by Andrew Potter
Mark Manson has written an article titled 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America, which seems to have caused a stir in the internet. It’s making the rounds in Facebook and Google and the website containing the article has apparantly been overwhelmed. I needed several attempts before it would load into my browser. I’ve had similar experiences to Mark and his insights unleashed a wave of thoughts in me. I considered making a simple FB response to friends but realized I needed more space. So here goes, my perspective on the 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America plus a few tangential topics.
I too have spent a long time living outside of the US and have had a similar eye opening experience like Mark. I’ve lived in Germany for the past twenty years. Prior to that I lived in the UK for over a year and spent a fair amount of time working on a project in South Africa. I’ve spent roughly 40% of my life outside the US.
I think his family analogy is quite accurate. We don’t know what we really are until we get an outside perspective. And the things we learn about ourselves may not always be agreeable. A similar thing takes place with languages. I learned the most about English grammar when I started learning German.
Before I address the main points a minor digression: Many people around the world take exception to the fact that as citizens of the United States we refer to ourselves as Americans. America is a continent (two depending on how you count it). The assumption is that we view ourselves as being so important that we’ve in arrogance chosen a moniker which actually refers to several nations and we simultaneously ignore the others. This relates to a few of the points the Manson addresses.
Sports broadcasters in Germany often make pains to make this distinction and refer to U.S. athletes as U.S.-Americans. It’s not widespread but it does exist. I don’t give to much credence to this objection. The problem arises partly from the fact that the name of our country contains a reference to the continent where it is located. There are only a few nations where this is the case. The only other continent that comes to mind where this is the case is Africa. Maybe there are more. I think the context of the topic at hand is enough to allow one to distinguish between America referring to the United States and America referring to the continent(s). After all, the same sports broadcasters who use the term U.S.-American never refer to Canadian-Americans, Brazilian-American or Mexican-Americans as if there were some confusion.
As a result I will assume the liberty of using the term American in this post to refer to the citizens and culture of the United States.
1. Few People Are Impressed By Us
I would pretty much agree with this. Mark states “As Americans, we’re brought up our entire lives being taught that we’re the best, we did everything first and that the rest of the world follows our lead.” This is definitely part of the American mindset. When, as a child, our family visited Niagara Falls, I was distraught that the American falls were so much smaller then the Canadian. My father quickly made it clear to me that not everything American is ten times bigger and better than everything else in the world.
One caveat. In the nineties in Germany is was quite pleasant to be known as an American in Germany. The cold war was over, Germany was reunited things were generally positive. To say Germans were impressed by American would be a major overstatement. Let’s just say there was a slightly positive aura associated with this status. In the post 9-11 world this has changed. Disagreements with American foreign policy have had a severely detrimental effect on people’s view of Americans.
2. Few People Hate Us
This is probably also true. Although I would add that I think Mark may be understating the situation in the Arab and Muslim world. He writes that there are “20 angry Arab men” being repeatedly shown on the news, who hate America. Of course his statement is an exaggeration to make a point but I still question its thrust. I can’t say much about this, since I’ve never visited these regions.
3. We Know Nothing About The Rest Of The World
YES, very true. When visiting the US the current batch of television shows is often a topic of conversation. Many people assume that the rest of the world has the same diet of programming that the US has. It takes a little explaining to help them realize that other countries have their own set of programs and many US shows are simply not available. Another experience I had while getting my hair cut in the US was also telling. It came up in conversation that I live in Germany. The barber didn’t seem to realize that in Germany one speaks a completely different language. She spoke as if in her understanding German was simply an English dialect that is difficult to understand.
But a word of defense for the Americans. The US is geographically a large country. It is difficult to escape American culture. One could drive for days on end and still be exposed to same uniform strip mall existence that seems to be swallowing up the country. In Europe if one drives the same distance, one would be confronted with several different countries and their corresponding cultures and architecture. Also, the American entertainment industry, which has become ever present global monster, extends the American cultural experience well beyond its geographic borders. Even though television in Germany is not a duplicate of the US scene, American TV, Movies and Music play a dominant role.
4. We Are Poor At Expressing Gratitude And Affection
Not so sure about this one. I wonder how much time Mark has spent in Germany. However, instead of addressing “gratitude and Affection” I’d like to go off on a tangent and write about the differences in developing friendships, that I’ve observed.
The American “chummy” approach: Americans value an open and informal approach and when developing friendships. When meeting someone new we act interested and enthused, names are quickly reduced to one syllable (Joe, Bob, Bill, Sue etc.). With frequent acquaintances we try to maintain a positive and optimistic image, we frequently offer some kind of help and express interest in the other person albeit often with questionable sincerity. At another level discussions about common interests and doing common activities are added in. This level of “friendship” can hover in this state for a long time. A progression to a deeper friendship where gratitude and affection can take place is not a given.
The German “formal” approach: Germans in general are much more careful and keep a certain distance when developing relationships. Much time is taken in developing friendships and this only between selected individuals. Anything resembling the American chumminess may never take place between many people. Personal topics are not addressed as openly.
Both of these approaches can linger on without people ever developing a deeper friendship. The American stays in a loose, goofy and informal froth and the German remains in a distanced formality. A typical German view of Americans is that they are superficial and there is some truth to this. A typical American view of Germans is that they are cold and unfriendly. This may be true in some cases. Both views, however, are misguided. We have different ways of going about developing friendships and we should be more sensitive in our assessments of another’s culture. I do much better with the American process. When things go well I can obtain a degree of friendship with other Americans in weeks, which may take years with the German approach. It can be a difficult task to asses other cultures fairly, given that each of us usually has only one reference point of our own culture to go by. I can’t say this for certain but it would not surprise me if the development of deep friendships takes a similar amount of time in all cultures. We just have different ways of getting there.
But what does this have to do with “Gratitude and Affection?” Certainly other cultures express these feelings of gratitude and affection more openly than Americans in General. However, I think it would be a fair question to ask, how genuine are these expressions. Maybe it is the case that in a culture, which values this type of expression, it is simply another way of progressing toward a true friendship. Maybe such expressions are being used in the same way as Americans, trying to present a culturally acceptable facade to others. I don’t know.
5. The Quality of Life For The Average American Is Not That Great
Difficult to say. In my experience in western Europe this is probably true. But, when I think about eastern Europe, Africa and other places, which I’m unfamiliar with, I think there is cause to doubt this. It depends on what is meant by the average American: an urban resident, a suburbanite or a rural person. One thing that is definitely the case when comparing Germany and the US is the general size of houses and plots of land (I’m thinking about suburbia here). Americans enjoy much larger dwellings and land than Germans. There’s simply more of it to go around. Does this not contribute to a quality of life?
Another area where I think the US has it better than Germany is the general amount of freedom to do what one wants. In Germany one needs official approval and licenses to do many things which are not required in the US. German culture values order and this permeates many facets of life. Cars must be inspected every couple of years. There are no rust-bucket cars on German roads. Depending on your perspective this may be good or bad. In Germany the quality and safety of cars is assured. But on the other hand in America one would have to spend more money to repair or buy new cars and some may not be able to afford this. I know inspections have increased in the US but it’s still not at the level of Germany. And then there’s golf. In the US if I want to go golfing, I simply get the equipment and go. No questions asked. In Germany I have to pay a large sum of money to take a course and get a golfing license. The prices for golfing are so high that I’ve basically given up the sport. Add to that hunting and fishing as well as many other hobbies and I would say that Americans enjoy more general freedom to pursue what they want. These, of course, are specific issues comparing only these two countries. I can’t say much about the rest of the world.
But I agree with what Manson says about wealth and time. In Germany everyone (with some exceptions) has six weeks of vacation time every year. It fascinates me that the German economy is able to be so productive and keep step with other nations that have less vacation time.
6. The Rest Of The World Is Not A Slum-Ridden Shithole Compared To Us
OK, I’ll take his word for it. Maybe not the REST of the world but what about third world and developing countries. Is this not the reason that there are so many humanitarian efforts and accusations about wealth distribution. Without delving into politics, greed and the like, is this not at least true in a limited sense?
7. We’re Paranoid
Yes, in fact this was one of the benefits I saw when I decided to move to Europe. An air of fear seems to be perpetuated through the news media, at least this was the case in the early nineties. When I got to Europe this feeling lessened considerably. In the post 9-11 world this tendency has probably increased dramatically. I’ve been out of the loop so I don’t know this first hand other than going travelling through airports.
8. We’re Status-Obsessed And Seek Attention
9. We Are Very Unhealthy
Yes. However, in certain cases I think this image may be overplayed. The image of Americans being overweight for instance. I see reports on German television about this problem and one gets the impression the majority of Americans are extremely overweight and ride around town on little buggies. When I visit the US I don’t see a dramatic difference in the general population.
Also, when I lived in England I was astounded at how much of their diet is laden with fat. A full English breakfast is a sight to behold. A few cereals, some deep fried toast and then greasy eggs, sausage and bacon, yummy. In Scotland there are shops that will deep fry just about anything, a snickers bar for instance.
Yet at the same time, in my experience the English do not have many overweight people wandering the streets and on average are fairly slim. When I lived there there I saw a local television move, where Sigourney Weaver played the role of an american woman visiting an friend in London. She poked her head in his refrigerator and uttered the phrase “I don’t know how your entire nation doesn’t just keel over and have a heart attack.” I don’t know either, I wonder if it has to do with their genes.
10. We Mistake Comfort For Happiness
Is this different elsewhere? We may be leading the way but I think other nations are on the same path. Also, much of this has to do with the incursion of electronic communication (Cell phones, twitter and the like) in our lives. But yes, this trend cannot be denied. We increasingly seek security behind various shelters, live a virtual life and experience less of reality. Yet, this is not necessarily something new. Didn’t we get the ball rolling with inventions in the past like the telephone, automobile, radio and television. The internet age has simply continued this with trend.
As to Manson’s assessment where America as a culture and nation is headed, I think he has mentioned some real dangers. The rise and fall of cultures and the destiny of America is a huge topic. His concerns reminded me of a book that I read in the late nineties which is related to this topic. It talks about how the US has gone through periods of crisis and renewal in a cyclical fashion. It talks about how the psyche of successive generations has played a role in this. I found the book fascinating. It traced american history back to colonial times demonstrating the repeating pattern. It also explains how the various generational types (WWII, Baby-Boomer, Gen-X etc.) came into being and what there strengths and weakness are. If you’re are interested, I can highly recommend it: Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069