Cross- Cultural Engagement: Collectivist or Individualistic

me vs weIf you travel to another country, you quickly notice things that are different. Often I hear people say the differences are weird or strange, but really the differences are cultural. Culture is not right or wrong it is just different. We are born into a culture and raised to not recognize the influence it has on us and we take that understanding into all that we do. When we interact with others from our own culture, usually things go smoothly. However, when we interact with people in another culture, those cultural differences really stand out. For the Love of Missions is focused on Guatemala and there are a number of cultural differences that must be accepted (not changed) as we interact.

The first and foundational difference between the United States and Guatemala is the value placed on relationships. Duane Elmer (1993) highlights this distinction in his book Cross-Cultural Conflict, “the majority of people in the world value relationships above most other values. So building relationships of trust takes top priority. Nothing of significance is likely to happen if there is little trust.”[1] Guatemala is a collectivist culture or a We culture built on relationships. It can be difficult to understand the depth of what and how it creates a foundational way of living. Juana Bordas (2013) in The Power of Latino Leadership explains, “We cultures have been on earth for a very long time. Tightly woven, stable and integrated. We cultures center on group welfare, interdependency, and cooperation… individual identity flows from the collective. People work for group success before personal gain or credit.”[2] This collective mindset is contrary to that of individualist cultures, like the United States which is built on the values of competition and rugged individualism.[3]

This difference between “We” and “Me” is an easy difference to acknowledge, but much more complicated to understand in application. At the very core of a person’s being, how they were raised, what their culture reinforced, how people acted around them has created an identification with either a collectivist culture, like Guatemala, or an individualist culture, like the United States. Bordas (2012) lists several characteristics of We cultures, that are helpful in coming to understand the key differences: We cultures have a strong sense of belonging; We cultures share everything; We cultures work together so everyone benefits; We cultures center on people; We cultures are inclusive; We cultures put benefitting the whole before the individual; in We cultures the I exists only in relationships to others, not as a separate entity.[4]

We could debate right or wrong and positive or negative, but I think awareness is actually more helpful. The foundation of collectivist or individualist culture affects all aspects of a society including: leadership, time, and communication style. If we walk into cross-cultural interactions without knowledge of these differences, we very likely will find ourselves in conflicts that we don’t understand. In the coming weeks, I will share more about each of these key points of needed awareness.

[1] Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993, 178-179.

[2] Bordas, Juana. The Power of Latino Leadership: Culture, Inclusion, and Contribution. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, 2013, kindle 1514.

[3] Bordas, Juana. Salsa, Soul and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Ages. San Franciso, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, 2012, 23.

[4] Bordas. Salsa, Soul and Spirit, 46-48.


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