What Is An American?

One of the reasons I enjoy talking about geography is geography covers pretty much every topic. Every topic can be related to geography is some form or fashion.

In my geography classes, the second assignment my students work on is compiling a list of traits or characteristics which, in their mind, are unique to U.S. citizens, i.e. “Americans.” We all know by now “Americans” is a broad term applicable to anyone living in the Western Hemisphere, though U.S. residents blindly accept the moniker applies only to them. But, that is not what this post is about.

One might think such an assignment is more sociology than geography. Therein lies the holistic nature of geography, the overlap among a great many disciplines. Yes, we are talking about cultural traits, and culture is part of sociology, yet no one should argue culture is not part of Discipline of Geography.

I had some trepidation about giving the assignment for the very first time many years ago. “What if my students feel bad?” Or, “what if I expose the underlying fragility of our American culture and my students  realize American culture doesn’t really exist, that our culture is really an amalgam of multiple other cultures, and I undermine their confidence in everything they have ever been taught, bringing their entire life into question?”

Once I realized the later, my trepidation evaporated.

A few semesters ago, I learned a professor in Business had given his students the same chore, “Identify traits of American Culture.” Now, why would a business student need to be aware of the cultural traits of an American? Aren’t these kids “American” already? And, if an International Student, did they not show up in American with preconceived notions of American culture in their minds already?

In 2007, I attended an International Business seminar. A consultant on the panel discussing the delicacies of working in International business related an interesting story she encountered while working at NIKE. NIKE has an exceptional research and development division. Engineers measure feet, study materials, collect all sorts of biometric data – on U.S. residents. The problem is the world is not full of Americans and American-style feet. NIKE sold a line of footwear in China. Sales were horrible. NIKE sales staff stood back and tried to figure out why lines which sold so well in the U.S. sat on the shelves in China. After months of study, NIKE researchers discovered a few important details. First, the Chinese generally have smaller feet. The shoes on the shelves thus did not fit well. Second, the Chinese did not like the color options. The Chinese culture has an affinity for some colors and other colors are avoided at all costs. If you are familiar with Feng Shui then you might have some grasp of the importance of color in Asian lifestyles. Third, cost; not all Chinese have $100 to throw at a pair of sneakers.

NIKE suffered a form of cultural elitism, a subtle form of bigotry which essentially says,

“Whatever Americans like, everyone else will like, too.”

Said another way,

“Whatever is good for Americans should be good enough for everyone else.”

Now, to NIKE’s credit, measures were taken to resolve design and color issues for their international footwear, having learned an important lesson:

…not everyone has the same tastes as an American, i.e. U.S. citizen.

The Business professor – I am assuming, I have not spoken to him – cognitive of biases Americans have been raised with, challenged his class to think about the general traits of you and I, of U.S. residents. Again, and I assume (yes, I know how dangerous ‘assuming’ can be but having given the same assignment a number of semesters running I feel confident in my safety) the professor wanted to wake his students to the notion not all people on our pretty planet look, think, or feel like Americans, and to be successful in business one needs to be cognizant of cultural differences.

I have compiled a list of “Characteristics/Traits of Americans as Indicated by College Students, 2007-2012.”

  1. We are easy-going
  2. We are aggressive
  3. We are arrogant
  4. We are diverse
  5. We are religious
  6. We enjoy personal freedom
  7. We love fast food
  8. We persevere
  9. We are social
  10. We like buying stuff
  11. We have ideas
  12. We are entrepreneurs
  13. We are selfish
  14. We take Life for granted
  15. We are family-oriented
  16. We are lazy
  17. We are fat
  18. We are patriotic
  19. We are sentimental
  20. We are educated
  21. We like our individuality
  22. We are greedy
  23. We thirst for wealth
  24. We want the next “big thing”
  25. We like celebrities

The problem I have with all of these “Traits of Americans” is every single one can apply to someone from another culture. A good number of these traits could apply to people of other ethnicities or cultures, anyway. The idea behind the assignment is to determine those traits which make “Americans” unique. 

In other words, imagine you are sitting in a cafe in Paris, France. A group of people walk by. Would you be able to tell if those people were native French or foreign tourists? Could you tell by their dress, their speech, their demeanor, or their physical characteristics if the members of the group were indigenous French, or non-indigenous visitors?

The question also becomes,

“Do Americans Have a Unique Culture, and If So, How Is Our Culture Defined?”

Would you be able to identify an American in a line-up of people from around the world?

On a trip to London, I was on a tour coach heading out into the English countryside. The tour guide inquired of us, “how many of you are from the States, and how many of you are from Texas?” The joke is Texans stand out wherever they travel due to their general loudness, inability to tolerate mild inconveniences, the twang in the speech, and insistence on being accommodated.

When we travel, we carry our culture with us, and apparently, can be picked out fairly easily by the locals as being non-natives. We might even call this a stereotype. When I travel, I try to buck the stereotype. I personally do not want to be identified as ‘tourist.’ I do my homework, examine street maps, plan walking routes, stops, and destinations in advance so I don’t have a map in my hands. I try to pay attention to the locals, adopt some of their mannerisms. Blend in.

“Blending in” is called acculturation, the adoption of local traits or characteristics.

I have the sense Americans know themselves fairly well, as individuals. As individuals, we recognize our own traits and characteristics, how selfish and how gracious we can be. Under a political lens, or at a state, regional, or national scale we seem to avoid or shirk our knowledge in favor of allowing ourselves to be pandered to by self-righteous politicians. 

“I can call myself fat, lazy, an ignorant, but by God, I’m not going to allow someone from China or Russia to expose traits I will readily acknowledge in the privacy of my own home I have.”

I often wonder why people are afraid of saying, “yeah, I’m that way. So? Move on, and tell me something I don’t know so we can have a real conversation.”


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