How You Have Been Shaped: Universalism vs Particularism


Imagine you are riding in the passenger seat of a car, and a loved one of yours (spouse, parent, sibling, bff) is driving the car. While riding along, your loved one accidentally runs a red light and slams into a car in the middle of the intersection.  The other car spins out of control and drive into a telephone pole, and explodes. You and your loved one are fine, even though the hood of the car you are in is a little damaged.  Your loved one looks around and notices that there are no witnesses around. No one saw what happened. Without saying a word, your loved one speeds off, rushes home, and hides the car in the garage. Once inside your loved one’s home, he or she turns on the television and sees that the crash is on the news. The driver of the car that your loved one hit died at the scene, and the police are looking asking for help: “If anyone has any information about the hit-and-run, please contact us immediately.” 

Your loved one turns off the television in a panic, and says to you, “I know this is bad, but I just cannot turn myself in. I just can’t. I will go to jail for this, and I just can’t go to jail. I’m sorry.”  What would you do in that situation? Would you try to reason with your loved one, and try to convince him to turn himself in? If he refuses, what would you do then? Would you keep your knowledge of the accident to yourself, and not contact the police? Or, would you go straight to the police station, and let them know what your friend did? Your response to this dilemma reveals whether you are more of a universalist or a relativist/particularist. 

Universalism is the belief that there are universal, objective standards in one’s culture which every member of that culture ought to follow. People who subscribe to this kind of universalism generally value rules or principles over relationships. To be sure, they care about relationships; just not as much as they care about complying with the culture’s universal standards. Relativists or particularists, however, value relationships over rules. They too care about rules, but just not as much as they care about preserving their relationships.  This dilemma creates all kinds of conflicts in the world.

For instance, you may have seen this dilemma when it comes to marriage. When someone in your family is planning to marry someone that most people in the family do not like, does the family do anything to stop the wedding, or at least express their disapproval? Many families, despite their disapproval of the marriage, talk privately with one another about their concerns and reservations, but they almost never express their concerns with the family member whom they believe is making the “mistake.”  Where do you fall on that spectrum, between universalism and relativism? Would you confront the wayward family member because you felt it was your obligation to do so, or would you keep your concerns to yourself for the sake of the relationship?  A universalist in that situation who believes that one should always tell the truth would perceive the family’s reticence as dishonest and unloving. A relativist or particularist would care more about preserving the relationship with the relative who was about to make a mistake than they would about telling the truth.  To be sure, the particularists believe in telling the truth, but just not as much as they do about protecting their relationship with their loved ones. Saying something, in the relativist’s mind might upset the relative, and possibly harm the relationship.

I am not arguing for you to take any position. I am just trying to get you to get more clear about your own cultural background. This is important because it can help you understand others who might have different cultural convictions about rules and relationships.

How You Have Been Shaped: Individualism vs Collectivism

All of us are culturally-conditioned, but what does that mean? I'd like to try to explain.

After you were born, when your parents took you home from the hospital, they began, culturally speaking, programming you. By the way they raised you, they modeled for you how you should talk, walk, eat, greet, dress, sleep, live, love and so on. They taught you about who belonged in your group, and who did not. They taught you how people in your group should think, feel, and behave. They taught you how to properly relate to people in your family, in your neighborhood, and in your environment.

Before you were even aware of it, your brain was programmed with those same patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. You just took those patterns for granted. Most of us never really question our patterns, because we have had them for so long. Those patterns give us glimpses of our culture.

Specifically, what kinds of patterns can you look for when attempting to understand of yourself and of those whom you serve? Some cultural anthropologists see culture as a body with many different body parts. Just as a body has several different parts which serve a specific function of the body, the different parts of culture serve specific functions for a group of people. They have identified the common problems and dilemmas that every group of people in the world faces, and how each group of people responds to those problems is what distinguishes that group as a culture. It is what sets them apart as a group. Regardless of geography or genetics, nationality, gender, ethnicity, or religion, every group of people encounters some of the following problems and/or dilemmas. Their response to these problems or dilemmas gets passed down to their children and shapes the frame of reference of every person who grows up in that culture. In the same way, the cultural group from which you come has had to face the following dilemmas and problems, and you have been programmed to respond to these dilemmas or problems in very specific ways. 


Do you believe your own interests should prevail over your family’s interests; or should your family’s interests prevail over your own interests? What about your school, or company for which you work? Should your own interests prevail over their interests? Or, should the school’s or company’s interests trump yours? What about your country? Should your own interests prevail over the interests of your country, or should the country’s interests take priority over your own individual freedom? Your answer to these questions reveals the tension that exists between individualism and collectivism.

Collectivism is the belief that the interest of the group prevails over the interest of the individual; and, individualism is the belief that the interests of the individual prevail over the interests of the group. Do you do whatever you want to do regardless of how it will impact your family, classmates, company, or country? Or, do you do what is best for others, regardless of how you feel about it personally?

Both individualism or collectivism have pros and cons. The wonderful thing about individualism is that it helps the individual person reach his or her highest potential; the great tragedy of individualism is that it can lead to selfishness and self-centeredness. The beauty of collectivism is that the group grows and benefits because of the individual’s sacrifice; the downside of collectivism is that the individual quells his or her own interests, and does not realize his or her full personal potential. Where do you fall on that spectrum of individualism and collectivism? 

Culturally, What Looks Like “No” Could Mean “Yes.”

I was once so inspired by a lecturer that I was unknowingly shaking my head left and right back like I was saying "no." The lecturer stopped his lecture, and said in a condescending tone, "I don't know why SOME of you are shaking your heads in disagreement. I know I'm right." I smiled hoping he would give me a chance to respond or explain, but, perhaps because it was a large class, he continued lecturing without opening up for any questions or comments. I tried to approach him after class to explain, but other students had already surrounded him. I eventually left.

What that professor failed to understand is that in African-American culture, when someone is saying something that we believe is profound, we sometimes shake our heads back and forth in amazement. Even though it looks like we are saying "no," we are really saying, "WOW!" Or "YES!!!"

As brilliant as that professor was, he lacked awareness about my culture, and he made me feel as though my way of expressing appreciation was not normal, acceptable or welcome in his class. He thereby created distance with me.

Teacher, if you are not aware of your students' cultures, you could unintentionally and unknowingly be pushing them away.  Humble yourself and become  student of your students. #HowtoREACHYouthToday

What is Culture?

In Teaching Cross-Culturally, Judith and Sherwood Lingfelter share their knowledge about what teachers can do to become more effective at reaching and teaching people from diverse backgrounds.  Their primary claim is that to be an effective teacher, one must become aware of one's own cultural values, and also understand how those values might cause conflict in other cultures.  Only after one has become clear about their own biases and expectations can they begin their journey toward effectiveness as a teacher.

If culture is so important to reaching and teaching others, what exactly is culture? Culture is an agricultural word that comes from the Latin verb, colere, which means “to tend, guard, cultivate, or till.” In most Western languages, culture commonly refers to one’s cultivation or refinement through formal education. So, in most Western countries, when we say someone is “cultured,” we are usually referring to someone who has an informed love for the music, poetry, wine, museums, and literature. This is culture in the most superficial sense of the word.

Culture, in the broader sense, refers to the taken for granted patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Let us unpack that definition a little.

Culture is patterned.  There are patterns, or rituals, of thinking, feeling, and behaving that get repeated over and over again. How close should we stand to others? What should we eat? What should we not eat? Who should we be friends with? Who is not like us? When we greet each other, should we shake hands, hug, fist bump, nod our heads, say something, kiss, or bow?  When we talk to one another, should we maintain eye contact, or avoid it? What about when we are talking to members of the opposite sex? How should we greet them? All these patterns give us glimpses of culture.

Furthermore, those patterns fit into a bigger historical, economic, political, and religious context. We are not a junkyard of history, but really a product of it.  So, when it comes to thinking about culture, one question to ask yourself could be, “what is the nature of the order that is here?” Your answer might reveal some of the patterns of your culture. 

Culture is learned. Our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving are not inherited genetically, but they are learned.  Human beings are curiously unfinished at birth, and socialization is a part of how we learn culture.

Culture is shared. Culture is not only learned, but it is also shared with other people.  Culture is learned, but it is learned by virtue of you and I being part of a community that shares that learning.  It is a collective phenomenon because it is at least shared with people who live or lived within the same social context.   In that sense, culture is a collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another. 

Another interesting thing that is important to understand about culture is that you may not always see culture, but you will feel the consequences of it if you break one of its rules.  There are informal positive and negative sanctions in every culture, and if you do something that is frowned upon, then you will be punished.  If you do something that is desired, then you will be rewarded.  Culture, then, being a shared phenomenon, works to bring one into line.  It works to make one socially acceptable among a specific group of people.