Individualism in American Culture

As briefly explained in Cultural Aspects of Communication (May 17, 2007) when people communicate, cultures communicate. However, culture is an abstract concept that reveals little about what it entails. For example, if you refer to “Japanese culture,” what comes to mind? Perhaps images related to general stereotypes: their stoicism, politeness, reserve, their habit of bowing to greet one another, or their relentless pursuit of group harmony. As for “American culture,” it could allude to assertiveness, optimism, boldness, a sense of enterprise and…a solid handshake. All these characteristics are merely general and superficial expressions of what lies beneath, i.e. tendencies that are associated with learned and nuanced collective programming.

Geert Hofstede developed the concept of cultural dimensions which are psychological/behavioral constructs that help measure the general tendencies of a society to ultimately provide a clearer portrait of its culture. Among the five main dimensions he identified (power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term orientation), individualism is certainly the construct that stands out most when defining American culture.

Individualism is a concept often confused with egoism, or selfishness. If they both focus on the supremacy of the “self”, individualism doesn’t necessarily imply a complete disregard and disrespect of others. As a cultural dimension, individualism is, in a given society, the measure to which people feel that they must care for themselves, and to what extent they feel that their rights and needs prevail over those of their collectivity. Harry C. Triandis – whose studies complement those of Hofstede - suggesting that a person who shows strong individualism will value competition, personal achievement, promotion of one's own interests, well-being, freedom, uniqueness in personality, dignity, pride, self-satisfaction, independence, autonomy, initiative and creativity - just to name a few. There are many more characteristics recognized in the individualistic culture/individual, as well as many more layers of attributes.

Hofstede’s studies have shown that of all the cultures he analyzed, American culture possesses the highest level of individualism. It is the ultimate individualistic culture. This permeates every aspect of American society and is solidly embedded in the country’s constitution, a document inspired by the principles of the Enlightenment, which encourages acknowledgement and respect of individual rights and liberties. The United States has evolved around these ideals to become a modern republic in which power rests in the body of citizenry, thus reinforcing a culture in which the individual has a strong voice in his society and can feel free and his strongly encouraged to pursue his interests to his own benefit.

American psyche is reveals individualism through much more than a strong handshake. Glorifying the “self-made man”, holding social and political heroes in high esteem, practicing a form of capitalism free of excessive state control, supporting a justice system based on the presumption of innocence, resolutely believing in individual freedom, declaring the ideal of democracy as the foundation of the society shows the extent to which individualism is ingrained in America . What lies beneath American culture also resurfaces through interactions between Americans and foreigners, and betweem American government and foreign governments, through contrasts as well as through the way the country handles the many issues its society is facing. All these opportunities to grasp American culture show the evidence of a social fabric sown by a form of individualism that unites even the most divided Americans.

American culture is cemented in the right of each individual to be free to express himself, and pursue his dreams and passions. This core value is the brightest side of American individualism. Admitting that this value is strong at home, we still must wonder how the whole American individualistic construct relates to other cultural constructs that are rather structured on the basis of collectivism, implying they don't necessarily have compatible needs, goals and ambitions. Such considerations cannot be ignored. These cultures could easily misunderstand American individualism and perceive American culture as a culture of imperialism, abandonment, arrogance and immorality in complete contrast with how American people most likely want to be perceived, how they see themselves, and what they aspire to be. After all, American individualism was born from the noblest hopes of a few to make America a model society.


Maribel said...

Good words.

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