One of the most helpful classes I took when I was studying to become a Marriage and Family Therapist was “Counseling and Culture”. In that class, we discussed the differences between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Understanding these two terms brought so much clarity into my life. They gave me a framework for identifying cultural values and why I felt internally conflicted so frequently. As a second generation Korean American, I had inherited values from both cultures which were frequently incompatible with one another.
Today, I wanted to briefly introduce these two value systems because it will lay the foundation for us to more deeply explore cultural dynamics in mental health.
Individualistic culture prioritizes the individual over the group. It values:
It is typically characterized by:
Low-context communication - It is more direct with their communication therefore they mean what they say.
Low power-distance - They do not put as much value in hierarchical roles in society.
Collectivistic culture prioritizes the group over the individual. It values:
It is typically characterized by:
High-context communication - It is indirect with their communication therefore meaning must be inferred.
High power-distance - It puts a lot of value in hierarchical roles.
Examples of the Two Types of Cultures
The United States
The U.S. is a prime example of individualistic culture. The narrative of the “American Dream” extols the values of independence, self-reliance, and personal achievements. Entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates are often portrayed as shining examples of people who’ve made the most of the opportunities they’ve had in the “land of the free.”
People in the U.S. also tend to be direct in their communication. They say what they mean and mean what they say. People of authority also aren’t naturally venerated due to their position which matches the characteristic of low-power distance. Rather respect is generally earned rather than automatically given.
These values of individualism also seep into how nuclear families function as well. Children who leave their parents household when they become an adult are viewed positively. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 90% of young adults had moved out of their parents house at least once by the age of 27 (2017). In fact, there is even a sense of embarrassment if people are still living with their parents by the age of 28 according to a study by TD Ameritrade. Why? Because they are viewed as lazy and/or not as independent.
The Korean Culture
The Korean culture is a great example of collectivism and heavily prioritizes the group over the individual. Anytime someone sacrifices on behalf of others, it is seen as a virtue. This includes offering food to a friend or parents refusing to buy things for themselves while buying luxuries for their kids.
Korean culture is also very much centered around honor and shame within the context of group dynamics. For example, it is very important for children to behave well in public or else it will reflect poorly on the parents.
In fact, conveying honor and respect is so important that there are different levels of speech in the Korean language: Jon-daet-mal (존댓말) and Ban-mal (반말).
Jon-daet-mal is very formal and polite. It’s used when first meeting a stranger or when speaking to someone who is older than you. Ban-mal is informal and casual. It’s used between close friends and relatives. Inappropriate use of a level of speech would be considered embarrassing such as using Ban-mal when meeting the parents of your significant other for the first time.
Koreans also tend to be indirect in their communication and meaning must be inferred. When I was in Hawaii getting trained to be a missionary, an older Korean lady that I had befriended was rushing off to class. I asked her if she needed help because she was carrying a heavy bag. At first, she said no. I offered to help her again and she said didn’t need my help. After asking for the third time, she said yes and was grateful for the offer. Despite the fact she had said no twice, I knew that she was trying to make sure that I was being sincere in my offer. But based on the context being late to class and the heavy bag, I asked her a third time. This is what it means when a culture uses “high-context communication”. Also, the “rule of three” is a very common cultural dynamic in many Asian cultures.
Finally, the way collectivism has historically manifested in the nuclear family is that it is completely normal for a child in their 20’s to live with their parents until they are married. There are several reasons for this including filial piety, prioritizing the family over independence, and even frugality to encourage the child to save their money. However, this has slowly been changing over the past decade as South Korea has become more westernized.
Culture isn’t Inherently Good or Bad
Another important lessons I learned in my “Counseling and Culture” class is that these values are neither good nor bad. Understanding the nuances behind cultural context is simply helpful for therapists to be aware of. For example if I have a client who comes from a collectivistic culture, I should probably consider not recommending interventions that push them to be more independent. If I have a client who comes from an individualistic culture, I should probably consider not recommending interventions that push them to be more dependant on others.
But what if the client doesn’t necessarily know which cultural paradigm they align with? What if they identify with both? As the first born in the U.S., this was my experience. I felt like I was simultaneously living between two worlds and had two value systems in constant conflict with one another. Next week, I’ll discuss how this affected me and how I eventually processed this for myself.
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