American Worldview, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
American Culture

Understanding American Worldview: Part I
This material courtesy of J. LaVelle Ingram, Ph.D.

Over time, I have taught many courses on cross-cultural differences, and I always complete an exercise within them. I explain the different options for worldviews, and then I ask my students to identify “mainstream American worldviews.” The students have only heard of the classic systems for explaining worldviews within that class, a few minutes before I ask them the question, and yet they always get it right. How?

What my students don’t realize, and often immigrants don’t realize, is that worldviews are pervasive in one’s society or culture. They aren’t necessarily spoken of because there is no need to speak of them. Everybody already knows them because they guide most of the society. My students have lived with the American worldviews for all of their lives, so when they hear the system, they know the answers. But the average immigrant is operating on a different set of worldviews, and the two do not always make sense in cross cultural interactions.

It is important, then, for the new immigrant to understand the system into which s/he is entering so that navigating that system can become more sensible. American worldviews have been identified by many sociologists and anthropologists as follows: Our time sense is futuristic; our sense of nature involves mastery; our sense of human nature is that it is basically good or mixed; our social sense is individualistic; and our sense of the proper way of being is to value doing. These values mean that: 1) Time focuses on the future rather than the past; it needs to be planned for; youth is more valuable than age. 2) We should be able to control nature; it is here for our use and we are separate from it. 3) Given human nature, you can count on people to do the right thing given the chance; at least it is not inherently bad and in need of strict control. 4) The individual’s wishes, needs and aspirations are more important than the groups (including the family’s), and it is appropriate for an individual to move away from and function independently of the group. 5) What one does, accomplishes, is more important than the way s/he conducts her/himself. Thus one’s job is important in determining one’s relative value in the society.

Now, the above list may seem odd to those coming from other cultures. Folks may wonder, “Why these ideas?” or “Why these values?” At this point, though, it is more important to understand how the worldviews operate rather than why Americans might choose these, because these worldviews not only identify the foundation for basic decision-making, they also identify what a culture considers good and right and proper. Operating differently, then, can lead to confusion about the immigrants’ choices, not to mention suspicion and/or devaluing. Learning to operate between the different worldviews, or at least how to make your own translate, will only serve to increase your effectiveness with American audiences.

In the next article, I will continue to articulate the implications of the American worldviews. In the meantime, consider the other alternatives identified by social scientists and see if you recognize your own: Time sense can also be present or past oriented, (focus on history, ancestors, slow change). Our relationship to nature can be seen as harmonious or we can be seen as subject to it (in harmony we are one part of the whole, in subjugation we must be resigned to our physical and spiritual fate). Human nature can also be viewed as mixed or bad (needing more monitoring and control lest we get out of control). Social sense can also be group focused or function within a strict hierarchy (such that the needs of the family must come first and/or one must keep one’s place in order to be a proper person). Finally, the proper way of living can focus on both being and doing or simply on being (In these cases how one conducts oneself is more important than what one achieves).

In each case, the worldview identifies the values of the society as a whole not necessarily the individual. So the question is not about your personal belief, but about what most folks in your culture would say, or more to the point what they should say. Understanding American worldview can help you understand why many folks behave the way they do versus how folks behave where you come from.

Next Section: American Worldview Part II

American Culture: Chapter Home

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