Cultural Categories Compared


The United States and India


US-American View

Indian View

1. Attitude towards Age

The US-American emphasis on concrete achievements and "doing" means that age is not highly valued, for the older you are the less you can accomplish. Age is also suspect because new is usually better in US-American culture, and the elderly are generally out of touch with what's new. The Indian emphasis on “being” and the past and tradition means that older people are often revered and highly valued, particularly as sources of collective wisdom, religious knowledge, or practical life skills. Age is seen as an achievement and often linked to high status.

2.  Concept of Fate and Destiny

The concept of self-determination negates much of the influence of fate and destiny. Parents tell one's children they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. There are few givens in life, and people have little sense of external limits. Lack of success is their own fault. Fate is seen to play a crucial role in one’s life including the family you were born into and role you should play in life. Doing one’s duty in relation to one’s place in society is much more important and honored than individual ambition.

3.  View of Human Nature 

People are considered basically and inherently good. If someone does an evil deed, we look for the explanation, for the reason why the person turned bad. People can and should be trusted; and we are fairly open to strangers, and willing to accept them. People beyond one’s family or reference group are considered with suspicion and mistrust because the world is a dangerous place with many pitfalls for the unwary. There is evil in the world and it is safer to remain among relatives and close friends than cultivate outsiders.

4.  Attitude towards Change 

Change is considered positive, probably because US-Americans believe in the march of progress and the pursuit of perfection. Improvements will always move us closer and closer to perfection. Traditions can be a guide, but they are not inherently superior. Change is suspect and often turns out to have negative consequences. Traditions should be upheld unless there is a good and compelling reason to alter ways of doing things. Progress, and the physical world, are often seen as illusory. Their traditions are "who they are" and link them with their past.

5.  Attitude towards Taking Risks 

There will always be enough opportunity to go around so taking risks involves no real danger. For the truly ambitious failure is only temporary. Experimentation and trial and error, are important ways to learn or to improve your product or service. Everything in the world is in limited supply and one’s position must be protected and possessions need to be husbanded. New ventures always involve danger because they put not only an individual but also their entire family at risk. Sticking to the tried and true is a better bet.

6.  Concept of Suffering and Misfortune 

Because we are ultimately in control of our lives and destiny, we have no excuse for unhappiness or misfortune. If you are suffering or unhappy, then just do whatever it takes to be happy again. If you're depressed, it's because you have chosen to be. Because we do not control all aspects of our lives it is it understood that bad things might happen to us. Personal happiness is not a worthy goal compared to working cooperatively on behalf of the group’s welfare. Many believe that this life is only one of many and suffering is due to transgression in a past life. Generally, there are limitations on what can be achieved and it is often better to accept them than fight the system.

7.  Concept of Face

In individualist cultures, no premium is put on saving face (avoiding being embarrassed in public) because people can take care of themselves. What other people think is not so crucial to survival or success. We can say what we think without worrying about hurting people's feelings, and we likewise appreciate directness. In collectivist cultures generally, a premium is put on not confronting a person publicly because the maintenance of the relationship is more important than a frank exchange of views. Although Indians can be quite direct, they also worry about maintaining social equilibrium (not necessarily promoting equality) and balancing competing interests.

8.  Source of Self-Esteem/Self-Worth

In an individualist culture, you are what you've achieved; that is, you create your own worth rather than receiving it by virtue of birth, position, seniority, or longevity. Your self-esteem comes from what you have done to earn self-esteem. In an collectivist culture like India, a great deal of your status is ascribed, meaning assigned at birth by who your family is, their caste and occupation, educational levels, and economic status. However, possessions are not automatically a measure of success and many Indians reject materialism.

9. Concept of Equality

In a strong reaction to the repressive class structure in Europe, US-Americans created a culture virtually built around egalitarianism: supporting the notion that no one is superior to anyone else because of birth, power, fame, or wealth. We are not all the same, but we are all of equal value. In the Indian majority view “all men are NOT created equal” let alone women and children. Indian society is based on hierarchy, patriarchy, and endogamy (marriage within one’s appropriate caste). Status distinctions are important and jealously guarded. 

10. Attitude towards Formality

Because of the strong egalitarian ethos, US-Americans tend to be casual and informal in social and professional interactions. Informality is also more necessary in a mobile society where people are always meeting new people. We don't stand on ceremony, nor use titles or rank in addressing each other. Because it is a largely horizontal society based on hierarchy, Indians tend to be more formal in public settings. Use of titles is important, as are external symbols of rank and status. Ceremony is important, as are connections to powerful people.

11. Degree of Realism

Largely because of the notion that the individual is in control, US-Americans are generally optimistic. We don't see things the way they are, but as better than they are, particularly if they're not so good. We feel it's important to be positive and that there is no reason not to be. Many Indians take a somewhat pessimistic view of the world because, in their view, fate and luck play a major role in a person’s life. They see this as a realistic and reasonable assessment that coincides with their experience and history.

12. Attitude towards Doing

Individuals survive because they get things done, generally on their own. Words and talk are suspect and cheap; they don’t put food on the table or a roof over your head. Pursuits not directly related to the creation of concrete results, e.g., academia, the arts, etc., are less highly valued. What is practical and pragmatic is favored over what is beautiful and inspiring.

Individuals survive because they work together collectively and cooperatively. Words and conversation, however, are very important and philosophical discussions are valued. Scholarship is more highly valued than work with one's hands, and education is considered superior to a career in business or agriculture. The beauty of ideas is often appreciated over a mere practical solution (e.g., pure mathematics versus engineering).

13. View of the natural world

The natural world is a kind of mechanism or machine that can be studied and known, and whose workings can be predicted, manipulated, and ultimately controlled. It is not to be feared. Nature is a violent force and frequently seems capricious as when the critical monsoons either fail or cause devastating flooding. Unpredictable weather, disease, crop failure, even childlessness, may all have supernatural origins. It is to be propitiated.

Now Do It Yourself!

With this exercise we have begun to introduce more culture-specific examples to illustrate some of the “contrast culture” sets we have already talked about.

If you would like to construct a "table of comparison" for yourself about the destination where you will study abroad, a good start would be to first consult with the study abroad office on your campus and then move on to such additional resources for information such as:

 q      Contact other students who have studied in the same international institution or who have been on the same program but live elsewhere.

 q       Country-specific web sites maintained by tourist bureaus, foreign embassies and consulates, educational institutions and colleges abroad, and national governments. Googeling (using the search engine Google) can quickly locate hundreds, if not thousands, of potential sources of information, but be careful about assuming all sites are authoritative. It is useful to know who the sponsor of the site is and stick to those whose expertise you can trust.

q       International students, staff, and faculty from the country or region in which are intending to study (often found in departments of modern languages, political science, anthropology, engineering, the sciences, international studies and international development).

q       Consult student-oriented travel books such as the Lonely Planet Guides or the Culture Shock series which have an amazing amount of culture specific information ranging from capsule history and contemporary background briefings to detailed information on body language, appropriate dress and behavior, and even lists of  ‘survival language phrases’.

q       Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV’s) are often an excellent source of both current conditions and practical advice for their country of assignment. Find them through campus contacts and regional or local Peace Corps or RPCV organizations.

We promise you that any time you spend digging out such culture specific information will be paid back many times over when you actually begin to interact with the local people and begin to adapt. The more you understand, the faster and easier the transition will go and the more the host culture will appreciate your efforts.