American Values (Part 2)

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


American ValuesIt will not come as a surprise that a society that admires independence and progress does not have an automatic respect for authority. What deference people in authority do command is based on their actual powers rather than on their age, wisdom, or dignity. Old people are often seen as behind the times. It’s the young who are expected to have some special insight into the modern world.

After all, it was by overthrowing the King of England that the United States was born, and suspicion of authority has remained a pillar of American life. This attitude has helped establish the USA as the birthplace of innovations that have changed the world. If a better way of doing something comes along, we unsentimentally jettison the old way. But we also jettison people. In a society that changes as fast as ours, experience simply does not have the value that it does in traditional societies.

Land of the Too-Free

“I think one person should end where the other begins,” said one immigrant to the United States. Many foreigners agree that American freedom is excessive. Americans tend to leap to the conclusion that any limitation on their rights is an attack on the American way of life. Out on the frontier you could do anything you wanted for the simple reason that nobody was around to notice. (The true frontiersman picked up stakes and moved as soon as he could smell his neighbor’s smoke.)

In urban life, there are plenty of ways to bother the neighbors, from shooting them to scrawling graffiti on their buildings. While nobody is allowed to do such things, the criminal gets the benefit of the doubt; under our legal system, he is innocent until proven guilty. We look for psychological reasons for anti-social behavior; there are even people who defend graffiti on the grounds that it is a form of self-expression.

Businesses, also, resist regulation. It has taken a long time to convince the public that free enterprise does not mean that a company should be free to pollute the air, foul the rivers, and destroy the forests. Such problems, of course, ane not unique to this society.

The Puritan Tradition

Although we have gone from a rural society to an urban one, many American values remain the traditional ones established by the European settlers in the 17th century.

The Puritans, a stern Christian sect, were among the first and most lasting settlers. Their values were well-suited to survival in a strange new world: self-reliance, hard work, frugal living, and the guidance of the individual conscience.

Furthermore, the Puritans considered earthly success a sign of God’s favor and saw no conflict between making money and entering the kingdom of heaven. Americans continue to have few ideas about the holiness of poverty. On the contrary, there is an undercurrent of feeling that people get what they deserve. (For that reason, this is a difficult country in which to be handicapped as well as in which to be poor.)

The Puritans would not have smiled on the conspicuous consumption of today, but they would have admired the unrelenting effort that goes into the acquisition of goods. Americans have much greater respect for businessmen that most other peoples do. An Englishman who has made enough money may well be happy to retire to his country home. The American only wants to go on making more money, driven as much by the Puritan work ethic (often called “the Protestant work ethic”) as by the desire for more money.

The “Puritan values” still referred to today usually refer to a prudishness towards sex and enjoyment. Although the Puritans were not actually against good times, they did feel that man was basically sinful, and spontaneity revealed the inner wickedness. Today, to call someone “Puritanical” is generally not meant as a compliment, as it suggests that he or she strait-laced and no fun.

Efficiency: Time is Money

If there is anything that warms the American heart, it’s efficiency. Henry Ford was long regarded as a hero for, of all things, inventing the assembly line. The assembly line reduced workers to cogs of machinery and made their jobs unutterably boring, but it produced goods fast.

“Time is money,” we say. Nothing is more American than the supermarket. Food is prepackaged, and shopping is impersonal, but the efficiency of the operation produces lower prices and less shopping time. The food’s lack of tastiness has not created much customer resistance.

Fast-food operations calculate sharply ways of saving a few seconds in the time each customer must wait. The customer will choose the one that can serve his hamburger and Coke in 60, rather than 90, seconds.

We show little forbearance if our time is wasted. A chatty bank teller whose line is moving slowly will cause great dismay. The people waiting in line are not inclined to chat. The important business while waiting is to be ready to move forward instantly when the line does, and to be prepared to dispatch one’s business in the least amount of time possible. If you should reach the head of the bank line before you remember to make out a deposit slip, and the whole line must wait while you do so, you will be looked on with disfavor.

Time Waits for No Man

According to anthropologist Edward T. Hall, we are monochronic culture, meaning we operate according to schedules, doing one thing at a time. Sticking to the schedule is more important than the human interruptions to it. When the bell rings, the class is over, no matter how interesting the discussion at that moment.

In a polychronic culture, on the other hand, many things are happening at once. It doesn’t matter if you’re late for an appointment because you’re only going to join the ongoing flow of business, none more pressing than the personal. Even if not much at all is happening, nobody cares. Life is not destination bound as it is with us.

There are Asian countries at least as efficient as the USA, but vast parts of the world cannot conceive of our concept of time. Time ais all-important to us. We think of ourselves as people who are going places. Tomorrow is not going to be like today. Tomorrow we’d like to be “a ways” down the road, and speed is going to get us there, not standing around chatting.

Consequently, we have come to see only practical and profitable activity as truly valuable. “How has so spartan a philosophy descended on an age that hoped to make machines do all the usefull work while man enjoyed his leisure?” asked Walter Kerr in his book, The Decline of Pleasure.

A good question. An American often lacks the capacity to enjoy his achievements. We find more satisfaction in acquiring the trappings of the leisure life than in leisure itself. Activity – rather than family or community – gives us our identities, and very few people are able to rest on their laurels. The Puritan values still dominate.