Paper presented as the Top Debut Paper in the Intercultural Communication Interest
Group, Western States Communication Association Conference, Long Beach, CA, March
4, 2002 (also available through ERIC Document Reproduction Service, No. ED471181).
To cite this article, please see citation information at the bottom of this page.
The second half of the 20th Century witnessed a transformation of transportation,
communication systems, and business. One result of this transformation is that unprecedented
numbers of people from different cultural backgrounds have begun working together.
Unfortunately, misunderstandings arising from cultural differences have led to failed
overseas sojourns, failed joint ventures, decreased business efficiency, and even
war. The cost of a failed overseas assignment alone averages $150,000, and most failures
are a result of problems understanding a foreign culture (Hammer, 1998).
Intercultural training attempts to eliminate such misunderstandings and improve the
situation by providing participants with knowledge, frameworks, and skills which
improve intercultural communication. The individualism-collectivism (IC) continuum
has been identified as one of the primary dimensions which differentiate cultures
and their members (Gelfand and Realo, 1999). Therefore, IC should be useful in intercultural
training. The purpose of the current study is to identify how IC may be helpful in
understanding the communication that takes place in intercultural business settings.
The present research will determine whether the application of this part of communication
theory is useful in intercultural training, and if so, in what ways they have proven
most effective. The questions to be answered are (1) How have these two concepts
been used in the past? (2) Do they shed light on the day-to-day concerns of businesspeople,
or do they increase confusion? (3) To what aspects of communication are the concepts
most often applied? (4) How may these concepts most effectively be taught?
Definitions of Concepts
Individualism is the degree to which people have an independent definition of self.
The self is separated and detached from groups. A person's inner attributes primarily
make up his or her consciousness. Their personal and communal goals are not necessarily
aligned. Social behavior in societies where individualism is dominant is guided by
a focus on attitudes, personal needs, rights, and contracts. Interpersonal relationships
are not considered inherently valuable, but rather are evaluated to determine the
costs and benefits of maintaining the relationship. Predominant values include autonomy,
competition, freedom, independence, and achievement. Assertiveness and confrontation
are dominant behavioral norms (Triandis, 1995; Gelfand and Realo, 1999).
Collectivism is the degree to which people define the self as interdependent and
as a member of particular groups rather than independent of others. Their personal
and communal goals are closely aligned. Social behavior is guided by norms, obligations,
and duties. Interpersonal relationships are of particular importance, and are maintained,
even when they are disadvantageous to the individual (Triandis, 1995). Prevalent
values in collectivist cultures are belonging, preserving public image, modesty,
and conformity. Maintaining harmony and cooperation with others are important behavioral
norms (Gelfand and Realo, 1999).
Each society exhibits some aspects of individualism as well as some aspects of collectivism.
Therefore, any national culture can be placed somewhere in the middle of the IC continuum,
with no culture at either of the far limits of the continuum. The IC construct essentially
identifies the relative importance of relationships. The further toward the collectivist
side a particular culture is, the more relationships will be considered a primary
Training is the transfer of skills for a specific purpose. Intercultural training
is training intended to transfer skills to people who are, or will be, working with
people from different cultural backgrounds than their own. Participants in intercultural
training include businesspeople working in a country other than their country of
origin, or those working closely with people from other cultures. Participants may
also include the families of businesspeople who are living outside their home country
as well as students studying abroad.
Intercultural training is designed to transfer skills that were developed through
the complicated process of socialization through which people gain their culture
(ways of thinking, perceiving, and communicating). Therefore, for intercultural training
to be effective, it must also give its participants a body of knowledge which forms
the basis for the new skills they will be learning. Intercultural training has been
referred to as "the mindset which informs the skill-set" (Bennett, 1996).
Research over the past 30 years indicates that intercultural training is useful for
preparing people to work in another culture. Therefore, research focus has shifted
from the question "Are intercultural training programs effective?" to attempt to
answer the question "Which methods are most effective?" (Bhawuk, 1998). The use of
theory as a method of training deserves exploration because of its potential to illuminate,
explain, and predict.
Application of Theory to Training
Scholars in a variety of fields have speculated on the usefulness of theory in training
and the transfer of knowledge. The value of theory in developing a skill, referred
to as transfer-through-theory, was demonstrated by Hendrickson and Schroeder in a
classic experiment (1941). Groups of participants practiced shooting at an underwater
target until both groups were able to hit the target consistently. Next, one group
received training in the theory of refraction of light while the other did not. When
the depth of the water was changed, the group which received theory-based training
did significantly better in hitting the target than the group which received no training.
More recent research supported the idea that knowledge acquisition and application
are assisted by the understanding of principles and theories (Bhawuk & Triandis,
1996). Much of the research on the application of theory to training focused on expertise
development. Research in cognitive psychology showed that experts solve physics problems
using theories, such as Newton's second law of motion, whereas novices in physics
worked backward, step-by-step, to compute the unknown. The backward reasoning method
followed by novices is less efficient, more time-consuming, and results in more errors
The development of expertise involves three progressive stages. In the first stage,
the cognitive stage, definitions of key concepts are memorized. The learner then
recalls the concepts and applies them to a specific situation. For example, an individualist
(such as an American manager) who is new to a collectivist culture (such as Taiwan)
may face an interpersonal situation in which he or she must disagree with a local
employee. In this case, the manager will recall that Taiwanese prefer not to be too
direct in certain situations and are often sensitive to "face." Therefore, the manager
would show sensitivity to the employee's "face," and find an indirect way to show
disagreement. The knowledge of these differences in behavior is declarative, and
the manager would rehearse his or her knowledge during the interaction, all the while
remaining aware of the process of recalling theoretical knowledge and applying it
to the situation (Bhawuk, 1998).
The second stage of expertise development is the associative stage, in which people
convert declarative knowledge into a procedural representation. Learners no longer
have to recall knowledge before they can apply it. Instead, they follow a procedure
that leads to a successful result. In the example above, the American manager would
successfully interact with the Taiwanese worker without having to recall the fact
that he or she should not disagree or say no directly. In this stage, people learn
the steps of a particular task and perform each step in the proper sequence (Bhawuk,
The third stage involves making the skill become more habitual and automatic, and
is called the autonomous stage. People know the task well enough to perform it quickly
without following every step. This stage is characterized by speed and accuracy.
In the scenario above, the American manager in Taiwan would be able to communicate
disagreement without making an error that would upset the employee. A Taiwanese person
is likely to think of this person as being very like Taiwanese or extremely polite.
People in this stage are able to fluently use knowledge and broad principles to solve
problems automatically, without having to consciously think about this knowledge
In a recent study, Ting-Toomey and Kurogi (1998) advocated the use of the individualism-collectivism
constructs in several aspects of training, including training objectives, audience
analysis, program design, and training methods. They stressed that well-prepared
intercultural trainers should be knowledgeable of theory, and added that theory can
help in the design of training by providing coherence and direction.
Effective Uses of Individualism and Collectivism in Intercultural Training
The effective uses of the culture theory of individualism and collectivism may be
explored using a general-to-specific pattern. The experience of the present author
as an intercultural trainer in Taipei, Taiwan will be utilized throughout this section.
Presents Different Perspectives
Participants in training start with very little specific knowledge of cultural differences.
The dual constructs of individualism and collectivism, when properly explained, allow
trainees to see the underlying assumptions of their own culture, which were previously
below their level of consciousness (Hall, 1976). The two constructs of individualism
and collectivism also allow trainees to see another culture in juxtaposition to their
own. In this way, trainees are presented with an alternative view of the world which
is informed by, or given reference to, their view of the world. While an emphasis
is placed on difference rather than similarity, a contrast can demonstrate the distance
between the two cultures and provide impetus for further training and learning.
One example of the effectiveness of presenting IC as a different perspective is in
Newcomer Orientations, given at the Community Services Center in Taipei, Taiwan.
At the Center, individuals, couples, and families are provided with a one day training
session in which practical information is first presented to address pressing questions.
After the initial concerns are dealt with, a brief introduction to Chinese culture
is given. In this introduction, the IC construct is presented, along with examples
of how it makes doing business in Taiwan different from the way it is done in a person's
home country. In a typical session, the trainer presents the IC construct as an overarching
framework. He or she then relates specific ideas to the collectivism part of the
framework in the following manner:
"Here in Taiwan, group orientation means that generally the group is more important
than individual. What other people think of someone is therefore more important than
what they think of themselves individually. A person's 'face' refers to their status
or level of respect in other people's eyes. Therefore, the idea of face is very important
in Taiwan. It is important to avoid doing something, such as pointing out a mistake,
which will cause someone to lose face in the eyes of others, especially subordinates."
Newcomers to Taiwan, especially those who have not lived in other Asian countries,
are often surprised by such information. Learning from the beginning that the Taiwanese
see the world in a different way helps make foreigners in Taiwan aware of the existence
of a perspective or worldview vastly different from their own.
Provides a Framework which Contextualizes Behavior
After the background of a different perspective has been laid, participants in intercultural
training can proceed to use the concepts as a framework for understanding the behavior
of other people. Trainers can present case studies or short scenarios to give participants
practice in identifying the underlying cultural value that is the cause for observed
behavior. Breakthroughs of understanding often result, as trainees begin to make
sense of confusing or unexplainable behavior by recognizing the underlying reasons
for such behavior.
At the Community Services Center, intercultural training is offered to both Western
and Taiwanese businesspeople in one day sessions. During these sessions, participants
provide specific examples of communication difficulties that have arisen in their
work. The IC framework is often used as a tool that helps to explain otherwise inscrutable
behavior. One example is behavior in meetings. Western managers are surprised and
sometimes disappointed to discover that their Taiwanese subordinates appear to be
unwilling to express their opinions in meetings. Taiwanese managers are likewise
unprepared for the relative candidness, forthrightness, and outspokenness of their
Western subordinates. When the behavior of the Taiwanese is contextualized within
a collectivist framework, otherwise baffling behavior seems more logical. Taiwanese
people's sensitivity to the feelings of others--especially one's superiors--as well
as the reluctance to express one's opinion in meetings becomes more understandable.
By the same token, when the behavior of the Westerner in Taiwan is contextualized
within an individualist framework, the desire to fulfill one's own needs, the idea
of free speech, and the need to express one's opinions also becomes more understandable
to the Taiwanese.
Proscribes Appropriate Behavior and Predicts Behavior of Others
Armed with the tools of a new understanding of the structure of a society and the
underlying motivation of people within it, participants in intercultural training
can use this knowledge to predict the behavior of others. Understanding of the IC
framework can be internalized, allowing people in the autonomous stage of expertise
development to not only know how to act in a given situation, but also predict what
others may do.
A Westerner with such an understanding doing business in Taiwan communicates indirectly
with Taiwanese people in situations where a person's face is at stake. His or her
understanding of the importance of harmony in a collectivist society allows him or
her to avoid making mistakes that would jeopardize harmony. This person will also
be able to predict the behavior of others. Taking initiative is an example of an
issue that often arises for foreigners working with Taiwanese. Since stability is
one of the foremost values in the collectivist culture, much importance is placed
upon status and hierarchy. The result is a very paternalistic attitude, meaning that
subordinate employees in an organization expect their superiors to tell them exactly
what to do and make all the decisions for them. A Western manager in Taiwan who understands
the culture does not expect his or her employees to take initiative in the same way
that is common in the West. Being able to predict this behavior allows him or her
to take this fact into account and act accordingly. The manager can either accept
the fact that specific orders and directions must be given or the manager can explicitly
instruct employees to take initiative in the way that is expected.
Assists Understanding of Related Concepts
Individualism and collectivism are related to, if not the cause of, a number of other
concepts often researched and discussed in the field of intercultural communication.
Several concepts related to the IC construct have previously been mentioned in this
paper. These include face, harmony, stability, indirectness, status and hierarchy.
Another set of concepts which is closely related to IC is low context/high context
communication. Hall (1976), the originator of these concepts, acknowledged the connection
between low context communication and individualism on the one hand, and high context
communication and collectivism on the other. People in collectivist societies not
only attain their identity in terms of a group, but they also learn a relatively
complex culture consisting of much shared meaning (Hall, 1979).
The Chinese term guanxi is an example of an idea that is best explained within the
framework of collectivism. Guanxi has been defined as relationships, but its meaning
is more complex. Guanxi refers to a network of relationships which Chinese people
use and build throughout their lives. The amount and quality of guanxi determines
how much face, or stature, a person has in the eyes of others. There is also a reciprocal
effect, when someone does a favor for another person in expectation of having the
favor returned at some point in the future. Non-Chinese people are able to understand
the concept of guanxi more clearly by first understanding the nature of a collective
society. As the concept of guanxi demonstrates, making connections between IC and
other concepts provides for a deeper and more detailed understanding of how individualism
and collectivism affect culture in daily life.
Specific Areas of Applicability in Organizations
In a recent study of negotiation situations, individualists and collectivists behaved
in accordance with their "socially prescribed self" (Gelfand and Realo, 1999, p.
732). In intergroup negotiations, accountability affected the behavior of individualists
and collectivists differently. Accountability enhanced competitive processes and
reduced outcomes among individualists. The opposite effect was observed in the behavior
of collectivists, who used more cooperative processes and saw an increase in outcomes
as a result of accountability in negotiations (Gelfand and Realo, 1999).
A study by Oetzel (1998) concluded that "cultural IC" was an important factor. Oetzel
examined communication in both homogeneous and heterogeneous groups. He found that
"cultural IC" determined turn taking, conflict, and competitive tactics. European-
Americans used more competitive tactics, took more turns, and initiated conflicts
more often than Japanese in heterogeneous groups, and used competitive conflict tactics
more often than Japanese in homogeneous groups.
IC affects cooperation in organizations in several ways. Cultural values related
to IC have a direct effect on the level of cooperation, the mediation of cooperation
mechanisms, and interactions between such cooperation mechanisms and culture. For
individualists, cooperation mechanisms must appeal to individual rationality and
individuality. Collectivists will respond to cooperation mechanisms that appeal to
collective rationality and sociality. Focusing on the moderating effects of culture
on cooperation mechanisms can reduce misunderstanding and increase learning and adaptation
to other cultures (Chen, Chen, and Meindl, 1998). Mutual adaptation can also lead
to cultural synergy in multicultural groups, which produces many benefits (Adler,
A manager on an international assignment who has a management style incompatible
with his or her employees would be detrimental to the interests of the organization
(Ramamoorthy and Carroll, 1998). In international business, human resources managers,
especially those establishing greenfield starts, are often culturally-different from
their employees. Such managers are also responsible for training newly-arrived expatriates.
Therefore, intercultural training is essential for human resources managers. A study
by Ramamoorthy and Carroll (1998) found that IC dimensions have a definite impact
on human resources management (HRM) practices. In the study, collectivistic employees
were less likely to prefer (1) equitable reward allocation practices or (2) test-based
or merit-based hiring and promotions than individualist employees.
Managers must understand differences in the way incentives affect motivation and
creative performance in different cultures. Differences in values between individualistic
and collectivistic cultures may determine the effectiveness of different reward structures
on employees and creative performance. In a study using the US as a representative
of individualist cultures and Japan as a model collectivistic culture, Eisenberg
(1999) found that managers in each country used different kinds of strategies to
motivate their subordinates. He found that each culture had reward types and appraisal
which carried different meaning, information, and motivational impact. Each of the
above examples illustrates the need for organizations to be aware of the IC nature
of their employees, especially those working abroad. Intercultural training is a
wise first step in developing such awareness.
Potential Misuse of Individualism and Collectivism
The application of individualism and collectivism to training must be done with care.
According to Oetzel (1998), relying solely on IC to explain communication behavior
can be inaccurate and insufficient. The IC construct may oversimplify and overgeneralize
culture if it is not presented in a way that provides disclaimers for the fact that
generalizations do not apply to every individual.
Renwick (2000), an experienced trainer, suggested that IC theory should be used only
if presented in a way that increases understanding. Generally, intercultural training
does not introduce new terms to trainees, because this causes confusion rather than
enlightenment. Therefore, for a trainer to successfully use IC theory, he or she
must present it using terms and examples trainees can easily understand. An example
of how this rationale is incorporated into the training done at the Community Services
Center is that although the IC construct informs the trainers and training design,
the word collectivism itself is not often used. Instead, group-orientation or "the
importance of the group" is used.
Another warning against the overuse of IC was given by a Chinese scholar, Lu (1998),
who claimed that much of the research on the IC construct is culture-bound because
it is a Western framework with Western-defined meanings (Lu, 1998). More work must
be done to understand how Chinese and other nonwestern peoples conceptualize and
experience their worlds. The current understanding of such cultures, along with most
of social science, is from a Eurocentric perspective.
With the ever-increasing numbers of people working internationally, intercultural
training will continue to be an important part of modern business. The concepts of
individualism and collectivism, if used carefully, can be effectively applied to
intercultural training. Theory has been effectively applied to training for many
years, and can be used to develop expertise in trainees. Theory can also be used
to train intercultural knowledge and skills. Specifically, when used in intercultural
training, the dual constructs of individualism and collectivism are effective in
presenting different perspectives, providing a framework which contextualizes behavior,
proscribing appropriate behavior, predicting the behavior of others, and assisting
the understanding of related concepts. Several areas in which the use of IC theory
in training were outlined, including use in negotiations, conflict, cooperation,
human resources management, motivation, and reward structures.
Warnings against misuse of the construct were mentioned. If not used carefully, IC
theory may lead to overgeneralization and confusion. However, such dangers do not
outweigh the potential benefits of using the constructs correctly. This paper is
based on impressions and observations in one culture. Future research should focus
on evaluating training by investigating both trainers' and trainees' experiences.
The present author is currently conducting research on trainees' satisfaction with
training. Perhaps the IC construct (its presence in training) is a variable in our
understanding. Oetzel's work on self-construal is continuing and is linked to IC
Overall, individualism and collectivism provide a theoretical framework that can
be extremely useful for intercultural trainers and trainees, leading not only to
increased efficiency but also to better understanding.
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Citation information for this paper, in American Psychological Association (APA)
5th ed. format:
Deal, C. D. (2002, March). Application of the concepts of individualism and collectivism
to intercultural training. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western States
Communication Association, Long Beach, CA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.