American Values (Part 1)

Extract from the book “Culture shock: USA” by Esther Wanning

American ValuesLike people everywhere, Americans don’t think of themselves as having American values. We simply imagine that the qualities we hold dear are those that matter to all mankind.

In this we are mistaken. American values are uncommon. This becomes quickly clear when American advisor launches a project in an underdeveloped country. The Amarican, who plans to bring prosperity to the natives, ends up in despair because nothing gets done. He cannot imagine that there are societies where getting things done isn’t top priority. He is baffled to discover people who do not aspire to change their standards of living. He cannot understand individuals who are not eager to change their status in society. He goes home in defeat, thanking God that he is an American.

What he does not understand is that American values could only have been forged in a new country full of opportunity. We are a nation almost entirely of immigrants, steeped in the belief that anyone with talent can get ahead.

American culture is commonly dated from the first permanent English settlement of 1607; from that point we see our history as a record of progress: from wilderness to jet planes in a few centuries. We conquered the original inhabitants, overthrew the English rulers, cleared the forests, opened the West, built skyscrapers, won the World Wars and extended the comfortable life to masses. We achieved all this – as we see it – because of dynamic individuals who never stopped seeking a better way.


More than anyting else, our values have been shaped by the fact that this has been a nation in which ambition could be rewarded. That all people should have an equal chance at success remains a sacred belief.

It has been opportunity, rather than democracy, that has given America its name as the Land of the Free. Were resources scarce and possibilities limited, people would only be free to go nowhere, and equality would have had a very different meaning. Our equality is the equality of opportunity. “Any man’s son may become the equal of any other man’s son,” wrote Fanny Trollope in 1831, “and the consciousness of this is certainly a spur to exertion.”

When the country was founded, the population was small and the resources were vast; those both aggressive and lucky could go far. In 1782, a Frenchman, St. John de Crevecoeur, noted that it was in going from a servant to a master that a man became an American. Actually, many people through the years remained downtrodden, but there have been enough examples of upward mobility to keep the myth of equality alive. Democracy could promise visible fruits. Everybody might not win, but everybody (so goes the myth) was eligible to get out on the racecourse. Family and connections were not required. Effort and brains and imagination were.

Because the countriy’s natural resources seemed endless, Americans developed an economics of abundance. We do not see our personal wealth as having been gained at the expense of others, as most of the world does. Instead, we think of the rich as creating opportunities and jobs for others. We are very frank about liking rich people and wanting to be rich ourselves.

The American system contributed the sense that everybody played by the same rules. The government’s job was to keep the course equal, to protect the rights of the individual. When people at least believe that they have a chance, it seems worthwhile to try to advance themselves – and when they fail, to try again. If, on the contrary, they feel that only those in favored positions can succeed, they are not inspired to make an effort. (The belief in this fairness was often naive, but it kept people trying.) Despite the fact that it obviously is not so, we like to think that anyone can become President of the United States – regardless of family, wealth, or background.

Future Outlook

Americans are profoundly future–oriented. Whereas other societies look to the past for guidance, we cast our nets forward. We have a nearly exclusive respect for the future and what it will bring.

It’s the belief in a brighter future that gives us our optimism. Whereas most peoples see their histories as cycles of good times and bad, we see ours as one of constant improvement. We trust that we have the power to affect the course of events. We do not believe that bad things are God’s will, things to be endured.

Even these days, when not all progress seems positive (nuclear weapons, air pollution, unemployment, loss of world power, etc.), the belief remains that for every problem there is a rational solution. If it’s ourselves we must change, we do so.

The notion that the present can always be improved accounts for Americans being in such a hurry. The contemplative man accepts the world as it is; the active man changes it. It is change that Americans believe in. Consequently, to say that somebody is “very eneretic” (no matter in what cause) is one of our highest compliments.

Future Shock

Because change comes so thick and fast, the American has been called “the constantly jumping man.” The last two decades have been particularly fast–paced, in gadgetry as well as in mores. Just in the last few years, fax machines, cellular phones, computerized burglar alarms, microwave ovens, and video cassette recorders have become commonplace.

Alvin Toffler in his popular book, Future Shock, made the claim that all Americans are living in a state of shock due to the increasing tempo of change in our lives. Future shock, he says, is worse than culture shock because there is no resolution. The only resource is to become more adaptable than ever before, leading to a loss of identity.

Others would argue that all these changes are superficial, and American life continues with the family around the turkey at Thanksgiving, with morals and outlook intact. But at the very least, the acquisition and care of new products explains where a lot of an American’s leisure time goes.


Cowboys never were a large part of the population, and they’re very scarce now, but in many ways they characterize the American ideal – self–reliant, tough, risk–taking, and masculine. The cowboy stands alone, pitting himself against elements. His strongest tie is to his horse.

In many countries, people cannot conceive of themselves apart from the family or group they belong to; their loyalty is to the group and their achievements are for the group. In America, self–reliance is the fundamental virtue. Each person is a solo operation, and independence is considered the birthright of every child. Our highest aspiration is self–fulfillment, and it’s only the unencumbered person who can become his true self. Many decisions that would be made by the group in other cultures are made by the individual here.

Newcomers, especially those from tightly knit families, are frequently aghast to discover that American children quite regularly leave home – with their parents’ blessings – at the age of 18. From then on, they will make most of their own decisions without their parents’ help, having already been quite independent during their teenage years. Should they linger too long under the parental roof they will cause anxiety. The child’s job is to go out into the world and succeed. The job of the parents is to give the children every opportunity while they are growing up and then get out of their way.

Realistically, there are many ways in which families can and do help their grown children, but they will try to make light of their assistance. Children are not to be burdened with a sense of obligation.

Asian families, who are often successful in acquiring real estate in the United States, are surprised to discover that American parents are not expected to contribute to the down payment on a house for their married children. Although this leaves the children free of obligation to them, it also – especially in these times of high real estate prices – leaves many bereft of any hope of owning a house.

Many of the aspects of American life that seem most baffling to foreigners make sense in light of the freedom principle. Aged parents as well as children remain independent. If you want to be a salmon fisherman in Alaska, you go. You don’t have to stay home to take care of your elders. In fact, sticking around your home town could suggest a lack of backbone, a failure of imagination and courage. American psychiatrists are quick to conclude that their patients’ problems stem from “inadequate separation” from parents.

The individual comes first. We do not consider this selfish. A person serves society by living up to his potential. The classic American hero is someone who succeeded on his own, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. The finest American literature extols the rebel: Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, Walden. “I Did It My Way,” sang Frank Sinantra in a classic popular song.