One day in college, while walking to class with my roommate, I’m horrified to look over and see blood running out of his nose. I alert him to the situation and he runs, dripping blood, to the nearest water fountain to get cleaned up. Aside from a few odd stares, no one asks what’s wrong, or if they can help. If I hadn’t been with him, he would have been alone in a scary situation.
Now, my friend was fine after the event, but it had a lasting impact on me. Having been born in Saudi Arabia, a more collective society, I was used to strangers trying to help in any way they could. But we were in the US, and this situation showed me just how individualistic the culture really was. There had been no crowds, no helping hands, everyone just kept to themselves.
Time, communication, and power distance is shown in different ways from culture to culture. The importance of community is yet another difference between cultures.
Countries like India, China, Italy and Saudi Arabia are more collective in nature. This means that the good of the community is put ahead of the good of the individual. Your own identity is based on your group identity.
Complimenting is a common feature of collectivist societies. It’s impolite to turn down an invitation. Harmony between people must always be maintained, so speaking your mind is not recommended if your comments could be construed as negative.
Countries like Sweden, Germany, and the United States have a more individualistic view of community. Your identity is your own and you can create the identity you desire.
If you speak your mind, even negatively, you are viewed as honest. Jobs are seen as mutually beneficial for the worker and company, instead of like a family. A manager has the task of leading individuals instead of teams.
A typical Friday night for my friend in the US could consist of a date with his wife, meeting a few friends at a cafe or staying home and binge-watching Netflix. His time is his own, and he can make the choice of whether he wants to be social or alone on any particular night.
My Friday nights almost always involve family dinners. Kid cousins run through the house and play pretend. We parents weave the web of our lives together with jokes, stories and advice. This doesn’t just happen one night a week. My extended family shares meals at least three times a week.
My American buddy chose his degree, career, and hobbies based on what suited him best. Of course his family was there to offer input when requested, but the choice was ultimately his own.
Most of the important decisions in my life have been made after careful consideration for what the outcome would mean to my family, friends, and society at large. Their advice was paramount to my final decisions.
Having worked in both the US and Saudi Arabia, it took some time to identify and adapt to each country’s view of identity in the workplace.
In the US, tasks and information prevail over your relationships, while in KSA, the relationship comes first. For example, I receive at least four CVs a month in my inbox, from friends or coworkers who want to help out someone close to them. When the time comes to hire, I will look at those resumes before I begin to search outside of the company. If I were in the United States, there would be a standard application process with rigid rules to prevent favoritism.
Cultural traits like identity views are invisible rules that are hard for members to identify simply looking inward. But once you experience a different set of values, you can see the invisible forces at work. Despite these differences, working inter-culturally can be a positive experience if you take the time to learn cultural norms. Learning affects our actions, words, and expectations. By sharing my story and some of the cultural values at play, I hope to help you navigate the global community.
To view a presentation discussing this and other cultural differences, check out my presentation here. I’d also love to hear your own experience with individualism or collectivism. Tweet me @motazhajaj or leave a comment below!