What's the Dilemma?


The dilemma faced by the jogger is a classic case of how to balance personal preferences and US-style individuality with the social expectations of local people in a strongly collectivist society. Although the jogger does not recount how the issue was finally resolved, the fact that some hard choices needed to be made involving seemingly diametrically opposed values and behaviors is a typical scenario and frequently encountered by students while abroad.

Another example would be an ill US-American student on a home stay in India wanting the privacy of staying in his or her own room with the door closed, while the family insists on putting him or her in the living room on a couch so the student will not feel “isolated” and everyone in the family can “help” him or her. What is meant to be kindness and a show of concern for the welfare of a guest on the part of the Indian family might be excruciatingly difficult for a US-American who wants nothing more than to be left alone to be sick in private.   

Before one goes abroad, it is very useful to know not only how strongly a particular culture may stress collectivism, but also how strong your own preferences are for individualism or collectivism.  If you have a marked preference for individualism, then going to a highly collectivist community may take some serious adjustment. If you tend to be more comfortable with collectivist values, you may fit easily into a culture that exhibits such behavior, but feel somewhat out-of-place in a society that is strongly individualistic.

Being aware of your own feelings and preferences about group versus personal orientations, and which of these is likely to predominate in your study abroad destination, can allow you to at least anticipate the kinds of issues that will be likely to arise as you interact with local people.