Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures

How would you describe yourself?

I am (a) _______, ________, and ________

 The answer you give to that question will immediately give a cross-cultural psychologist a huge insight into your entire conception of yourself and how you view life.

How, you ask? It’s simple. Did the three words you picked revolve around personal attributes (e.g. “I am a writer, I am artistic, I am tall”) or did they revolve around group memberships (e.g. “I am a daughter, I am a UNL PhD student, I am a church member”)? If you’re like most Westerners, your answers were mostly in the former category. This is because, if you’re from the US, England, or other European countries, you were raised in an “individualist” culture.

However, that’s not the way everyone in the world thinks. It isn’t even how most people think. And it matters. The alternative to an individualist culture is a collectivist culture. Individualist cultures tend to focus on individuals and their achievements, while collectivist cultures (think China) tend to focus on groups and maintaining harmony within them.

Unsurprisingly, books written by Western authors (e.g. American, English, Australian, and most European authors) typically approach characters, plots, and motivations from an individualist setting. As the world globalizes, however, and as we interact with, befriend, and write about other cultures, it becomes ever more important for authors to be able to accurately portray people not only from individualist societies, but from collectivist societies.

This week’s and next week’s post, then, will discuss and illustrate the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures, especially with regard to how individuals from these cultures might act and think in the setting of a novel. This week will discuss five basic questions that illustrate the basic framework as developed by Triandis (1989), and next week will give some examples of how an author might use this framework in their writing.

The rest of this post summarizes and discusses: Triandis, Harry C. (1989), “Cross-Cultural Studies of Individualism and Collectivism,” in John Berman (Ed.),  Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 41-133. Note that the following is a set of generalizations and universal statements that are actually far more complex than the summaries allow to be stated. Not all individuals from individualistic or collectivist cultures will follow these patterns.

Difference 1: What motivates individuals to act?

–          Individualist cultures: People’s personal goals shape their motivations. When an individual’s goals are out of line with a group’s goals, the individual is allowed (and even expected) to follow their own goals. Example: classic myths follow the exploits of individuals, who often disobey those in authority because of their own callings and desires, and are rewarded for it.

–          Collectivist cultures: A group’s goals shape individual motivations. If an individual’s goals are out of line with a group’s goals, the individual needs to change his/her goals and do his/her duty to the group. Example: a hero is tempted to neglect his duty to his family/the emperor, but resists temptation and is rewarded for it.


Difference 2: How is the “self” defined?

–          Individualist cultures: An individual’s public self and private self should be the same. Great value is placed on being honest and authentic with others – being oneself is seen as inherently good. Saying what you think, albeit with tact, is a character trait that is valued rather than looked down on. Example: A protagonist from an individualist culture might be brash, speak before he thinks, and get himself in trouble by what he says, but still be loved by readers for his honesty and good heart.

–          Collectivist cultures: An individual’s self is defined by how one’s in-group expects one to behave. Great value is placed on doing and saying what is expected, no matter what one actually thinks. Harmony within one’s in-group (such as one’s family) is paramount, and one does not wish to do, say, or be anything that would bring shame to other members of that in-group. Example: A protagonist from a collectivist culture might “do the right thing” by telling everyone that he is in favor of his daughter marrying a person he doesn’t like, and either try to change his own mind, or work secretly to keep the wedding from happening.


Difference 3: Who matters to the individual?

–          Individualist cultures: An individual belongs to many groups, and can pick and choose which to be attached to. Most often, individuals choose to remain closest to their immediate family. In addition, in the immediate family, the spousal tie tends to be the strongest, and trumps the tie of parents and children. However, there are a myriad of clubs, organizations, friend groups, religious groups, fandoms, etc. which individuals can join. Individuals choose which of these groups they want to invest their time and loyalty in, so as to maximize their personal happiness. Example: Our Hero joins a caravan that’s headed over the mountains. He may enjoy playing the lute with the musicians, gambling around the fire with the men, and fighting alongside the warriors to protect the caravan from raiders, but he is perfectly happy to move on and leave them behind when he gets to the next town.

  • A consequence of this: An individual is defined in terms of his own self, not in terms of the groups he belongs to. If a group dissolves, the individual is unlikely to change his/her core beliefs and allegiances. Example: Our Hero’s caravan is attacked, everyone in it is killed, and Our Hero is taken captive by the wild men of the mountains. Our Hero will maintain his moral identity and sense of self until he can escape.

–          Collectivist cultures: An individual is emotionally attached to a few groups, which deserve his/her utmost dedication. One’s family, one’s work-group, and one’s neighborhood might all be vital parts of a collectivist’s life. Within the family, hierarchical relationships between parents and children are vitally important – even more important than between spouses. In addition, a collectivist may be callous, rude, or even brutal to people outside his/her in-groups – they are potential enemies, and are certainly not deserving of one’s time and effort. Example: Our Hero had looked forward to spending an evening writing poetry. However, his neighbor needs someone to escort her son to a neighboring town – a journey of several hours. It is Our Hero’s duty to do so, and he willingly obliges. On their way, Our Hero passes by a stranger whose cart has broken. He feels no need to stop and help; he would actually be neglecting his duty to his neighbor, her son, and thereby the entire neighborhood group, if he does so.

  • A consequence of this: An individual is defined in terms of the groups he belongs to, which means that if his group dissolves, he is likely to be shaken to the core of his very being, and will need to find another group to become a part of. Example: In World War II, Japanese prisoners of war volunteered in good faith to become spies for the Allies, and did a very good job of it. They switched allegiances because they had saved their own lives against orders, and no longer were able to view themselves as Japanese.


Difference 4: What matters to the individual?

–          Individualistic cultures: An individual values freedom, achievement, enjoying life, ambition, and other similar values. Example: “I just want to get out of here and make my own way in the world!”

–          Collectivist cultures: An individual values equality, obedience, harmony/security, and other similar values. Example: “I just want to do what is expected of me, to increase the wellbeing of my family.”


Difference 5: How are members of other groups viewed?

–          Individualistic cultures: An individual is responsible for his/her own behavior, not for anyone else’s. Even if a person belongs to a group, that group isn’t responsible for his actions, and the individual isn’t responsible for the group’s actions. Acting otherwise is likely seen as prejudicial and nonsensical. Example: a civilian tourist doesn’t expect to be confronted about the policies of his/her government when he/she is out purchasing souvenirs. “Give me a break!” he says. “I didn’t vote for that bill. I’m just here on vacation!”

–          Collectivist cultures: An individual is responsible for the behavior of the entire group, and the group is responsible for its members’ behavior. At all times, individuals know that they represent the groups to which they belong. Even if they do not privately agree with the actions of their leaders, it is imperative that in public they act as if they do. Similarly, it is up to the leadership of a group to discipline and control the behavior of all of its members, or everyone will be shamed. Example: a civilian tourist knows that he is representing his country, so he takes care to dress and speak in an appropriate manner at all times lest he shame his people by giving a bad impression.



Again, these five questions and the answers to them are broad, sweeping claims based on experimental studies and psychological scholarship as found in Triandis (1989). They aren’t gospel truth, but as a writer, I believe they’re worth considering when we create and write about cultures that are different from our own.

How do your experiences match up with the framework above? Do you have favorite books or characters that come from a collectivist worldview? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

3 thoughts on “Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures

  1. A timely and helpful post; I’ve just been studying this distinction myself, not for my writing, but as part of my preparation for immersion in a collectivist culture.

    1. I’m glad it was helpful to you! Check out the full article by Triandis (it’s about 100 pages, but fast-reading pages) if you want more detailed information about the topic. Good luck with your studies, and best wishes for your upcoming experience!

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