Individualist vs Collectivist Cultures

Our first assembly was so cute: parents, babies, and students from across the globe. As far as exposure, really, how amazing that these kids have a chance to inform their identities based on global perspectives.

Today went relatively smoothly–I feel prepared and aware of their needs, and how to get mutually enjoy the process of learning and meeting their goals. During our introductions, some responses from students about our purpose this academic year and how to create an environment conducive to learning: “we need to understand that we can learn from each other and that our differences should be celebrated.” At that age (middle school), I wasn’t that articulate, even though I was aware of cultural differences (moving halfway across the globe). But my experiences from 5th grade on did not promote these ideas of acceptance and compassion. Go IB (International Baccalaureate) schools!

Last week at cross-cultural training: interesting ideas were raised about individualist (i.e., U.S.) and collectivist cultures (i.e., Tanzania, Philippines) and the values that we prioritize. Essentially, work comes before relationships in individualist cultures, while relationships are priority in collectivist cultures. This is probably why I feel like I’m home. There is more to value than making money, but I do value efficiency in a very Western way. Here, it’s very easy to get frustrated, but you’re only wasting energy. Hakuna matata!

One idea that was raised made me question the idea of social change: “In collectivist cultures, rules can be broken if it benefits the larger group.” I can’t remember the example that was given, but it made me think in terms of my identity as a queer woman. I thought about how long it’ll take to overcome the hegemonic beliefs of natives that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of coupling and that women are subservient. From the standpoint of the quote above, currently LGBTIs are not valued due to eons of influence from trade, colonialism, missionaries, etc. And of course, women being given equal rights will not benefit the larger group (because power shifts will occur). This along with suppressed levels of education makes social change seem like an impossible feat.

In other collectivist cultures, like in pre-colonial Philippines, LGBTIs were valued as part of the community. The etymology of the Tagalog word for gay, bakla, is derived from words that mean the “foundation” and “pinnacle,” which also brings up the idea of masculine and feminine energy in one body. They were revered like the two spirits in Native American cultures.

I’m always curious as to how people acquire belief, but also how to reach individuals at a basic human level that breaks down our separations. Things are continually changing; I don’t doubt that we’re becoming more accepting globally. My students give me a lot of hope!


–O. Ayes