“American Values and Assumptions”

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The article “American Values and Assumptions” by Gary Althen, first published in American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States in 2003, is an attempt to sum up the most prominent values that Americans share. In the article, Althen begins by declaring that individualism is the defining characteristic of Americans (page 5). They view individual freedom as a positive thing, and they expect all people to share that view. However, people from other cultures may feel the opposite way and might view Americans as selfish. Due to Americans’ admiration of individualism, they praise people who do exceptional things, as well as people who have overcome obstacles to become successful. Individuality also leads to an attitude of competitiveness. Individualism and competiveness go hand in hand because competition implies separateness from others. The importance of privacy also stems from Americans’ individualism. Another thing that Americans value is equality. They tend to believe that all people can achieve higher standing and that everyone is deserving of some level of respect. Because of this, Americans also value informality; everyone can be treated in much the same way because everyone is equal.

Americans also value the future more than history, because they think that they have control over it. According to Althen, they believe that their environment is subject to their control (page 9). This is in contrast to many other cultures that might think that the world, as well as their future, is not in their own hands, but rather in the hands of some higher power. Another American value that differs from other cultures is that Americans consider the time to be an important, and finite, resource. They prefer people to be well-organized, punctual, and to not waste time. Due to these views, efficiency is also an appreciated value. Other cultures might see this negatively, placing more value on taking time to enjoy life’s pleasures and others’ company. Americans also place value on hard work and on people who are achievers. Because Americans have been taught that materials are a measure of achievements, materialism is another American value. Saying exactly what one means is valued as well, but this is seen as aggressive by people in some cultures. Also different from other cultures is that Americans also tend to display their emotions and are more open. However, they are seen by some cultures as overly emotional, while at the same time being seen as cold by other, more emotional cultures.

“Where Do We Stand”: In the article “Where Do We Stand?,” first published in 1990 in the magazine In Health, author Lisa Davis postulates that body language varies greatly between cultures, but that it is not overly difficult to learn a different body language. Davis states that we each have a zone of privacy that affects how others view us (page 20). We learn this body language from infancy. However, the language differs between cultures, groups within cultures, and the sexes. Because of this, consultants have stepped in to teach people about body language in specific cultures. The study of body distances in conversations was begun in the early 1950s by Edward Hall, who created a spectrum. The anthropological perspective of cultures vary greatly on this spectrum, from the high-contact Middle East and South America to the more distant Northern European cultures, with the United States falls somewhere in the middle. Body language determines how we think of other peoples’ personalities; they may come off as cold or untrustworthy depending on the distance. In countries such as the former Soviet Union and the United States, diversity means that countrymen do not necessarily use the same body language. Distrust of people who use different space may be based on animal instincts, as studies show that people such as schizophrenics and violent criminals have a different spatial language. However, different cultural spaces may also be a product of the senses that are used most in conversation, the space required for standard greeting, or cultural temperaments. Either way, it is not difficult to learn the space requirements of other cultures to enhance communication.

“Time Talks, with an Accent”: In the article “Time Talks, with an Accent,” an excerpt from Robert Levin’s A Geography of Time, published in 1997, the author talks about his experiences with cross-cultural concepts of time. He recalls an early time in his career when he was in Brazil, and the most difficult cultural adjustment was to a different idea of time and punctuality. He had been expecting a slower lifestyle that would conflict with his Brooklyn upbringing, such as the one that he had gotten accustomed to in Fresno, CA. However, his expectations and past experience did not prepare him for Brazil. Levine recalls how Brazilian timepieces were always inaccurate, but nobody else cared (page 29). On his first day of teaching, many students arrived late to his lecture but, again, none seemed to care much. After the class, instead of leaving abruptly, his students lingered, prompting him to make an appointment to meet with his boss to try and understand their behavior better. However, his boss did not appear at her office until 45 minutes after their appointment time, did not call him in to talk with her until an hour and 20 minutes after, and only chatted for a few minutes before excusing herself to go to another appointment. Several similar incidents followed, in which the author was confused by the Brazilian concept of time, and even called arrogant for his expectations. The confusion came about because rules of punctuality were inseparable from the collective culture that they operated in, and those rules could not be easily understood. Furthermore, cultural beliefs such as time are often taken for granted and therefore not talked about, which creates additional difficulties for outsiders who are not familiar with the culture. The author’s difficulties in Brazil inspired him to study the psychology of time and places, which have taken him all over the world and led him to the conclusion that time is viewed in very diverse ways which differ between cultures, cities, and people.