individualism

Helping a stranger

Posted by Marion de Groot on September 27, 2008
Story / No Comments

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!

Tags: , , , ,