Does everyone feel special?
March 15, 2015 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Is the sense of personal specialness cross-cultural, or a mark of more individualist societies? Please help me understand differences in cultures.

I was just having a conversation about a society's influence upon the individuals within it. It's my opinion that an individual's sense of feeling special is universal, but is it? I posited that in a society like the US at least, someone who didn't feel at core special was likely suffering from some sort of psychopathology, probably depression. But it occurred to me that I don't know if that's true in more collectivist societies. Is it the opposite? Is feeling too special a sign of narcissism? Do parents in other societies routinely tell their children that they're special? Is there a reciprocal relationship with encouragement to fit in and contribute to the group?

I hope I'm not stepping on any cultural toes - genuinely interested.
posted by namesarehard to Human Relations (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, feeling special - and that being a good thing - is very American. The Japanese have a saying that "the nail the sticks out must be pounded down". Japan is a very good example of a culture that values the group over the individual, and it should be easy to find more writing on this. Also Google "Tall poppy syndrome" which I think is the Scandinavian iteration.
posted by jrobin276 at 11:12 PM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

I used to teach in Japan, and I know parents were telling their kids that they're NOT special.

I think feeling too special would get you a diagnosis anywhere, but the threshold that defines excessiveness would vary.
posted by jrobin276 at 11:19 PM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a very interesting question, and it reminds me of a story shared by a professor about his experience as a student taking a class in Australia, where the other students were freely interrupting each other in class discussions because that was the norm, but he didn't participate in the class discussion at all, because he had been raised in a collectivist culture where it is considered extremely rude to interrupt anyone.

It seems possible that the refusal to interrupt someone could be interpreted as a belief that everyone is special and entitled to be heard, and that this kind of communication etiquette can foster a strong community by protecting individual contributions.

In "Individualism and Collectivism: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Self-Ingroup Relationships," Triandis et al (1988) state:
In individualistic cultures it is individuals who achieve; in collectivist cultures, groups achieve. People feel proud of their achievements and their success in personal competition in the individualist cultures, and people feel proud of their group's achievement and the success of their groups in the collectivist cultures. Interdependence is seen in utilitarian/social exchange terms in the individualist and in terms of duty, obligation, and morality in the collectivist cultures.

This picture is oversimplified, because it implies an opposition between individualism and collectivism. [...] In short, the empirical studies suggest that we need to consider individualism and collectivism as multidimensional constructs.
posted by Little Dawn at 12:48 AM on March 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

I believe that the Law of Jante is the Scandinavian concept, whereas Tall Poppy Syndrome is something more common for the UK and Australia. I have not heard of TPS being a thing in other countries.

Tangentially related: rooting for the underdog. Another very British thing (though I am sure it is not uniquely British). The concept of rooting for the underdog crops up time and time again in relation to shows like X-Factor etc. Here's a rather unscientific, anecdotal Telegraph article which talks a little more about that concept.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:49 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think part of it is that in an individualistic culture like the US, so many of the examples held up to kids/people/everybody as "successful people" are people who are independently famous and/or talented. It's somewhat ingrained that you succeed by being more talented than other people, having a single invention or hit song, or at the very least by working harder than everyone else. Somehow, American success is about one person standing out from all the rest. So when parents want to tell a kid they think he can be a success, they tell him you're smarter than the other kids, you're faster, you're more creative... i.e. you're special. In the US, we equate being told we're special with being told our parents believe we're not a failure, being told they're confident in us, being told we're loved. After all, my parents love me more than anybody - therefore they must think I'm special, right, otherwise they'd love everybody? So the idea of "special" has turned into its own mythology.
posted by aimedwander at 6:00 AM on March 16, 2015

I'm in the US and had a Russian friend with an elementary-school aged son. His class had some kind of "child of the week" thing, where every week a different kid would have some special responsibilities, and get a poster that said something like "Jeff is a unique and special part of our class!"

She showed me the poster, concerned.

"I'm worried about this. He's not special! He's just a 6 year old kid, like all of his friends. He's normal. Why is she singling him out? Should I tell the principal what she's doing?"

So no, I wouldn't say that the kind of individual exceptionalism you describe is the norm.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:11 AM on March 16, 2015 [10 favorites]

It depends on what exactly you mean by "individualism" - I would argue that the tendency to anthropomorphize the universe is probably universal or close to it. As is the well known tendency of countries to consider themselves the center of the world/universe map in their mythology.
posted by quincunx at 6:24 AM on March 16, 2015

Best answer: In high school I had Japanese exchange students live with me for a few weeks, and it coincided with my teenage birthday. Being North American, I threw a birthday party and invited all my friends. One of the girls expressed surprise that I would have a birthday party, since in Japan birthday parties were for kids only.

Then privately she told me that she still wanted to have birthday parties for herself.

So... what a culture insists people do and what people feel on the inside may be different.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:52 AM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

It is definitely cultural. I'm Chinese, but I don't know if this is typical of Chinese... I was told that I could be anything that I wanted to be, but if I don't put in the effort and prove it (i.e. actually do or accomplish something special), then I'm not special.

Why should a person be innately special anyway? Or rather, if everybody is special in that "innate" way, does that mean nobody is special?
posted by ethidda at 10:19 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: St. Peepsburg hits on a point I forgot to ask about last night - Japan had come up, and I specifically recalled characters in Norwegian Wood, really struggling with the sense of being different. It seems likely that there would be that tension there - society downplays specialness, but individual might still feel very unique. Isn't that human nature?
posted by namesarehard at 11:09 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My wife and I (she's Japanese, I'm American) have talked about this a lot. I think in America, while many people want to be "normal" in the sense of not being creepy-weird, most people want to be exceptional, they want to lead trends instead of following them, etc. And certainly these are the kind of people and traits we celebrate. Doing something just to be part of a group / fit in is considered less good (even though many people do that anyway). In Japan, being "normal" or behaving more or less the same as everyone else is a really good thing (and people not behaving as expected is very upsetting, one reason why they can be uncomfortable with foreigners).

Of course, people are still different from each other, and its not like they don't have a sense of identity and they could easily describe the differences between their friends, etc. It's more that ideal --- the American exceptionalism/individualism --- is not there, and going along with society / others is considered a positive trait.
posted by thefoxgod at 1:46 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Child rearing in the 1800s was strongly concerned with making sure that children did not get the idea that they were special. A mother who told her daughter that she was pretty would be considered a poor mother who was encouraging her daughter to be conceited and spoiled. A conscientious parent would say things such as "Pretty is as pretty does" It was quite common to lie to a good looking child and tell her that her looks were no more than passable even if outside of the child's hearing you would say something completely different.

There is a scene in one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books where the youngest daughter is dressed in a newly made coat made out of the skin of a swan, tanned with the down still on it. She looks adorable so they quickly take her out of it and stifle their admiration. It would not do for her to realize that she looks so sweet.

Similarly, "Be good, fair maid, and let who can be clever," You could praise a child for studying hard, for being obedient, or patient or stoical or kind, but not for being clever, as that would make the child pert or forward; If the child had a good memory and found her lessons easy it meant she didn't have to work so hard at her studies and didn't deserve the approval that a child who worked much harder deserved.

Knowing one's place was a virtue. Duty was its own reward. Duty was the highest virtue. Obscurity was considered desirable for a woman. "She dwelt among untrodden ways...." The less recognition she got the better.

Boys got recognition for being boys. While they were often not singled out among the other boys, they were given special status for not being girls. A younger boy was often entitled to give orders to his older sisters or girl cousins as he was a boy and they were only girls. (This is assuming they were playmates and the age difference was not extreme.)

But once he was among other boys, such as at school, as a younger boy he was expected to obey older boys and not expected to stand out. Under the fagging system a first year student was assigned to be a personal domestic servant to each of the senior boys at many schools. All of the boys were judged on how much they were team players and how hard working they were. It wasn't a good thing to stand out. It was generally viewed as letting the group down in an effort to aggrandize yourself.

This anti-exceptionalistic culture seems to apply to have originated in Britain where it was strongly pronounced, and been practiced in the British Isles and in the United States to varying degrees. Your question was geographical, not historical but I wanted to bring up history to point out that even in the United States admiration for individual exceptionalism is a relatively recent pattern. I've heard the complaint that the Baby Boom Generation was the first one brought up this way, and they are all spoiled rotten from growing up in permissive affluence and even that it was all Dr. Benjamin Spock's fault. Of course the generations that used to grumble about the Baby Boom generation being a lot of spoiled and selfish kids have mostly passed on or at least stopped grumbling, but looking back at what they said can give you an idea when telling children that they are personally special became acceptable.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:09 PM on March 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

The whole underdog/tall poppy thing in Australia is quite interesting. People like to cheer for the underdog; they seem to admire someone who is fighting against overwhelming odds but is determined not to give up, even if they fail. There is a lot of this reverence in some Australian heroes and cultural icons like Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills and those who died at Gallipoli. At the same time, there's a strong streak of "don't you think you're any better than the rest of us" which seems to be what informs the tall poppy syndrome.

In its favour, this kind of thinking leads to irreverence for things that elsewhere hold a lot of power and influence, like class, wealth, ancestry, religion etc. Everyone poops and no one is more special than anyone else on any number of fronts. On the other hand, it can mean that no one is allowed to excel - that as soon as someone becomes successful, they are getting above themselves and need to be taken down a peg. This is part of why a lot of Australians wind up going overseas for employment - not only are there more opportunities because Europe/US are larger job markets (more population) and are not geographically located in the arse end of nowhere, once you get there you find that excellence, drive and motivation are rewarded rather than being signs that you are up yourself. I'm oversimplifying to an extent - particularly in corporate culture, this is not necessarily the case and I think that as Australia shifts its cultural reference point from the UK to the US, this attitude is also shifting.

Also, I can't favourite Jane the Brown's comment hard enough. This individualistic cult of self-glorification is really a very recent development in the US rather than a universal constant. Many religions/philosophical beliefs stress de-emphasising the personal in favour of the group - think of others before yourself; society and what it thinks of your behaviour is more important than feeling personally fulfilled; knowing how to be a good XXX (wife, husband, daughter, son, etc) is more important than getting to do whatever you want; positions of greater power (ship's captain; feudal lord or landowner; patriarch) also required a certain amount of responsibility to those with less. I'm not saying these ideas have always been perfectly executed, or are even ideals to be held up as superior to individualism, just that there are plenty of different cultural approaches quite apart from the individualistic/collectivist thing.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:40 PM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I suspect some of the development of the idea that individuals are special went along with the idea that the country is special; you may want to read about the concept or history of American Exceptionalism.
posted by jaguar at 6:13 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sure, Athanassiel and Jane The Brown, those answers make sense and are helpful. I would posit that those attitudes were important precisely because of everyone's innate belief that they are unique in the world. But I guess that's a speculation. Thanks for the good answers, everyone
posted by namesarehard at 11:30 AM on March 17, 2015

Well, everyone is unique in the world. There's a big leap between that and believing that you are special - which I am assuming you mean in a positive way - better, greater, exceptional, more worthy of nice things, etc.

Due to the nature of human consciousness and biology, of course we all experience the primacy of our own perceptions, thoughts and awareness. We have no way of ever really knowing how special other people are without socialisation. (Interestingly, fictional depictions of collective consciousnesses frequently involve insect-like life forms - literally the hive mind - and a certain indifference to any particular part of it. Losing one particular drone doesn't really matter so much to the collective.) Thanks to the biological imperative for self-preservation, we also all start out with a strong instinct to protect the self as a primary motivation that trumps all others when it comes into question. Are these things beliefs or are they just the way we are made? We don't get much choice about it.

Personally, I think it's how much people don't believe they are special that signifies lack of psychopathology. Sociopaths believe that they are special and no one else is real the same way they are. Narcissists, as you mention above, treat others horribly because after all, they are the most important. On a less pathological scale, there have been many articles written about the effects of too much praise and encouragement linking them to things like a tendency to give up earlier when faced with hard tasks and increased rates of depression amongst young people when faced with a world that, unlike their parents and teachers, do not feel any particular compulsion to tell them what a unique and delicate petal they are. (I can look these up if you like.) I don't think extreme subversion of the self to the collective is healthy either; I think recognising the complicated and shifting relationship between self, others and society as a whole requires a certain amount of flexibility. Sometimes you put yourself first. Sometimes you put others first. The answer is not one or the other, it's both.

Regardless of all that, I also think that if you can define what separates the innate self from the socialised self, you will revolutionise many academic disciplines, the practice of psychology and quite possibly society as we know it.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:01 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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