How fast does a society become individualistic?

According to the “rice farming theory“, societies that traditionally sustained on rice were collectivist societies, while wheat farming gave rise to individualistic societies. The idea behind this theory is that rice farming can only be accomplished when working together – especially on building the complex irrigation systems – while wheat farming can be handled by a much smaller group or even by individuals.

There are however also studies that suggest that individualism is on the rise around the globe, including in rice producing countries. This implies that the categorization as “individualistic” or “collectivistic” society can change over time, depending on circumstances and of course also measurements. The question that recently came to my mind was:

How quickly does this happen? How fast does a collectivistic society become individualistic?

The reason I was thinking about this lately was that I enjoyed a chat with my 83-year-old German grandma who impressed me with some very interesting statements. When asked if she is happy, her answer was:

I’m happiest when I am able to please the majority of people. You will never be able to please everybody, but as long as what I am doing is to the satisfaction of most people, I’m happy.

This is not exactly what I would have expected as an answer. I’m pretty sure that if asking other people, the reply would go more along the lines of “living my dreams”, “being able to enjoy life to the fullest”, “being able to do what I always wanted to do”, etc.

When you look at the classification of Germany in Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions, the part on “Individualism vs. Collectivism” reads as follows:

“The German society is a truly Individualist one (67). Small families with a focus on the parent-children relationship rather than aunts and uncles are most common. There is a strong belief in the ideal of self-actualization.”

Cited from “What about Germany” on Hofstede-Insights.com

Now, my German grandma’s answer sounded more like as if she came from a truly collectivist society. Some years ago, I had a discussion with a South Korean girl who found young adults in Western countries extremely “egoistic” because of their pure focus on individual fulfilment instead of following societal expectations. While of course individual differences create strong variations, South Korea is “generally” a truly collectivistic society:

“South Korea, with a score of 18 is considered a collectivistic society. This is manifest in a close long-term commitment to the member ‘group’, be that a family, extended family, or extended relationships. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is paramount, and over-rides most other societal rules and regulations. The society fosters strong relationships where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group.”

Cited from “What about South Korea” on Hofstede-Insights.com

I wonder if the lady’s “collectivist-sounding” answer was an outlier, stemming from her specific personality, or if her answer would be typical for the elder German generation. The latter would indicate that Germany has considerably changed in the last few decades from being a very collectivistic to a very individualistic society.

I was thinking that maybe due to post-war reconstruction efforts, Germans experiencing that time developed a more collectivistic mindset, since reconstruction was probably only possible in a combined effort. But then I remembered the story about the “Mexicans Crabs” which I learnt during my two years living in Mexico.

In the story, a market vendor explain to a tourist that his bucket full of “crabs from the US” needs to be properly covered up, because otherwise some crabs would individually strain themselves to eventually jump out of the bucket. The vendor then proceeds that also the bucket filled with “crabs from Japan” needs a cover, because otherwise the Japanese crabs would help each other, building a tower so that eventually some crabs are able to climb out of the bucket (although there are also studies that indicate that Japan is not as collectivistic as illustrated in the Mexican story).

The punchline comes with the third bucket, containing the Mexican crabs. The tourist asks why then there is no cover on that bucket. And the vendor proceeds:

Oh, it’s not a problem because these are Mexican crabs. As soon as one starts climbing up, all others immediately pull it down again so that it cannot rise. There is no need to cover that bucket, because the Mexican crabs don’t help each other.

What brought me here?

Oh yeah, the though about post-war reconstructions. So, Mexico of course is not destroyed from war and while still being a country with some areas in need of development, people of course can survive on their own. While Hofstede classifies Mexico as collectivist society, I found that professors for cultural studies in Mexico disagreed with that classification.

Why?

For example, because they think the story about the Mexican crabs is much too close to reality (although I think in the group called “family” the Mexican society very much collectivistic).

But anyway, if a society like the Mexican one is not overly collectivistic, although several areas in Mexico could profit from the combined efforts of a collectivistic mindset, apparently collectivism and “need for development” (as in Germany after the war) are not directly related.

So, has the German society been an individualistic one also pre-World War 2? Would most people from the elder generation in Germany share the collectivistic mindset? Maybe I should talk to a few more people, but in every case, I found it a very interesting statement. In fact, my grandmother’s response continued, again with something I would consider “collectivistic”:

“I’m happy when I can do something that is useful for others. But generally, to some kind of people I would not state that I’m overly happy anyway. I think for some people it’s better if they hear that you are not doing great.”

So, let’s also have a quick look at these two sentences. The first statement is about the desire to contribute to society. I think, such desire is an inherent need, including for most people in individualistic societies, because it allows us to feel “needed”.

Some years ago, I volunteered in a project to support Arabian refugees to settle in Germany. During the initial training, the Arabic teacher urged the German students to not give the impression that “the kindhearted Germans are helping the refugees in need”. Instead, in Arabian societies, people equally obtain that sense of being valuable by contributing to society. Hence, people should be supported in such a way that they are able to contribute to the value of society. That mindset prevails in collectivistic countries like Iran and Iraq.

Instead of locking away our elder generation in retirement homes, leaving them to their own devices, we should maybe reconsider and try to make them again a valuable part of society; something which apparently would be a win-win.

The second sentence – not showing own achievements and downplaying the personal situation – reminded me very much of a similar aspect in Japanese society, namely 内外 (uchi-soto):

The basic concept revolves around dividing people into in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. That is achieved with special features of the Japanese language, which conjugates verbs based on both tense and politeness.

Cited from “uchi-soto” on Wikipedia.

There are really countless examples for words and phrases used by a speaker when talking about oneself or the “in-group” where such words – if literally translated into English – would sound downright humiliating.

It is interesting to see how a short answer on behalf of my grandmother allows to see so many connections to different cultures, including a mind game about how the cultural dimensions might have changed over time.

So, did all this answer my question on how fast societies change? No, but nor was it my intention (sorry if I let you down). However- at least for me – it was still intellectually stimulating, and it only shows me that I simply should talk – and especially listen – much more often even to the people I thought I know well.

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