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THE VALUES AMERICANS LIVE BY BY L.

ROBERT KOHLS INTRODUCTION Most Americans would have a difficult time telling you, specifically, what the values are which Americans live by. They have never given the matter any thought. Even if Americans had considered this question, they would probably, in the end, decide not to answer in terms of a definitive list of values. The reason for this decision is itself one very American value -- their belief that every individual is so unique that the same list of values could never be applied to all, or even most, of their fellow citizens. Although Americans may think of themselves as being more varied and unpredictable than they actually are, it is significant that they think they are. Americans tend to think they have been only slightly influenced by family, church or schools. In the e n d , e a c hb e l i e v e s , “ I p e r s o n a l l y chose which values I want to live my own life b y . ” Despite this self-evaluation, a foreign anthropologist could observe Americans and produce a list of common values which would fit most Americans. The list of typically American values would stand in sharp contrast to the values commonly held by the people of many other countries. We, the staff of the Washington International Center, have been introducing thousands of international visitors to life in the United States for more than a third of a century. This has caused us to try to look at Americans through the eyes of our visitors. We feel confident that the values listed in this booklet describe most (but not all) Americans. Furthermore, we can say that if the foreign visitor really understood how deeply ingrained these 13 values are in Americans, he or she would then be able to understand 95% of American actions -- actions which might otherwise appear strange, confusing, or u n b e l i e v a b l e w h e ne v a l u a t e df r o mt h e p e r s p e c t i v e o f t h e f o r e i g n e r ’ s o w ns o c i e t y a n di t s values. The different behaviors of a people or a culture make sense only when seen through the basic beliefs, assumptions and values of that particular group. When you encounter an action, or hear a statement in the United States which surprises you, try to see it as an expression of one or more of the values listed in this booklet. For example, when you ask Americans for directions to get to a particular address in their own city, they may explain, in great detail, how you can get there on your own, but may never even consider walking two city blocks with you to lead you to the place. Some foreign visitors have interpreted this sort of a c t i o na s s h o w i n g A me r i c a n s ’ “ u n f r i e n d l i n e s s ” . We w o u l ds u g g e s t , i n s t e a d , that the self-help concept (value number 6 on our list), is so strong in Americans that they firmly believe that no adult would ever want, even temporarily, to be dependent on another. Also, their future orientation (value 8) makes Americans think it is better to prepare you to find other addresses on your own in the future. Before proceeding to the list itself, we should also point out that Americans see all of these values as very positive ones. They are not aware, for example, that the people of many Third World countries view change (value 2) negative or threatening. In fact, all 13 o f t h e s e A me r i c a nv a l u e s a r e j u d g e db y ma n y o f t h e w o r l d ’ s c i t i z e n s a s n e g a t i v e a n d undesirable. Therefore, it is not enough simply to familiarize yourself with these values. You must also, so far as possible, consider them without the negative or derogatory connotation which they might have for you, based on your own experience and cultural identity.

” “ g i v e n . causing them to happen. to do. what is important is that Americans have considered them to be true and have acted as if they were. ” t o b e “ k e p t . because they refused to accept earthly limitations. Washington.the belief that we can do anything and the belief that any change is good -. p r i mi t i v e .It is important to state emphatically that our purpose in providing you with this list of the most important American values is not to convert you. to be avoided if at all possible. rather than the other way around. ”“ p l a n n e d . to an American. Americans seem to be challenged. unwilling to take any initiative in bringing about improvements. ” “ g a i n e d . And Americans have literally gone to the moon. ” “ ma d e t h e mo s t o f . even compelled. it means one is superstitious and lazy. T o b e c a l l e d“ f a t a l i s t i c ” is one of the worst criticisms one can receive in the American context. S o w h e t h e r t h e s e b e l i e f s a r e “ t r u e ” i s really irrelevant. 3. and growth. Instead of change.from their own value system rather than from yours. Executive Director. In the United States people consider it normal and right that Man should control Nature. cutting their discussions off abruptly to make it to their next appointment on time. such societies value stability. Time and its Control Time is. These first two values -. progress. ” “ s p e n t . Schedules. the foreign visitor. destructive force. ” “ s a v e d . thus. A me r i c a n s ’ l a n g u a g e i s f i l l e dw i t hr e f e r e n c e s t o t i me . Robert Kohls.none of which are valued very much in the United States. by one means or another (and often at great cost) what seven-eighths of the world is certain cannot be done. a n dw e don’ t want to. g i v i n g a c l e ar indication of h o wmu c hi t i s v a l u e d . to our v a l u e s . We simply want to help you understand the Americans with whom you will be relating -. change is seen as an indisputably good condition. D. and a rich and ancient heritage -. L. more traditional cultures consider change as a disruptive. Many older.C. ” e v e n “ k i l l e d . ” “ l o s t .together with an American belief in the virtue of hard work and the belief that each individual has a responsibility to do the best he or she can do have helped A me r i c a n s a c h i e v e s o me g r e a t a c c o mp l i s h me n t s . April 1984 THE VALUES AMERICANS LIVE BY 1. of utmost importance. improvement. and they have come to look at p e o p l e w h o d o a s b e i n g b a c k w a r d . in effect. for the average American. tradition.. o r h o p e l e s s l y n a i v e . ” “ f i l l e d . To the foreign visitor. are meant to be planned and then followed in the smallest detail. Change is strongly linked to development. We c o u l d n ’ t a c h i e v e t h a t g o a l e v e ni f w e w a n t e dt o . The Washington International Center. T i me i s s o me t h i n g t o b e “ o n . ” “ u s e d . Change In the American mind. Personal Control Over the Environment Americans no longer believe in the power of Fate. ” 2 . continuity. More Americans find it impossible to accept that there are some things which lie beyond the power of humans to achieve. ” “ w a s t e d . 2. Americans seem to be more concerned with getting things accomplished on time (according to a predetermined schedule) than they are with developing deep interpersonal relations. It may seem to you that most Americans are completely controlled by the little machines they wear on their wrists. for the American.

People outside the United States consider it reassuring to know. Many American proverbs stress the value in guarding our time. I f i t does. T h e w o r d“ p r i v a c y ” d o e s n o t e v e ne x i s t i nma n y l a n g u a g e s . suggesting loneliness or isolation from the group. (Whenever it is absolutely impossible to be on time.late. join groups -. They say all people h a v e b e e n“ c r e a t e de q u a l . A foreigner s h o u l db e p r e p a r e dt o b e c o n s i d e r e d“ j u s t l i k e a n y b o d y e l s e ” w h i l e i nt h e c o u n t r y .in fact many groups -. Class and authority seem to give people in those other societies a sense of security and certainty. T h i s philosophy has proven its worth. and even expending our time and energy today so that the fruits of our labor may be e n j o y e da t a l a t e r t i me . This concept is so important for Americans that they have even given it a religious basis. It has enabled Americans to be extremely productive. etc. the ultimate result of individualism is perhaps even more difficult for the f o r e i g n e r t o c o mp r e h e n d . And they tend to leave groups as easily as they enter them.or whatever -. using it wisely. Yet virtually all agree that equality is an important civic and social goal. rank and status and authority are seen as much more desirable considerations -. because by considering time to be important one can c l e a r l y a c c o mp l i s hmo r e t h a ni f o n e “ w a s t e s ” t i me a n dd o e s n o t k e e pb u s y . therefore. They resist being thought of as representatives of a homogeneous group. but it is also viewed as a requirement which all humans would find equally necessary. whatever the group. totally different from all other individuals and. in fact. for Americans.even by 10 minutes -. Seven-eighths of the world feels quite differently. ” Many highly-placed foreign visitors to the United States are insulted by the way they are treated by service personnel (such as waiters in restaurants.) Americans have an aversion to treating people of high position in a deferential manner.such 3 . and do. it is likely to have a strongly negative connotation.but somehow b e l i e v e t h e y ’ r e j u s t a l i t t l e u n i q u e . They may. each individual is seen as completely and marvelously unique.The international visitor soon learns that it is considered very rude to be late -. Newcomers to the United States should realize that no insult or personal indignity is intended by this lack of deference to rank or position in society. setting and working toward specific goals. has taken its most exaggerated form in 20th century United States. one of their most cherished values. ”Mo s t A me r i c a n s b e l i e v e t h a t G o dv i e w s a l l h u ma n s a l i k e without regard to intelligence. particularly precious and wonderful. from birth. they are. physical condition or economic status. taxi drivers. It is not uncommon for Americans to say -. To them. Equality/Egalitarianism Equality is. Privacy.) Time is so valued in America. often treat lower class people as if they were very important.for an appointment in the United States. you should phone ahead and tell the person you have been unavoidably detained and will be a half hour -. desirable and satisfying. and conversely. clerks in stores. Here.and believe -.even if they personally happen to find themselves near the bottom of the social order. 5. j u s t a l i t t l e s p e c i a l . beginning in the late 15th century. privacy is not only seen as a very positive condition. who they are and where they fit into the co mp l e x s y s t e mc a l l e d“ s o c i e t y . The equality concept often makes Americans seem strange to foreign visitors. Individualism and Privacy The individualism which has been developed in the western world since the Renaissance. In the United States. ( T h i s l a t t e r c o n c e p t i s c a l l e d“ d e l a y e dg r a t i f i c a t i o n . f r o mo t h e r me mb e r s o f t h e s a me group. ” ) 4. Americans differ in opinion about how to make this ideal into a reality. In secular terms this belief is translated into the assertion that all people have an equal opportunity to succeed in life. and productivity itself is highly valued in the United States. Americans think they are more individualistic in their thoughts and actions than. that is.

self-respect. Self-Help Concept In the United States. Future Orientation Valuing the future and the improvements Americans are sure the future will bring means that they devalue the past and are. valuing competition. Almost all energy is directed toward realizing that better future. words like self-confidence. Take a look in an English-language dictionary at the composite words that have the w o r d “ s e l f ” a s a prefix. ” )A me r i c a n s p r i d e t h e ms e l v e s i nh a v i n g b e e nb o r np o o r a n d . for instance. Very young children . even on the youngest age levels. there will be more than 100 such words.that free enterprise is the approach most often preferred in America. t h r o u g ht h e i r o w n sacrifice and hard work. 8. I will go stark raving ma d ! ” Individualism. This list is perhaps the best indication of how seriously Americans take d o i n g t h i n g s f o r o n e ’ s s e l f . Americans get no credit whatsoever for having been born into a rich family. the foreign visitor will see competition being fostered in the American home and in the American classroom. self-conscious. you will see evidence in all areas -. and sports -. in spite of this wide range of personal opinion. self-interest. self-improvement. self-control. T h e “ s e l f -ma d e ma no r w o ma n ” i s s t i l l v e r y mu c ht h e i d e a l i n 20th-century America. self-defeating. Peace Corps volunteers teaching in Third World countries found the lack of competitiveness in a classroom situation equally distressing. Americans have traditionally been hopeful that the future would bring even greater happiness. self-restraint. have devised an economic system to go with it -free enterprise.even in fields as diverse as medicine. 7. self-expression. Even a happy present goes largely unnoticed because. Americans feel very strongly that a highly competitive economy will bring out the best in its people and ultimately. ( I nt h e U n i t e dS t a t e s . almost all Americans will ultimately vote for one of the two major political parties. that the society which fosters competition will progress most rapidly. In the average desk dictionary. 6. are encouraged to answer questions for which their classmates do not know the answers. unconscious of the present. self-esteem. But many U. of course. especially if you come from a society which promotes cooperation rather than competition. up the social ladder. Yet. Consequently. You may find the competitive value disagreeable. self-deception. the present condition is seen 4 . the arts. At best. The American social system has. The equivalent of these words cannot be found in most other languages. self-denial. selfimportance. they really have. as it exists in the United States. If you look for it.all by themselves. a person can take credit only for what he or she has accomplished by himself or herself. Competition and Free Enterprise Americans believe that competition brings out the best in any individual. self-discipline.s t a t e me n t s a s “ I f I d o n ’ t h a v e a t l e a s t h a l f an hour a day to myself. happy as it may be. Americans. made it possible for Americans to move. does mean that you will find a much greater variety of opinions (along with the absolute freedom to express them anywhere and anytime) here. self-reliance. to a large extent. They assert that it challenges or forces each person to produce the very best that is humanly possible. They soon learned that what they had thought to be one of the universal human characteristics represented only a peculiarly American (or Western) value.the list goes on and on. t h a t w o u l db e c o n s i d e r e d“ a na c c i d e n t o f b i r t h . self-criticism. self-contented. having climbed the difficult ladder of success to whatever level they have achieved -. This is what was meant by the statement made earlier that Americans take pride in crediting themselves with claiming more individualism than.S. selfsacrifice -. relatively easily. in fact. education.

” g o e s a t y p i c a l b i t o f A me r i c a na d v i c e . Since Americans have been taught (in value #1) to believe that Man. ” Dress is another area where American informality will be most noticeable. As one example of this informality. Informality If you come from a more formal society. even disrespectful of those in authority. you will likely find Americans to be extremely informal. has caused Americans to be invited to all corners of the earth to plan and achieve the miracles which their goalsetting can produce. causes Americans to identify themselves wholly with their professions. in turn. even the vacation will be carefully planned. for all around you Americans will be looking toward the future and what it will bring. w h e r e a c t i o n-. even corporation presidents will engage in physical labor from time to time and gain. this has made them very good at planning and executing short-term projects. a n da i me da t “ r e c r e a t i n g ” t h e i r a b i l i t y t o w o r k harder and more productively once the recreation is over. Action/Work Orientation “ D o n ’ t j u s t s t a n dt h e r e . ” S u c ha “ n o n o n s e n s e ” a t t i t u d e t o w a r dl i f e h a s c r e a t e dma n y p e o p l e w h o h a v e c o me t o b e k n o w na s “ w o r k a h o l i c s . even when compared to their near relative -. for example. Americans are one of the most informal and casual people in the world. The first question one American will ask another American when me e t i n g f o r t h e f i r s t t i me i s r e l a t e dt o h i s o r h e r w o r k :“ Wh a t d o y o ud o ? . 10. “ d o s o me t h i n g ! ” This expression is normally used in a crisis situation. where talking about or actively planning the future is felt to be futile. American bosses often urge their employees to call them by their first names and even feel uncomfortable if they are called by the title “ Mr . 5 . even sinful. ” “ Wh e r e d o y o u w o r k ? . ” me a n i n g b y t h a t .as preparatory to a later and greater event. activity. even during their evening hours and weekends. pre-p l a n n e d .the Western European. in a sense. ” o r p e o p l e w h o a r e a d d i c ted to their work. p h y s i c a l l a b o r . ” o r j u s t t o “ d a y d r e a m. If you come from a culture such as those in the traditional Moslem world. I n America. in turn. who think constantly about their jobs and who are frustrated if they are kept away from them. ” “ t o s i t a r o u n dd o i n g n o t h i n g . America may be one of the few countries in the world where it seems reasonable to s p e a ka b o u t t h e “ d i g n i t y o f h u ma nl a b o r . Any relaxation must be limited in time. respect from others for such action. The workaholic syndrome. ” o r “ Wh o ( w h a t c o mp a n y ) a r e y o uw i t h ? ” And when such a person finally goes on vacation.any action -. and you will probably feel. it describes most A me r i c a n s ’ e n t i r e w a k i n g l i f e . ” o r “ Mr s . Americans believe leisure a c t i v i t i e s s h o u l da s s u me a r e l a t i v e l y s ma l l p o r t i o no f o n e ’ s t otal life. you will have not only philosophical problems with this very American characteristic but religious objections as well. which will eventually culminate in something even more worthwhile. rather than lose. 9. short-sleeved shirts. This ability. yet. and not Fate. h a r d . perhaps even shocking.is seen to be superior to inaction. People think that it is “ s i n f u l ” t o “ w a s t e o n e ’ s t i me . in any large American city nowadays and find some people in the audience dressed in blue jeans and tieless. can and should be the one who controls the environment. Americans routinely plan and schedule an extremely active day. Yet it is something you will have to learn to live with. One can go to a symphony performance. very busy and active.

Anyone who. T h e mo r e f o r ma l “ H o wa r e y o u ? ” h a s l a r g e l y b e e nr e p l a c e dw i t ha ni n f o r ma l “ H i . Another way in which this favoring of the practical makes itself felt in the United S a t e s . They are likely to be completely honest in delivering their negative evaluations. If you are a highly placed official in your own country. ”T h e p o p u l a r A me r i c a n“ t r i a l -ande r r o r ” a p p r o a c ht o p r o b l e m-solving also reflects the practical. 11. for example. There is no way to soften the blow of such directness and openness if you are not used to it except to tell you that the rules have changed while you are here. Management and economics. T h e l a r g e n u mb e r o f “ a s s e r t i v e n e s s ” t r a i n i n g courses which appeared in the United States in the late 1970s reflects such a commitment. practical and efficient people. Americans. Indeed. it would probably be that of pragmatism. ways of informing other people of unpleasant information. If you come from a country where saving face is important.I n f o r ma l i t y i s a l s o a p p a r e n t i nA me r i c a n s ’ g r e e t i n g s . If you come from a society which uses the indirect manner of c o n v e y i n g b a dn e w s o r u n c o mp l i me n t a r y e v a l u a t i o n s . ”T h i s i s a s l i k e l y t o b e u s e dt o o n e ’ s s u p e r i o r a s t o o n e ’ s b e s t f r i e n d . If Americans would even admit to having a philosophy. will be on you. Openness and Honesty Many other countries have developed subtle. Americans pride themselves in not being very philosophically or theoretically oriented.A me r i c a n s try to avoid being too sentimental in making their d e c i s i o n s . The burden of adjustment. Materialism/Acquisitions 6 . sometimes highly ritualistic. Americans consider anything other than the most direct and open approach to be dishonest and insincere and will quickly lose confidence in and distrust for anyone who hints at what is intended rather than saying it outright. however. in all cases while you are in this country. in the United States. not such questions as: Is it aesthetically pleasing? Will it be enjoyable?. Directness. i s a b e l i t t l i n g o f “ e mo t i o n a l ” a n d“ s u b j e c t i v e ” e v a l u a t i o n s i nf a v o r o f “ r a t i o n a l ” a n d “ o b j e c t i v e ” a s s e s s me n t s . pragmatic orientation has caused Americans to contribute more inventions to the world than any other country in human history. 12. Practicality and Efficiency Americans have a reputation of being an extremely realistic. The practical consideration is likely to be given highest priority in making any important decision in the United States. This approach suggests listing several possible solutions to any given problem. Wi l l i t ma k e a n y mo n e y ?Wi l l i t “ p a y i t s o w nw a y ? ”Wh a t c a nI g a i nf r o mt h i s activity? These are the kinds of questions which Americans are likely to ask in their practical pursuit. It is important to realize that an American would not. or Will it advance the cause of knowledge? This practical. at first. 13. The love of “ p r a c t i c a l i t y ” h a s a l s o c a u s e dA me r i c a n s t o v i e ws o me p r o f e s s i o n s mo r e f a v o r a b l y t h a n others. chooses to use an intermediary to deliver the message will also be considered manipulative and untrustworthy. y o uw i l l b e s h o c k e da t A me r i c a n s ’ bluntness. law and medicine more valued than the arts. T h e y j u d g e e v e r y s i t u a t i o n“ o ni t s me r i t s . would consider such informality as a compliment! Certainly it is not intended as an insult and should not be taken as such. be assured that Americans are not trying to make you lose face with their directness. have always preferred the direct approach. find such informality to be very unsettling. you will probably. to see which is most effective. Americans. in such cases. one-by-one. are much more popular in the United States than philosophy or anthropology. on the other hand. Americans are trying to urge their fellow countrymen to become even more o p e na n dd i r e c t . then trying them out. lose face.

if all too briefly.  a clothes-washer and dryer. Many also own a personal computer.  a tape recorder and a record player.S. Americans would like to think that their material objects are just the natural benefits which always result from hard work and serious intent -.  a powered lawn mower (for cutting grass).a reward. let us look at them in list form (on the left) and then consider them paired with the counterpart values from a more traditional country (on the right): U. The modern American typically owns:  one or more color television sets.  an electronic calculator. they sell or throw away their possessions frequently and replace them with newer ones. they think.Foreigners generally consider Americans much more materialistic than Americans are likely to consider themselves.  one or more automobiles. Since Americans value newness and innovation. which all people could enjoy were they as industrious and hardworking as Americans. Values S o me O t h e r C o u n t r y ’ s V a l ues Personal Control over the Environment Fate Change Tradition Time and Its Control Human Interaction Equality Hierarchy/Rank/Status Individualism/Privacy G r o u p ’ s We l f a r e Self-Help Birthright Inheritance Competition Cooperation Future Orientation Past Orientation Action/Work Orientation “ B e i n g ” O r i e n t a t i o n Informality Formality Directness/Openness/Honesty I n d i r e c t n e s s / R i t u a l / ” F a c e ” Practicality/Efficiency Idealism Materialism/Acquisitiveness Spiritualism/Detachment Meridian House International 1984 Which list more nearly represents the values of your native country? 7 .  a refrigerator. a stove and a dish-washer. This means that they value and collect more material objects than most people would ever dream of owning.  an electric hair dryer. A car may be kept for only two or three years. maintaining and protecting their material objects than they do in developing and enjoying interpersonal relationships. But by any standard.  a vacuum cleaner. a house for five or six before trading it in for another one. Americans are materialistic.  and a telephone. Summary Now that we have discussed each of these 13 values separately. It also means they give higher priority to obtaining.

Application Before leaving this discussion of the values Americans live by. t h e y w i l l s e e ml e s s “ s t r a n g e ” t h a nt h e y d i d at first. (12) practicality. ( 6 ) t h e s e l f -help concept. (8) future orientation. ( 3 ) t h e n e c e s s i t y t o s c h e d u l e a n dp l a no n e ’ s t i me . (9) action work orientation. it was necessary to believe (1) these things could be achieved. that Man does not have to simply sit and wait for Fate to bestow them or not bestow them. One can. for example. (7) competition. if he is willing to take it. s e e A me r i c a ’ s i mp r e s s i v e r e c o r do f s c i e n t i f i c a n d technological achievement as a natural result of several of these 13 values. and (13) materialism. and that Man does have control over his own environment. A n da s y o uc o me t o u n d e r s t a n dt h e m. Other values which have contributed to this record of achievement include (2) an expectation of positive results to come from change (and the acceptance of an ever-faster rate of change as “ n o r ma l ! ” . First of all. 8 . You can do the same sort of exercise as you consider other aspects of American society and analyze them to see which of the 13 values described in this booklet apply. By using this approach you will soon begin to understand Americans and their actions . consider how knowledge of these values explains many things about Americans.