Thursday, April 10, 2014

I: Individualism or My Inner John Wayne (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I place high value on individualism. Idiosyncrasy. Independence. Being yourself even when there is pressure to mold yourself into something else.

It gives me a great sense of self-worth to think that I can take care of myself and my own, rather than relying on others. It's one of my core values as a person. The Duke and I probably wouldn't have liked each other in person. I'm way too liberal for his taste. Nonetheless, my inner John Wayne is loud and proud.

When I do have to ask for and accept help, I'm much more comfortable with a trading of favors (I'll watch your kids, then you can watch mine), or asking family members who are then free to ask me for help.  It's a balance. It falls apart if I'm asking more favors than I am giving or vice versa.

The older I get and the more I learn about the world, the more I realize that this focus on the self (as opposed to the collective or the whole group) is a very western thing. Very American of me.

This world-view is at the center of many inter-cultural conflict moments.  It's part of why and how we judge each other as parents, workers, and people.

As the world becomes a more global place and people with disparate backgrounds, values and expectations come into interaction with each other, we see this conflict more and more. It's disconcerting. It can make you feel really uncomfortable and make you judge others harshly and unfairly. It's really not about right and wrong, just about different expectations.

For example, my daughter was in a choral group with a girl whose family is from Korea.  (See chart: Korea, low on the individualism scale).  We both also had younger daughters, so, often, while our older children were rehearsing, we'd take our little ones to the playground. Several other mothers were in the boat and our children would run around and play together while we all talked to each other or played with our phones.

The other United States-born mothers and I might leave the playground briefly, but we would turn to one of the other mothers and directly ask them to keep an eye on our little ones and would admonish our little ones to listen to Mrs. So-and-So.  In this way, we still took individual responsibility for our children.

The Korean-born mother didn't do this. She, to our American eyes, seemed to just drift away from the group and assume all would be well. When intervention was needed (child conflict or injury), none of us was sure who should step in and what she should do. No one had individual responsibility for that child, you see, and we had not experience of a true collective society experience. Awkward, to say the least.

I've watched this happen among my colleagues at various schools, too. People born Up East can have a hard time here in North Carolina.  Social cues are very different. Confrontation is handled much more quietly and you are expected to keep your individual agitation to yourself.

I do okay in these situations. I don't take personal offense, and tend to try to look at the broader picture. Maybe it's because I am a foreign language teacher, so inclined to think about culture. Maybe it was those broadening effects of travel my parents were promised when they helped me travel in my youth. Maybe it's just that I've lived in more than one place and had to adjust to how they do things there.

Whatever it is, I wish I knew how to share it. I think we could avoid a lot of ugliness (hate speech, racism, violence) if we could stop trying to make everything black and white and assume the good intentions of others. Approach with an eye to understanding rather than an eye to judgment.

If you figure out how to teach that, please let me know. I've got a lot of children I'd like to help.

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.


  1. RIGHT ON!!!! As an African-American who also has been exposed to many cultures, I certainly agree with the fact that we need to be reminded that cultural differences are beautiful and what makes the world go around.

    Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks so much, Frances! I teach middle school Spanish in rural North Carolina, so I run across a fair amount of intolerance and harshness about Spanish-speakers. Different is not automatically bad. I wish more people would embrace that philosophy!