What Americans Are Like, in General
Foreign visitors who have traveled widely in the United States come away with the impression of diversity, not only in terms of race, but also in terms of public attitudes and beliefs. If there’s one thing they can be sure of, it’s that the media rarely portrays Americans accurately, if only because not everyone is the same. It’s impossible to say, “Americans like this” or “Americans believe that,” because, basically, we are all over the board.
Another thing that surprises foreigners, once they are actually here, is that American foreign policy can be a very inaccurate reflector of the American public. That’s something that Americans should remember about other countries, as well. Just because the leader of Uganda, the Philippines, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya or Syria is being nasty, that doesn’t mean all the people are that way. Just because a few extremists do something horrendous, that doesn’t mean everyone of the same nationality or religion agrees with the extremists. Even in countries where people are not free to criticize their government outwardly, not everyone agrees with what their government does.
One foreign immigrant commented that people in the United States were much more intelligent that he had imagined, and generally happier than he expected. That may say more about the media in his country than it does about Americans! It’s worth thinking about how our media here portrays people in foreign lands. All is not as it seems on the news or in the movies.
Americans are known to be positive and fair, in general, and wiling to forge ahead, no matter what obstacle or adversity they meet. Here, we call it “Yankee ingenuity,” and yes, we’re proud of that. We are also thought of as relatively open-minded and innovative. This may be, at least in part, because we don’t have the weight of hundreds or thousands of years of culture limiting our thoughts and actions. We pride ourselves on being able to work together as a team to solve problems.
A comment from a person from India: Americans value human life more than they do in India. It’s hard to know what the person was talking about, since he didn’t elaborate, but we do tend to have more social programs and safety nets for poor folks, and unlike in countries where the culture is much older, we haven’t got such a fatalistic attitude about life. Instead of letting life be what it is, we set out to change things, or make them better.
Work is the central focus of American life, and people here tend to work really hard, many of us balancing a job, part-time studies, kids, household chores, volunteer activities, and hobbies. Immigrants have commented that there is an almost overwhelming number of opportunities to volunteer in this country. One person commented that American CEO’s can be very down-to-earth. They can get their own coffee or make their own sandwiches for lunch. They often drive unpretentious cars or live in ordinary houses, no matter how rich or how high up on the corporate ladder they may be.
Americans are generous. Many of us volunteer or donate to charities. We have built great universities, think tanks, churches and nonprofit organizations, all of which work toward the goal of improving human life.
One immigrant contrasted the way his family handles a visit from relatives with the way his American friends do. When relatives came from his home country for a family reunion, the relatives stayed at his home, not in a hotel, as some American families might do. There were three people in some beds, plus people on the floor, and the sofa. Some American families do this, as well, but it’s true that we do stay in a hotel if we don’t want to bother our hosts. We take into consideration how old the host and hostess are, and whether they are up to the task of having company. Americans also tend to have a larger personal space, and don’t like having to share a bed or a bathroom with others, if they don’t normally do so.
Many foreigners are surprised that American families are not necessarily that close. Part of this has to do with the mobility of our population. Many families are literally scattered across the country. In addition, Americans who grew up in the 50s and 60s tend to be closer to their “nuclear” family, rather than to extended family. Kids leave home at 18 or so, and live on their own, especially once they get married. Our aging parents wish to stay in their own homes as long as they can, and when they can’t, they are taken to old folks’ homes and nursing homes, rather than living with adult children.
In some countries, Americans are portrayed as very self-centered people who throw their kids out once they graduate from high school, and who don’t care for their aged parents, so it is surprising to them to see that we do actually love and care for our family members. We just don’t always live in the same household with them. We may not even live in the same state. That seems strange to many foreigners, but they admit that it works for us.
Many American families with older children have practically given up on having a sit-down family dinner in the evening, because the kids and the parents have so many after-school and evening activities. When the American family does eat together, it’s more often around the TV set.
Many foreigners are surprised that in the United States, parents can actually get arrested for beating their kids. They are also surprised that teachers do not beat students. (I can’t tell you how many times the parents of my ESL students told me to go ahead and beat their child if he misbehaved in class. I had to explain that I couldn’t do that.)
Because we have so many freedoms in this country, many foreign visitors think that American children have no rules at all. For some families, that might be true, but for the majority, I suspect it is not. It’s just that we make it look like there are no rules. In many ways, European teenagers are given much more freedom to roam far from home than American kids. American kids might have the run of their town in their own car, but European kids can take the train to another country for the weekend, if they want to.
It does seem to others that American kids are disrespectful to adults, and I have to admit this can be true more often than I’d like to admit. A lot of American adults could take notes from foreign parents and teachers in this regard.
Some foreigners have commented that Americans don’t seem concerned whether a child is illegitimate or not. Illegitimacy just doesn’t have the social stigma here that it does in other countries, especially nowadays. In addition, Americans tend to have a much more open attitude about adopted children and foster children, whom they treat as if they were their own flesh and blood. The person who made this comment also stated that he considers this to be a mark of a great people.
It surprises some, perhaps because of the way we are portrayed in the media, that many American families lead traditional and conventional lives. Perhaps it says more about the media than it does about us when people comment that Americans are good and decent people, as if that is a revelation.
A lot of misunderstandings arise between Americans and foreigners because of our differing attitudes about friendships and neighbors. Americans are seen as extremely friendly and open, willing to tell their life story to total strangers. But in America, friendship is often a much shallower thing than it is elsewhere in the world. Foreign students who thought they were making friends with Americans realized later that American friendships are much more casual, more like “arms-length” acquaintances. Americans are quick to call a person by their first name whenever possible, but being on a “first-name basis” doesn’t necessarily imply true intimacy here in the U.S.
Foreigners are also perplexed that, at least in the big cities, you can live in a neighborhood all your life and not know your neighbors very well. Sometimes this is simply because people come and go so fast. Gone are the days when the majority of people lived in the very same house or neighborhood all their lives.
Americans are good-hearted people, and they like to treat their friends right, but I think the American notion of convenience does come into play here, in a big way. Americans are glad to help a friend, as long as it’s convenient for them. I’ve had to learn that the hard way a number of times when I needed help. By contrast, my friends from foreign lands have often gone out of their way to help me.
A young man from Africa illustrated the difference in the nature of friendships in his country and the United States. He asked his American friend, “If I woke you up in the middle of the night and asked you to come with me, what would you say? ” The American said he would ask, “What’s going on?” The African said that if he asked the same question to his friends in Africa, they would ask, “Where are we going?” 🙂