American Culture: Individualism

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When most people think about the “American culture,” images of Coca-Cola, hot dogs, baseball games, big cars and suburban mansions come to mind. But there is a deeper side to American culture than Hollywood and Disney World. Underneath the layers of TV advertising and hyper-consumerism, there is a cultural DNA that makes America what it is. Here is a brief look at several cultural “genes” that influence the way Americans think and act. Individualism

Individualism is a way of life by which a person places his or her own desires, needs, and comforts above the needs of a broader community. This does not mean that Americans have no concern for other people, but it does mean that they give high priority to their personal ambitions. This can turn in to an extreme form of selfishness, which makes good relationships almost impossible. In a classic book about American culture, called Habits of the Heart, the authors say that Americans often enter into relationships only if their own needs are met first. And if those needs aren’t satisfied, then they usually end the relationship. Perhaps this is one reason why fewer Americans are getting married.

The positive side of American individualism is that people are encouraged to express themselves in unique ways. Because the culture values individuality, Americans admire those who do something new and innovative. Perhaps this is one reason why so many technological inventions and new ideas come from the U.S. It’s certainly one reason why so many new artistic and musical movements—such as Jazz—have been born in America.

Individualism also fuels hyper-consumerism in the U.S. The best physical example of America’s individualistic consumer culture is the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is a monument to individualism, a place where you can fulfill any material desire. The shopping center has 520 stores, two full-sized indoor roller coasters, and a large saltwater aquarium with sharks, stingrays and other exotic ocean life. The place is so big that 32 Boeing 747s or seven professional baseball stadiums would fit inside. If a person spent 10 minutes in each store it would take 86 hours to go through the entire mall.

It’s important to remember that individualism in the U.S. hasn’t suffocated the American community spirit. When tragedy strikes—a natural disaster or terrorist attack—Americans set all differences aside and pool their efforts to help one another. Americans have formed thousands of professional and recreational associations, groups of people who bond around a common activity aimed at serving the community or just having fun. One of the best ways to get connected with new friends is to find an activity you enjoy and join a local association. Work: You are what you do

One of the first questions that Americans ask each other when they meet is, “So, what do you do?” This is a common question because most people in the U.S. define who they are by the work they do. In other cultures, people might define themselves in relation to family lineage, ethnic heritage, or religious belief. But for many people in the U.S., “you are what you do.” Work is a central part of a person’s identity.

Americans work more hours and have fewer vacation days than most Europeans. According to Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, the average American worker now spends two weeks more on the job than he or she did 20-years ago. And the average married couple’s combined annual workload is now seven weeks longer than it was just a decade ago.

Needless to say, all this work puts tremendous limitations on relationships with family and friends. People have very little free time. Most parents struggle to balance work and family. Americans are always searching for faster and more efficient ways to accomplish their work. This need is one factor that drives the technology and computer industries. But because it’s impossible to “save time,” these advances usually mean that people just end up...
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