Helping a stranger

Posted by Marion de Groot on September 27, 2008

Once I had a discussion with Chinese students at the TU Delft (NL). I asked them what they thought about the dutch people and culture, and what strange situations they might have had or seen.

One student said that he found it strange to see that someone helped an old lady when her grocery bag fell on the street, while they didn't know each other. In China, he said, one wouldn't help a stranger. What's the benefit in helping someone you don't know?

I did some thinking about this. According to Hofstede's cultural dimensions, the Chinese culture is a collectivistic culture, while the Dutch one is individualistic. This would roughly mean that the Chinese tend to think about the advantage for the group, while the dutch think about themselves. How does this rhyme with not helping a stranger?

My explanation is as follows: in the collectivistic culture, people are members of a group (the 'in-group'), and they will consider the benefits for their in-group, but not (or to a much lesser extend) for people outside that group (the 'out-group'). In the Netherlands, these groups are not that strong. There is much less difference in how much we consider the benefits for our direct family and close friends and those for strangers.

So if we put this in numbers, on a scale from 1 to 10, on which 1 means 'not considerate' and 10 means 'very considerate', for the three elements 'self' (yourself), 'in-group' (direct family and close friends, or colleagues) and 'out-group'(everyone else), the scores in China would be: self 8, in-group 9, out-group 2. In the Netherlands, this would be: self 10, in-group 6, out-group 4.

Therefore, although it might seem a contradiction, the Dutch may appear more polite to the outside world (the out-group) than the Chinese, while the Dutch are more 'selfish' at the same time.

Please note that this is my own theory, not proven (yet) by any serious research in the field. Your comments are welcome!

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No Comments to Helping a stranger

  • Hmmm…. It would indeed explain the situation I had at Kunming Airport, China… I was sitting by myself in an unbusy part of the airport, I had put myself almost in a corner with a book and my MP3 player. I was sitting with my back to the wall, and looking out over a half-empty waiting room with about a 100 chairs, standing in rows facing each other.
    After a while, a group of Chinese tourists arrived. They were shouting like small kids on their first trip out. The largest group sat down in front of me, but several "sub-groups" were scattering out all over the waiting room. Nevertheless, they would not stop shouting to each other.
    Even worse; two chatting ladies decided to sit next to me. And no, not both on the same side; one to my left and the other one on the ONLY seat to my right. They were shouting with each other "through" me, as if I were a completely invisible ghost. It was the most stunning, less considerate and rudest thing I have EVER experienced.
    But as a good old AFS saying goes: "It's not weird, just different", so I decided to not make a hussle out of it and left. But the Chinese people in general did certainly not leave a good impression on me… Especially when they're in groups and I'm in the "out-group"…

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