12 Concepts that Shape the American Way of Life
(The concepts below are a compendium of ideas developed by anthropologists and sociologists over the past 40 years.  They demonstrate a central tendency which should not rule out a range of differences within each concept.)

1.   Assertiveness:  U.S. Americans tend to be candid and outspoken in communication with others, and they seldom shy away from disclosing facts about themselves.  They prefer "direct" questions and respond with "straight" answers.  They employ face-to-face confrontations to resolve differences.  These patterns of behavior sometimes lead people from other cultures to view U.S. Americans as overly aggressive.
2.  Effort-Optimism:  The linking of effort with optimism is one of the central characteristics of U.S. thought.  Effort-optimism is a denial of fatalism;  it is the assumption that any challenge can be met, any goal achieved, if only a sufficient quantity of time, energy, skill, and willpower are applied.  The motto of the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalions ("See-Bees") during World War II exemplifies this concept:  "The difficult we do immediately;  the impossible takes a little longer."

3.  Friendliness:  U.S. friendships is typified by warmth, informality, and other signs of acceptance, even toward comparative strangers.  On the other hand, U.S. Americans assume that friendship involves comparatively few mutual obligations and lasts a relatively short time.  People from other cultures become confused because those whom they would consider mere acquaintances are called "friends" by U.S. Americans, and because the warm manner of U.S. Americans leads them to expect a degree of commitment that the U.S. Americans do not feel and would find difficult to accept.

4.  Getting Things Done:  U.S. Americans are most content when they are "doing" something.  They believe that hard work is intrinsically valuable.  In judging others, they give the most weight to their achievements, much less to character or spiritual qualities.  U.S. Americans strive for efficiency because it enables them to get more things done in a given period of time.  To people from certain other cultures, however, U.S. Americans seem driven.

5.  Individualism:  The concept of individualism stresses the separateness of one human being from another, and the responsibility and initiative that each person must take on his own behalf.  U.S. Americans join and leave groups frequently according to changing personal needs.  people from highly group-centered cultures find the U.S. way of life fragmented because of its focus on individuals.

6.  Materialism:  Like most other peoples, U.S. Americans are concerned about their well-being;  the difference in some cases is that U.S. Americans measure their well-being in terms of the number of tangible things at their command that enable them to enjoy uninterrupted comfort and convenience.  People from cultures where spiritual, intellectual, or personal qualities are most highly valued may be so dazzled by U.S. Americans' materialism that they overlook their finer values.

7.  Pragmatism:  U.S. Americans are deeply practical.  They want things, procedures, and people to meet the requirements of actual use in daily life.  They tend to be adaptable and realistic, and they rely on "common sense."  In making judgments, U.S. Americans are most interested in whether something works.  Other peoples around the world often give more weight to historical tradition, theological command, moral purity, or theoretical consistency.

8.  Progress:  U.S. Americans are oriented toward the future;  they want it to be better than their past and present.  Given their elentless pursuit of happiness, they believe not only that things and people can be made to improve, but also that they should be made to improve.

9.  Puritanism:  Puritanism is the term that describes the U.S. American habit of seeing a cause-effect relationship between correct thinking and good behavior on the one hand, and material reward or successful outcome on the other.  It arose out of the old Calvinist doctrine that prosperity and success were sure signs that an individual was in God's favor.

10.  Scientific Method:  The methods of science involve devotion to attitudes such as skepticism, empiricism, and rationalism, and to procedures such as experimentation, detailed analysis, and inductive reasoning (reasoning from established facts to tentative conclusions).  U.S. Americans seem to have a built-in readiness to accept scientific explanations as far more likely than any other possible explanation.  Other peoples often remain at least as likely to rely on mysticism, authority, or tradition.

11.  Success:  The self-esteem of individual U.S. Americans is largely tied  to their ability to "get ahead" in terms of the recognition of their peers as well as material affluence and social mobility.  There is a deeply held belief in the U.S. that  anyone- through hard work, talent, and persistence- can rise well above the station in life to which he or she is born.  Many other peoples around the world regard their status and role in life as both permanent and proper, and fail to comprehend the constant upward striving of U.S. Americans.

12.  Time Consciousness:  U.S. Americans tend to feel that time is relentlessly rushing past them, and they frequently need to know exactly what time it is.  They attempt to "save time" by moving at a rapid pace, taking shortcuts, and improving their efficiency of operations.  They soon become anxious if forced to waste time.  U.S. Americans are nearly always punctual and they expect others to be on time, too.  Many other peoples have a far more relaxed attitude about time;  some seem to be almost unaware of its passage and in no way share U.S. Americans' concern for punctuality.

AFS Intercultural Programs, October 1992