Individualist V Collectivist… and who cares anyway?

When I took intercultural studies back at university, I remember feeling sure that I would lean toward a collectivist point of view rather than individualist.  I mean, I come from a collectivist culture and was surrounded by a whole lot of other collectivist cultures, so it makes sense that this would be my predominant mode of thinking.  Well, it turns out I was half right.  I conducted some sort of psycho-cultural test, the outcome being that I am a close half-half, with my individualistic side winning over the collectivist.

The good thing is that it provides me with the ability to see things from both perspectives.  The frustrating thing is that I often feel more collective in an individualistic environment, and more individualistic when in a collective environment.

This is where my pickle lies.

France is very much about ‘la vie commune’, that is to say, the French are very much social creatures and talk often about communal life. This is where I fit really well, more so than in New Zealand.  The French love to talk about the concept of equality, social justice, common values and upholding traditions in the face of globalisation (as long as its their culture, and not those of others!). And my collectivist being agrees wholeheartedly that we – society – ought to be having more conversations about these things. This, in essence, is what democracy is about. Yet in New Zealand we have taken our right to have a say for granted. So much so, that we’ve forgotten our responsibility to make sure that everyone else should have their their say too.

So when I speak like this In New Zealand, I probably sound like a flaming hippy. Whereas, in France, it’s normal to consider the idea of the greater good.

At the same time, I also grew up as somewhat of an anomaly.  Instead of going out for school sports, one of my favourite teachers would hand me the key for the computer room. So while the whole school were out playing sports, I would hide away and surf the internet.  Since those days I have absoloutly HATED group think.  Which is essentially agreeing with or doing the same thing as your mates, ‘coz you can’t be bothered making a scene. We do this really well in New Zealand. We keep calm and agree with something we might actually disagree with, or do things that we know are wrong because its much safer than looking like a dork and creating conflict. This has never sat well with me.  I don’t like going along with things just because it’s cool, or because someone says I should, or ‘coz someone else thinks its a good idea. I need to make decisions based on what is reasonable for me and my needs, not based on what everyone else thinks. Whats more, I absoloutly hate the feeling that I’m being coerced, manipulated or like my own needs don’t count. To this extent, I am very much an individualist.

In New Zealand this isn’t seen as a particularly bad thing. But the French habitually use the word ‘individualist’ often, and as a bad word. Its what they attribute as being the root cause of undesirable Anglo-Saxon tendencies. We English, Americans, Australians and to a lesser extent New Zealanders, are all selfish, little individualists!  Although I don’t think French v Anglo societies are too disimilar in the way our societies function. But it’s true that when I contrast how the French go about their daily routines, it is much more codified than in NZ. Everyone tends to do things as agreed and as has always been done.

So anyway, there’s a lot of group think that goes on in France. Although on first glances you wouldn’t think so. The French appear to be perpetually arguing with one another. If you dont look close enough, you would think they relish conflict (my French professer confirmed today, that even if a French person agrees wholeheartedly with you, on principle they will debate against you. They are taught how to do this throughout their schooling, so by the time they have left university, they are excellent at getting their point across!). But in my humble opinion, the reason they must fight to get their point across is because in France, every decision must be made by consensus. I’m not even sure the concept ‘executive decision’ exists here.  So if you want your needs to be met, rather than just going off and getting the job done (which would suit me fine), you kinda need to do a good job of convincing everyone else that your idea is best so that they’ll sanction it. This is why a French gathering is so bloody noisy. Everyone is clambering all over one another to prove their point or sway people’s opinion one way or another. Going off and doing yo’ thang doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind.

This is where my problem lies. While I do believe in doing things for ‘the greater good’, i.e. paying higher taxes, so that we can redistribute wealth in a way that offers the highest pay off to society, my individualist side often feels suffocated by the French way of finding a consensus. Ok, I get that there are often times when you need to come to a consensus, but when you’re consistently forced to come to a consensus on things that might be better done individually, it just becomes more hassle than its worth. It almost pains me to sit through those processes, when the easiest solution is that Person A does what he wants, and Person B does what they want. Of course, I am truly referring to the small and trivial things that won’t impede on anyone else achieving their goal, like ‘where should we go for lunch’. I mean, do adults really need to have someone hold their hand during lunch time? Why can’t they just agree to go their separate ways in order to have everyone’s needs met? The problem is, unless you can get the whole group to agree, then you look selfish going off alone. It’s like you’re breaking some communal bond by even thinking of doing something alone.

Which brings me to my other problem. I actually LOVE being by myself or just chilling out with my husband. I enjoy my own company and indulge in a bit of alone time. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much a social creature and actually need to be surrounded by people to stay happy, healthy and sane. But I also crave my alone time just as much, if not more. Partly its because I expend so much energy trying to connect, empathise, communicate and build reationships. Add a language barrier on top and I find my energy being drained at full speed. So alone time allows me the space to breathe and centre myself. It allows me to come back to my own, natural balance without worrying whether or not I’m breaking any social codes. It allows me to disconnect from the outside world; to disconnect from all the noise, clutter and problems of others; to get away from ‘group think’ and just zen out a little. Ultimately, alone time allows me to recharge.

Needless to say that group situations in France tend to get my back up. Not so much in the ‘hey lets chill out at my place’ sense. But more in the ‘ok everyone, lets all sit down together, and decide together, what this massive group of people should all do together, at the exact same time and place’ sense (I think I’ve just discovered a new aversion to the word ‘together’).

But to be fair, I know I’ve been allowing these situations to stress me out more than necessary.

It was about 2 months ago when the hubby and I spent the weekend with a group numbering c. 40+ people. It initially irked me that we, grown adults, were pretty much ‘told’ what to do the whole time. But in spite of that, I actually really enjoyed myself.  In fact it was a bit of a relief to not have to think for the whole weekend. Whats more, I was made to feel like a real part of the group clockwork. I came away feeling as though I’d not only had a great time but that I was privvy to something quite special. Thats when I remembered what it was like to be part of a team again (it has been a while). To have synergy (Gem anyone?).

Thanks to that experience, I came to the realisation that I need to re-think my approach to this whole issue of collectivism. I need to stop getting frustrated at the process of decision making, especially if the issue is truly trivial. Instead of sitting back, perhaps I need to start partaking in the process myself. Now this won’t be easy given that there are both language and cultural barriers standing between me and the average French person. I am also at a huge disadvantage since, unlike the French, I haven’t been taught how to argue since the moment I could walk!  But if I could at least change the way I view the situation, I might feel less suffocated and more invested in the whole experience. Maybe even come away with some newfound skills or friendships.

Having said all that, I still need my alone time. That part is non-negotiable.

So anyway, this is my attempt to be mature about things. Instead of getting pissed off at the situation, I’m trying my best to put things into perspective and adapt accordingly.  I also hope that instead of taking offence at my need to escape, that people will recognise that as much as I may try to adapt, I just don’t possess the same level of social stamina as the French do. I hope people will recognise that I just need some space to recharge in order to be the best that I can be (I’m totally owning the cheese right now!).


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