You certainly have heard stories, good or bad, about American
people. You also probably have preconceived ideas from having met
Americans before or from films and television programs that color
your impression of what Americans are and what they do. However,
American society is enormously diverse and complex and cannot be
reduced only to a few stories or stereotypes. Important differences
exist between geographical regions, between rural and urban areas,
and between social classes. In addition, the presence of millions of
immigrants who came to the United States from all corners of the
world with their own culture and values adds even more variety and
flavor to American life.
The characteristics described below represent that image of U.S.
society that is thought of as being "typically American."
Probably above everything else, Americans consider themselves
individuals. There are strong family ties and strong loyalties to
groups, but individuality and individual rights are most important.
If this seems like a selfish attitude, it also leads Americans to an
honest respect for other individuals and an insistence on human
Related to this respect for individuality are American traits of
independence and self-reliance. From an early age, children are
taught to "stand on their own two feet," an idiom meaning to be
independent. You may be surprised to learn that most U.S. students
choose their own classes, select their own majors, follow their own
careers, arrange their own marriages, and so on, instead of adhering
to the wishes of their parents.
Honesty and frankness are two more aspects of American
individuality, and they are more important to Americans than
personal honor or "saving face." Americans may seem blunt at times,
and in polite conversations they may bring up topics and issues that
you find embarrassing, controversial, or even offensive. Americans
are quick to get to the point and do not spend much time on social
niceties. This directness encourages Americans to talk over
disagreements and to try to patch up misunderstandings themselves,
rather than ask a third party to mediate disputes.
Again, "individuality" is the key word when describing Americans,
whether it is their personalities or their style of dress. Generally
though, Americans like to dress and entertain informally and treat
each other in a very informal way, even when there is a great
difference in age or social standing. Students and professors often
call each other by their first names. International students may
consider this informality disrespectful, even rude, but it is part
of American culture. Although there are times when Americans are
respectful of, and even sentimental about, tradition, in general
there is little concern for set social rules.
Americans place a high value on achievement and this leads them to
constantly compete against each other. You will find friendly, and
not-so-friendly, competition everywhere. The American style of
friendly joking or banter, of "getting in the last word," and the
quick and witty reply are subtle forms of competition. Although such
behavior is natural to Americans, some international students might
find it overbearing and disagreeable.
Americans can also be obsessed with records of achievement in
sports, in business, or even in more mundane things. Books and
movies, for example, are sometimes judged not so much on quality but
on how many copies are sold or on how many dollars of profit are
realized. In the university as well, emphasis is placed on
achievement, on grades, and on one's grade point average (GPA).
On the other hand, even if Americans are often competitive, they
also have a good sense of teamwork and of cooperating with others to
achieve a specific goal.
Americans are often accused of being materialistic and driven to
succeed. How much money a person has, how much profit a business
deal makes, or how many material goods an individual accumulates is
often their definition of success. This goes back to American
competitiveness. Most Americans keep some kind of appointment
calendar and live according to schedules. They always strive to be
on time for appointments. To international students, American
students seem to always be in a hurry, and this often makes them
appear rude. However, this attitude makes Americans efficient, and
they usually are able to get many things done, in part, by following
Many Americans, however, do not agree with this definition of
success; they enjoy life's simple pleasures and are neither overly
ambitious nor aggressive. Many Americans are materially successful
and still have time to appreciate the cultural, spiritual, and human
aspects of life.