American Culture: Knowing Yourself In Order to Understand Others

Julie Shenkman
Posted by

How often have you said something like, "It seems like every other country has a culture but we don't," or "America is just a hodgepodge of groups -- we don't really have any values that distinguish us?" Even Mark Twain -- often regarded as a spokesperson for 19th century American popular culture -- commented that the only thing Americans have in common as a culture is a fondness for ice water. People talk about the "melting pot" and say that the United States is nothing but a conglomeration of cultures from around the world. It may be true that we are a "nation of immigrants," but there are still unique American characteristics that resulted from the synergy or coming together of these many cultures. It is from that very fabric that American culture grew -- from the Puritan work ethic brought by the English to the "all-American" German hot dog, and such "American" French words as rendezvous and hors d'oeuvres. The Importance of Knowing Your Own Culture There are many reasons why it is important to remember that America does have a culture. The first reason, quite simply, is a question of pride. Having cultural self-awareness gives us all, regardless of our culture, a sense of identity and core values that allows us to function more successfully in both our personal and professional lives. Equally important, however, is that knowing our own culture makes it possible to more accurately interpret the needs and behaviors of colleagues, patients, and families who might be new arrivals to this country. Why, you are probably asking, would knowing my own culture make me more able to understand people from other cultures? Perhaps it will help if you think of human beings as fish in a fishbowl. Each fish is surrounded by water and glass and is unaware that those elements exist and that they are distorting his view of the outside world. Human beings, similarly, function inside their own culture and, like the fish, have no idea that the culture exists. To most people, cultural values -- what we do and the way we feel about things -- are assumed to be human nature. Surely, we reason, this is just the way people are. Many of us are utterly aware that much of what we believe to be proper behavior and attitudes is specific to each culture. Because of this assumption that values are universal, we tend to assume that everyone is doing what they are doing for the same reasons we would. If, for example, we did not realize that the direct eye contact which Americans value is regarded as disrespectful in many cultures, we would always assume that someone who is not looking at us is deceitful, uninterested, or shifty. In fact, they are probably attempting to communicate respect. The trick to eliminating misunderstandings such as this is to become consciously aware of our values and of the fact that they are not necessarily shared by everyone we meet. Once we realize that our views are not human nature, we are in a far better position to accurately interpret the motivations and needs of those around us. Strategies for Cultural Self-Awareness Obviously, awareness of our cultural values is not automatic. It takes some conscious effort to distinguish between human nature -- the desire, for example, for survival -- and culturally-specific values. The following techniques have proven successful in dozens of workshops. Give them a try and you will no doubt learn a great deal about your culture and yourself. 1. Examine the values which American proverbs and idioms represent. Take a moment to read each of the following proverbs. Some may seem antiquated and quaint, but they represent several of the tenets upon which American society is built. Think about it for a few minutes and then write down the value that each saying represents to you. Proverb or Idiom There's no fool like an old fool. God helps those who help themselves. Never put off 'till tomorrow what you can do today. A rolling stone gathers no moss. Most of these values are fairly obvious once you start thinking about them, but let's take a quick look at each of them and how the values which they represent can affect your work in a culturally-diverse health care environment. a. "There's no fool like an old fool" illustrates the value placed on youth in our nation. This perspective is in sharp contrast with the way other cultures feel about and respect the elderly. Many of you have no doubt noticed the importance of communicating respect for elders in the families of immigrant patients or the dynamic of the positions of informal leadership held by older immigrants in the workplace. The United States is practically alone in the world in its obsession with youth and cavalier attitude toward older people. It is imperative that we stay alert to this contrast in values so that we will remember to communicate the deference and respect that is so essential to developing good cross-cultural relationships. b. "God helps those who help themselves" demonstrates the importance of action versus fatalism. When ill, for example, native-born Americans speak of the "will to live" a concept which contrasts the Arabic sentiment In Sha' Allah -- "If God Wills It." Fate, not action, is what dictates the future in many cultures. When encountering those colleagues or patients who speak of fate as controlling their destiny, it is important that we do not jump to the conclusion that the person is lazy or lacking in direction -- it merely means that the individual believes that fate or God's will is an element of the human condition. America's view of events as totally controllable as long as we try hard enough is not only foolish, but also rather unusual among cultures. c. "Never put off 'till tomorrow what you can do today" supports the importance of planning for the future. One of the great frustrations in health care today is when encountering patients who are reluctant to seek preventative care or who discontinue unpleasant treatment because they lose sight of a distant goal of recovery. Usually this stems from a belief that the present moment is of greater value and -- in light of the importance placed on fate -- is more controllable than the future. It does not mean that the person is stupid or does not care about his or her health. TIP: When encountering this attitude, it is helpful to provide as much concrete proof of increments of improvement through long-term treatment. Show the patient blood tests and other measurements of change which will help him or her buy into treatment even if physical symptoms remain the same. d. "A rolling stone gathers no moss," along with many other aphorisms such as "Don't let the grass grow under your feet," points to a preoccupation with mobility. This differs from the perspective of the immigrant colleague who recognizes the benefits of putting down roots and staying in one home, hospital, and position for a long time. You might, for example, encounter a person who does not seem particularly concerned with receiving a promotion. The native-born American's first reaction to this is apt to be that the person is lazy or doesn't care about the organization. Once we are aware that the value of advancement is culturally-specific and not shared by all, we can explore the more likely explanation that he or she is concerned with staying in one position so that he or she might get to know how to do the job right and build relationships that are permanent and meaningful. Curiously, the Japanese have a proverb that is identical to ours -- "A rolling stone gathers no moss" -- but in their case it is an injunction against mobility, not a praise of it. For the Japanese, the moss symbolizes things to be achieved, not avoided. The idea is that if the individual is in constant motion and does not stop long enough to acquire tradition and custom, he or she will have missed something of great importance in life. These are just a few of the proverbs that you can examine in order to understand mainstream American culture better. Take a look at sayings such as "There is more than one way to skin a cat," "The early bird catches the worm," "All's well that ends well," etc. and you will quickly realize how rich American culture really is. 2. A second technique for becoming aware of your cultural values is to look at your family and cultural stories to see what values they contain. Stories are passed on through families and cultures for a reason -- their purpose is to impress values upon the next generation. How many of you, for example, have been told a version of this parable?: "When I was your age, I used to walk to school five miles in the snow both directions and that was after finishing my paper route." The values transmitted in this story are perseverance, the virtue of hard work, the importance of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and, of course, the value of appreciating what you have. All of these are dominant values in American culture. No doubt each and every one of you, regardless of your culture, has family or cultural stories which can serve to make you aware of the culturally-specific values which you hold. Take some time at this, talk to family members and friends who share your background. Perhaps you have stories about how your ancestors got to the United States, about colorful figures in your past, or about humorous instances that serve to identify the personality of specific family members. Follow these steps and you will quickly begin to understand your family and your culture better: a. Write the story out in as much detail as you can. b. Circle those elements which are most important. c. List those elements and note why they were included in the story. There might, for example, be an element that depicts your family's humble roots ("Grandpa had $2.00 in his pocket when he stepped off the ship at Ellis Island"), the great courage that an individual showed ("Great Aunt Nan built the business all by herself in days when women weren't supposed to do such things), or a particular behavior that "saved the day" ("My parents were able to keep the family together by working eighteen hours a day.") d. List how each of these values might affect how you judge others. If professional accomplishments by the women in your family are important, you might, for example, have to be careful not to judge harshly the immigrant colleague who places her husband's and family's needs above her own career. If risk-taking is a dominant theme, take care not to misinterpret those immigrants who do now speak up with innovative ideas as stupid or lazy. Most likely, they place greater value on saving face -- not being embarrassed -- than on risking having their idea rebuffed. As you can see from these exercises, American culture is very real and, once you become conscious of it, very well defined. Certainly it is a way of life woven from the threads of diverse peoples, but it is, nonetheless, a true culture with its own values, style, and ways of looking at the world. As you become aware of your values, remember that I am not saying that you need to change them in any way but merely that you realize that these values are yours and are not necessarily shared by everyone around you. Taking It to the Workplace I have written this article from the standpoint of mainstream American culture, but I realize many readers may carry with them elements of other cultures as well. No matter what your background, no matter what your values, we all share the same tendency to project our culture onto others. Use these simple exercises to become conscious of your own values so that you can understand yourself and your own culture better and so that you can more accurately interpret the needs and behaviors of those around you, make more informed choices, and appreciate the strengths and virtues of all the cultures you encounter. Sondra Thiederman is a speaker and author on diversity, bias-reduction, and cross-cultural issues. She is the author of Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace (Chicago: Dearborn Press, 2003) which is available at her web site or at She can be contacted at: Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. Cross-Cultural Communications 4585 48th Street San Diego, CA 92115 Phones: 619-583-4478 / 800-858-4478 Fax: 619-583-0304 / Copyright Cross-Cultural Communications. Should you wish to re-print this article, you may do so as long as long as the current copyright statement and all contact information is included.

Become a member to take advantage of more features, like commenting and voting.

  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Thanks for the great comments and thanks to Dr. Thiederman for sharing this information. It's so interesting to think about how our culture influences virtually every aspect of our lives. Because it's such a strong part of who we are, we don't even notice it.
  • O
    This is an excellent article, thank you very much for it,I have found here much useful information
  • Jerry
    This is a very nice post, thanks. Found for myself some new details
  • NanoCrow
    This is an excellent article, thank you very much for it.
  • Thomas
    Great article and site, nice work.

Jobs to Watch