But What About Me?

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BUT WHAT ABOUT ME? Sally Campbell

A favourite cartoon of ours shows a woman in her recliner, on the phone declaring: “I’m trying to look at it from my point of view”. Such a good reminder of how we actually see the world. When I commented recently to a friend that “individualism in our culture has run amok”, she informed me I needed to write about it. This is a huge topic, so here are a few starting points to consider.

Differences in cultural values lead to differing beliefs about how to orient ourselves in the world, how to deal with conflict, how to be a full person. Intercultural researchers have consistently identified several “value frameworks” that can help us understand cultural difference without judging those different from us. One of these value frameworks is: individualism-collectivism.

The cultural pattern of collectivism is found in approximately 2/3 of the world’s population: it is common in Asia, Africa, the Middle East (West Asia), Latin America, the Pacific Islands and amongst the world’s indigenous peoples. Collectivism emphasizes group values and identity over those of the individual. There is a focus on interdependence and maintaining group harmony.

There are also religious groups that have a strong orientation to collectivism, such as Mennonites.

The cultural pattern of individualism is found in the other 1/3 of the population: it is common in what is generally called the “West”, which includes northern & western Europe, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand (not including these nations’ indigenous populations). The value patterns in individualistic cultures emphasize personal goals and identity rather than group identity; there is a focus on independence and individual rights over group responsibilities.

It’s important to remember that within-culture variations exist within all cultural groups. There are people who behave like individualists within collectivist cultures and vice versa. As well, personal attributes, conflict norms in the larger community, and situational factors such as recency of immigration, affect how people will act. We are all “ethnocentric” to a certain extent, meaning that we interpret the behaviour of others (of different cultures) using our own cultural standards.

Individualism can show up in our struggles with our identity, our desire to “get ahead”, all the many influences encouraging us to realize ourselves. These are not bad things in themselves. This value pattern expects a child to become more and more independent with the years.

Autonomy is considered a sign of maturity. Moving out is a good thing. People from more collectivist worldviews generally don’t strive for or promote independence; they recognize and value their interdependence. They may sometimes complain about the pressure for conformity, expectations from their families and communities, even the lack of privacy, but their sense of belonging is intact. They are not expected to grow up and leave. They are expected to grow up and contribute to the well-being of the whole.

Mediators encourage people to recognize the value of relationship and the inescapable fact of our interdependence. We need to connect with others for our well-being. So many people struggle with loneliness, a sense of isolation or even alienation, yet remain extremely reluctant to acknowledge they need others. After all, a “mature” person is autonomous, right? They have what it takes to go it alone. The song “My way” is telling in its tone of pride and dramatic braggadocio. A loss of face for the individualist is personal. It’s not about others, it’s all about me. For the collectivist culture, a loss of face is much broader. One person’s bad action reflects on the whole community; that accounts for the protocols, the hierarchical nature and the deeply ingrained expectations of many such communities.

I see individualism as driving the difficulty people in our general culture seem to have in imagining the larger human community as our community. We have great loyalty and willingness to serve those close to us – in our family, in our neighbourhood, in our community even, but somehow those who are “different” from us don’t matter as much. Mostly this is kept quiet; it is simply understood.

Some of the work of aging into true elderhood involves expanding that sense of who our community is. And yet, many older people do just the reverse – they close off from the world, narrow their vision, and retreat to the imagined safety of their small universe. Yes, we are in deeply troubling times, but maybe older people have always thought the world was easier and simpler “before”. Things do become more complicated as we age! And yet, it seems to me the challenge is to expand our hearts, not close or harden them. We can learn from the collectivist orientation that each and all of us matter, and we matter equally. We really aren’t separate from others; we are one part of a living, breathing whole organism and we all belong to each other. That’s what indigenous people mean by “All my relations”.

(next time: Part 2)