Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Cultural Differences in Defining “Individualism”


I’m used to subjective adjectives, such as “beautiful”, where one person can find something beautiful and another person, hideous. Even words like “salty”, where someone brought up in Portugal or Japan might not find the same thing you just tasted to be salty because of what they are used to. But I thought I could count on some words having the same meaning. “Transportation” in Bangalore might look different than in Germany, but the idea is the same: something that takes you from one place to another. Then I was told the Danes are individualistic, and all hell broke loose in my head.

In several workshops and lectures that I attended here in Denmark, the Danish speakers were quick to point out that as foreigners, we should be very aware that the Danes are very individualistic. When I heard it the first time, I thought the speaker misspoke or I didn’t hear the “not” before the adjective, because the Danes seem to like the same tastes (licorice, and not too spicy), do not deviate from their traditions (the curry dip like topping goes on the pickled herring, and NOT the fried flounder), and own the same type of furniture (Scandinavian design either by the known artists or the fakes). Cultural “rules” like the Jante Law (don’t think you are any better than others, etc.) do not scream individualism. Many of the societal behaviors actually remind me of Japan, which is known for having a conformist culture.

Så…. Come again? Individualistic? After a couple of other speakers mentioned it, I realized they meant it, and asked one of the speakers about her definition of individualism when I don’t see any variety at any level. She responded how Denmark doesn’t have much ethnic diversity but we make decisions independently and on our own.

Another speaker mentioned that during the construction of the bridge that connects Denmark and Sweden, the Swedish crew suffered less accident during the construction because the Danes didn’t necessarily follow orders by their boss to avoid certain areas that were dangerous.

Another expat processed it as “The Danes value independence in their thinking, but because of their homogeneous culture, they end up arriving at the same opinion.”

So, their concept of individualism has to do with more the independence one has as an individual to arrive to a conclusion.

It made sense. I had a conversation with a Danis computer science researcher about what should be included as a social benefit and how capitalistic greed will affect the Welfare State, he said that before we discuss each item, we need to come together and first decide where we want to be as a country. That statement left me dumbfounded because there was a tone in his voice that suggested that there was going to be one voice coming out of a summit like that. It never crossed his mind that people might want different things and never come to a consensus.

I was then floored when a few months after, I was corresponding with a director of a tech building about economic development, about the innovation report I was working on for the City and County of Honolulu. “Very interesting read,” he said, “but fundamentally, shouldn’t we first consider what kind of society we want?” The tone and the gist were exactly what I heard from my researcher friend. Whoa. Different ages, different backgrounds, different setting, different conversation, and yet they pretty much said the same thing.

It was still unsettling for me to have the word, “individualistic”, used this way, until last New Year’s Eve, when the airport bus stopped operations before our flight got in. New Year’s Eve is a time where people go to parties and drink, so public transportation, you’d think, would be important. In a country that values public transportation, you would expect it, especially an airport bus, to be working. Certainly in Japan, they might even have extra trains to accommodate people visiting the temples to hear the midnight bells to serve the community better.

Then it hit me.

Individualism for the Danes mean that the unit with which they optimize their decisions is at the individual level (whereas in Japan, they would think first about what would be best for the community and not the individual). Their sense of self begins and ends at the individual.

From the Dane’s perspective, it was not important for the Billund Airport to have functioning public transport to welcome the guests (because the residents would know not to travel on New Year’s Eve or have already arranged for a friend to pick them up) compared to the individual’s well-being (that of the bus driver). Why should the bus driver have to give up his/her time with the family on New Year’s Eve when it is customary to spend the time socializing like the rest of the Danes? How dare some scheduling impose on that!

The individuals come together and individually decide something, which often happens to be the same (e.g., the love of their country), which makes their patriotism even stronger because they each had the right to speak up, and owned their responses rather than have something external dictate them from the top down.

It started to also make sense for me that Denmark as a nation is struggling to accept its role within the European Union, globalization, and the influx of immigrants. They want to welcome their individualistic choices (to practice a religion, to not eat licorice, to speak their own languages), but doing so results in different outcomes from what they are expecting. Because they are treating the individual as the unit to optimize for, thinking for what’s best for Denmark, when Denmark is no longer homogeneous, results in chaos they have never experienced before.

It’s not a criticism of individualism. Rather, it is an observation that perhaps the Danes have not yet fully explored the consequences of individualism when their homogeneity is threatened, when the sense of self is defined within the individual. If diversity and individualism can co-exist in Denmark, it will enjoy the level of creativity and innovation needed for its economy, as diversity is said to enhance innovation. If each individual can come to that conclusion, they can leapfrog the other nations.

Photo: Moesgård Museum, Aarhus, Denmark


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This entry was posted on August 4, 2015 by in Culture, Denmark and tagged , , , .
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