CLMN | 4pm on an ordinary day - measuring individualism

CLMN | 4pm on an ordinary day - measuring individualism

19 June 2017

It is around 4pm on an ordinary day when you suddenly find out that the film you have wanted to see for ages is on tonight in town. But only tonight. And since you cannot download it from any internet source, you will have to go to the movies tonight. “Fine”, you think, as you wanted to go out with some friends anyway.

So you call, app or email your fan club to go to the cinema together. However, they are all either out of town, or just very busy and in the end nobody is available to come along. As a result, you will have to go to see this film alone. Will you go? Yes, because in your culture nobody cares: you just sit there, watch the movie and go home. Or maybe no, you will not go, because in your culture, people will stare at you thinking ‘poor-you-with-no-friends-in-town’, and you will feel really awkward and miserable. So this is a no go!

This short case is one of the indicators to measure the degree of individualism or group orientation in cultures around the world. I often tell the story in various intercultural trainings, courses or lectures I give on campus or beyond. The responses are quite diverse. A vast majority of students, staff or professionals see no problem in going alone, although it is more fun everywhere in the world to go to the movies with family or friends.

However, some also prefer not to go in these circumstances, entertainment (including theatre, concerts or sports events) being a collective activity only in their cultures. In a recent trip to Macao and Hong Kong, I got various responses from the international audiences, too. Roughly speaking, natives from these two former Western colonies showed a higher degree of individualism than their peers from mainland China or the other (Asian) nationalities present.

But there is more than only national cultural differences in this diversity overview (not to mention personality and personal preferences). Gender also most likely plays a role. In some cultures, it is just not safe for a woman to go out alone, or it is simply forbidden by law.

Also, parameters like generation, urban vs rural areas and social class may influence the decision to go or not to go alone. In general terms, there is a shift in the paradigm towards more individualism in the world nowadays. Consequently, in those traditionally more group-oriented cultures, many people, especially the younger, urban, highly-educated generation, show more individualistic behaviour than their older peers. This also translates into them taking more individual initiatives, accepting individual responsibility and accountability, and taking their own lives into their hands more frequently.

So… while reading this column… are you making plans for tonight? Going to the movies perhaps? Is going alone an option?

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