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Loyalty to yourself or to the group? - about individualism vs. collectivism

Saskia Maarse | October 19, 2021

Dennis is a Dutch sales consultant that lived in India as an expat. During his daughter’s birthday in India, the family hadn’t lived there long. Unlike his colleagues he didn’t live on a compound with other Dutch people. Instead, his family lived in the same neighbourhood as the locals.

Dennis and his wife didn’t know many people and decided to have a small celebration for their daughter’s birthday. They invited around 20 Indian friends to the party. They went to the grocery store to prepare and bought enough for the people they had invited. Everything was looking good and accounted for, until the doorbell rang, and an unexpected 80 people showed up. Apparently, everyone has decided to bring their family with them.

Heavy culture shock
Totally surprised, Dennis made work of getting enough snacks and drinks for the extra 60 partygoers. While everything was resolved in the end, the party was the source of a serious culture shock for Dennis. One of the many he would experience during his extended stay in India.

Loyalty to yourself
Cultural differences between the Netherlands and India are enormous. The Dutch are known for their individualistic society where children learn to speak in terms of I. That means that parents encourage their children to develop their own opinions, choose their own path of life and to be independent. When we invite people over, for example, a birthday party, we usually know who is coming and if they are bringing somebody.

Loyalty to the group
In collectivist societies like India, many children grow up in large families where they learn that loyalty to their group is important. In exchange for this, the group takes care of the members for protection and security. Since everyone is part of a group, it goes without saying to Indians that at least part of the group will go with them to an event. This can lead to awkward situations, like the example with Dennis.

Who sits at the table?
The differences between individualism and collectivism are also seen in a professional setting. In the Netherlands, the people involved in a meeting are clear. We know who’s at the table and what their role is. We come prepared, and if we don’t know somebody, we quickly look them up beforehand. In any case, there usually is an introduction round to make everybody acquainted.

At professional settings in collectivistic countries, it is common that people are present besides the ones invited or already introduced. These could, for example, be family members that have little to do with the companies or business at hand. On occasion they could be introduced, but not always. This can be quite confusing as it is unclear in what capacity these people are there.

Face loss
A colleague of mine, Jan Vincent Meertens, once told me a story: “A while ago we organized an event in Malaysia. During the event we discovered that someone there had switched to our competitors a few months before. I was informed and able to make a quick break during the meeting. I took the man aside and congratulated him on his new job and asked him to pass on my best to his boss. Nobody lost face, he simply wanted to say hi to me. He even had other appointments that evening.”

If Jan Vincent had approached this situation the Dutch way by making the man’s presence known to the group straight away, it might have damaged his relationship with the man from both sides.

Which is better?
Its impossible to say which approach is better, individualistic or collectivistic. Its important to remember that collectivistic societies always place the most value on the relationship.

About Saskia Maarse

Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.

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