One significant way Asian cultures differ from Western cultures is that group identity is more important than individual identity. This factor limits the ability of Asians to “think outside the box.”
I’ve had the opportunity to learn much about group identity in Asian cultures while living in Japan over the past year and a half and traveling to Cambodia, mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Because they are more uniform and homogenous, Asian societies are generally less tolerant of diversity and difference than are Western societies. The high value they place on conformity to group norms is aptly expressed in the Japanese proverb that states, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
The importance of group identity in these societies manifests itself in several ways.
First, family names precede given names throughout much of the region. In China, for example, a common family name is Chen and a common given name is Wen. Thus, a person with both of these names would be called Chen Wen. This family-name-first pattern reflects the concept that the family is more valued than the individual.
Second, arranged marriage still exists in several Asian countries. An arranged marriage differs from a love marriage in that it essentially represents the merging of two families rather than the union of two individuals.
Third, queuing is not practiced in many Asian cultures. Instead of waiting in line for their turn, they often cluster as a group toward the front. I’ve experienced this on numerous occasions during my travels.
These are but a few examples of how Asians value group identity over individual identity. In the West—where diversity and difference is tolerated, given names precede family names, individuals choose their spouse, and queuing is practiced—the opposite is true; individual identity is more important than group identity.
The focus on “me” rather than “we” may appear egotistical to some Asians; however, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation are more likely to thrive in that kind of environment.
In cultures that place more value on group identity, groupthink often occurs. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines groupthink as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”
In a groupthink environment, the very factors that lead to innovative ideas are discouraged. These factors include taking risks, breaking rules, and challenging assumptions. People who may have truly innovative ideas do not feel comfortable expressing them in a groupthink environment because they would be viewed as nonconforming and disruptive.
Not every Asian values group identity over individual identity. But those who do have an extra barrier to break through when trying to “think outside the box.”
In an increasingly globalized and competitive world where innovation is critical to any nation’s economic and national security, extra barriers to innovation come at an extremely high price.