Understanding Identity: Direct vs Indirect Cultures (PART 2)

And we’re back with PART 2✨!

If you missed PART 1, click here for the scoop. If not, let’s get into PART 2, baby! 😝

Identity Opinions Expressed for the Group 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

In her book, Foreign to Familiar, Sarah A. Lanier gives an example of how individualistic or collectivistic ways of thinking can influence the manner in which ideas are communicated.

There was a conference with many languages present; however, the sessions and most workshops were given in English. Because of this, the leadership team, who mainly came from individualistic cultures, discussed if they should/shouldn’t have podium translations or translations happening at the same time for the different languages to save time. Lanier explained what took place, saying: 

“As various individuals voiced their opinions, it was obvious that simultaneous translation was the preference of the group.

Then a man from Bolivia spoke up and quietly explained the difficulty translators had with simultaneous translation. They were only able to hear half sentences because they did not have time to finish translating a sentence before the speaker was on to the next one. He also explained that alternating translation helped those who spoke English as a second language. The time gap after each sentence allowed the person time to assimilate better what was being said. This is true even if he or she does not understand the translation.

The head of the leadership heard the Bolivian, but then said, ‘Good point, but the majority seem to think it’s not worth the loss of time on the podium to have the alternating translation.’” (p. 43-44). 

In this example, the main leader made a mistake, as he didn’t realize the Bolivian man was speaking on behalf of the majority. Since the Bolivian man shared, the rest of his group chose not to say their same opinions; they felt no need to be heard as individuals because they’d already been represented. It might seem like the individualistic culture had the most votes since everybody spoke up for themselves; nonetheless, the one vote from the collectivistic culture was just as good.

Overall, the meeting didn’t show an accurate reflection of what the majority wanted, being that collectivistic cultures tend to shy away from directly stating their desires. For the sake of accurately reflecting the whole, leaders must be mindful of these cultural differences and whether or not the individual person is representing the rest of their group. 

Shame to the Group vs Embarrassment to the Individual 🙈

In a collectivistic culture, children learn to be cautious with their words and actions, as it reflects the group they belong to. Honor for their group’s name is fundamental; or else, shame will result. Lanier shares an example of this in her book, remembering a time she was offended by some Arab boys in her neighborhood. Since they were making inappropriate comments, she decided to confront them and ask for their family name. The boys were surprised she understood them and asked why she wanted to know. She then said:

“I want to know which families you boys belong to so I can tell your fathers how you are behaving in public. When they hear how you are shaming the family by your behavior, they will give you the discipline you need.” Terrified, the boys begged her not to tell and apologized for what they had said. 

Lanier expected the boys to have a collectivistic identity since they were coming from an Arab culture; therefore, their bad language would affect their entire family, not just them personally. The boys knew that if word about their behavior got to their families, they’d bring shame to everyone. The story would be different if this were to happen with American boys. They most likely wouldn’t care if their families were mentioned because they believe they only represent themselves. 

Shame Working on a Culturally Diverse Team 🫱🏾‍🫲🏻 

Working on a culturally diverse team comes with many advantages and challenges. You need to be mindful of the cultural differences present and how they affect team hierarchy and leadership.

Let’s take a look at some distinctions between individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures:


  • team members are viewed as equal to other team members
  • team leader not expected to make all group decisions
  • team members speak up and initiate 

  • team members don’t speak up or initiate, as it’s seen as rude to the team leader
  • team members wait to be called upon 
  • team leader expected to lead, while team members cooperate 

“Okay, cool! So what happens when the two work together?” 

Glad you asked!

Those who identify as individualistic may get frustrated when collectivistic people refuse to share their opinions or take initiative; but collectivistic people mean no harm, as they only do so out of respect for the team leader. On the other hand, if an individual takes initiative or voices their thoughts within a collectivistic setting, they may get some ugly stares, as it’s considered impolite. 

Sarah shares an example of working cross-culturally and how those misunderstandings could arise: 

A team of young people from individualistic cultures went to Africa for three months of service.

The team leader was African. Some of the team members later complained that they were not included in the decisions of the day, nor communicated with personally on what was happening. They were just “told what to do.”

As I talked with the leader later, he was surprised to hear that they felt a need for communication. From his perspective, he had told them what they needed to know when they needed to know it.

It can be a big change for someone from an individualistic culture to start thinking in terms of “we” instead of “I.” Similarly, for someone accustomed to a collectivistic culture, being in an individualistic culture can feel very lonely. Making decisions based solely on oneself (which might seem impolite) instead of considering the group’s preferences can be a challenge. Despite the difficulty, it’s important to understand the cultural context when working with a team that includes people from diverse backgrounds.

Final Thoughts 💭

Although differences between individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures can cause significant misunderstandings, this doesn’t need to be the case!

When traveling to a culture different from your own (or hosting an individual from a different culture), be sure to do your research on what values they hold. Then, with respect for their culture as well as your own, be sure to communicate expectations and any misunderstandings that may arise to find the best way to move forward and continue a growing relationship! 

And that concludes PART 2✨– stay tuned for more cross-cultural articles coming soon! 🤗

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