In this next module of U.S. Cultural Values and Ideals 101, we will discuss how individualism affects the way Americans relate to each other.  

The "Me" Culture

The Land of "Rugged Individuals"

The United States can clearly be seen as individualistic. The “American dream” is a representation of this. This is the Americans’ hope for a better quality of life and a higher standard of living than their parents’. This belief is that anyone, regardless of their status can ‘pull up their boot straps’ and raise themselves from poverty.

One of the things that has made the United States unique in the world is its focus on the individual instead of the collective whole. 

The term, rugged individualwas first used in 1898 and was personified in the famous American actor, John Wayne.

He embodied what Webster's dictionary defines as  ...the practice or advocacy of individualism in social and economic relations emphasizing personal liberty and independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, self-direction of the individual, and free competition in enterprise. 

 Rugged individualism was the phrase used often by Herbert Hoover during his time as president (1929-1933). It refers to the idea that each individual should be able to help themselves out, and that the government does not need to involve itself in people's economic lives nor in national economics in general. 

Selfie Syndrome

Critics say that this individualistic mentality has caused the U.S. to become narcissistic and self-important

Even President Obama, has criticized the misuse of this mentality.

Yet later on, in the same speech, he called upon the altruism of America's rugged individualism.

The rugged individualism that defines America has always been bound by a set of shared values; an enduring sense that we are in this together. That America is not a place where we simply ignore the poor or turn away from the sick. It’s a place sustained by the idea that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper. That we have an obligation to put ourselves in our neighbor’s shoes, and to see the common humanity in each other.

What is your view of America's "rugged individualism"? Is it good, bad or somewhere in between?  Discuss your thoughts with your instructor or group.

Comparison of Individualism vs. Collectivism


Traits of Collectivism

  • Each person is encouraged to be an active player in society, to do what is best for society as a whole rather than themselves.
  • The rights of families, communities, and the collective supersede those of the individual.
  • Rules promote unity, brotherhood, and selflessness.
  • Working with others and cooperating is the norm; everyone supports each other.
  • as a community, family or nation more than as an individual

Traits of Individualism

  • "I" identity.
  • Promotes individual goals, initiative and achievement.
  • Individual rights are seen as being the most important. Rules attempt to ensure self-importance and individualism.
  • Independence is valued; there is much less of a drive to help other citizens or communities than in collectivism.
  • Relying or being dependent on others is frequently seen as shameful.
  • People are encouraged to do things on their own; to rely on themselves
  • people strive for their own successes

Is your culture collectivistic or individualistic? See list of countries here  

How does this influence how your culture views the world and interacts as a society?

Discuss with your instructor and group how this affects daily life whether at home or abroad.

**Optional homework: This article compares child rearing in individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Can you think of other ways that culture influences how humans relate to each other? Discuss your thoughts with your instructor or group.

Individualism in U.S. Culture

Individualism is at the core of U.S. culture. It is the root system behind our beliefs, ethics and values.

The message of individualism is propagated throughout media in film, music and even commercials. From a very young age Americans are encouraged to:

#1 Find their own identity

#2 Speak their mind 

#3 Forge their own way in the world

Watch this motivational video about being yourself:

Discuss your impression of the video with your instructor and group.

Listen to this music video about speaking your mind. Discuss your impressions with your instructor and group.

Freedom of choice is very important to American culture. This commercial exemplifies the American idea that a person can have things their own way. You can see this mentality manifested in the cereal isle at the grocery store. Americans literally have hundreds of choices to choose from.

What other ways have you noticed "freedom of choice" being lived out in American culture? Discuss your thoughts about this topic with your instructor or group.

Living in an Individualistic Society

Read this article about an Armenian student's experience moving to and studying in the United States. Do you relate with his experience? Discuss your thoughts with your instructor and group.

It may seem strange at first glance, but Americans thrive on individualistic values and generosity alike. In a nation of over 300 million citizens, it’s expected that such dichotomies exist. It’s a country of many complexities and contradictions and I’m lucky to learn more about it every day.

I may sometimes be taken aback by America’s focus on individuality, but I also need to acknowledge its positive points as well. Individualism has fostered human creativity in almost all aspects of life. It’s encouraged people to find and develop their talents and inner depth. Without it, we might not have the very musicians and artists I idolized as a young child listening to records in Armenia. It’s quite a balancing act indeed. But here’s to hoping there’s a happy medium somewhere between individual achievements and a devotion to the public. 

Individualism as an Opportunity for Development

Moving to the United States can be a wonderful opportunity to develop yourself personally. You may have never done this sort of thing if you come from a collectivistic culture.

Here are some resources for personal and professional development.

Optional homework:  

View the TED Talk entitled "The Art of Being Yourself"