How Americans differ

December 27, 1990|By New York Times

While Americans say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, in Japan the maxim is "the nail that stands out gets pounded down."

And while American children who won't finish their food are given stern warnings not to waste it, Japanese children are told, "Think how bad the farmer who raised this food for you will feel if you don't eat it."

Such contrasts have emerged from a rapidly growing body of scientific studies that show how deeply individualism runs in most Western cultures, and how shallow that vein is in most others.

The new cross-cultural studies are confirming what many observers have long noticed: that the cardinal American virtues of self-reliance and individualism are at odds with those of most non-Western cultures.

They also suggest that the nature of American individualism has been changing toward a greater emphasis on raw self-interest.

The work contrasts individualism with "collectivism," in which a person's loyalty to a group overrides personal goals. Recent studies say this outlook predominates in most cultures of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

"While collectivists are very nice to those who are members of their own groups, they can be very nasty toward those who belong to other groups," said Harry C. Triandis, a psychologist at the University of Illinois.

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