Culture is not like Personality

by Milton J. Bennett


To paraphrase H.L.Menken, For every question there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. The question “what is culture?” is particularly conducive to producing such answers. In an earlier blog I suggested that the iceberg metaphor (simile) was one of those: beloved, intuitively sensible, and, at best, inaccurate. In this second installment of the “Culture is not like…” series, I want to take on the grandparent of such similes, “culture is like personality.”

Culture is like personality in that both are products of systematic observation or measurement. In the case of personality, individuals are attributed qualities according to consistencies of observation within certain conceptual categories. The observational categories might be bodily humors such as “phlegmatic” or “sanguine,” or more abstract categories such as “open-mindedness” or “extroversion.” But whether they derive from ancient Greek medicine or modern psychological measurement, the qualities ascribed to people are necessarily attributes of our own systematic observation. Descriptions of culture are also products of observation, and the qualities we attribute to groups such as “collectivism” or “individualism” are similarly products of observational categories.

Culture is not like personality in that groups of people cannot be effectively described in the same terms as the individual members of groups. To do so is to confuse levels of abstraction. At an individual level of abstraction, it may be useful to describe people in personality terms such as extroversion or to analyze interpersonal interaction with terms such as jealousy, esteem, hate, or love. But groups are not extroverted or introverted, they are not jealous, and they do not love or hate other groups. Simply put, individuals have personalities, but cultures do not.

That’s because groups are defined at a higher level of abstraction. Descriptions of group behavior are not like descriptions of individuals; instead, they are statements about individuals. In the case of cultural descriptions, the statements are about how individual members of the culture coordinate meaning and organize action within some boundary such as a national society, a tribal group, or a corporation. At a cultural level of abstraction, collections of people could be usefully described as being more collectivist and hierarchical or more egalitarian and individualistic. These are not descriptions of individual personality, but statements about how individuals organize themselves.

Distinctions among levels of abstraction and analysis tend to be blurred by the “culture is like personality” simile. On the eve of World War II, with cultural relativism all the rage in anthropology, U.S. American military planners thought they could achieve advantage by understanding the personality, or “character,” of the enemy. Many anthropologists and several elite American universities were enlisted in the effort. The purpose of such understanding was not, of course, to further productive intercultural relations, but rather to conduct psychological warfare – to find exploitable weaknesses in enemy societies and guard against their strengths. By assuming that groups of people were like individual people, the national character of Germans was determined to be “disciplined” and that of Japanese to be “conformist.”

In modern terms, this idea of national character is simplistic and stereotypical, right? Not so fast. In fact, this rendering of culture is alive and well, particularly in the business-as-warfare contexts of many MBA programs. Characterizing a national group as “high masculinity” or as “linear active” may also be simplistic and stereotypical, no matter how couched the descriptions might be in complex quantitative or taxonomic rhetoric. Granted, current research on national cultures is more nuanced than the 20th century conjectures, and acknowledgment is given to the existence of variation within cultures, but this added sophistication is usually lost in application. For instance, I have observed interculturalists routinely using the same term (e.g. “high context”) to describe both individuals (“she uses a high-context style”) and groups (“it is a high-context society”). So do cultures have a “style”? Or is a culture simply the aggregate of individuals’ styles? Or do individuals somehow represent the style? I have heard interculturalists say that personality determines culture, that culture determines personality, or that culture is simply a statement about “modal personality.” (This last statement is actually a fairly common position in cross-cultural psychology).

If we interculturalists want to be both perceived as and actually be effective in our specialty, we need to have a clear understanding of our unique conceptual focus and analytical strategy. Our focus is on the group (cultural) level of abstraction, and our analytic strategy is intercultural communication. Professionally, we are not specialists in personality, and we should avoid claiming that cultural knowledge is translatable into personality terms. Conversely, we should resist the idea that specialists in psychological personality are ipso facto specialists in culture.

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