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8.2: American beliefs and values

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    39196
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    As pointed out in the last chapter, it is a mistake to automatically assume that everyone in a large multicultural country like the U.S. shares a common culture. But this hasn’t stopped many writers from suggesting that they do. Among the most recent popular essays to address the question of American beliefs and values is Gary Althen’s “American Values and Assumptions.” Here is a list of the beliefs and values that Althen (2003) identifies as typically American:

    • individualism, freedom, competitiveness and privacy
    • equality
    • informality
    • the future, change and progress
    • the goodness of humanity
    • time
    • achievement, action, work and materialism
    • directness and assertiveness

    In what follows, I summarize Althen’s description of typical American values and assumptions, sometimes extending his examples with my own.

    Individualism

    According to Althen (2003), “the most important thing to understand about Americans is probably their devotion to individualism. They are trained from very early in their lives to consider themselves as separate individuals who are responsible for their own situations . . . and . . . destinies. They’re not trained to see themselves as members of a close-knit interdependent family, religious group, tribe, nation, or any other collectivity.”

    Althen illustrates the above point by describing an interaction he observed between a three-year-old boy and his mother. They are at the mall, and the boy wants to know if he can have an Orange Julius, (a kind of cold drink made from orange juice and ice). The mother explains to him that he doesn’t have enough money for an Orange Julius because he bought a cookie earlier. He has enough for a hot dog. Either he can have a hot dog now, she says, or he can save his money and come back another day to buy an Orange Julius.

    Althen says that people from other countries often have a hard time believing the story. They wonder, not just why such a young child would have his own money, but how anyone could reasonably expect a three-year-old to make the kind of decision his mother has suggested. But Americans, he says, understand perfectly. They know that such decisions are beyond the abilities of three-year-olds, but they see the mother as simply introducing the boy to an American cultural ideal—that of making one’s own decisions and being responsible for the consequences.

    Freedom

    Americans feel strongly about their freedom as individuals. They don’t want the government or other authorities meddling in their personal affairs or telling them what they can and cannot do. One consequence of this respect for the individuality of persons, Althen claims is that Americans tend not to show the kind of deference to parents that people in more family-oriented societies do. For example, Americans think that parents should not interfere in their children’s choices regarding such things as marriage partners or careers. This doesn’t mean that children do not consider the advice of parents; quite the contrary, psychologists find that American children generally embrace the same general values as their parents and respect their opinions. It is just that Americans strongly believe everyone should be free to choose the life he/she wishes to live.

    Competitiveness

    The strong emphasis on individualism pushes Americans to be highly competitive. Althen sees this reflected not only in the American enthusiasm for athletic events and sports heroes, who are praised for being “real competitors,” but also in the competitiveness that pervades schools and extracurricular activities. According to Althen, Americans are continually making social comparison aimed at determining:

    . . . who is faster, smarter, richer, better looking; whose children are the most successful; whose husband is the best provider or the best cook or the best lover; which salesperson sold the most during the past quarter; who earned his first million dollars at the earliest age; and so on.

    Privacy

    Americans assign great value to personal privacy, says Althen, assuming that everyone needs time alone to reflect or replenish his or her psychic energy. Althen claims that Americans don’t understand people who think they always have to be in the company of others. He thinks foreigners are often puzzled by the invisible boundaries that seem to surround American homes, yards, and offices, which seem open and inviting but in fact are not. Privacy in the home is facilitated by the tendency of American houses to be quite large. Even young children may have bedrooms of their own over which they are given exclusive control.

    Equality

    The American Declaration of Independence asserted (among other things) that “all men are created equal.” Perhaps most Americans are aware that equality is an ideal rather than a fully realized state of affairs; nevertheless, says Althen, most Americans “have a deep faith that in some fundamental way all people . . . are of equal value, that no one is born superior to anyone else.”

    Informality

    American social behavior is marked by extraordinary informality. Althen sees this reflected in the tendency of Americans to move quickly, after introductions, to the use of first names rather than titles (like Mr. or Mrs.) with family names. Americans, says Althen, typically interact in casual and friendly ways. Informality is also reflected in speech; formal speech is generally reserved for public events and only the most ceremonious of occasions. Similarly, Americans are fond of casual dress. Even in the business world, where formal attire is the rule, certain meetings or days of the week may be designated as “business casual,” when it is acceptable to shed ties, suit coats, skirts and blazers. Foreigners encountering American informality for the first time may decide that Americans are crude, rude, and disrespectful.

    The Future, Change, and Progress

    The United States is a relatively young country. Although the first European colonies appeared in North America nearly 400 years ago, the United States is only 230 years old as I write these words. Perhaps this is why the U.S. tends to seem less tied to the past and more oriented towards the future. Moreover, the country has changed dramatically since the time of its founding, becoming a major world power only in the last 75 years.

    To most Americans, science, technology and innovation are more salient than history and tradition, says Althen. Americans tend to regard change as good, and the new as an improvement over the old. In other words, change is an indication of progress. Americans also tend to believe that every problem has a solution, and they are, according to Althen, “impatient with people they see as passively accepting conditions that are less than desirable.”

    The Goodness of Humanity

    Although some Americans belong to religious groups that emphasize the inherent sinfulness of man, Althen claims that the basic American attitude is more optimistic. For one thing, the American belief in progress and a better future, Althen argues, would not be possible if Americans did not believe human nature was basically good, or at least that people have it within their power to improve themselves. The robust commercial literature of self-help or self-improvement is another source of evidence for this conviction.

    Time

    Americans regard time as a precious resource, says Althen. They believe time should always be used wisely and never wasted. Americans are obsessed with efficiency, or getting the best possible results with the least expenditure of resources, including time.

    Achievement, Action, Work, and Materialism

    American society is action oriented. Contemplation and reflection are not valued much unless they contribute to improved performance. Americans admire hard work, but especially hard work that results in substantial achievement. “Americans tend to define and evaluate people,” says Althen, “by the jobs they have.” On the other hand, “family backgrounds, educational attainments, and other characteristics are considered less important.”

    Americans have also been thought of as particularly materialistic people, and there is no denying that American society is driven by a kind of consumer mania. Material consumption is widely seen as the legitimate reward for hard work.

    Directness and Assertiveness

    Americans have a reputation for being direct in their communication. They feel people should express their opinions explicitly and frankly. As Althen expresses it, “Americans usually assume that conflicts or disagreements are best settled by means of forthright discussions among the people involved. If I dislike something you are doing, I should tell you about it directly so you will know, clearly and from me personally, how I feel about it.”

    Assertiveness extends the idea of directness in the expression of opinion to the realm of action. Many Americans are raised to insist upon their rights, especially if they feel they have been treated unfairly, or cheated, e.g., in a business transaction. There is a strong tradition, for example, of returning merchandise to retail stores, not only if it is defective but even if it just does not live up to an individual’s expectation as a customer. The retailer who refuses to satisfy a customer’s demand to refund the cost of an unacceptable product is likely to face a stiff argument from an assertive or even angry customer. The customer service personnel of major retailers tend, therefore, to be quite deferential to customer demands.

    Conclusion

    In his discussions of American values and assumptions, Althen is careful to point out that generalizations can be risky—that it would be a mistake to think that all Americans hold exactly the same beliefs, or even that when Americans do agree, that they do so with the same degree of conviction. He is also careful to note that the generalizations represent the predominant views of white, middle class people who have for a long time held a majority of the country’s positions in business, education, science and industry, politics, journalism, and literature. He acknowledges that the attitudes of many of the nation’s various ethnic minorities might differ from the values of the “dominant” culture but insists that as long as we recognize these limitations, it is reasonable to regard the observations he offers as true on the average.

    There may be a good deal of truth to Althen’s claim; however, a closer look into American history reveals considerable regional variation in Americans’ understanding of even the most fundamental ideals, e.g., ideas about the freedom of the individual. In Part 2, we will see that a closer look at the American political scene, may force us to conclude that even when Americans endorse the same values, they may actually have different things in mind.


    This page titled 8.2: American beliefs and values is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nolan Weil (Rebus Community) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.