Intercultural Training: Individualism, Communitarianism and the Toilet Brush

Living and working in an intercultural world and leading intercultural training means I have the chance to notice differences. One of the things I’ve noticed in traveling between Germany and the US may strike you as odd but I think it helps make a point.  When I visit the public WC in a German airport I notice that each stall has a toilet brush but in the US airports I’ve visited, there isn’t one.  Why is that?  Fons Trompenaars’ cultural dilemma concepts of Individualism and Communitarianism from his Seven Dimensions of Culture may shed some light on the subject.

In the business world

In business, a cultural tendency toward individualism means that the community exists to serve the needs of the individuals in it.  If a community or group no longer serves the needs of an individual, it is more than understandable for an individual to leave and find a new group that will.

A cultural tendency toward communitarianism is the opposite.  Communitarianism holds that the needs of the individual are not as important as the needs of the group.  Individuals are expected to sacrifice on behalf of the well being of the group.  The amount of sacrifice expected varies from culture to culture.

As with each of Trompenaars’ seven dimensions, we are talking about the relative value tendencies of groups, not behavior differences of individuals. Naturally, there are people in more communitarian cultures who value individualism and vice-versa. But what does this have to do with toilet brushes in airport WC stalls?

The toilet brush

My sense is the toilet brushes in German public WC stalls come from two things, low water toilets and the feeling of responsibility to the “next guy”.  A small expectation to clean could be based on the need to conserve water for the society and that the next guy has a right to expect a clean toilet bowl before use.  I know it’s not much of an inconvenience to take a few seconds to clean a toilet bowl in a public WC, yet in the airports I’ve visited in the US, I’m not expect to do it at all, hence no toilet brush.

Comparatively, the US culture tends to value individualism far more than the German culture though both cultures value individualism compared to the world average.   But what’s the “So what?” to it all.  If I need to influence someone from a more individualistic culture I may begin by noting the personal benefits and advantages of the new behavior or idea I bring up.  If, on the other hand, I need to influence someone from a more communitarian culture, it would make sense to begin with the benefits of the new behavior or idea to the group.  In a business with both cultural tendencies present, it may make sense to design policies and communication that appeal to both tendencies.

Reconciling the differences offers businesses a chance to turn working across cultures into a corporate advantage rather than a cost of doing business.  Please share your experiences on the topic in the comments area below.

The focus on reconciliation is why Target Training integrates Trompenaars Hampden-Turner’s experience and research into our solutions.  Through reconciliation, clients will find better solutions to the intercultural  problems they face.  Target Training is a licensed supplier of  Trompenaars-Hampden-Turner’s  Intercultural Awareness Profile and Cultural Competence Online Products. Target Training provides intercultural training based on the Trompenaars’ Seven Dimension Model alone and as part of business communication skills training.