By Craig Storti
Director, Communicating Across Cultures
It may be surprising to some, but many Americans don’t really believe in culture. Yes, they know there are people out there who come from other countries, speak other languages, dress differently, and eat strange foods.
They accept that there are other cultures, but they don’t really believe in cultural differences.
Or, to be more precise, they don’t believe that cultural differences are significant. They think, rather, that the differences are superficial (the aforementioned food, dress, customs), they do not go that deep. Because they don’t believe in the reality of culture, many Americans assume that people who think and behave differently are just being difficult or simply don’t know any better. This makes crosscultural encounters a challenge for many Americans.
Where does this odd belief come from? In part it’s that classic American idea of the melting pot. Immigrants came here and assimilated, shedding their cultural identity and becoming something else: Americans. Implicit in this national narrative is the notion that culture can’t go very deep if it can be melted down and replaced that easily.
Another reason is that many Americans have never been outside the United States; only one-third of Americans have a passport. If you’ve never been in a foreign country, it’s harder to accept that culture is real. Most Americans have met people from other countries, of course, and may even have them as neighbors, fellow workers, or even good friends. But it’s one thing to encounter foreigners in your own country and quite another to be a foreigner in someone else’s. There’s nothing quite like experiencing the foreign as normal—and the normal (that would be you) as foreign—to drive home the reality of culture.
Another factor at work here may be the deep individualist strain in American culture. People who cherish their personal uniqueness resist the notion that they could be a “type,” sharing certain group (i. e., cultural) similarities. To believe in culture, after all, means to accept that despite our cherished individuality, we are all alike in many ways.
Whatever the explanation, there is a fair amount of skepticism around the idea of culture, hence the idea of cultural differences.
The result is that Americans are more likely to react to cultural differences—to get upset, frustrated, annoyed—rather than to accept them and move on. They do move on, eventually, but only after stumbling.
Americans need to be alert to the fact that they may have a steeper learning curve when it comes working with foreigners. Foreigners, in turn, need to be prepared to be patient with Americans.
Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books.