The more that I learn about different cultures, the more that I become fascinated by cultural differences. Obviously, each person has a unique cultural heritage consisting of a blend of different cultural influences. However, research suggests that there are a couple of dominant cultural orientations across the world.
The independent cultural orientation generally values the glory of the self. This is seen in values to self-actualize, fulfill one’s potential, achieve self-esteem, reveal one’s unique talents, stand up for one’s personal rights, and take personal responsibility for one’s actions. Although it may be difficult to recognize, this orientation uniquely is promoted in the United States, particularly among men (but increasingly among women as well). In contrast, the interdependent cultural orientation generally values the glory of some group (for example, one’s family, community, tribe, or country). This orientation is promoted most clearly in Asia and Africa. Both orientations are represented in key cultural institutions (for example, democratic vs. communist governmental structures) and practices (sending kids to day care when young while parents work vs. staying with them).
It is easy to believe that the values taught to us are universal values. Often times, however, they are culture-specific.
For instance, the value of becoming independent and fulfilling our potential often is unquestioned within our society. However, once there is a recognition that other cultures possess different values, it is natural to wonder what values should be followed. In my view, I often have tried to consider how to take the best of different values in order to achieve a good life.
Clearly, the freedom and opportunities associated with an independent cultural orientation is the envy of the world. This probably is part of the reason why the United States historically has received so many immigrants. The focus on independence also encourages individuals to achieve. American society obviously has benefited from this achievement, as seen in the tremendous wealth that has been attained. On the other hand, the focus on standing out in excellence brings with it many disadvantages, including isolation and the stress of trying to do well in everything. In contrast, an interdependent cultural orientation often possesses the advantages of interconnectedness among people and a more laid-back lifestyle.
I often wonder how I can appreciate the opportunities I have in the United States, choosing what fits best for me, while at the same time rejecting strong values for achievement, materialism, and pride to have a more balanced lifestyle filled with strong relationships with family and friends. For example, this summer, I am trying to work a “reverse-week,” working two days per week, but taking five off. Obviously, not everyone has this opportunity, but being a faculty member, I’ve decided to teach on Saturdays, “work” another day mostly by meeting with former students, and then take the rest to devote to my family and other friends, and complete other projects that I might find enjoyable (such as landscaping projects around the house, or going on a trip to take photography). Sometimes, I struggle with the “waste of my time;” in other words, the number of work-related projects I could complete if I spent more of this time in the summer. However, I’ve increasingly decided that I would find it more fulfilling to spend my time within relationships with others. In this way, I think I am applying the age-old wisdom, supported by modern psychological research, that one of the basic elements of a good life is close, meaningful relationships with others.