American Sayings: Foreigners’ Windows Into US Culture
“The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.” – Francis Bacon
Proverbs and popular sayings are capsules that contain highly condensed bits of a culture’s values and beliefs. They are sprinkled in conversations, public speeches, popular writing, and the media. They are passed on from generation to generation as a legacy of folk wisdom. People tend to accept them, in an uncritical way, as “truths” learned by their elders and leaders. They have great influence on the assumptions, attitudes, motivations, and behavior of the members of a culture precisely because they are absorbed at an early age and then are taken for granted.
According to the 2001 Global Relocation Trends Survey Report conducted by GMAC Global Relocation Services, National Foreign Trade Council, and the Society for Human Resource Management Global Forum, the United States of America is the second most frequent destination for expatriates worldwide. Other recent studies indicate that relocation of non-US personnel to the USA is increasing.
An excellent way for people from other countries to gain insight into US culture is to reflect on the meaning of our sayings:
Time is money. Time lost is never regained. These expressions, popularized by Benjamin Franklin, illustrate two of the most fundamental US values: time consciousness and productivity. We have become one of the world’s fastest paced cultures. Even as early as the 1830s, Micheal Chevalier, a French economist, wrote that the “American has an exaggerated estimate of the value of time and is always in a terrible hurry.” The tempo of life, and work in the United States has increased exponentially since then due to invention of such time “saving” tools as microwave ovens, cellular phones, faxes, computers and e-mail.
Blow your own horn. If you want a job done right, do it yourself. Speak for yourself. These sayings reflect our strong sense of individualism. According to a study of 40 countries by Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede, we are the most individualistic culture in the world. This value can be seen in our emphasis on individual accountability and singling out a specific person for recognition and reward. We do participate in teamwork and belong to groups, but we don’t let the group identity overpower our individualism.
Keep your eye on the ball. Work before pleasure. These expressions highlight our high level of task orientation. We prefer to focus on the job at hand, avoiding interruptions and distractions. Socializing and irrelevant discussions are discouraged and usually are postponed until the task is accomplished. Most projects are organized as a series of tasks that are worked on in sequence. Even though we have adopted the practice of multi-tasking as part of the computer age, we still feel we must keep the focus of each task sharp.
God helps those who help themselves. Stand on your own two feet. During the frontier era and westward expansion period of US history, people were widely scattered and isolated by distance. We had to rely on ourselves and gradually turned this necessity into a virtue. Those who can take care of themselves, make or repair things and improve their own circumstances generally are admired and respected. Most people believe that it is good for adolescent children and elderly family members to be as self-reliant as possible and to not depend on others.
America-Love it or leave it! My country-Right or wrong! Strong national pride has always been a major characteristic of American politics and public sentiment. But during times of crisis, such as after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, patriotism surges to become a dominant emotional force. The unique status of the United States as the last remaining superpower lends support to the idea among policy-makers and the public that the USA is somehow better than other counties. This attitude rarely is conscious arrogance. Rather, it is a belief that our policies, values, and virtues have been vindicated by history. There seems to be no viable universal or global political ideology in our country strong enough to moderate our nationalism. US citizens tend to be very sensitive to criticism of our country, even if it comes from fellow Americans.
What you see is what you get. Tell it like it is! Our culture promotes simple frank verbal and written communications. Those who are too indirect are likely to be viewed with suspicion, as if they have something to hide, have nothing to contribute or are lacking in self-confidence. Outside of academic and literary circles, subtlety and sophistication are seldom valued. However, our directness must be polite enough to avoid being perceived as excessively blunt and rude.
All men are created equal… This statement from our Declaration of Independence enshrines our belief that all people are of equal value according to some philosophical or spiritual standard. We reject the idea that there exists a class of “betters” who have an innate right to high status, privilege, and power. Hofstede’s study ranked the United States among the countries with relatively low acceptance of power distance, a measurement of comfort with having an elite controlling a hierarchy. Our tendency to use our boss’s first name, raise challenging questions, and expect equal treatment reveals a low power distance value.
Life is a game and whoever ends with the most toys wins. Shop ’til you drop. Who says you can’t have it all? The American dream is largely defined in terms of material possessions (the house, the cars and the labor saving and entertainment devices). The level of consumer confidence is carefully monitored and we are constantly urged to buy and consume more. Historically, we had what was considered a limitless resource base; the land, the forests and the water were so abundant that waste was not a concern and conservation was not necessary. According to a report by the World Resources Institute, the American standard of living requires 18 metric tons of natural resources per person per year (many times the world average).
Content vs. Context focus
Don’t beat around the bush. Get to the point! Edward T. Hall, a leading intercultural specialist, has characterized the US style of communications as being very strongly oriented toward content (facts, numbers, dates and precise, explicit meanings). We pay relatively less attention to contextual factors such as the situation, status and relationships of the people involved, nonverbal cues, and timing. Our high ratio of lawyers per capita, in part, reflects the high value we place on precise words and the need for clarity. Countless other “wordsmiths” are required by our focus on content. The great length and detail of our contracts are another consequence of this value. Wendy’s restaurant chain’s highly successful 1984 commercial slogan, “Where’s the beef?” was borrowed for use in a presidential campaign and is still heard today in conversations to ask for more content.
The saying, What’s good for General Motors is good for the country, and a famous quotation of Calvin Coolidge, a former US President, The business of America is business, reveal our strong support for corporate America. Despite the recent scandals exposing the ethical misconduct of senior executives in major corporations, the public is not demanding an alternative to the dominance of business in the United States. The focus is on making moderate reforms to the system rather than instituting radical changes. Therefore, the continued acceptance of the power and primacy of private enterprise is taken for granted.
I don’t care how you get it done-just do it! There are many ways to skin a cat. The proof is in the pudding. These sayings are evidence of our pragmatic approach to problems. We value whatever solution “works” regardless of its theoretical or philosophical implications. Outcomes matter more than methods. People who are practical, resourceful, and inventive are admired and rewarded. American psychologists, William James and John Dewey, raised pragmatism to the level of a legitimate philosophy in the late 1800s. It is the foundation of our “results driven” approach to planning.
Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. No one remembers who was in second place. These sports expressions also are applied to work and life in general. Most Americans seem to believe that competition is good and that it promotes excellence, efficiency, and productivity. Children are taught to be competitive at an early age in Little League sports and contests in school. Business executives express pride in their companies’ competitiveness. Promotions and rewards are won by competing with fellow employees.
Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Keep you nose to the grindstone and your shoulder to the wheel. The US work ethic is evident in these proverbs. Americans spend an average of 1,900 hours a year at work according to the US Census Bureau. That is twenty more days each year than a quarter century ago and more than any other industrialized nation in the world today. Americans have fewer vacation days and less sick leave than workers in most countries. The Avis car rental company based its successful commercial slogan; “We try harder!” on our strong work values.
Don’t be a stuffed shirt. Let’s not stand on ceremony. These sayings reflect American’s preference for informality in most social and business situations. It is generally believed that informality and casualness help people at feel comfortable and that they facilitate cordial but effective communications. To the contrary, formality may be perceived as self-importance, aloofness or lack of personal warmth. Therefore, humor is often used, but titles, protocol, and rituals frequently are dispensed with. Likewise, our business interactions tend to be less structured than in many other countries.
Bias for Action
Don’t just stand there – Do something! There is no time like the present. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Americans take pride in quickly taking action in the face of problems or opportunities. There is little time spent on contemplation and reflection. With the rapid pace of life and business in the United States, opportunities are fleeting and dangers are sudden. Managers often respond as if doing something, even if it proves to be a mistake, it better than doing nothing. At least, they reason, mistakes can be corrected but inaction accomplishes nothing. Nike has appealed to our bias for action with its slogan, “Just do it!”
The sky is the limit. Every cloud has a silver lining. It is always darkest before the dawn. Traditionally, we Americans have felt as if we live in the land of opportunity with boundless potential. Our seemingly unlimited natural resources plus our steady technological progress and economic growth have supported the belief that anything is possible. Many poor immigrants have prospered in America and have gained social acceptance and recognition in our environment that permits upward mobility. Only the 1973-74 OPEC oil shock and the growing public awareness of our diminishing natural resource base have somewhat moderated our sense of optimism.
Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can’t keep a good man down. Related to our optimism and belief in self-reliance is our assumption that a person’s success or failure is almost entirely due to his or her own efforts and abilities. We tend to reject the idea that fate and external circumstances are forces that determine one’s future. This belief in self-determination partially explains why our social welfare programs are relatively limited compared to most other industrialized nations.