I had a conversation the other day that got on the question of ‘uptight Americans’.
It began when I began to talk about the legendary ‘British calm’. I was often stunned by how calm they seemed, even under difficult circumstances (this is actually true of many foreigners I’ve found). But I always thought that the ‘British calm’ was a result of the British Empire. Being part of the British Empire they were part of a group with an authority and an organization. They were part of something of which they all belonged. They were part of a group. More importantly, they were part of something they believed in and trusted. Because of this trust they had faith in the people in charge. As a result, they had no reason to feel worried or concerned, creating a ‘calm’.
With the US, it’s almost the opposite. Here, we emphasis the individual, the person. Everything is about what I accomplish, what I do. Even though we may be a part of a group, the emphasis is still on ME and what I do. In effect, it creates an environment where its the ‘individual against the world!’ This means all the pressure is on us, the person. There is no authority to fall back on, no one to trust, no one to rely on. Whats the result? An uptight, nervous, stressed out type of person – the ‘uptight American’.
It’s interesting that way back in 1870 a doctor called Dr. Beard defined a new type of illness, called neurosthenia. It was distinctly American. Looking at it now, it appears to be nothing but being ‘stressed out’, though he includes all these other qualities like ‘bad teeth’, and such. One of the solutions to this problem is to take trips to Europe. There life was slower and casual. Not only that, there wasn’t the emphasis on the ‘individual’ to stress everyone out. Being in this environment helped people calm down and relax. Supposedly, this started the trend of vacationing to Europe that became common with Americans.
What this shows is that the valuation of the importance of the individual, caused by individualism, has caused an illness in itself. It shows that its not healthy to place everything on the person. It also showed that the devaluation of the importance of authority and not trusting in authority and the society is not healthy as well. By trusting in our society and in authority a ‘calm’ is created. Being that people often left American society to ‘relax’ shows that there is something basically unhealthy and illness-causing in American society.
In effect, there is a price to pay for individualism.