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Last year, I had the experience of studying abroad through a student exchange program and my destination was The Netherlands. Vietnam – a Southeast Asian country with long history being under the heavy influence of China, can be described as a collectivist society, while The Netherlands, a Western Europe nation, is more individualist. Thus, after a few days starting my semester in The Netherlands, I soon noticed that, I and my Dutch classmates behaved differently, especially in the classroom. When students in my host university confidently raised their hands asking questions, I didn’t. When my peers were more than comfortable to share their ideas and opinions in front of class, I wasn’t. There were many situations in which they even disputed with our teacher on subject-related matters – the action I rarely saw back in my home university. Only after I got back to Vietnam and learned about individualism and collectivism from the course Intercultural Communication did I have the chance to reflect my experience. I have understood both of mine and my Dutch classmates’ behaviors so much better and now, all the “weird” things happened in the Netherland started to be clear to me.
Individualistic societies tend to focus more on themselves and this is clearly shown through personal rights and responsibilities of students in making the curriculum. In my host university, it is students’ tasks to decide which courses they would take and I, as an exchange student, had to do all the work by myself, for my own sakes, ranging from researching the course contents, reviewing types of assessment on university websites to consulting with the study advisor and registering. According to my Dutch study advisor, only students understand themselves the best; therefore, by letting the student decide the courses, the university can encourage the individuality and make students become more responsible and more engaged to their programs. The concept of encouraging individuality at first was exotic to me because ever since I am a university student, my home faculty has always been the one behind my timetable. The faculty decides all the courses for its students and unless it is in great conflicts with other activities, we students should avoid making any modification in order to fit in with the class, even there are courses in which we do not find interested or helpful. After studying about Individualism and Collectivism, I realized that the act of my home faculty represent a characteristic of collectivism which is goal of a group is above that of its members and individuals are expected to follow the settings and rules of the group.
Every individual in collectivist society has a certain responsibility to bear for the good of their group and this applies well to a very small scope like university classroom. In my home university, I am placed in a class with fixed members that will go with me throughout four years. Out of more than thirty people, some particular individuals are assigned with the responsibilities of leaders. There is usually a class monitor, a vice monitor, a secretary, who play the roles of communicating channels between faculty and students as well as organizing the class. Everyone in my class has to accept the management of leaders. We also understand that the status of the whole class is far more important than the individual, so all the information has to be published among its members and the benefits of some individuals have to be sacrificed if necessary. Unlikely, the Dutch look for independence, giving prominence to individual benefits rather than group advantages. Therefore, there is not such a thing called fixed classroom or class monitor in Dutch university, not to mention other positions. If any concerns raised, I could easily communicate directly with my teachers, faculty staff through the online portal. Thus, privacy of one’s information was well preserved and the need to depend on other students was also removed.
Before moving to The Netherlands, I prepared for myself a lot of information on how classes in Western university would look like. Often the advices are the courses are demanding so students are required to self-study a lots, they have to interact with lecturers and be active. From my point of view, students from the collectivist societies like Vietnam, including me, are often quiet, sometimes silent and respectful in class. It is not because we do not have our own opinions but because we are educated to accept more than to argue. I thought “Fine, not too bad, I will soon adapt”. However, things turned out to be different. Since the concept of individualism does not believe that opinion of majority can cover that of the minority, every individual has the right to raise their voices. Therefore, it was not strange when my Digital Communication teacher wanted to hear the thought of a student about a communication style and others to question his or her opinion before starting the lecture. But at that time, the idea of speaking out and arguing in front of the whole class terrified me. That is because I, a 20-year-old born and raised up in a collectivist environment, most of the time found myself tolerant to other students’ ideas, even the opposite ones.
Once in my Literature class, a discussion broke out between a group of students with the teacher when our class was reflecting a detail in a poem. As soon as the teacher explained his point of view, students who did not feel satisfied with the answer raised their hands, interrupting the teacher and expressing their rejection by making questions, asking for clarification and presenting their own ideas. The discussion was complete serious to the point I might describe it as a fierce struggle. At that time, I could not believe to my eyes, “Who do you think you are to question the teacher.” I thought in my head, “It is Literature, there is no right or wrong, what are those students thinking and why the teacher allows this to happen”. But now after having learned that individualism and collectivism are to distinct cultures, I understand that I misunderstood them. Collectivistic cultures tend to teach the whole group and allow students to learn one from the other, whereas individualistic societies tend to teach by focusing on the individual. The Netherlands is an individualist society and so are its people. Compared to Vietnamese focus on the harmony within a group, Dutch individuals never need to have the same ideas, and differences within a group are more than accepted and endeavors to stand out are rewarded.
After studying about the difference between individualism and collectivism, I start to understand my Dutch peers’ behaviors more and have a deeper look on cultural communication. The lesson that I gain for myself is that too collectivist or individualist is not the best culture style in an international context. People have to combine both individualism and collectivism cleverly and be open-minded to accept new cultural patterns in order to adapt better.
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