When I was in Italy, I felt like I was returning home. I had always thought that because my Grandfather emmigrated from Italy, that I was Italian too. I looked Italian. I had an Italian surname. So when I went to Italy I met Italians and I told them that I was Italian too.
They said, "Where were you born?"
"In Chicago," I answered.
[LAUGHS] "You are not Italian!"
"But my grandfather was born in Italy."
"Ohh, your grandfather is Italian, but YOU are American."
"Look at you - blue jeans, baseball cap, gym shoes...you are American!"
This was such a revelation for me. I had always thought of myself as Italian, but bow I realize that my heritage was Italian, but my nationality was American.
Although it is difficult to define at times, Americans do have their own unique culture. There are reasons that this culture is difficult to understand. Some of the difficulties in understanding American culture are:
Real vs. Ideal Culture - Sometimes a culture of people will believe in an ideal, but their reality is different. For example most people in the U.S. will agree that equality is an ideal, but the reality is that we are more unequal than most countries and realistically we do not support a lot of programs designed to equalize people, instead that is seen as socialism and is frowned upon.
Value Contradiction - Some values contradict each other, such as individualism and equality. It is difficult to see all people as individuals and treat them equally. Inherently, if you are an individual, you are not equal, you are different and unique.
Value Cluster - Sometimes values work together to create a really strong system of belief, such as: personal control, work, achievement, success, materialism.
Globalization and cultural leveling - Some values from the United States have spread around the world so we see them as natural, but really it just our influence that has spread them.
But those who study culture have identified values that Americans hold that make them unique.
Kohl's "Values Americans Live By" is a really succinct explanation of American values.
American Values vs.Other Cultures’ Values
Personal control/responsibility vs Fate/destiny
Change seen as natural/positive/Progress vs. Stability/tradition
Time and its control vs. Human Interaction
Equality/fairness vs. Hierarchy/rank/status
Individualism/independence/freedom vs. Group welfare/dependence
Self-Help/initiative vs. Birthright/inheritance
Competition vs. Cooperation
Future orientation vs. Past orientation
Action/work vs. “Being”
Informality vs. Formality
Directness/openness/Honesty vs. Indirectness/ritual/”face”
Practicality/efficiency vs. Idealism/theory
Materialism/Acquisitiveness vs. Spiritualism/detachment
Achievement/Success vs. Acceptance/Status Quo
Morality/judgement vs.Consequentialism/situational ethics
Robin Williams (The sociologist, not the actor), studied American culture in the 1970s and came up with his own list of values, which is largely still applicable today.
Can you apply any of these American values to your own life? Perhaps you can show how these values pervade your experience at school? Note that the values are subtle but strong. They affect you in so many subtle ways that you don't notice but you are shaped by them in a profound way. Here is an example of how we are shaped as a culture in subtle ways: