Understanding Your Own Culture


02 Culture

Understanding Your Own Culture

American Values and Their Influence


Now that we understand a bit more about how culture is defined and the dimensions that make up specific cultures, let’s bring it back to you.

First, you are a human being who exists on the planet earth. You have the same basic needs shared by every other person—food, water, shelter, affection, and a sense of belonging.

Self-awareness is an integral component to navigating the world more comfortably. By taking some time to think about and understand your own culture and where you come from you will be better able to address difficult questions from people who might see you and the world differently than you do.

Think about your life. What are some of the things that have influenced you or helped to shape your perception of the world and how you interact with it?

Culture and You

Where do you come from?
What do you value in others?
Who are your friends?
What do you value in yourself?
Who are you?
What are your core beliefs?
What do you do?
What kind of music do you like?
What’s your family like?

Everybody has a cultural lens. Your cultural lens is the unique perspective you have formed through time and experience. It colors the way you see the world and the people within it and it changes with you as you experience new things.

Understanding the ways in which cultural lenses impact how we interact with the world will help you answer difficult questions by allowing you to recognize where others are coming from as they ask questions, as well as how you can use elements of your own culture to answer those questions.

"You" inside a white circle, surrounded by a colored circled labeled "Your Culture"
Your Culture

Where Are Difficult Questions Coming From?

Outside perspectives on U.S. culture are influenced by the significant cultural output of the United States—in terms of both media and entertainment as well as international affairs and policy. When people ask you difficult questions, they could be motivated by a variety of factors.
Some questions may stem from generalizations or stereotypes that others have about the United States and its citizens. Others may emerge from comparisons they make between what they know about U.S. culture and beliefs they hold about their own or other cultures.

Let’s consider how preconceived notions can influence how Americans are perceived abroad.

Generalizations are broad statements about a culture that adapt as new information comes in or old or irrelevant information goes out. Generalizations grow from our accumulated knowledge and assessment of this input. These statements generally hold true for large groups of people even if you don’t have full information about every person or group that the statement refers to.

Think of generalizations as a circle drawn with a dotted line, representing a collection of information with porous borders, letting in new information and releasing old or irrelevant information.

Map of the world superimposed on an image of a brain, surrounded by a circular dotted lineThree blue arrows pointing from outside towards, and crossing through, the dotted circle surrounding the image of the brainThree red arrows pointing from the brain out towards, and crossing, the dotted surrounding circle
“Why do Americans tend to be so casual in their dress?”
Stereotypes are broad statements that are relatively inflexible despite new information that we might receive. They often originate from prejudices, limited information or misinformation, negative past experiences, or influence from someone with detrimental images or interactions with that group. Stereotypes often distort the truth or take negative information from a small group and apply it to a larger group.

Think of stereotypes as a circle drawn with a continuous line, where new updated information cannot get in and old, irrelevant information cannot get out.

Map of the world superimposed on an image of a brain, surrounded by a solid circular lineThree blue arrows pointing from outside towards, but not crossing, the solid circle surrounding the image of the brainThree red arrows pointing from the brain out towards, but not crossing, the solid surrounding circle
“Why are all Americans so obsessed with consumerism and material wealth?
In addition to accumulating and sorting information about other cultures that we have gathered, we may tend to compare that information to what we think we know about our own culture and then make a value judgment.

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is better than other cultures. This is a predictable reaction based on our familiarity with our own culture and comfort within it. Diplomacy, like interpersonal relationships between cultures, is never facilitated by arrogant expressions of personal or cultural superiority.

For example, Americans might say that the British drive on the “wrong” side of the road. It would be less ethnocentric to say that they drive on the “left” side of the road—words that are more objective and don’t carry a negative value judgment.

Two wrong way road signs
Xenocentrism is the belief that another culture is better than one’s own. People who have lived in another culture for a long time may have adopted certain cultural values and now prefer them to their own. Additionally, someone who comes from a culture where poverty or corruption is widespread might long to be part of a more economically viable and just society.

Inexperienced travelers may over-identify with a host culture in which they are living (or have lived), demeaning or rejecting their own original cultures. This phenomenon serves as another form of cultural prejudice or bias.

Crowd of people walking along a street in Istanbul, Turkey
Preconceived notions and stereotypes often originate from the seen aspects of a particular culture. In order to understand the types of stereotypes that exist about Americans, let’s start by considering the influence of U.S. culture.

U.S. Cultural Influence

Times Square
Pop Culture
Turn on a radio or walk into a cinema almost anywhere in the world and it’s highly likely that you will encounter elements of American music and American films. American popular culture is widely exported and this creates an image of life in the United States that is often unrealistic.
Preconceived notions about U.S. culture are at least in part the result of the fact that the United States is a major player on the world stage—politically, economically, and culturally. Its actions heavily influence global relations and trade. The attention of the U.S. populace is often limited to its highest priorities, which include its neighbors and allies, other major world players, and current areas of conflict. Attention is directed to other countries and issues on an as-needed basis, which means that less media coverage and information about those locations and issues is readily available.
Conversely, many other nations are influenced in some way by the United States. They may have access to an abundance of information about American policies and culture—whether through international news outlets, publicly available information on the Internet, or the exportation of U.S. popular culture to screens and stores worldwide. The perception that the United States focuses on some countries and not others can often be perceived as arrogance or ignorance, and can thereby intensify accusations of ethnocentrism and stereotypes directed at Americans.

American Values

The concept of the American Dream is that everyone has the opportunity to achieve prosperity through hard work. According to this Dream, individuals can create better lives for themselves and their families regardless of the potential barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, birthplace, or other factors.

The enduring belief in the American Dream implies a sense of optimism toward the future and the possibility of upward social and economic mobility. The desire for personal improvement is supported by public efforts to provide equal opportunities for all Americans in areas such as education and the workplace, and in access to social services and protection under the law. However, our values are constantly being tested.

Sunrise behind a small American flag standing in a large, grassy field.
When you’ve been asked a question about American beliefs and behaviors, it may help to pause and reflect before you respond. One way to separate yourself from the answer is to use your understanding of American values to explain how or why Americans do certain things.
Here are the eleven concepts that form the foundation of American values:
Independence button
Founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence
Americans value independence and self-determination, placing importance on the role of the individual in shaping his or her own identity and destiny through choices, abilities, and efforts. This notion of independence traces back to the Declaration of Independence. Self-reliance and self-determination can be seen in a wide range of U.S. cultural activities today.

However, having such a strong sense of independence can also result in a diminished focus on community and interpersonal interactions, leading you to put your own needs above others.

Individualism button
Line of silver-colored spheres with one red-colored sphere standing apart from the others
The United States is highly individualistic compared to most other countries. People are free to do what they want and need, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others. American individualistic culture allows and encourages people to create their own lifestyle that they hope will lead to happiness and accomplishments.

U.S. citizens feel less obligation to conform to societal norms or to follow in their parents’ footsteps than most people in the world. This can be perceived as selfish in some cultures.

Nationalism button
Large group of American flags
Nationalism and patriotism are closely linked concepts and imply devotion to one’s country and its values and assertion of political interests. Americans express their pride in their country in various ways. School children will recite the Pledge of Allegiance and attendees to major sporting events will sing the National Anthem. Many homeowners display a flag on national holidays or wear U.S. military inspired clothing.

Due to America’s geographic isolation and global influence, the average American is not well informed about international current events except those which may directly impact U.S. political, economic, or social interests.

Directness button
Speaker's table with four microphones and water bottles set up along it
In communication and actions, most Americans believe that a straightforward and direct approach is the best way to ensure that a message is sent and received correctly. Meaning is carried mostly by the words and much less so by contextual clues such as the relative hierarchical position of speaker and listener and where the communication takes place.

Professionals often value direct feedback and authenticity over concerns for a relationship as a means to attain efficiency. In other cultures, this can often be perceived as rude.

Consumerism button
Woman walking in shopping mall carrying many shopping bags
Americans love to own things. They value material wealth. The primary symbols of the American Dream are a home and a car, followed by electronics, clothing, sneakers, and other items. Downtown areas and shopping centers are filled with people browsing and walking away with their purchases. This consumption fuels the American economy, and the wide range of consumables, from clothing to toys and gourmet coffee to home décor, offers infinite variety.

Consuming at this volume, however, has a profound impact on the environment and can be perceived as greedy and careless in other cultures.

Effective Use of Time button
Effective Use of Time
Wristwatch lying on a table
Americans, in relation to other cultures, are obsessed with time. Time is closely controlled and measured and should be “planned” and “used wisely.” Being late for a meeting is viewed as disrespectful. The concept of time itself is taught to U.S. citizens early on. Even in grade school it is drilled into children as one of their first lessons, since many tasks and activities are timed.

However, many people say U.S. citizens do not know how to relax.

Equality button
Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at a podium
Equality is the belief that all humans are created equal and are equal in value, without regard to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, or sexual orientation. This notion of equality exerts a strong pull for immigrants to come to the United States.

Perfect social, economic, educational, and legal equality doesn’t exist in the United States, or in any other country. The ideal of equality still resonates strongly with most U.S. citizens and it represents goals and results to work toward.

Democracy button
Woman voting by placing a ballot into a ballot box
The United States enjoys a democratic form of government. Citizens elect their political leaders and expect they will represent the population and answer to the will of the voters. At the basic level, popular opinion decrees that a democratic nation must have free and fair elections, a system of checks and balances, rule by the majority, and protection of minorities. U.S. citizens believe that democratic principles help foster fair government and strong, open market economies at home, thus the U.S. government strives to promote democracy around the world.

Democratically elected public servants have an obligation to serve in the best interests of their constituency, however personal interests sometimes interfere.

Meritocracy button
Carved marble statue of Abraham Lincoln
Inherent within the American Dream is an affirmation of meritocracy, which allows for upward socioeconomic mobility based on one’s efforts, accomplishments, and talents, and not through seniority; inherited names, titles, or property; or unethical means such as bribery. Americans love stories about people who improve their situation by their own hard work.

Not everyone in America will have a “rags to riches” story. There are still societal obstacles that can impede your progress regardless of how much work you put in.

Innovation button
Group of hanging light bulbs with one in the foreground turned on
Innovation can be defined as a process to generate new ideas, processes, and products that add value, such as better quality or efficiency, to people and organizations. Americans’ positive association with change and progress exemplifies a “future orientation,” looking ahead for better things to come.

While Americans show a healthy regard for tradition, they are even more attracted to the “new and improved,” such as the latest smartphone and newest car model, which can be seen as wasteful or unattainable in other cultures.

Informality button
Group of five casually dressed people, with one woman standing and speaking to the other seated four
American informality is closely related to egalitarianism. In cultures with a relatively flat (not hierarchical) structure, there is less demonstration of deferential behavior and language overtly recognizing the relative positions of the people interacting. Even the language reflects this more equal approach. People are less likely to use titles and often refer to people by their first names.

American informality in dress and speech can also be perceived as disrespectful in more formal cultures.

PDF icon View more information on the American values.

American Diversity

Describing Americans based on core values alone could lead to a view of the populace that is inaccurate or distorted. Considering the United States is the fourth largest nation by area and the third largest by population, it should come as no surprise that the population is anything but consistent in its beliefs or makeup.
Did you know?
There are an estimated
people living in the United States.
(U.S. Census, July 2015)

The Stereotypical American

The combination of cultural output, preconceived notions, and American values influence how Americans are viewed in the eyes of the world. When you are American or affiliated with the United States by marriage or through work, these preconceived notions will likely outweigh your personal feelings about your culture. When traveling abroad, Americans are likely to be seen as American before anything else.

When you look at yourself in the mirror, what do you see? When looking through your own cultural lens, you might see someone who is independent and hard working. You might see someone who treats all people equally. You might see someone who is smart and innovative.

American View
Hard working
World View
Works too hard
Circle with American flag
American View
World View
Drag the slider to view some common stereotypes about Americans. Do you fit these stereotypes?
View through a camera lens of a large group of people in an outdoor town square at dusk
Know that it is likely that you will be viewed through a lens that may incorporate many stereotypes about Americans that don’t really apply to you.

Understanding stereotypes can help you anticipate difficult questions and provide information that you can use when answering them.

Studying particular cultures and living within them help adjust your cultural lens. This will help you view those finer details that other cultures see and move away from stereotypes.

About this Resource

Representing the United States—and Americans—while living and working abroad is an honor and privilege. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to answer questions on behalf of a nation and its people, especially considering the diversity of the American experience. Every American living or working abroad needs the skills and confidence to answer difficult questions politely and substantively, while at the same time respecting the many cultural realities of all interpersonal encounters.

This interactive resource, So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad, is designed to build skills and confidence in responding to difficult questions about culture and nationality. Specifically, this resource focuses on handling everyday inquiries from curious folks around the globe. Have you ever jumped in a taxi and been confronted with “Why do Americans love their guns so much?” or some such question mired in history, culture, and values? Or, have you been at a local market trying to purchase a gift and been surprised that what should have been a 10 minute encounter has turned into a 45 minute ritual of tea, presentation of goods, and detailed explanations of the craftsman’s process?

So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad is an online resource created by the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute for all Americans living and working abroad who are eager to prepare for the many informal and unofficial questions they will receive while overseas. Throughout this resource, you will explore cross-cultural communication techniques as well as various aspects of culture through self-paced activities, videos, and simulations. Participants will develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult questions and conversations, including knowing how to disengage appropriately. This resource limits its scope to non-foreign policy questions, as those demand answers from official sources.