Letter from America: how Americans think


Culture is at the root of how we think and behave, the assumptions we make and how we see the World. In short, culture is ‘for better or for worse, this how things work around here’.

Importantly, culture trumps strategy. Most change initiatives fail because culture isn’t addressed. Culture also lags behind reality, sometimes facilitating but at other times getting in the way of success in addressing and overcoming issues in an ever-changing environment.

This short piece serves as an introduction to a new series of short essays on current events and issues in the USA, viewed from a cultural perspective. They are the observations of a Brit who has lived in the USA for almost 30 years and observed the ‘natives’ and other nationalities at work and in play.

The purpose of these pieces is to help readers understand how US culture shapes, facilitates and contributes to issues or events. Where possible, I will also identify cultural imperatives necessary for a desirable course correction or solution.

In this, the introduction to the series, I will highlight some overarching themes in US culture that may not be appreciated (at least explicitly), by many non-Americans. Most Americans, on the other hand, are too immersed to see them as anything but implicit in ‘who we are’.

So what does it mean to be an American?

We see ourselves as individualistic but only in the context of personal accountability. In all other matters, we conform to the norm, to what others do. To be different is risky. Being popular and liked are key.

We equate freedom with choice. Choice in everything.

We believe in exceptionalism, we are the only country on earth designed with a ‘bottom up’ mission statement focused on equality and freedom which makes it our God-given duty to spread our credo wherever we can.

We think that standard of living and quality of life are the same thing. A new car means happiness. We also think virtually all of us are middle class.

We like ideas but value activity above everything else. It’s all about getting things done. Fast.

We are a macho culture that believes in strength, overwhelming force and the zero sum game. This does not just apply to the military.

We want to know you care before we care what you know. We have separate private and public ‘faces’. Relationships are key, pretence in public is considered being civil and appropriate. We want to be liked, so honesty is not the best policy.

We believe that if there is a will, there is a way. We are optimists and will always have a go, try a recommendation and consider a new idea. Caveat emptor looms large and cynicism is not helpful.

We believe the US is the greatest country on earth and that we do everything better. When we talk about communicating directly, we mean no small talk.

We believe in the right to happiness and fun. We deserve to be rewarded for success, believe in instant gratification and are comfortable with personal philosophies like ‘you can afford it if you can make the payments’.

We try not to judge other people, their preferences, decisions, actions or choices. None of these has an relationship to class which has a purely economic definition.

We think it is our duty to overcome adversity through our own efforts and resourcefulness. Handouts may help short term but are a disincentive in the long run since they create dependency.

We take everything personally.

We believe that form is as important as substance and that it is fine to ‘fake it till you make it’.Being earnest and serious are important and appropriate unless one is in a purely social setting.

We succeed or fail by our own efforts and we are entitled to keep and enjoy the fruits of our labour. That is capitalism. We love success and have great respect for celebrity.

We take care of our own. After me and my family, everyone is first.

We love youth and think we should do whatever we can to present ourselves well and be ‘the best’ that we can be. That includes appearance, our view of ourselves, our abilities and accomplishments. Embellishment is expected.

We love anything new, particularly technology. We love to consume.

We think four years of college means being educated and unaccented English is ‘perfect’ English.

Collectively, these are some of the ideas, beliefs and behaviors that make up and shape what is known as The American Character. They are the planks in the platform that I will return and refer to and expand on in this series.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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