Conversations with individuals who have moved away from Egypt, or similarly tight-knit societies, to more individualistic countries in Europe or North America often reveal a shared narrative: a feeling of alienation due to a lack of warmth and solidarity in times of need, juxtaposed with a cherished newfound sense of independence.
Yearning for Togetherness
“You do gain the freedom to make decisions without consulting the whole household,” shares Zeina Karim, an Egyptian student residing in Germany. “But at the end of the day, you can’t help but miss the unconditional support from family and community,” she continues.
“There is an initial shock. In Egypt, it’s normal to greet someone every five minutes while walking down the street, but in Europe, you can go for days without exchanging a word with anyone outside your circle,” Adel Yakout, another Egyptian student living in Germany, tells Egyptian Streets.
The evident shock in these expats’ words arises from crossing arguably one of the most profound cultural rifts of the modern world: the dichotomy of collectivism and individualism. Extensively studied in cross-cultural psychology, it is termed the “deep structure of cultural differences” by psychologist Patricia Greefield.
Exploring Cultural Contrasts
Egyptian Streets interviewed counseling psychologist Tamer El Kattan and sociologist Helen Rizzo to explore the dynamics of living in a collectivistic culture compared to an individualistic one, as well as the challenges of transitioning between the two.
“Collectivistic cultures prioritize the common good. Individuals [in such cultures] see themselves as integral parts of a larger whole, be it a family or society,” explains El Kattan. “If you think about any decision you make, you are not completely free, you consider the common good. But then you get to benefit from that common good,” he adds.
On the other hand, El Kattan explains that individualistic cultures emphasize self-reliance and autonomy, with a strong focus on achieving individual goals and self-actualization. The pursuit of personal success fosters competitiveness, which is a defining characteristic of individualism.
Helen Rizzo, an American sociologist who has been living in Egypt for more than two decades, acknowledges the drawbacks of extreme individualism.
“In individualistic societies like the US, healthcare might not be considered a right, and people are blind to the impact of discrimination and poverty on others if it does not affect them,” Rizzo says.
However, Rizzo also highlights that collectivistic cultures come with their own challenges. While collectivistic values and community solidarity may compensate for the neglect of vulnerable members of society, they impose a high level of social control evident in societal expectations that demand strict conformity.
“The collective wants you to behave in a certain way: if you don’t, then they might withhold support, or at the extremes they kick you out,” she remarks.
Mental Health in Collective Shadows
Shedding light on the impact and pressure societal conformity has on mental health, El Kattan explains that a collectivistic social structure can lead to notable differences in the prevalence of mental disorders compared to individualistic cultures.
Psychopathology research shows that in collectivistic societies, depressive disorders have a higher propensity to manifest with physical symptoms — a pattern which emerges due to the cultural norm of avoiding open discussions about mental health issues, as such conversations are viewed as burdensome to the social fabric. Individuals experiencing distress opt to express it through physical pain, seeking social support and solidarity while minimizing any potential strain on the collective.
On a similar note, in Japan, a highly collectivistic society, a distinct variation of social anxiety called “taijin kyofusho” has been identified, where the anxiety is more so associated with concern over embarrassing others rather than oneself, underscoring the importance of “saving face” and the significance of preserving the collective image in such cultures.
However, El Kattan argues for a need to take these findings with a grain of salt. As most cultural psychology research is biased towards and conducted in individualistic cultures, it leaves a disproportionate emphasis on them as the norm in psychological theory. According to him, this prevailing bias overlooks many shared emotions and experiences that transcend cultural boundaries and are part of the universal human experience.
“At the end of the day,” El Kattan explains, “everyone, regardless of their individualistic or collectivistic background, seeks a sense of belonging, social prestige, and status. However, the means of achieving these aspirations differ across cultures.” Individual achievements find prominence in one culture, while contributing to the group takes center stage in another.
The Tax of Conformity
Exploring the strong tendency towards conformity and prioritizing the group’s welfare in Egypt and many Middle Eastern countries, Rizzo highlights how certain gaps in government structures lead people to seek support from alternative networks, such as extended family, religious communities, ethnic ties, and broader society.
In essence, just as paying taxes grants access to state privileges, in those alternative support networks, a different kind of “tax” exists — a social tax. By adhering to established cultural values, traditions, and behavioral norms, individuals become eligible for the common goods that the collective offers, such as social support, recognition, and a sense of belonging. Non-conformity, on the other hand, may lead to social ostracism or exclusion from the collective’s advantages.
Rizzo notes that this equation particularly applies to middle-class communities, which might experience heightened pressure to control their behavior compared to the upper and lower classes.
“The upper class, secure in their position, may enjoy more freedom from societal expectations as they have already achieved a level of prestige. The lower class is usually just trying to survive through any means available to them,” Rizzo remarks. “But the middle class faces an uncertain position in society,” she continues.
Striving to maintain or improve their status, they feel like they “do not have the luxury to deviate.”
Navigating Collectivism as a Minority
“The complexity of someone’s experience of a culture cannot be simplified into the collectivism-individualism aspect. Culture is deeply personal,” explains El Kattan. “It depends on your gender, your religion, your ethnicity, your social status, and your political views.”
In other words, culture comprises sub-cultures that are influenced by an individual’s level of affiliation with minority groups. The extent to which one benefits from collectivistic culture hinges on their identification with the majority.
“The benefit of individualism is that you can be whoever you want to be,” Julia Hazem, an Egyptian student living in Germany, shares in a conversation with Egyptian Streets.
“If you belong to any kind of minority group, you will for sure be more comfortable in an individualistic society,” she adds.
According to Hazem, the lacking acceptance for diversity in collectivistic cultures can, in extreme cases, undermine self-esteem.
Unlike individualistic meritocratic societies, which derive one’s social status from individual attributes like success or intelligence, collectivistic cultures primarily determine one’s worth based on their roles within family, friend groups, or social entities.
This raises the question: what if a person does not identify with any predefined entity? Does that leave no room for them in a collectivistic culture?
An Inherent Tradeoff?
“Around 2011 there was a clear broadening of the definition of Egyptian identity,” Rizzo recalls. “People were tired of division. They embraced a feeling of ‘we are all Egyptian and that’s what matters.’ The definition of the collective became very broad and all-encompassing.”.
“Then there was a backlash, and the definition of who is Egyptian quickly became very exclusive,” she continues.
Finding hope in the midst of seemingly rigid and cumulative cultural dynamics, the key seems to lie in a reminder of a broader shared identity, such as being Egyptian or any other unifying element. This simple yet profound insight could pave the way for cultures to embrace the advantages of collectivism without stifling individuality, dispelling the notion of an inherent tradeoff between community solidarity and individual expression.
A broad or dynamic enough collective identity can be a source of empowerment and warmth, where the collective’s well-being intertwines with the fulfillment of individual dreams.
Subscribe to the Egyptian Streets’ weekly newsletter! Catch up on the latest news, arts & culture headlines, exclusive features and more stories that matter, delivered straight to your inbox by clicking here.