If you took any sociology or communications courses in college, you may recall the idea of individualistic and collectivistic culture.
American culture is a prominent example of an individualistic culture. Freedom and individualism is deeply embedded in the American culture: say what you want to say and be who you want to be. On the contrary, Asian culture is highly collectivistic, focusing more on the society as a whole instead of its individual members. It pushes people to prioritize the goal of the society over personal needs and desires. Comparing the collectivistic cultures of the Mediterranean and Latin America, Asian collectivistic cultures value group harmony and modesty in one’s presentation.
This fundamental difference between collectivistic and individualistic cultures have extensive impact on many aspects of life. It governs not only how people perceive themselves, but also how people interact with each other.
- Collective harmony rules.
- There is a common saying across Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” This is the perfect portrayal of the collectivistic society, where conformity and social harmony outweighs individual uniqueness. Children are taught to obey and conform at an early age. It is a common practice to have group readouts, where an entire class of 50-70 kids will read textbooks out loud together. Uniforms are a mandatory not only in schools but even for adults at some large companies.
- Unique individuals are seen as rebels, outliers, and lunatics. They are never celebrated like they are here in the U.S. On the contrary, they are punished by family and social pressure. The ability to be “accepted by the mainstream” is one of the most important forms of social currency. The bad boys are never the popular kids in Asian schools. Rather, the popular students are the ones who have their teachers’ approval and the respect of their fellow classmates.
- “Face”（面子）is the most important rule in social interactions.
- It doesn’t mean the actual face. “Face” is a metaphoric concept that refers to one’s social standing, reputation, and honor perceived by others. This concept governs many uniquely Asian ways to interact with each other. It is also the critical lubricant of personal relationships in Asian culture.
- In Asian culture, real heroes don’t brag. Self-promoting is considered disgraceful behavior. “Giving face” or “Building Face” is a social game of boosting other people’s egos while simultaneously declining and deflecting praise from yourself. This is about shifting the spotlight away from yourself, even when credit is due. When people follow social norms by gaining credits in social interactions, they are building face for themselves.
- To “give others face” is also to “save face” for yourself. Direct confrontation and explicit disagreement is an absolute taboo in Asian culture because it will cause others to lose face. Instead of pointing out their mistakes, it is common to find an excuse for them so they won’t “lose face.” It is also why oftentimes smiling and laughing are used to deflect awkward situations in Asian cultures.
- Independence is perceived as selfish
- In American culture, independence and self-reliance are signs of strength and power. However, it is considered selfish and alienating in Asian cultures. Because collectivism values personal relationships more than individual characteristics, any behavior to highlight individual freedom and desire is inappropriate. This value translates into many different aspects of social expectations. For example, children are expected to continue living with their parents even after they start their own family. Grandparents are expected to help taking care of grandchildren. Colleagues are expected to hang out outside of work. Many of these cultural expectations continue to apply to Asian American communities as well.x`