Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Little Note from Losing Ground

an individualist in a collectivistic society
this picture is taken from here

One day, in an assignment for my Culture and Communication class, we got a mind-provoking question of, "which of the following would have the most difficult time interacting with his/ her fellow society members? – An individualist living in a collectivist society or a collectivist living in an individualistic society*?"

(*click here to learn more about individualist vs. collectivist concepts)

It took me at least a week to juggle between two options, trying to reflect to my personal experiences and my friends', I was hesitating to choose one above the other. I do know that both options are not easy to go through. However finally I came up with an answer: In comparison to an individualist living in collectivist society, think a collectivist living in individualist society will have most difficult time interacting with his/ her fellow society members.

Aside from the hardship of being detached from a strong bonds with his or her society, the other difficult parts of the interaction that I foresee would be the adjustment to the new interaction style, the process to learn about the values, to get used to the new culture, also to integrate the values in his or her daily life practices. Individualistic individuals living in collectivist society also face similar challenges, however a collectivist would experience more difficulties as he or she gets so much used to the conformity, tradition, benevolence and collective interest, in which he or she lives comfortably with lack of self-assertion, while the individualistic society operates the values of hedonism, power, achievement and self-direction. In individualistic society a collectivist must be able to survive less directions and benevolence from others, and they need to adopt a new way of interacting, where their voice and self-presence is not the representation of a group anymore, yet the representation of themselves.

I, myself, am an example of a collectivist individual who moves to live in an individualistic society. The biggest difficulties that I encounter as I start living in the United States is first, to be outstanding and presence as I am, alone in the interaction process, since I totally do not get used to stand alone and show myself off, second, the lonely – and ignored feeling as I get difficulties to build friendship, to gain support and attention, and third - and this might be paradoxical; the feeling of losing ground, as I am now overwhelmingly free to express myself all the way I want to be. I re-questioned my state of self, I re-questioned, whether the personality, appearance, and actions that I used to perform were really my inner personality, and re-questioning the state of self as I turn 30 is difficult in a way that I found so much doubts about what kind of person should I become to fit, and how can I define my own personality?

The shift from one extreme edge of culture to another is not easy, especially when an individual has been so much get used to living and operating in a particular way for life. Interaction process in new society is not easy either since individual has developed their communication ability within the culture that they belong to, while belief, morals, custom, and habits, that finally develop a certain operation of “common sense” in which somehow he or she “takes for granted”, have become things that he or she practices daily (Hall, 1997, pp. 12 – 13). A member of culture learn about the culture codes in the socialization process, where the culture itself, as a system of sense essentially functions as “constraints of what is socially enacted and understood” (Hall, p. 16) also serves as guidance for what a person may expect from the society where he or she belongs to.

Gudykunst (1998) helps me to make sense on my uncomfortable feeling as he explains that in individualistic culture individual’ goals are emphasized more than ingroup’s goals, while at the opposite, in collectivist culture the ingroup’s goals become the priority (p. 109). The notion of ingroup as group of people where one concern about the welfare and willing to cooperate without expecting in returns itself indicate the bond that might be developed within, where of course a collectivist individual is so much get used to the values of harmony and solidarity, and perceive him or herself as inter-connected with others. The feeling of detachment from the original society itself is already difficult. Added with the fact that the person now have to live in a society which the major values is independence, he or she then have to develop a new way of survival through presenting the behavior that would be acceptable to the new society where he or she now belong. I believe that the most difficult part was during the adaptation process, where the individual who is still suffering from the detachment from his or her original culture have to recognize and live with new culture that does not provide similar support system as what he or she usually live in, at the time when he or she need the support, attention, leadership and guidance at most.

I foresee that an individualist living in collectivist society have better ability to cope with different culture as they have been “trained” to have strong self-direction, that equip them with the ability to survive any external pressure.

Interestingly enough, by nature, I feel closer connection with international students coming from Latin America. They are my closest friendship circle here in Albany. additionally most of my Indonesian friends studying at other parts of the United States or in the United Kingdom also reported the same experience; that they feel more connected, and just like what I do, build the circle of close friendship with the Latin Americans. Some literatures categorize those regions as places where the society collectivist culture practiced, thus I think at the end, by nature, the collectivists would always prefer to be in the similar comfort zone: being with other collectivists and build a new society that substitute their need of their original ingroup bonds. Hm. apparently those cultural theories can help me make sense of my social life! =)

Further interesting readings:
- Hall, E.T. and Hall, M.R. (2002). Key concepts: Underlying structures of culture. In J.N. Martin, T.K. Nakayama and L.A. Flores (eds). Readings un Intercultural Communication (pp. 165 - 172). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
- Gudykunst, W.B. (1998). Individualistic and collectivistic perspectives on communication: An introduction. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 22 (2), 107 - 134.


  1. WooooW...that explains a lot..why I am like this and like that. That is very interesting Asri. Yes, I also feel the same closeness with friends from Latin America.

  2. hey asri god posting, you take a major cultural ? he he nice to see u, don't forget to visit my blog