The American style

Culture, politic, mentality and lifestyle

E verybody knows Yanks are an eccentric lot, but who are they and what are they really like? Let’s take a tongue in cheek, candid and totally prejudiced look at the American people, and hope they forgive my flippancy or that they don’t read this article.

The typical American

The typical American is brash, friendly, competitive, industrious, rude, forthright, impatient, spontaneous, LOUD, optimistic, conscientious, litigious, patriotic, naive, wealthy, serious, demonstrative, ignorant, unworldly, fun-loving, racist, corrupt, altruistic, a shopaholic, effusive, parochial, dynamic, outrageous, efficient, excessive, virile, garrulous, intense, a religious zealot, ambivalent, helpful, crude, boastful, demanding, an exhibitionist, individualistic, selfish, ebullient, gluttonous, aggressive, a hustler, ambitious, proud, extrovert, flashy, compulsive, humorous, insecure, enthusiastic, greedy, uninhibited, decisive, arrogant, insincere, fickle, innovative, extravagant, pragmatic, vulgar, puritanical, artificial, overweight, unsophisticated, kind, shallow, materialistic, laid-back, entrepreneurial, tasteless, thrusting, insular, energetic, honest, hard-living, unethical, accessible, bigoted, warm, sporting, determined, abrasive, stressed, paranoid, ruthless, polite (except for New Yorkers – despite rumours to the contrary, to most people a friendly New Yorker is an oxymoron), conservative, generous, egotistical, vain, ostentatious, promiscuous, neurotic, narcissistic, approachable, prudish, exuberant, compassionate, violent, intransigent, blunt, dramatic, hyperbolic, brusque, superficial, predatory and a baseball fan.

You may have noticed that the above list contains ‘a few’ contradictions (as does life in the US), which is hardly surprising, as there’s no such thing as a typical American and few people conform to the popular stereotype (whatever that is). The US is one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world and a nation of foreigners (except for a few native Americans) who have as much in common with one other as Eskimos have with Africans or Mongolians with Europeans. However, despite its diverse racial mix, the US isn’t always the popularly depicted melting pot, but a potpourri of ethnic splinter groups often living entirely separate lives with their own neighbourhoods, shops, clubs, newspapers, and even television (TV) and radio stations.

Americans pride themselves on their lack of class-consciousness and don’t have the same caste distinctions and pretensions that are common in the old world. There’s no sense of class as portrayed by the eternal struggle between the bosses and workers in some European countries. In the US, workers don’t want to do away with the wealthy – on the contrary, they adore the rich and famous and simply want to get a piece of the action (they care more about opportunity than equality). Americans have almost unlimited social mobility and class isn’t your birthright but something you acquire (in the US you are whatever you decide to be).

However, the US is far from being a classless society and status is as important there as it is anywhere else, if not more so. Class is usually based on your profession and position (not to mention your salary), which has led to the executive, management and professional business classes. One of the most common manifestations of class distinction is the division between white and blue-collar workers. Many things are classified as white or blue-collar, including neighbourhoods, jobs, clubs, sports, pastimes, restaurants, bars and shopping centres. A wife automatically acquires the same status as her husband (unless she has a better job and more money) and is accorded the same deference – women are generally far more class and status conscious than men.

American system based on money

If there’s an American class system, it based on money – which is either old (usually pre-World War I) or new money (mostly post World War II). The American establishment is predominantly Anglo-American and made up of long-settled families with pots of old money, who take it for granted that everybody else is rich. While it’s possible to convert new money into old, it’s rare. However, although a few pretentious clubs and societies are barred to the nouveaux riches, new money (if you have enough of it) opens almost any door in the US. The fastest way for aspiring social climbers to gain entry to American society is to donate a small fortune to fashionable charities or to establish a foundation in their own name.

Americans are usually sociable and, when not bent on mugging or killing you, are intensely friendly and agreeable, although some foreigners are suspicious of the American propensity for instant friendship, which they interpret as insincere and shallow. Newcomers are invariably warmly welcomed with a firm, dry handshake (wet and feeble handshakes are for wimps and foreigners) and Americans ask and remember your name and use it often, which can be embarrassing when you haven’t got a clue who they are! Americans yearn to be loved by everyone and popularity is a sign of success and hugely important. However, in the major cities, Americans can be as unfriendly (especially when mugging you) and aloof as anyone, and it’s common for city folks only to be on nodding terms with their neighbours.

Americans don’t stand on ceremony and usually insist that you call them by their ‘Christian’ names on first meetings. Titles are seldom used except when addressing public officials and politicians (although what they’re called behind their backs is something else!). Most Americans are extremely polite and police officers are generally addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘officer’, especially when they’re holding a gun. Americans are forthright in their opinions and can be insensitive in their interrogation of strangers, which can be unsettling. They’re uncomfortable with shyness and diffidence and expect foreigners to be equally candid (although criticisms of the US aren’t well tolerated when coming from foreigners). Some Americans are likely to ask you straight out what you earn, why you aren’t married or don’t have any children, and whether you’re gay. Nobody ever accused Americans of being bashful.

American lifestyle and culture

If there’s one single motivation uniting all Americans, it’s their desire to be rich and famous (I want it all NOW!). It’s the American Dream to be rich (Americans live on dreams, particularly rags-to-riches dreams) and money is openly admired and everyone’s favourite topic. Many Americans will do (almost) anything for money, which is the country’s national language (along with sport). To be considered seriously rich in the US, you must be fabulously wealthy with a fleet of gold-plated Cadillacs, luxury yacht, private jet and a mansion ‘on the hill’ with scores of servants.

Americans are the greatest consumers in the history of the world and their primary occupation is spending money – when not spending money they’re thinking about spending it. In the US, everything and everyone is a commodity to be bought and sold for dollars (Americans believe every man has his price). Displaying the correct ‘labels’ is vital, as your status is determined by what you wear, drive, inhabit or own. Status is everything to Americans, who buy more status symbols than any other nation and believe there’s no point in buying anything expensive if it isn’t instantly recognisable and desirable. Ostentatious consumption is the order of the day (if you’ve got it, flaunt it!) and modesty is un-American and to be condemned. Most Americans can never have too much money and firmly believe that anyone who thinks money cannot buy happiness has simply been shopping in the wrong places!

Size is everything and bigger is always better; big cars, big buildings, big breasts, big homes, big butts, big jobs, big pay cheques, big cities, big football players, big Macs, big guns, big stores – everything is big (most things in the US come in three sizes: big, huge and gigantic!). The US is a land of GIANTS, where everyone is twice as BIG and three times as LOUD as ‘normal’ people (and not just Texans). To Americans, size and quality are inextricably linked and your success in life is illustrated by the size of your office and the number of zeros on the end of your salary (Americans are impressed by numbers). Likewise new, which always equates to improved, and is infinitely better than old in the American throwaway society. Americans are continually ‘trashing’ or trading in last year’s model, whether it’s their car, home or spouse.

When an American buys a new toy or car, friends and acquaintances are summoned from miles around to admire it and hear what it cost (provided, of course, that it was expensive). Money is the measure of your success and wealth announces that you’re one of life’s winners (as Americans are fond of saying “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”), although inherited wealth is less praiseworthy than a fortune amassed by a self-made man (stealing is acceptable, provided you aren’t caught). Americans not only believe that you can have everything, but that you owe it to yourself to have it all; beauty, education, fame, health, intelligence, love, money, etc. – if they cannot have it all, most Americans will settle for money. The best of everything is every American’s birthright, and they will borrow themselves into bankruptcy if they have to in order to provide it for themselves and their families.

Unlike many foreigners, Americans have no ambition to retire as soon as they have enough money (they never have enough) – they cannot bear the thought of someone else getting a bigger slice of the pie while they’re idle. Americans love winners (losers are instantly consigned to the trash can of history) and being on the winning team isn’t just everything – it’s the only thing (in the US, you aren’t allowed to admit defeat until you’re dead – not that rich Americans believe in dying).

Typical american mentality and sexuality

Americans are raised with a ‘can do’ mentality and to believe that they can achieve anything, from world champion horseshoe pitcher to President of the United States of America. They think that if they dedicate enough energy to it they can have a bigger house, more intelligent children, and an option on immortality (preferably in California or Florida). Most Americans have a rose-tinted view of the world, where provided you rise early, work hard and fight fairly, everything will turn out fine. America peddles dreams, hopes and lifestyles, where life’s a giant candy bar and all you’ve got to do is take a BIG bite!

The American attitude towards sex is indicative of their philosophy that everything must be available on demand. Sex is open, available and free for the taking (just do it!). Like their obsession with all good things in life, the Americans’ sexual appetite is insatiable (they even live in condoms) and many just cannot get enough of it. Most Americans (apart from the few oddballs who would rather watch TV, play golf or shop) wish they could spend more time making love, although not necessarily with their regular partners. Americans analyse their sexual performance to death and every stroke is examined, reviewed and evaluated (aided by a torrent of books, articles and TV programmes advising people how to enjoy better sex). Americans have few inhibitions about discussing sex and do so incessantly.

Somewhat surprising is the sharp contradiction between the official puritanical attitude towards sex and the facts of life. The taboo concerning topless and nude sunbathing and showing too much bare flesh in public (and on TV, where Americans make love with their clothes on) contrasts starkly with many Americans’ casual attitude towards sex, which has led to epidemics of illegitimacy, AIDS and divorce (and politicians getting caught with their pants down!). Americans are much more at home with violence than they are with nudity. However, contrary to the popular image of sex-mad Americans, according to some surveys the US is a hotbed of marital bliss and most husbands profess that they would refuse an offer of $1million from someone who wanted to sleep with their wife (if you believe that . . .).

Life in the US is lived in the fast lane and if you aren’t on the fast track you had better move over and let someone else make the running. It’s no coincidence that the US invented fast food, as life is far too important to waste time eating (time is money and money is everything!). Life in cities is lived at a frenetic pace, where stress and pressure are unremitting and yuppies (young urban professionals devoted to their careers and status) compete vigorously to fashion their first million dollars (or coronary). Fast is one of the US’s favourite buzz words; fast cars, fast living, fast women/men and fast bucks are all extremely popular. The only way for newcomers to cope with the US is to lie back and relax and let it flow over them.

Although the American Dream isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, the US remains the supreme land of opportunity. Nowhere else on earth is it possible to become seriously rich in such a short time. However, although you can rise rapidly, the route from the penthouse to the poorhouse can be equally swift. When you’re down (or on the way down) you’re a schmuck and on your own. ‘Friends’ will stop calling and may even cross the road to avoid you – nobody wants to be tainted with failure, which many fear is contagious. Failure is even more shameful than poverty, as it’s assumed to be your own fault and nothing to do with luck (the buck stops with you!).

The religious character of american patriotism

Patriotism (nationalism) is like a religion in the US, both of which are branches of show business. Most Americans are deeply patriotic and demonstrate their love of their country through their reverence and allegiance to the Stars and Stripes (Old Glory!). The flag is the nation’s symbol and flies over all government offices, including post offices, and many businesses use it to demonstrate that they’re more patriotic than their competitors. Theoretically, the bigger the flag, the more patriotic you are, which is why the White House and used car dealers (both of whose integrity can use any help it can get) fly the biggest flags of all! The US flag is held in high regard and must never be ridiculed. Flag desecration is a capital offence and it mustn’t be left in the dark or be allowed to become soiled, wet or fall on the ground. After a spate of flag-burning in the ’70s, the US Supreme Court surprisingly declared that a citizen has the right to burn the flag, although most Americans believe it’s tantamount to treason (it certainly isn’t wise in public unless you have a death wish!).

The flag is paraded before every sports event, no matter how small or unimportant, and the national anthem (Star-Spangled Banner) is played and sung by the crowd. At major events, such as football’s Super Bowl, a famous personality is employed to sing the anthem and Americans stand to attention, remove their hats and put their right hands on their hearts, while tears fill their eyes. American schoolchildren pledge an oath of allegiance to the flag every day: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands – one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” (Amen). Americans wrap themselves in the flag like no other nation and during a past presidential election the House of Representatives even voted to salute the flag every morning (American politicians will do anything to get re-elected!). However, despite their nationalism, Americans aren’t xenophobic, which would be highly hypocritical considering they’re mostly foreigners themselves.

Some cynical foreigners believe that the US’s patriotism is a substitute for history and tradition. After all, when your nationhood only goes back ‘a few years’ you need something to provide a sense of identity and to remind immigrants that they’re no longer Irish, Italians, Polish or whatever. Americans are bombarded with patriotic messages, and any politician who wants to be elected must take the sacred icons of God (who’s naturally an American), the flag and motherhood seriously. Americans fervently believe that the US is the promised land, the most favoured nation (not a mere country) and unquestionably the greatest place on earth – and what’s more it was planned that way by God (if they did away with all the lawyers and politicians and threw away all the guns, many foreigners might even be inclined to agree with them). Americans are continually reminded of their great and wonderful nation (low self-esteem isn’t an American trait) by advertisers, politicians and anyone trying to sell something.

American political system

Like many democratic countries, the US is a victim of its political system and politicians. In the US, election to public office depends on how much TV time you can afford, whether you make the most persuasive TV advertisements, and your camera appeal. At election times, you’re subjected to the most offensive of all advertisements, the negative political advertisement, where politicians dish the dirt on their opponents (nobody fights dirtier than American politicians). There’s no limit to the amount of air-time candidates can buy and some spend millions of dollars to get elected. However, if the American political system produces the best politicians money can buy, this proves conclusively that contrary to popular American philosophy money cannot buy everything. It will come as no surprise to learn that the vast majority of Americans distrust their politicians and hold them in ‘low esteem’ (many actually think they’re a spineless, irresponsible, self-serving bunch of crooks!).

Americans think they are (or should be) the role model for the rest of the world and the collapse of communism and the ‘winning of the cold war’ was seen as a tribute to the US and American values. They feel aggrieved when ungrateful foreigners don’t share their good opinion of themselves (the US’s warm and admiring sense of itself doesn’t export – and has taken a battering since the election of George Bush and the invasion of Iraq). Many Americans would be surprised to learn that, on the contrary, many foreigners see the US as the prime example of the sort of mess you can get into if you aren’t careful! Most Americans know nothing about the wider world (many couldn’t even place their own country on the globe) and care even less about what happens beyond their shores (to most Americans the world ends at the US border). War has been something fought ‘over there’ since before the start of the 19th, even wars the US has started.

Home-grown conflicts threaten the long-term wellbeing of the US, not least the rapid growth of a permanent under-class (the African-American and Hispanic, uneducated, under-skilled inhabitants of inner-city ghettos). There has long been a breakdown of moral and spiritual values and an erosion of the family unit, and many Americans are no longer prepared to work to save a marriage or even take responsibility for their children or ageing parents. Politically, the country is divided right down the middle, between the conservatives who think Bush should be canonised and the rest whose views are unprintable.

Crime and discrimination in the US

Crime (although falling) remains the fastest-growing sector of the economy, despite the ever-increasing number of police officers and bulging prisons. Law enforcement and crime prevention are a bottomless pit and second only to the Pentagon in devouring the nation’s resources. Crime and terrorism are the most serious threats to Americans’ rights and freedoms and the biggest problem facing the nation. The high crime rate has hardened attitudes towards criminals, who many believe get a better deal than their victims. The vast majority of Americans believe in capital punishment and a third of them would gladly pull the switch to fry a convicted murderer. Conservative Americans are becoming increasingly intolerant of anyone and anything they disapprove of, including smoking, gays, gambling, sex, lawyers, politicians, feminists, immigrants, street people, abortion and alcohol. Most Americans approve of increasingly intrusive measures taken to improve ‘security’, from the incarceration of potential terrorists without trial or access to an attorney (i.e. Guantanamo Bay) to ever stricter laws and intrusive searches at US airports.

Although racial minorities theoretically enjoy a high degree of protection against discrimination, many find it difficult to get well-paid jobs, or indeed any job at all (despite ‘affirmative action’). Unemployment rates are twice as high for African-Americans as for whites, and Hispanics fare only slightly better. African-American and Hispanic job opportunities have been further eroded by the flood of immigrants from Asia in recent years, which has seen the fiercely ambitious and hard-working Asians scrambling up the ladder over the heads of other ethnic groups. Although African-Americans have made tremendous strides towards equality since the ’60s, they still have a long (long) way to go to compete on equal terms with whites.

In no other western country is there such a stark contrast between rich and poor (the fabulously wealthy and those living in grinding poverty) as in the US, where 1 per cent of households own over 40 per cent of the wealth (most of which is inherited). That the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, as well as the most liberal and democratic, should harbour so much poverty, hunger and homelessness is a national disgrace. Like the ruling classes in many developing countries, many Americans turn a blind eye to poverty in their own backyard and firmly believe that giving the poor handouts prevents them from earning an honest living. Rich Americans have little sympathy with poverty, which they see as un-American (the poor get what they deserve!). However, without a dramatic improvement in education standards and job opportunities for the poor and underprivileged, their ability to lift themselves (without handouts) out of the poverty trap is receding year by year.

Conclusion

To be fair (who the hell’s trying to be fair?), Americans do have a ‘few’ good points; they’re kinder, more generous, and more hospitable than almost any other people. Their benevolence is legendary, and American philanthropists are the world’s most generous. The US produces the majority of the world’s leading sportsmen and women (admittedly many in sports nobody else plays) and also leads the world in most artistic fields. Despite the occasional rumours of the US’s imminent economic collapse, it remains the fount of invention and innovation, and is the most technologically advanced and productive nation in the world. It also produces the world’s best hamburgers and ice cream and has one of the world’s highest standards of living, while at the same time enjoying the lowest cost of living in the western world (you don’t need to earn a fortune to live well in the US).

Despite the doom-laden predictions from some quarters, most Americans have extraordinary faith in themselves and eternal optimism for the future, firmly believing there’s always a bright dawn ahead. To an American, nothing is impossible. In the US, the competitive spirit is paramount and when their backs are to the wall they invariably come up trumps (and not Donald). Although immigrants may criticise some aspects of American life, few ever consider leaving and most are proud to call themselves Americans. In fact, most immigrants appreciate the fruits of the American way of life even more than many ‘early’ Americans, who don’t realise how fortunate they are to inhabit such a beautiful, bounteous and wonderful country. No other nation provides such endless opportunities and has such an irrepressible and exciting lifestyle. For sheer vitality and love of life, the US has few equals and is, above all, the ultimate land in which to turn your dreams into reality.

Finally, one last tip for success. Newcomers must take care never to criticise the US or Americans; taking cheap shots at honest, hard-working lawyers and politicians is in particularly bad taste (but fun).God bless America!

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.


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