Because the residents and visitors from many different nations come to the United States, we meet people from other cultures frequently. Increased international travel, trade, and business also lead to contacts with people from different cultures. Appreciating and understanding differences among people helps us all get along better. Understanding our own values and how they affect our view of other people also improves our sensitivity to cultural differences.
What is culture? Culture refers to a wide range of activities, including the way people live, their language, clothes, foods, and values. The interrelationships of religions, classes, technologies, and belief systems make cultures complex.
If we begin by looking at American values as international visitors see them, then we can start to understand and appreciate the differences in values and the problems they may cause.
The Washington International Center shares the following list of American values with international visitors to help them understand our culture. The Center staff believes that these values describe most (but not all) Americans. Although we view our values as positive, people from other cultures may have a different view. This list of typical American values sharply contrasts with the values commonly held by people of other countries.
1. Personal control of environment
Many Americans no longer believe in fate. They think that people who do are backward, primitive, or naive. To be called “fatalistic” — someone who believes in fate — is a criticism in this country, meaning you are superstitious, lazy, and unwilling to take an initiative. Americans consider it normal and right that people should control nature and the environment, rather than the other way around. Problems do not result from bad luck as much as having come from laziness in pursuing a better life. Americans also consider it normal that you should look out for your self-interest first.
In the American mind, change is seen as a good condition. Change is linked to development, improvement, progress, and growth. Many traditional cultures consider change disruptive and destructive, avoiding it as much as possible. Such societies value stability, continuity, tradition, and a rich and ancient heritage.
3. Time and its control
For the average American, time is of utmost importance. To the foreign visitor, we appear more concerned with getting goals accomplished on time than with developing deep interpersonal relations.
Equality is, for Americans, a cherished value. We have even given it religious basis. We say all people have been “created equal.” The equality concept often makes Americans appear strange to others. Seven-eighths of the world feel quite differently. To them, rank, status, and authority are more desirable — even if they personally happen to find themselves near the bottom of the social order. Class and authority give people in those societies a sense of security and certainty.
5. Individualism and privacy
In the U.S., an individual is seen as unique, and therefore, precious and wonderful. While Americans join groups, they still consider themselves individualistic, and they leave groups as easily as they enter them. Privacy is hard for many cultures to understand. Some don’t have the word in their language. Privacy may be seen as negative by some nationalities, suggesting loneliness or isolation from the group.
6. Other mainstream American values
- Self-help concept — we pride ourselves on achieving goals on our own.
- Competition and free enterprise.
- Future-oriented — we believe that life will get better. As a result we tend to devalue the past.
- Action/work — oriented.
- Informality — people in other cultures often view our informality as disrespectful.
- Directness, openness and honesty — other cultures often view these as being blunt.
To better get along with people from other cultures, we need to learn to listen; respect differences; remember that our communication style, not content, may be the problem; and adjust to the communication style of others.