The Invisible American Culture


Does America have a culture? I don’t mean “Kulcha,” as in high-flown symphonies and ballet, but culture, small c, a distinctive flavor, that je ne sais quoi that a group of people emanates by virtue of all its shared attitudes and styles.

Some say no. America, they say, is a patchwork of immigrant flavors from other places with nothing of its own. Or they allow that America has distinctive indigenous cultures but say they differ from region to region: there is Cajun culture, Yankee culture, California culture, but no such thing as American culture.

To which Mark Rosenfelder, linguist and master of the Metaverse website, retorts:

“Fish have also been known to doubt the existence of water.”

He’s right: the distinctive flavor of any culture is hard for its own members to perceive, because culture is more than a national costume and official celebrations. It’s a subtle web of understandings and assumptions that people may not know they share because, from the inside, most of it seems trivial and obvious.

If you’re American, for example, you probably hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • Thin is more attractive than fat. (Many cultures would disagree.)
  • Nodding means yes. (In Turkey, I learned to my chagrin, nodding means no.)
  • Upon reaching adulthood, people move out of their parents’ house. (Not in Korea.)

And the list goes on. If you’re American, there are certain things you just know, or assume, or expect that at least one other culture in the world finds less than obvious. Or even untrue. Or incomprehensible. For example: 

If you’re American, you know that…

  • In general, everybody goes to school till they’re about eighteen. Past that age, it’s a choice. Before that age, a kid who isn’t in school is a “dropout.”
  • A man who is still living with his parents at thirty is probably failing at life.
  • Adults work, because everybody must earn their keep.
  • It’s normal to die of old age. That’s the only normal death. To die of an illness is a tragedy, because illness can be cured. If doctors fail to cure an illness, they have done something wrong.
  • You can’t expect to get much done between late November and early January because that’s “the Holiday Season.” (In western Europe, a similar expectation holds for August.)

In America’s Holiday Season—whether or not you’re a Christian—you give and get gifts, go to more parties than usual, take time off from work, travel, and connect with family. Or feel bereft because you don’t.

In other holiday news: you are aware of Superbowl Sunday, even if you don’t care about football.

It’s the economy, stupid.

  • You assume that any product is available: it’s just a question of money. Shortages mean higher prices, not empty shelves. You never expect to go to a shoe store and find no shoes.
  • Haggling is not a part of shopping, unless you’re at a flea market or buying a big-ticket item. Instead, shopping involves studying the posted prices and making decisions. You can choose among many brands for any given product.
  • None will be the government brand. The government doesn’t make stuff.
  • You can recite any number of advertising slogans, though you’re not proud of it. You can recount the plots of several television commercials too. You believe that advertising influences a lot of people, but it doesn’t have much effect on you.
  • Nonetheless, there are ads you like and ads you don’t. In that way, ads are like pop songs.
  • The job title “teacher” sounds low-status to you. (In many cultures, it is a term of highest respect.)
  • “Lawyer” sounds powerful but possibly unethical. (In Muslim cultures it sounds just a bit more prestigious than “clerk.”)
  • “Politician” sounds tricky.
  • “Poet” provokes the follow-up question, “But what do you do for a living? (In Russia some poets are like rock stars.)
  • You don’t know how much money any of your personal friends make. It would be impertinent to ask. But you do know how much some celebrities make—especially athletes.
  • If you are given five seconds to name ten famous people, at least half of them will be athletes or entertainers.
  • Paying a little bit extra for better service in the private sector seems reasonable: you call it a tip. Paying a little bit extra for better service in dealings with a government agency seems unreasonable: you call this a bribe.

You are what you eat

  • Breakfast refers to a particular set of foods. These include eggs, toast, bacon, cereal, and citric juices—but not soup, pasta, or fried fish.
  • Lunch, by contrast, is anything you eat around noon. A restaurant may advertise “breakfast any time!” but never “lunch any time!”
  • Dinner is the big meal of the day, and you eat it in the early evening. It would be strange to serve dinner after 11 pm. (In Pakistan, I found, it’s common.)
  • If a meal includes meat, that’s the main dish. (In many Asian cultures, a rice dish will be the centerpiece, meat a side dish.)
  • You expect to eat something different for dinner every night. A perfectly valid reason not to choose spaghetti, steak, or tacos would be, “I had that last night.”
  • Dogs and insects are not food.
  • On a road trip, you’re attracted to places that advertise “homemade food,” even though you know it will never actually be home-made.
  • You think pie is better in small town diners, even though this is rarely true.
  • You know what a diner is.
  • When you stop at a diner or any other ordinary restaurant, you expect to see sugar, salt, black pepper, ketchup, and mustard at your table, but not chili powder, malt vinegar, or chutney.
  • You never wonder if the water served at a restaurant is safe to drink.

What manners to mind

Certain rules of etiquette are so basic, they don’t seem like choices, and you don’t remember learning them. For example:

  • If there is only one other person on a bus, you don’t sit next to that person. (In an Arab country, you very well might.)
  • In conversation with an acquaintance, you don’t stand closer than about two feet. You don’t touch the other person. (In Italy, you might.)
  • If someone compliments a garment you’re wearing, you don’t feel you have to give it to them. (In Morocco, you might feel you ought to.)
  • Of course you can walk side by side with a man. So what if you’re a woman? What kind of question is that?!! 
  • If you go on a date, your mother won’t come along.
  • If you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner, you don’t expect to spend the night. You would feel weird if the host suggested it. (In Afghanistan, it’s almost inevitable.)

Speaking of entertainment

  • As an American, you have, at some point, complained about TV. You’ve expressed disgust at what junk they produce nowadays. Yet you can name and describe at least ten shows and rate them from best to worst.
  • You cannot name ten operas. You have probably never complained that they don’t make good operas anymore.
  • You think of football, baseball, and basketball as major sports. Even if you know nothing about baseball, you know that “three strikes” means “you’re out.” Even if you know nothing about football, you’ll probably never ask, “How come they call it football? They don’t really use their feet.” (If you’re European, you might.)

In England a few summers ago, I saw the following lead paragraph from the day’s leading sports story. If you understand it, you’re probably not an American:

Resuming 180 runs adrift on 264 for seven after only 14 overs were possible on Saturday, Australia had hoped to frustrate England for as long as possible with Shane Warne setting his sights on a maiden Test century. But Warne and Australia’s resistance were blown away by a stunning burst of three for six in 29 balls by seamer Simon Jones, who claimed Test best figures of six for 53.

But is it art?

  • You expect that a story will have good guys and bad guys. (For counter-examples, look at recent animated movies from Japan.) It will probably have a happy ending. If it has a sad ending, it’s a literary story. Or pretentious. Or European.
  • You recognize Charley Brown but not Mafalda. (She’s the most popular cartoon character in Latin America over the past thirty years.)
  • You know about superheroes: they’re normal-looking characters with unusual powers who fight crime and injustice wearing masks and tight-fitting costumes, all the while maintaining secret second identities as normal, everyday human beings.  (There are so many versions of this story it’s fair to call this an American myth.)
  • Another fictional character familiar to you is the loner with his own code of justice. In the Old West, he appeared in small towns wracked by lawless violence, cleaned them up, and rode away before anyone could find out who he really was. In big, grimy twentieth-century cities, he was a private detective in a cheap suit who got beat up a lot and earned little reward for his work but kept at it anyway, adhering to his private code in a corrupt world. You understand why such a character is a hero.

Deep thoughts

  • “Moving on” is the healthy response to unpleasant incidents. (American reverence for “moving on” is brilliantly dramatized in the great American novel, Huckleberry Finn.)
  • “Living in the past” is bad. The proper thing to do with the past is to “let it go.”
  • “Living for the future” is good.
  • Living in the present is okay in moderation. (Buddhist cultures, by contrast, consider it noble though difficult.)

Of course, American culture, like every other, is made of big stuff too. The Bill of Rights. The Broadway musical. The blues…but this bottomless loam of petty self-evident truths is an indispensable part of who we are. It adds up to what others see as American about us when we travel. And it is also, I submit, an invisible web that binds us as a people. It doesn’t make us agree, but it lets us understand what we’re disagreeing about, and that is what makes conversation possible—a capacity we must never relinquish.

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