Intercultural Communications Reflective Esssay: American Individualism versus Thai Collectivism

Following is a (nipped down version of) reflective essay by Neaw, a 2nd year Thai University student who visited the USA in the summer of 2009 on a travel-work program. The essay was composed for Intercultural Communications  course at Thammasat University. For the sake of readability, the Literature Summary part has been ommitted:

Is self more important than society? In regards to intercultural studies amidst the age of globalization, this is perhaps the most commonly addressed question. Last summer, I traveled to the United States, having the opportunity to work at a popular amusement park in Vallejo, just outside of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area in Northern California. The pace and style of life over there was all new to me, much different to what I was used to in Bangkok. During this brief yet enlightening experience living and working overseas, I gained valuable insights about not only American culture, but my own Thai background in comparison. Here I present a narrative of my experience, highlighting the manifestation of the cultural values of individualism apparent in the US, contrasted with collectivism in Thailand, respectfully.

The first week working overseas was terrifying and full of culture shock. As an employee at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom assigned to operate rides, I was bestowed the important task to greet park guests with a welcoming spech. It was hard enough adapting and orientating myself as it was, now I was ever nervous to have all eyes and ears on me right from the start.  Considering the fact that English is my second language, I was quite intimidated and insecure about public speaking to a bunch of strangers. Despite expressing doubts and concerns to my co-workers and supervisor, I received no encouragement or support. “Just don’t complain and do it!” they would say. Everyone was so occupied with their own individual tasks, they couldn’t be bothered assisting me.

If anything, my American co-workers were openly critical of me. On the job and at day’s end meeting, I received negative feedback from my supervisor. These comments were often overt, humiliating, and embarrassing as they were said to me in front of other co-workers and even guests waiting in line. “Miss Pornpetcharee, could you speed up your pace and be more energetic while you are working? Even little kids can work faster than you!” my superior would scold as frowning and giggling faces looked on.

As time moved on, adapting to American society didn’t get easier. USA was not all I expected it to be. I found myself making false assumptions about people and situations, which led to frequent missed expectations and constant frustration. One night after work, for example, I joined some colleagues to go downtown for ice cream. At the ice cream parlor, I was hesitant to order when my friends asked me what I wanted. My friends were all eager to order, but I suddenly had an incoming call from Thailand. I deferred my choice, excusing myself so I could briefly catch up with my mother.

By the time I got off the phone, everyone was seated, enjoying their ice cream. Sitting next to one of my friends, I grabbed a spoon and helped myself to a bite of her strawberry sherbet delight. Suddenly, my friend became enraged, yelling at me in front of everyone, “I already asked you if you wanted anything, which you chose not to order, and now you’re eating my ice cream!” Again, I was embarrassed and ever frustrated; I slowly exited the silenced parlor, nostalgic and homesick.

The shock, embarrassment and humiliation I felt that tough summer coerced me to reflect and contrast my previous experiences in my own culture. Particularly, an internship I did for an advertising firm in Thailand comes to mind. Similar to the US, everyone in the company had specific tasks they were individually responsible for. However, in Thailand, team work and collective cooperation was emphasized more as the status quo. If by the end of the day, for example, an individual struggled to complete his/her tasks, coworkers were more willing to assist and contribute, collectively supportive so that work was always finished as a team. If one of us ever lagged, the whole group was affected and thus was apt to pick up slack when/where needed. No matter what their individual responsibilities, co workers were approachable and willing to assist even if it wasn’t convenient for them.

During my internship at the Thai advertising firm, I observed that management style also differed from the explicit standard I experienced in the US. For instance, there was one time which I made a mistake by sending the wrong document to a client. Rather than call me out in the open like the American boss, my Thai supervisor pulled me aside to address the issue in private. Any time there was an issue, the Thai boss and colleagues preferred to handle it covertly, avoiding open confrontations which might lead to loss of face.

Finally, in Thailand sharing food with friends and family is the norm, compared to the US where I had to learn the hard way. Whether eating out or at home, eating from another’s plate or bowl would not raise any frowns in Thailand—in fact is more common to order communal dishes where everyone shares, as opposed to US where everyone typically orders only for themselves. I have observed this phenomenon one recent occasion in Thailand in which two American friends joined my Thai friends and I for dinner.

As is the norm when eating out in Thailand, we ordered several dishes to share, but noticed our American friends were reluctant to eat communally, instead ordering separate dishes. When it was time to pay the check, we were surprised that they’d been keeping exact count of the bottles of beer they’d each drunken, requesting two separate bills, which confused matters with the waiter who’d been keeping everything on one bill. The matter complicated even further when the Americans refused to let my Thai friend treat and settle a single bill, insisting that the waiter bring three bills. Eventually, the bills were separated and settled with my Thai friends and waiter left scratching their heads.

Arising from these experiences, observations, and reflections are several questions. First, why were my American colleagues and supervisor unsympathetic to my language disparity, unwilling to offer assistance or support, considering any adverse consequences of an inefficient job would ultimately affect the entire firm? Second, why was I so sensitive to the criticism I received from my American supervisor, colleagues and friends, even though I had received criticism many times in the past. Finally, why did my American friend become so angry when I took a bite of her ice cream?

Being that the United States is considered the most individualistic county, we can broadly assume that the cultural values there give strong preference to “self goals” over that of “group goals.” This assumption would explain particular behavior I observed in my American colleges and peers at the amusement park, ice cream parlor and restaurant. While Americans are concerned with ‘standing out,’ being ‘self sufficient,’ and ‘independent, Thais like myself raised in a predominately collectivist culture are taught to ‘blend in,’ live in ‘social harmony,’ and be ‘interdependent.’

The frustration I experienced when my colleagues wouldn’t assist me in my struggling first week can be traced to my own missed expectations. According to Hall (1976, p. 98), “…people in high-context systems expect more of others than do the participants in low-context systems.” From my background of high-context Thai culture, indeed my orientation was/is of a collectivist nature, giving recipe for culture shock upon interaction with the individualistic orientation of Americans. I initially assumed and expected that my American colleagues should and would assist me for the sake of the entire staff and firm, while their expectations of me were that I should be able to adapt on my own, reflecting the individualistic orientation towards independence and self-sufficiency.

When my American supervisor overtly criticized me in front of others, it is clear that he was coming from an individualist, low-context orientation, where it is not acceptable to ‘beat around the bush,’ (Levine 1985 p 28) but rather ‘get to the point,’ being direct and clear as possible, whatever the consequences e.g. my humility. In comparison, my Thai supervisor, from a collective, high-context orientation was covert and discrete in approaching me, sensitive to humility and thus avoiding an open confrontation and maintaining social harmony.

Finally, keeping in mind orientation of the individual versus the group, it is now easier to make sense of my observations of Americans in regards to the ice cream incident in the US and dining out in Thailand. Reasoning that individualists strive towards self awareness (e.g. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) through self-serving behavior, we must assume that there is less concern for communal worth as is valued by collectivists. Perhaps ecological factors play role. With the US being overall more an affluent and industrial society than predominately agricultural Thailand, communal behavior patterns are more common in the latter, less the norm in the former.

In conclusion, let us refer back to the opening question in the first paragraph: Is self more important than society? Obviously, for collectivist cultures, society is more important while for individualist cultures, it is self. As we have seen, however, there is no clear cut line to divide all individuals, groups, cultures, and societies absolutely one way or the other. As society becomes more and more global, the boundaries of culture continue to blur, blending various values and norms into a dynamic bowl of diversity. It is essential to study and internalize the various ingredients of the intercultural recipe so we can eliminate ignorance and avoid unnecessary miscommunications and misunderstandings. And thus, both self and society are equally important. Depending on the context, the challenge then lies in finding and maintaining an appropriate equilibrium.

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