Individualism vs Group-Identity

A Chinese and an American are sharing a dorm room with three others. The American is playing very loud music. He says to the Chinese roommate, “does my music bother you?”

The Chinese, being from a culture that does not usually declare their own preference or say directly what he thinks, naturally responds, “no, no, it’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” the American asks.

“Yes, of course. It’s fine” he is assured.

The truth is that the Chinese can’t stand the music, but at the same time his response has not been a lie. Besides the fact that his culture will not permit him to speak so openly, he does not even mind suffering an inconvenience for the sake of the group. It’s a normal thing for him to do. The central concern, to him, is the harmony of the group, what the group wants and how to fit in. He was not raised to consider his own comfort first, so he would not think of doing so.

The American raised as an individualist, was taught to look out for himself and to voice his preference when asked.

After 10-years in China and now over a year in America, one of the stark contrasts in culture is what I call Individualism vs Group-Identity.

In most Western-valued societies, from the time children are small, they are taught, “You are an individual. Learn to think for yourself.” Children from these countries know that they should have an opinion and be able to defend it. Individuality and independence are affirmed as good qualities. In the US, one of the founding values of the country is that the individual has rights. “I have my rights” is a phrase you will here an American say when he doesn’t feel he is being treated justly. Another aspect of the individualism can be: “I will look out for myself; you look out for yourself.”

In most non-Western cultures, the opposite is true. Children are taught, “you belong, you belong to a family, to a tribe, to a village. The maori’s of New Zealand have a saying, ‘I belong; therefore I am.’ Your actions reflect on the whole group. You must behave in a way that brings honor, not shame, to the family name. We all take care of each other. No one stands alone.” There is a group mentality that says, “We are a community and must share our food, private lives, homes, and even opinions, to serve the whole.” This translates into behavior that is inclusive, not independent.

Individualistic Culture:

  • I think, therefore I am. I am a self-standing person with my own identity
  • Every individual should have an opinion and can speak for him/herself.
  • Taking initiative within a group is good and expected.
  • One must know how to make one’s own decisions.
  • My behavior reflects on me, not the group.

Group-orientated culture:

  • I belong, therefore I am.
  • My identity is tied to the group (family, tribe, etc)
  • The group protects and provides for me.
  • Taking initiative within a group can be greatly determined by my role.
  • I do not expect to have to stand alone.
  • My behavior reflects on the whole group.
  • Team members expect direction from the leader.

In future articles, I will explore more closely how these two cultural distinctions influence our decisions on how to create an effective healthcare system.

To compare countries using Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions – click here


Alexander K Tan is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. For more about Alex click here

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To schedule an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here