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China We - America I. a Look at Collectivist China Through the Eyes of Individualistic America

Updated on August 20, 2019
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JC Scull lived in China for four years and taught International Business Relations and Strategies at a Chinese University.


Hollywood and Individualism

Art mimics life. Or is it the other way around? One thing is for sure; when it comes to American individualism, nothing describes it better than Hollywood. American films have a fondness for the hero. Film companies know that movies like Big Jake, starring John Wayne in the title role in which he single-handedly takes on a gang who kidnapped his grandson, will be box office successes.

Liam Neeson’s movies Taken and Taken 2, in which he plays an ex-CIA operative whose daughter is abducted by human traffickers and again single-handedly rescues her, similarly will deliver substantial revenues.

These are only a few examples of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of films depicting the one lonesome gun-slinging, karate kicking, fast thinking and determined hero, sometimes with superpowers, sometimes not, that against all odds, always comes out victorious at the end.

Undoubtedly, movies are a reflection of our culture, and our culture is the most individualistic in the world. To Americans, groups and teams are good, but individuals are better, or at least more fun. It perhaps is no oversimplification to say that if you want to understand American sense of individualism, just watch Hollywood films.

However, in films we also see a lot more than American’s predilection for the hero. We see how our society gives priority to individual-oriented outcomes such as self-determination, self-reliance, and independent living. We also see how our culture puts a great deal of emphasis on the idea that it is our great American ingenuity which over the years has put the U.S. at the forefront of technology, creativity and inventiveness.

The fact is that we know who we are. If asked to describe individualism, most Americans should be able to provide an accurate description, which while not grounded in the proper social science vernacular, is fairly accurate non-the-less.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

From a more scientific perspective, individualism as described by Geert Hofstede is a loosely knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families only. These cultures exhibit a high degree of independence among their members, and people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I.” Governments of individualistic societies protect the individual through the notion of liberty and justice for all as well as equal rights to all.

These societies are known for equal sharing of information, accessibility of superiors and managers, informal communication, difficulty especially among men to develop deep friendships contrasted by an ease of interacting and talking to complete strangers. Also, within the work place, hiring, promotion and decisions are mostly based on merit or evidence of what one has done or can do, rather than titles, family or social connections.

On the other hand, collectivist societies have a preference for tight-knit social networks in which they can expect their relatives as well as member of a larger in-group to look after them. These cultures are extremely group oriented in which decisions are based on what is best for the collective. People’s identity is based on structured social system that normally allow for less social mobility.

Political power and rights are typically more geared toward interest groups. Among these cultures belonging is greatly emphasized and invasion of private lives by institutions and organizations to which people belong, is accepted and even expected.

Ultimately, collectivist cultures aim to be harmonious, obedient, conformative, yielding to authority and to those whose position in society are at a higher level. Students are expected to listen, and classes are geared toward memorization, rather than learning how to learn as it is the norm in individualistic societies. In addition these cultures are subject to tradition and oftentimes superstitions.

Naturally, individualistic and collectivist cultures exhibit many other types of social behaviors that reflect in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or in terms of “we.” Of course if you want to experience a collectivist society, most anthropologists will tell you, there is no better place than China.

For those Americans who are just visitors to China or to those that live there permanently, there are striking behavioral differences they notice immediately. Other forms of behavior are more subtle and take more time to recognize and understand.

Females hold hands as a sign of friendship.
Females hold hands as a sign of friendship. | Source

Collectivist Behaviors

Females of old ages, holding hands in public is one of these behaviors most Western visitors notice quickly. Where Americans value privacy and personal space, Chinese prefer to express a sense of belonging. This behavior is a perfect example of the inner-group versus the outer group or network.

Even Chinese men draping their arms around the shoulders of a male friend is a collectivist expression that points to the ease and security that the inner-group or network brings. Large groups of friends going out to town, is another obvious collectivist behavior often seen in the streets of any town or city in China.

Group selfies and group pictures, are an obvious celebration of the comfort and comradeship felt in the inner-group. It is also a way of showing off the extend of ones network.

My MBA students showing off the extend of their network and the fact that they are friends with an American professor. Notice they gave me a bouquet of flowers!
My MBA students showing off the extend of their network and the fact that they are friends with an American professor. Notice they gave me a bouquet of flowers! | Source

Another behavior Americans immediately perceive as different, is what could be described as communal dining. This is where a fairly large group of people eat at the same table sharing all the dishes. Contrast that with the scene at a typical American restaurant, in which most tables are occupied by two or three people, and dishes are consumed by the persons ordering them.

This communal dining behavior is a very obvious and explicit reflection of the collectivist nature of Chinese culture, in which the inner-group participates in comfortable network building behavior.

These behaviors described above are easily perceived. However there are other less obvious displays of a collectivist culture that oftentimes lies below the surface and only understood under close analysis or scrutiny.

Take for instance student’s behavior in a classroom. American college professors or school teachers are often amazed how well behaved Chinese students are and how much they revere and respect their instructors.

Dining in groups is very common in China. The custom calls for all orders to be placed in the center of the table for everyone to share.
Dining in groups is very common in China. The custom calls for all orders to be placed in the center of the table for everyone to share. | Source

While good behavior is nice, class involvement and a creative atmosphere is regrettably lacking.

The difference between an American and Chinese classroom can be quite striking. An American classroom or lecture hall can be quite animated and sometimes even chaotic. But take heart; these students are the same ones who once out of school create disruptive technologies, breakthrough products and services as well as game-changing companies and industries that keep the U.S. economy growing and competitive. The reality is that creativity and innovation sometimes require some degree of unruliness.

Chinese classroom vs. American classroom
Chinese classroom vs. American classroom | Source

Business is another area where we can detect a collectivist foundation in Chinese companies allowing for the type of cohesiveness and obedience top-down management organizations require. Contrast that with American CEOs, usually considered the superstars of industry, who boast about their ability to create a vision, implement breakthrough strategies and plans, all the while delegating authority and motivating their employees.

In anecdotes that make their way around American business circles, we often hear about the US industry leaders who travel to China for meetings with a co-equal on a one-to-one basis. Disappointment sets in when they find themselves in group meeting with not just the CEO, but also the CFO, V.P. of manufacturing, accountants, engineers and even administrative personnel. This illustrates the difference between a collectivist versus an individualist approach to business.

Perhaps the most important producer and purveyor of collectivism is the government itself. While the U.S. government attempts to protect individual rights and create an environment of liberty and justice for all, governments of collectivist societies as in China, attempt to maintain a stable and harmonious society. Such harmony sometimes is incompatible with personal rights and freedoms, as they consider society as a whole of greater importance than any one individual.

Even from an ethical perspective, both the individualistic and collectivist approach differ greatly. Where the American public and private sectors view the meaning of the word ethics as a set of principles of right conduct and as a system of moral value, the equivalent Chinese word for ethics has more to do with the rules of society. In essence ethics as applied by the government of China is more about maintaining a stable society where people have a balanced relationship with each other while avoiding surpassing their boundaries or limitations.

At the center of this view of governance, lies the philosophy that the well-being of society is more important than an individual’s well-being. As a consequence of the desire to protect society and the status quo, we see a stricter policing of the news and the media in general. Television, newspapers, the internet and social media outlets all have government censors that attempt to maintain order and controlled dissemination of information.

Additionally, government decisions mirror corporate decisions as they are top-down. Even in family settings the older members are afforded a great deal of power and say. In fact it can be said that in every aspect of Chinese society there is one person or one entity occupying a top position dictating instructions to those below.

Undoubtedly, The Middle Kingdom is a fascinating and enchanting land. American ex-pats must all agree that living in this vast country of 1.4 billion people has to be among one of the greatest learning experiences they have ever encountered.



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