Offices & Resources

Concepts that Shape the American Way of Life

(The concepts below are a compendium of ideas developed by anthropologists and sociologists over the past 40 years, and is taken partly from AFS Intercultural Programs, October 1992 and from L. Robert Kohl’s work)

1.Assertiveness: U.S. Americans tend to be candid and outspoken in communication with others, and they seldom shy away from disclosing facts about themselves. They prefer "direct" questions and respond with "straight" answers. They employ face-to-face confrontations to resolve differences

2. Effort-Optimism: The linking of effort with optimism is one of the central characteristics of U.S. thought. Effort-optimism is a denial of fatalism; it is the assumption that any challenge can be met, any goal achieved, if only a sufficient quantity of time, energy, skill, and willpower are applied. The motto of the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalions ("See-Bees") during World War II exemplifies this concept: "The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer."

3. Friendliness: U.S. friendships is typified by warmth, informality, and other signs of acceptance, even toward comparative strangers. On the other hand, U.S. Americans assume that friendship involves comparatively few mutual obligations and lasts a relatively short time. People from other cultures become confused because those whom they would consider mere acquaintances are called "friends" by U.S. Americans, and because the warm manner of U.S. Americans leads them to expect a degree of commitment that the U.S. Americans do not feel and would find difficult to accept.

4. Getting Things Done: U.S. Americans are most content when they are "doing" something. They believe that hard work is intrinsically valuable. In judging others, they give the most weight to their achievements, much less to character or spiritual qualities. U.S. Americans strive for efficiency because it enables them to get more things done in a given period of time.

5. Individualism: The concept of individualism stresses the separateness of one human being from another, and the responsibility and initiative that each person must take on his own behalf. U.S. Americans join and leave groups frequently according to changing personal needs.

6. Materialism: Like most other peoples, U.S. Americans are concerned about their well-being; the difference in some cases is that U.S. Americans measure their well-being in terms of the number of tangible things at their command that enable them to enjoy uninterrupted comfort and convenience.

7. Pragmatism: U.S. Americans are deeply practical. They want things, procedures, and people to meet the requirements of actual use in daily life. They tend to be adaptable and realistic, and they rely on "common sense." In making judgments, U.S. Americans are most interested in whether something works.

8. Progress: U.S. Americans are oriented toward the future; they want it to be better than their past and present. Given their relentless pursuit of happiness, they believe not only that things and people can be made to improve, but also that they should be made to improve.

9. Puritanism: Puritanism is the term that describes the U.S. American habit of seeing a cause-effect relationship between correct thinking and good behavior on the one hand, and material reward or successful outcome on the other. It arose out of the old Calvinist doctrine that prosperity and success were sure signs that an individual was in God's favor.

10. Scientific Method: The methods of science involve devotion to attitudes such as skepticism, empiricism, and rationalism, and to procedures such as experimentation, detailed analysis, and inductive reasoning (reasoning from established facts to tentative conclusions). Many, but not all, U.S. Americans seem to have a built-in readiness to accept scientific explanations as far more likely than any other possible explanation.

11. Success: The self-esteem of individual U.S. Americans is largely tied to their ability to "get ahead" in terms of the recognition of their peers as well as material affluence and social mobility. There is a deeply held belief in the U.S. that anyone- through hard work, talent, and persistence- can rise well above the station in life to which he or she is born. This is despite the evidence that indicates this is no longer possible given the distribution of wealth in the US.

12. Time Consciousness: The concept of time varies from culture to culture and U.S. Americans tend to feel that time is relentlessly rushing past them, and they frequently need to know exactly what time it is, the saying “time is money” may best exemplify the American views on time. They attempt to "save time" by moving at a rapid pace, taking shortcuts, and improving their efficiency of operations. They soon become anxious if forced to waste time. U.S. Americans are nearly always punctual and they expect others to be on time, too. Being late to class, a meeting or to an appointment is not acceptable, and students who cannot be punctual will face disciplinary consequences. It is also important to hand in your assignments when they are due, if you do not you will lose points for being late.

13. Equality and Fairness: Equality cherished in the U.S. and many U.S. Americans believe that all people are "created equal" and that all should have an equal opportunity to succeed.

14. Personal Control Over the Environment

Americans no longer believe in the power of Fate, and they have come to look at people who do as being backward, primitive, or hopelessly naïve. In the United States people consider it normal and right that Man should control nature, rather than the other way around. More Americans find it impossible to accept that there are some things, which lie beyond the power of humans to achieve. And Americans have literally gone to the moon, because they refused to accept earthly limitations.

15. Change

In the American mind, change is seen as an indisputably good condition. Change is strongly linked to development, improvement, progress, and growth. Many older, more traditional cultures consider change as a disruptive, destructive force, to be avoided if at all possible. Instead of change, such societies value stability, continuity, tradition, and a rich and ancient heritage -none of which are valued very much in the United States.