The more that I learn about different cultures, the more that I become fascinated by cultural differences. Each person has a unique cultural heritage consisting of a blend of different cultural influences. However, research suggests that there are a couple of dominant cultural orientations across the world.
The individualistic cultural orientation generally values individuals distinguishing themselves, relative to others. This is seen in values to self-actualize, fulfill one’s potential, achieve self-esteem, reveal one’s unique talents, stand up for one’s personal rights, and take personal responsibility for one’s actions. Although it may be difficult to recognize, this orientation uniquely is promoted in the United States. In contrast, the collectivistic cultural orientation generally values the honor of the group (for example, one’s family, community, tribe, or country). This orientation is promoted most clearly in Asia and Africa. Both orientations are represented in key cultural institutions (for example, democratic vs. communist governmental structures) and practices (sending kids to day care when young while parents work vs. staying with them).
It is easy to believe that the values taught to us are universal values. Often times, however, they are culture-specific. For instance, people in the United States often do not recognize that they have internalized a purpose in life heavily influenced by their culture (i.e., distinguishing themselves, relative to others), ironically not as freely chosen as individuals might like to believe. It seems helpful to reflect on whether this really fits deeper values that someone might hold. Once there is a recognition that other cultures possess different values, it is natural to think through what values someone might like to follow. In my view, I often have tried to consider how to take the best of different values in order to achieve a good life.
Clearly, the freedom and opportunities associated with an individualistic cultural orientation is the envy of the world. This probably is part of the reason why the United States historically has received so many immigrants. The focus on independence also encourages individuals to achieve. American society obviously has benefited from this achievement, as seen in the tremendous wealth that has been attained. On the other hand, the focus on standing out in excellence brings with it many disadvantages, including an unhealthy kind of pride, isolation, and the stress of trying to do well in everything. In contrast, a collectivistic cultural orientation often possesses the advantages of humility, interconnectedness among people, and a more laid-back lifestyle.
I often wonder how I can appreciate the opportunities I have in the United States, choosing what fits best for me, while at the same time rejecting those aspects of American culture that seem less healthy, such as pride, materialism, isolation, and toxic busyness. One specific practice we have adopted to do this is to spend one day a week in a traditional “Sabbath.” On this day, we spend our time very intentionally in ways that rejuvenate us. On a typical Sabbath, for instance, we might attend church, go for a hike, have a special drink at a local coffee shop where we will play a game with family and friends, take our time to make a nice dinner, and taking our time to enjoy that dinner with family and friends. We also try not to do things that drain us on this day, including work (something that feels like work anyway) and any technology that can distract us from the present moment or from each other. This is an amazingly peaceful and restorative time for us, and allows us to be more effective the rest of the week.
Sometimes, I’ve struggled with the meaning of my life, and how to index whether my life is well spent. I’ve sometimes sought accomplishments as an objective indicator of this, but have found that this kind of external focus brings with it considerable stress. Thinking through the best of other cultures gives me a different perspective. In this regard, I love the words of Henri Nouwen, when he writes:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”