Opinion: Me and We

How do you convince children to eat their food? You might say, “Think of all the children starving in poor countries and how lucky you are to have food.” If you want to get ahead in the social world, you might argue, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” You may believe that you should be able to express yourself, say what’s on your mind, and promote your own goals. If so, your orientation is fairly typical for Americans.

Alternatively, you might say to your children, “Think of the farmer who has worked so hard to produce food for you.” What you might say about getting along (not ahead) in the social world is: “The nail that stands out gets pounded down.” You may strive to fulfill your proper social roles (e.g., be a good dad or mom), engage in appropriate action, and promote the goals of others. If so, your orientation is more typical of most other societies in the world.

These statements represent individualist and collectivist perspectives on how we relate to others. Of course, human social life features both dimensions. Still, many societies emphasize one more than the other. Numerous international studies have documented that the U.S. is the most individualistic country in the world, with Australia and Canada also relatively individualistic but not quite as much. Most other countries in the world lean in the direction of collectivism, including many in East Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania; also, Native Americans and smaller-scale subcultures within otherwise predominantly individualist countries.

Tensions between the individual and the collective arise on a number of levels. In his book, “A Time to Build,” Yuval Levin writes of generational conflicts in journalism at the New York Times: “One generation came of age where they entered this esteemed institution and tried to find a way to fit in, and this other generation has the expectation that the institution will change to accommodate them” (p. 84). Of course, when it comes to working in an organization, both kinds of adjustment are very important.

In many ways we strive for some balance between individual rights and collective responsibilities, but tensions arise in a number of domains: free speech and its limits, tax rates, private and public schools, gun laws, zoning laws, provision of health care and other human services, etc. Many laws and policies are ways of dealing with the ongoing tensions and efforts to create a healthy balance.

Extreme individualism manifests in a number of ways. We tend to admire the self-made person more than one who has sacrificed for others. We ask “What is X’s personal worth?” rather than “How much has X contributed to the common good?” We value high self-esteem and don’t even have a real word for other-esteem (empathy, respect?).

We see anger all around (“I’m not getting from others what I deserve”) but must be reminded to feel gratitude (“I have received more from others than I might deserve”). On a personal level, extreme individualism can become narcissism: “I am the center of the universe. Everything revolves around me.” “I can say what I want regardless of the effects on others.” “Only my goals matter; yours matter only in the service of mine.”

At a national level you are more likely to hear, “Think of all the poor countries and how lucky you are to be a U.S. citizen!” than “Think of the ways the U.S. is reliant on other countries!” Our foreign policy is rather strongly U.S.-centric, even though human survival now clearly depends on international cooperation and commitments (think of nuclear arms containment, responses to potential pandemics, limiting climate change). The U.S. sometimes acts as if it does not really need friends and allies.

At the species level, extreme individualism could also be related to believing that the human species does not need other species as friends and allies, but only subservient ones (like livestock, food crops, etc.). We do not acknowledge the generous gifts provided by collaborator species ranging from bees (crop pollination) to trees (oxygen generation). We do not acknowledge often enough that we belong to ecosystems that thrive when all the constituent species play their parts. Focusing only on our own human needs runs the risk of bringing down the entire inter-connected planetary system.

Perhaps we Americans should strive for more balance between individualistic and collectivist orientations. We could take a lesson from Fred (Mr.) Rogers who is said to have opened conversations by asking everyone to close their eyes for a minute and think about those who have been helpers in their lives.

Sally Planalp and George Cheney are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The views expressed here are their own and do not represent those of the university or any other institution.