What’s more important: you or the group you were born into? According to Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, the answer to that question is a basic dimension of culture and can be measured and compared. (I introduced the Hofstedes’ intercultural research last week, with a discussion of the Power Distance Index).
The Hofstedes refer to this second dimension of culture as the individualist/collectivist continuum. In cultures that lean toward the collectivist end of the spectrum, “… the interest of the group prevails over the interests of the individual.” In individualist cultures, it’s just the opposite: “…ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family.” In collectivist societies, you give your “unquestioning loyalty” to the group in exchange for protection, status, and general welfare. As the Hofstedes point out, a great majority of the world’s population lives in collectivist cultures.
The Hofstedes created an Individualism Index (IDV) and applied it to 74 countries. The most individualistic countries were: United States (IDV = 91), Australia (90), Great Britain (89), and Canada, Hungary, and the Netherlands, tied at 80. The least individualistic countries were: Colombia (13), Venezuela (12), Panama (11), Ecuador (8), and Guatemala (6).
Broadly speaking, the Individualism Index is inversely related to the Power Distance Index. In other words, individualistic countries tend to be relatively egalitarian. Collectivist countries, on the other hand, tend to rely upon powerful individuals, “imbued with strong moral authority”, to lead the group. The leader might be the head of a family, an ethnic group, a religion, or a country.
The difference between individualist and collectivist cultures can be quite subtle. In collectivist societies, a great deal of information is simply “understood” and messages are relatively brief, a phenomenon known as high-context communication. The context of the message is understood; it doesn’t need to be explained. In individualist societies, low-context communication is more typical. Messages need to be explicit, since individuals are loosely joined. The Hofstedes point out that “American (IDV= 91) business contracts are much longer than Japanese (IDV = 46) business contracts.”
In collectivist societies, “harmony should always be maintained”; in individualist societies, “speaking one’s mind” is admired. In collectivist societies, “resources should be shared with relatives”; in individualist societies, individual ownership is the rule, even for children. This dimension even affects walking speed. In individualist societies, people walk faster. In collectivist societies, they walk slower.
In business, the individualist/collectivist continuum can create significant misunderstandings. In individualist societies, “business is done with a company.” In collectivist cultures, business is done “…with a person whom one has learned to know and trust.” Employee relations are also affected. “Management” means management of individuals in individualist cultures but management of groups in collectivist societies. Occupational mobility is higher in individualistic cultures and companies strive to treat every customer equally. In collectivist societies, in-groups may (should) be given preferential treatment in hiring, promotions, and customer care.
Perhaps as a consequence of all this, per capita GNP tends to be lower in collectivist societies. Individualist cultures tend to be wealthier. Does wealth cause individualism or vice versa? The Hofstedes makes a strong argument that rising wealth leads to individualism rather than the other way round. They conclude that poor countries, “…cannot be expected to become more individualist as long as they remain poor.”
You can learn more in the Hofstedes’ book: Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.