Individualism, “my things” and egoism

A lot has been said and written about the value of individualism in the American society.  However, after spending here some time i feel a little bit confused.

First, it seems to me that a lot of individualism is expressed through individual ownership of things.  For example having a fancy car defines a person as individual.  Similarly, having other things is part of the individual’s definition.  Soon after moving to the States, i noticed that i have never before heard such an extensive use of the word “my” combined with names of possessed items.  For example in many cases where i think one could say “the thing” or just “thing” they would say “my thing”; like “my car”, “my desk”, “my TV”, “my lunch” etc.

Another, probably related, aspect seems to me more of an expression of egoism.  The idea here is simple and may appear natural – first a people would think about themselves and then about the others, and it is logical that this would reflect on their relation to “things”.  For (not a very good) example you are hungry, walking into a room where other people you know present, eating, and only then offering to share with others.  Or you are out there camping with a group of friends, it starts raining, you are moving first of all your stuff out of the rain and only then the shared items.  The attitude towards “things” and preference of your “things” over the “things” of your friends, colleagues, etc. is part of what mediates my individuality compared to the others.  Do i manage to make my point clear?  If i do, would you agree that this appears as an egoistic behavior?

I am not sure why I am linking it all to individualism.  Probably the logical chain I have in my head is: individualism in the US (apologies for brutal generalization) = ownership of things -> preference of YOUR things upon those of collective/environment, which in turn = egoism, but am not sure i can go beyond that at this point.  What do you think?  Are the two linked?  Is it one bundle?


13 Responses to “Individualism, “my things” and egoism”

  1. lisa Says:

    It sounds like you are making an observation of the highly generalised American psyche/culture (and some Americans will read it as a criticism). But is it not just a reflection of human nature in any culture where there is a constant abundance/excess of materials and therefore possessions. For instance, I am guessing that you would not say “my car” because you’ve never had opportunity to own one independently yet. Is ownership really the same as egoism? Is collecting ones own possessions out of the rain when camping selfishness/individualism or simply an efficient way to make sure everything gets brought in, responsibility being divided up in terms of ownership making it simple to figure out?

  2. Dima Says:

    Indeed, i am making a ruthless generalization and i apologized for this in the post itself.

    You are also right that i’ve never formally owned a car, but i did own other valuable things, as have the people around me. Still, the excessive use of the word “my” was prominent enough for me to note. It stands out even more when the context does not require mentioning the ownership; when people just mention it without even noticing. This is where i start having those thoughts.

    And as to the raining example, i think mis-read it. The example was about taking care of “my stuff” vs. “our stuff”. Maybe these are the leftovers of Soviet education, but i was socialized in taking the interests of the collective above my own. And this is probably why i notice when the opposite is taking place :)

  3. Leonid Says:

    I think that this elegant psycholinguistic theory is a bit far-fetched :) That “my” thing is simply a feature of language. I mean, ordinary English language, not necessarily American English one :) I distinctly remember noticing it for a first time sometime in school at English lessons.

  4. Dima Says:

    Well, and what is language if not a reflection of society? Take a look at this for example.

  5. Leonid Says:

    The point is that it is not a reflexion of *American* society.
    I don’t know if Americans use “my” more than British or Australians. I do know they use it more than Russians do.
    Apropos Sapir-Worf (and waaaaay off-topic), there is an amazingly funny tribe at Pantanal. Their language doesn’t have numbers, so they can’t grasp a concept of counting, so they are constantly cheated by surrounding tribes. :)

  6. Dima Says:

    Yep, heard about the tribe… but not the cheating part :)

    Lisa, if you are reading this, what do you think about the use of the word “my” in Australian English?

  7. Leonid Says:

    The Pirahã do not count with numerals. They use only approximate measures, and in tests were unable to consistently distinguish between a group of four objects and a similarly-arranged group of five objects. When asked to duplicate groups of objects, they duplicate the number correctly on average, but almost never get the number exactly in a single trial.

    Being (correctly) concerned that, because of this cultural gap, they were being cheated in trade, the Pirahã people asked Daniel Everett, a linguist that was working with them, to teach them basic numeracy skills. After eight months of enthusiastic but fruitless daily study, the Pirahã concluded that they were incapable of learning the material, and discontinued the lessons. Not a single Pirahã had learned to count up to ten or even add 1 + 1.[5]

  8. lisa Says:

    The car is just one example. What I’m saying is that I think this is something that you notice and that sounds strange because you are you. I don’t think this shows that Americans are objectively more self centred.

    Russian is missing the definite article most of the time, so in Russian you say something like I get car fixed so you don’t worry about whether it’s the car or my car or our car.

    Are people who you are hearing say my X, your Y largely unmarried or not in marriage-like relationship or have they not yet started families? I’d guess it’s like this in a university town and I would expect that to make a big difference.

    I don’t have any thoughts about the use of ‘my’ in Australia. It is just one of those useful words that you must learn about 20 equivalents for in Russian! Of course Australian English is superior to American but there’s no doubt Aussies and Americans are equally selfish and probably the language sounds equally selfish to you.

  9. Dima Says:

    I am getting the point about definite article, but i think people still use “my car”, “our car” in Russian as well. Russian speakers, am i right?

    The people i hear do not say “your Y” (or i am not really paying attention to that part :), but they are not in marriage-like relationships. Do you think it is just a phase?

  10. Nadya Says:

    Even though I agree with you on the individualim in Americans in general, I would say, others did, that the usage of “my” is more about grammar than psychology. The thing is, that by the rules, you need something that is called “determiner” in linguistics before a countable noun, such as ‘car’. It may be an article, or ‘my’/’your’/’our’ or ‘this’ and so on. So the speaker is forced to pick one. Now, whether it’s ‘mine’ or ‘our’, or ‘your’ depends on the context, but I think you can easily hear all of them.

    In Russian we do use ‘my’, ‘our’ and ‘your’ equally, depdnding on the context. But most often we use “свой”, which makes things more complicated :) Maybe you feel that ‘my’ is overused because in Russian you’d say ‘свой’? Dunno.

  11. Dima Says:

    I knew you are a person to ask! :)
    I agree on the “determiner” issue. However having definite articles in a language kind of solves this problem, doesn’t it? Also, is the determiner always required? I think there are plenty of contexts where it is not really needed and using it is a choice.
    And the RU example is really good. For example i find it challenging to think about RU equivalent to the following phrase: “I’ll go to my room, eat my dinner and watch my show”.
    And even if it is the structure of the language, aren’t the two (language and social norms/behaviors/structures) related?

  12. Nadya Says:

    See, the definite article has its own meaning, and it’s not the same as ‘my’. ‘I like the car’ means the car I am pointing at or the car that has been referred to earlier in the conversation. And yes, you do have to put something before a countable noun…

    In the example that you give, in Russian you would not use anything in the place of ‘my’. But ‘my show’ is an exaggeration, isn’t it? :) Or do they really say so?!

    The question whether language norms and social norms are related is very comlicated and a very interesting one because they are and they are not.. There are tons of literature on this issue… Let’s talk about it some time :)

  13. Dima Says:

    Well, i think i noticed the “my” emphasis in cases when it was clear that the conversation is about definite things. The car was there when the phrase “my car” was used. I am talking about cases when there is a choice of using “my” or a definite article for example.

    As to the phrase, I actually heard it… and maybe even more than once. And i think in RU you could say something like “мою любимую передачу” (my favorite show)… am i right?

    I would love to know the arguments for language being independent of society where it was developed…

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