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Examining America’s Cultural Values: Individualism

By Cathy Douglass
“It’s a free country…” “I have the right!” “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” These common sayings reflect Americans’ belief in individualism. Bill Perry, in his book “A Look Inside America,” (1) places it as number one in his list of America’s cultural values. Most Americans would agree with that.
Individualism to Americans means the freedom to “choose my own way,” make my own decisions, based on my own criteria, as well as the responsibility to personally accept the consequences of my own choices. This is contrasted with some values from other cultures, which have a group orientation. In other cultures, especially Asian cultures, individuals are not free to make their own choices; they must consult and obey their elders. The needs and considerations of family, clan, and community come first. Individualism is viewed as selfishness and rebellion.
You can easily see individualism in American society in advertising. Billboards and TV commercials are directed at individuals who can decide whether to buy a product or not. There is no advertisement that says, “Ask your parents whether you can have….”
Individualism Encouraged
From the earliest age in America, children are encouraged to develop their sense of individual identity, achievement, and responsibility. Many Americans give their newborn babies their own room and crib (cot) from the first day they come home from hospital. As the baby grows, every individual achievement is celebrated and encouraged at the youngest possible age, such as feeding himself, dressing himself, walking to a neighbor’s house, talking on the phone politely, etc.
I remember when my family had recently moved to Kenya, we took our kids swimming at a club. In the changing room we observed a child about six years old being dressed by his ayah (nanny). I hastened to point out to my four-year-old what a shame that was, and how proud I was that she could dress herself already! The small independent successes of childhood give way to adult expressions of individualism such as living away from parents as soon as possible, making career choices without consulting any family member, and American-style love marriage without advice or interference from anyone else!
Youth Question Values
When every individual achievement of childhood is celebrated and rewarded, it should be no surprise that generational conflicts start to come up in early teen years. Parents struggle to tame the “independence monster” they have helped to create, while the teenagers want to continue the individualistic path they have started on. Now their choices and achievements start to have more serious consequences. Driving, dating, and college education choices have major implications and effects on not just the individual, but the family, like it or not.
For instance, many youth begin to question the religious and spiritual values of their upbringing. Religious conversion – the right to decide one’s own spiritual convictions and future – is another expression of individual freedom that American culture takes for granted. Statistics show that most people make a firm decision about which religious path to follow before age 25, many of them breaking away from their family’s religious traditions. This is considered a normal part of the individualistic climate of America.
Frightening or Attractive?
The cultural value of individualism may seem frightening to those raised in a community-oriented culture. The older generation especially may feel ignored and disrespected by younger people who are exercising their “right” to make their own decisions like other American youth around them. This may make parents cling more tightly to their authority and make them become more demanding and controlling.
On the other hand, individualism may seem very attractive to those whose families have already been controlling and demanding. The lure of a life of “freedom” – freedom from family expectations and pressures – has brought many South Asians to the US. Here they find a society that has been successfully built, in its materialistic sense, on the principles of individual freedom to choose, to take risks, to achieve, and to bear the responsibility for success or failure. After all, when it’s “sink or swim,” people are highly motivated to swim! America’s large middle class and thriving economy owe a lot to the principle of individualism. (Other American values, like the Protestant work ethic, and the idea that progress and change are better also contribute heavily to America’s economic success). These values reward creativity, effort, perseverance, achievement, entrepreneurial spirit, and clear thinking. Thousands of South Asians are benefiting from the American spirit of individualism.
Balancing the American value of individualism is the American virtue of a "community spirit." One of America's great strengths is the willingness to rise above individualism to work together for a great cause. Whether it is the war against slavery or the quest to put a man on the moon, or simply raising money to help a loved one with cancer, Americans manage some of the most dynamic organizations on earth. You can catch this spirit by getting involved in your communities, schools, volunteer groups, and faith organizations.
Are you, as an immigrant, struggling with whether to love or hate the American cultural value of individualism? Here are some suggestions that may help:
--Keep a teachable and open attitude toward cultural differences. Look for the positives. A critical, self-righteous spirit produces a negative atmosphere in the home. Many slokas (verses) from the Holy Bible encourage thankfulness as a way of life: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks….” (2)
--Mix with Americans carefully. A book of ancient wisdom in the Bible says, “The righteous man is cautious in friendship.” (3)
--Cross-cultural friendships are very rewarding, but you can avoid those who make obviously poor moral choices.
--Ask Americans what they believe, what their cultural values are and why. After listening respectfully, briefly share yours. You will both be enriched.
--When individualistic spirit versus family expectations produces conflict at home, encourage dialog rather than argument. In a cross-cultural existence, an “either/or” mindset often creates or increases conflict. Do not retreat to the impenetrable castle of “Obey your elders!” which will not be accepted by youth raised in America. Listen to their feelings. They are under pressure too. In many cases, when they are at least listened to, they may be more content with their parents’ decisions than if you decide without even listening.
--If you are the young person struggling to make your parents understand your point of view, do not simply claim, “But this is what all my friends are doing!” They will not be impressed with that. They may respond, “And if all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?” They will be impressed if you calmly present clear reasons for what you want to do – and still respect them in the process. Be clear about that, too!
To conclude, individualism is just one point of conflict for those coming from a community-oriented background. A wise approach recognizes the importance of family unity, the joys and realities of cross-cultural experiences, and the value of making changes that support healthy relationships at home.
1 “A Look Inside America” by Bill Perry. To buy this book, call Multi-Language Media at 717-738-0582
2 First Thessalonians 5:16-18, Holy Bible
3 Proverbs 12:26, Holy Bible
A strong spirituality and close relationship with God can help you through the challenges of life in a new country. To read more about knowing God, and cultural adjustment, visit www.nayajeevan.org or email. To request a free New Testament, call 877-677-2614.
About the author
I may not look like an immigrant, but I feel like one – and some people think I sound like one, with my accent! After living in Kenya for 21 years, when my husband and I returned to our native U.S. in 2002, it felt like a strange foreign country. In Africa we had interacted with both Africans and South Asians, so by culture I was more eastern than western. I struggled to adapt to life in this confusing place. Soon I was dreaming of a website which would help immigrants adjust to life in North America. I love the idea of extending a helping hand to those who may be as overwhelmed, lonely, and uncomfortable in their new land as I was at first. Please visit www.nayajeevan.org and let us know if we’re helping!

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