NusAmer 06-11-165      


How to Recognize and Deal With It


Stan Nussbaum

Orbis Books, 2005, 160 pp., ISBN 1-57075-625-2


Stan Nussbaum worked many years in Africa and now serves on the staff of Global Mapping International.  Building on common American sayings he explains basic American cultural values, why we think and behave as we do.  A shorter edition for internationals is called, “Why are Americans Like That?” (Enculturation Books, Colorado Springs, 2005,


“The aim of this book is to help open your eyes to your own American culture.  Then you can deal with it in a conscious way, choosing when to act American and when not to.” (9)


“Culture is to a society what personality is to an individual—unconsciously built in, hard to describe, but easier to deal with once a person deliberately reflects on it.  This book is a reflector, a mirror helping you to see what you look like to other people.” (10)


Here are the “Ten Commandments” in American sayings.


1.      You can’t argue with success.  (Be a success.)  “Success is probably the highest value in American life.” (15)

2.      Live and let live.  (Be tolerant.)  “Americans love freedom and privacy.”  “It means that no one should object to anyone else’s way of living.” “If we are not tolerant of other people, we may damage their self-esteem.  To attack someone’s self-esteem is to break one of the most basic rules of American life.” (16-17)

3.      Time flies when you’re having fun.  (Have lots of fun.) 

4.      Shop till you drop.  “We are perhaps the ultimate consumer society, and this saying describes us so well that it could be our national motto.” (18)

5.      Just do it.  “We are people of action.” (19)

6.      You are only young once.  (Do whatever you can while you have the chance.)  “…enjoy life to the full, taking advantage of every opportunity…” (19)

7.      Enough is enough. (Stand up for your rights.) 

8.      Rules are made to be broken.  (Think for yourself.)  But laws are official.  “No one is above the law.” (20)

9.      Time is money.  (Don’t waste time.)  “Wasting time is as bad as wasting money, so we schedule everything and we hurry everywhere.” (20)

10.   God helps those who help themselves. (Work hard.) “For most Americans, God is much less a concern than success, money, and time.”  “It is better to be independent than to depend on other people.” (21)


Americans’ three basic goals are being a success, building self-esteem, and having fun. “We want our biography to be a success story.”  (22)  “Ambition, self-confidence, and hard work are admired.  A certain amount of toughness and aggressiveness will be needed.” (25)  “Today we are a nation of risk-takers….” (29) 


“Success implies several other things that are not central concerns in many cultures—setting goals, working hard for change, and using personal achievements as the basis for making judgments about a person’s worth.  Some other cultures center their values on social harmony, defense of an ethnic/racial community, maintenance of the status quo, or transcendence of personal existence.” (36)


“When we Americans press for success and change, some other cultures see us as insensitive, pushy, and disruptive.” (36)


“From kindergarten onward, schools and parents tell children how ‘special’ each one is.”  “The philosophy of life is, ‘Express yourself,’ ‘Enjoy yourself,’ ‘Respect yourself,’ Be true to yourself.” (39)


“Whatever promotes self-esteem is good, and whatever diminishes it is bad.  That is why racism, sexual harassment, child abuse, male chauvinism, and religious intolerance are so unacceptable in America today.”  “We even have a new term for such things.  We say they are not ‘politically correct.’” (40)


“..though it is a terrible thing to condemn anyone for being ‘morally incorrect’ or ‘theologically incorrect,’ is a very good thing to condemn people for being ‘politically incorrect.’”  “‘Political correctness’ defines what is not tolerable in a society that claims to tolerate anything.” (40-41)


“When Americans do not consult others…members of more group-oriented cultures take us to be arrogant and self-centered….” (43)


“American life seems to go by the principle, ‘More choices mean a better life.’” (51)  “We unconsciously make judgments about another city or country based on the number of channels on the TV set or the number of kinds of restaurants in town.  If the number is low, we may conclude that we are in a second- or third-class country…and resent it….”  “It may not occur to us that a third-class consumer society could be a first-class society in other respects, and America could be a third-class society by other standards.  For example, America is a third- or fourth-class society when it comes to maintaining quality relationships in the extended family.” (53)


“Love and sex feature very largely in American culture because they represent an obvious way to achieve all three primary cultural goals at the same time—success, self-esteem, and fun.”  (57)


“The contradiction between the glorification of love and the glorification of individual freedom may be the deepest contradiction in American culture.  The myth and the pledge of eternal love are consistently defeated by the desire for individual freedom.” (57)


Money is important to Americans.  In regarding other cultures we do not see that their primary concern is often with spreading existing wealth rather than making money. “They believe that to accumulate individual wealth is antisocial.  It insults the rest of the group, and it must be punished, not imitated.” (61)


“Our international businesses and even our ‘aid’ and ‘development projects’ often come across as ways of teaching our money-sucking techniques….” (61)


“American play tends to be achievement-oriented and competitive.” (62)


“Preserving American freedom is the only serious concern most Americans have about international affairs.” (67)


Just do it,” may be the best three-word summary of American cultural values. (69)  And it may be about the worst rule to live by in many cultures. (77)


“We assume that since our goals are noble and our intentions are good, people in all cultures will welcome our efforts to improve things….”  “…Americans get a reputation for being impatient and inconsiderate.”  “We think our American national symbol is an eagle, but the rest of the world thinks it should be a bull…in a china shop.” (71-2)


In America growing up means becoming independent.  In many cultures it means becoming interdependent with other adults. (73)


“Americans consider selfishness to be very bad, but self-interest (including self-esteem, self-sufficiency, self-preservation, and self-expression) to be very good.”  However, they seem to be pretty much the same thing! (81)


“Americans living in other cultures tend to excuse themselves for behavior that the local culture considers inexcusable.  Self-expression, viewed as a fundamental human right by Americans, can get us into all kinds of trouble.” (82)


“It has been said that most cultures worship their elders, but America worships its children.”  “Aging is seen only as a loss of liveliness and strength, not an increase in prestige or wisdom.  Everyone wants to ‘stay young.’” (83)


“One of the most important differences between American culture and many others is that one’s sense of worth comes more from personal achievements than from relationships.  A great deal of American culture will not make sense to the outsider until this point is recognized.” (86)


“Americans do not mind group relationships.  What bothers us is group obligations.  We join groups easily and we leave groups easily.” (96)


“American life patterns are subconsciously designed to maintain our personal space, while many other cultural patterns are subconsciously designed to form groups.  This puts Americans out of sync with many other societies at a deep level.” (98)


“We tend to call attention to the individual who is responsible for a success or failure.  This is a gaffe in cultures that go to great lengths to avoid shame of any kind.”  ‘In such cultures calling attention to a blameworthy act may be judged to be worse than the act itself.” (113)


“In many cultures, proverbs remind people to trust and respect authorities of all kinds.  By contrast, American proverbs teach people to question and challenge authorities.  Our nation was born in a revolution that threw off an unwanted authority, and we have been throwing off authority ever since.” (116)


“It does not come naturally to us to obey local cultural rules that make no sense to us.  A basic challenge of cultural adjustment is the challenge to obey first and ask questions later.” (118)


“Americans are time-conscious to an extreme.”  “Life is seen as an hourglass in which the days slip by….  Life is not seen as an accumulation, an unfolding, a growth.  It is a race…against time, and the human being always loses.” “Next to the credit card, the watch is our worst slave-driver.” (127)


“Time spent sitting and reflecting does not count for much.  In fact, silence makes Americans nervous.” (128)


“When we go into another culture to work for a few weeks or even a few years, our short time frame and our success orientation guarantee that we will be out of step with what is happening there.” (129)  We can then stick with our schedule or switch to their time.  This is a very heavy piece of baggage. (130)


“Since many Americans go overseas to promote change of some kind, they run head-on into change-resistant cultures.” (135) 


“Much of the rest of the world, particularly Europe, has a love-hate relationship with American optimism and enthusiasm.” “Europeans…are turned off by anything that sounds like American hype.” (139)


“We want God to meet our individual needs.  We are not so interested in fitting into his master plan for the universe.  The vast majority of us Americans say we believe in God, but, crudely stated, many of us want to use God rather than worship him.” (142)


Americans want an explanation for why God doesn’t prevent the deaths of good people at a young age, etc.  “A nation that worships success cannot worship a God who fails.” (143) 


“In more religious cultures we need to ask people questions that we rarely ask other Americans.  Which unseen powers do they believe exist?  What effect do these powers have on life, health, work, family, etc.?” (145)



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