[LETTERS to the editor]Culture shapes survival in crisisIn times of social and economic crisis, cultural values play a major role in the ability of countries to overcome difficulties. There are contrasting perspectives on individualism and teamwork in most societies. It is important to take stock and examine to what extent basic social and organizational behavior will be able to guide people out of critical events
There is a Korean proverb, “so many men, so many minds,” which means that every person has a distinct personality and set of values. Each person lives in different circumstances within his country, society or family, giving rise to different personal mindsets, or ways of thinking and coping with events.
As societies change from agriculture to industry, and as people move from rural to urban areas, culture and behavior also change. Values, beliefs and ideas as expectations about society and people also adapt to new environments.
In the case of Korea, life in the agricultural village is based on rice cultivation and harvest. Special features that come from agricultural people are collectivity and cooperation. For example, Korean farmers have village cooperative groups called doo-re. Members help each other through labor exchange during the busy farming season. Doo-re members are also related to each other by blood and affinity. These types of mutual assistance through labor exchange are common in Asian agricultural villages.
In contrast, at a very early age, people in modern societies in the West are trained to take care of themselves individually, in charge of their own fate. Modern young people are educated to survive on their own, without calling on any social group for help or assistance. Modern urban Western people learn that they are independent individuals. They grow up to think that people all over the world have the same individualistic ideas, values and behavior as theirs. They may also feel uncomfortable if other people behave as a group to help or protect each other.
Individualism could be considered selfish behavior from an Asian group or village perspective. In contrast to Western individualism, most Koreans emphasize collective and social behavior. Korean culture is based on family, where close-knit family relations are considered important. Koreans still see themselves as members of social units ? whether in school, with friends, family or community. Many Koreans still have a strong collective disposition, which is common in many Asian countries. Many commentators, however say that Korea’s collective disposition is vanishing.
A strong collective social disposition was an important resource for survival in the economic and financial crisis of 1997-98. The International Monetary Fund provided critical assistance to the financial and economic institutions of the country to survive and recover from the crisis.
During the crisis, a significant event emphasized the importance of collective social behavior as a survival tool. President Kim Dae Jung promoted the campaign for gold-collection to pay off debts to the IMF. In an overwhelming collective response, Koreans sold or donated their gold to help Korean authorities leverage the debt. Millions of Koreans earnestly participated. As a result, Korea recovered from the depression sooner than anticipated.
The 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup is another example how collective behavior works. In the 2002 event, people watched the soccer games in big groups in the streets, cheering the Korean national team. It is estimated that over 7million people gathered and cheered the Korean National Team all over the country.
Generally speaking, every person in the world has different ideas, concepts and ideologies. Thus, it is natural that there are differences between cultures. Dynamic circumstances and events continue to spin off from the financial crisis in the United States, and spread throughout the globe. Countries worldwide may need to take stock of their basic social strengths and resources, including their values and beliefs. How people behave to help each other through individual or collective efforts will now become crucial tools for survival.
Park Jin-hyung, Hanyang University,