New Yorkers tend to be more formal: they dress up to go to dinner. In Seattle, the casual look is de rigueur—it’s pretty hard to be under-dressed in Seattle without being totally nude. People in New York seem to be more out-spoken and less politically correct than Seattleites. People in Seattle are less likely than New Yorkers to be “in your face” if they disagree with you, but if you stand around looking lost on a New York street, people will fall all over themselves trying to give you directions.
Contrast the citizens of either place with the “typical” Mid-Western farmer, Southern revivalist, or Arizona retiree, and you have an idea of the scope of differences among people across this great land.
So what-all makes an American an American? What are some of the characteristics typical of those born or raised in the good ol’ US of A?
For about fifteen years, I had a unique opportunity to explore that question in discussions with a group of people who had the perspective of having come to America from other places. We met weekly, usually at the home of a Belgian couple—native French speakers who were kind enough to mentor the rest of us in the nuances of that lovely language. Membership in the group changed over the years but included, at one time or another, folks from Great Britain, India, Brazil, France, and Hong Kong. As a born-in-America citizen and native English speaker, I was usually in the minority.
Topics of conversation ranged from history and culture to science and etymology, but we often discussed current events. On my part, these conversations were a chance to understand how smart, well-traveled people with a fondness for the USA tend to see us. Over time, it became clear to me that in nations, as in families, the influence of history goes back a long, long way.
The first white people in America fled religious persecution. They came to a land with many dangers, where only the toughest, hardest-working, and most adaptable could survive. As they came into contact with the native peoples, whose language and customs were incomprehensible to them, conflicts arose. Armed with a powerful cultural and religious sense of superiority and entitlement, the newcomers eventually vanquished the natives. Incentives arose to move westward across the vast continent, and the hardiest or most desperate set out again and again for the great unknown. We, their children and cultural heirs, retain some of the traits evident in those early settlers.
So here are some characteristics of Americans—at any rate, of the dominant culture of white, mainstream Americans—that seem to derive partly from the nation’s origins. Often in the extreme compared to other Westernized nations, Americans tend to be
- Hard working
- Stalwart and determined
- Eager to help their neighbors
- Inclined to feel persecuted
Only America could have gone from utter ruin at Pearl Harbor in 1941 to world military dominance five years later. Only in America could a large number of educated people still believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago. Only America could proudly elect its leaders one day and then spend the next two to four years accusing them of dastardly secret conspiracies. Only Americans could throw up a barn for a neighbor in a long day’s work but vociferously defend horrific human rights abuses like slavery, gay-bashing, and capital punishment. (Only Americans, for example, could reconcile the notion of free speech with a call to execute protesters for burning a flag.) Only America could keep spawning organizations like the John Birch Society, neo-fascist militias, and the NRA. (People: Nobody—but nobody—is secretly plotting to take your guns away!)
In conversation, Americans tend to be dogmatic and emotional and to take simple disagreement as a personal affront. Americans change their minds less than other people of similar educational background (according to my friends from abroad, anyway), and when they have to acknowledge they may have been wrong, they tend to get angry about it. Having begun as a nation of fighters, Americans still find it hard to conceive of a win-win (as opposed to a win-lose) situation.
However, solving big problems requires the ability to think rationally, speak honestly, tolerate disagreement, and be willing to compromise—in other words, to seek a “win-win” situation. Only in America would large segments of the population condone the actions of leaders who say no, no, no to the party in power, blocking progress on virtually every issue just to try to make the opposition look bad.
I love my country. If I had to get stuck along the highway or be left without a home, I’d rather it be here than anywhere else. But when it comes to engaging in a rational discussion about religion, philosophy, politics, or a host of other topics, I’d rather be anywhere else.
The trouble is, we have to discuss these things. American families can’t wait and the world can’t wait for solutions to the many problems that beset us. As Americans, we need to tell the people who represent us to rise above the worst attributes in the American character and exercise the best to solve problems and get things done.