make a greater effort to maintain these relationships.

Conformity

Cultural differences also influence the motivation to either stand out or fit in with the rest of the group. In one experiment, participants from American and Japanese cultures were asked to select a pen. The majority of pens were the same color, and a few pens had a unique color. Most American participants chose the uniquely-colored pen.

The Japanese participants, on the other hand, were much more likely to choose the majority color, even though they preferred the unique color. This may have been because, coming from a collectivistic culture, the Japanese participants instinctively valued interpersonal harmony above personal preference and thus chose the inoffensive behavior of leaving the unique pens for others who might want them.

Social Anxiety

Research shows that collectivistic cultures are more accepting of socially reticent and withdrawn behaviors. In one study, people in these cultures displayed higher levels of social anxiety in comparison to those from individualistic cultures.

However, it may not be collectivist values alone that contributed to this. People in Latin American collectivist countries, for example, displayed lower levels of social anxiety than did people in East Asian collectivist countries. This may be due to an emphasis on group harmony and a higher value on qualities such as sociability—factors that may help decrease social anxiety—in Latin American cultures.

Social Support Use

People in collectivist cultures tend to be more cautious about sharing their personal problems with their friends. Research shows some of the reasons why they hesitate to seek social support include concern about worrying others, disrupting the harmony of the group, losing face, and making the problem worse.

Instead, people often seek out what is known as implicit social support. This involves spending time with supportive people without actually addressing the source of the stress.

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