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Understanding American Worldview: Part II

This material courtesy of J. LaVelle Ingram, Ph.D.

From the last article, you may recall that American worldviews mean that: 1) Time focuses on the future rather than the past; 2) that we should be able to control nature; 3) that people can be counted on to do the right thing given the chance; 4) that an individual’s wishes, needs and aspirations should be counted as more important that the groups’ or families’; and 5) that what one does or accomplishes is more important than the way s/he conducts her/himself.

Regarding time, a future orientation suggests that the present must take second place to the needs of the future and that it is inappropriate to focus on the past. So, in America it is deemed proper to save for retirement, to make a schedule for next week and to plan on one’s children’s education years before they go to college. Of course, some people do spend their money on the big car now (present oriented), but they are considered unwise by American standards. Folks living-for-the-moment do live in America (especially among the young), but all in all it is viewed as somewhat inappropriate. However, the last option, living according to the past, makes little sense to most of mainstream America. If an immigrant family decides, for instance, to spend substantial money on a monument to an ancestor rather than save for a child’s education, most Americans would frown upon that decision. It is valuing the past more than the future. If an American family, on the other hand, passes on a visit to their elders in Italy so that they can buy a bigger house, they would be considered wise (by other Americans). The focus on being busy is another artifact of America’s future time sense, as is the notion that “time is money.”

So what is an immigrant to do? Coming to America does not automatically mean that people want to adopt American worldviews and values. Yet, living according to different worldviews comes with consequences. In general, it has proved effective to my clients to tell the American the worldview that is primary for you. So, let’s say your family buys the monument to the ancestor (past time oriented), and the American coworker asks, “Why did you’all do that? You could have put that money in your kid’s college fund.” Then the immigrant might say, “We believe it is important to honor elders first. It is a serious obligation.” The American counters with, “Isn’t it your obligation to pay for your child first?” So the immigrant can then clarify, “No. We want our children to learn to honor elders first too. So that is the value we modeled for them.” Here, no one is submitting to the other’s way of thinking, the immigrant is just making her/his way of thinking make sense. Thus, if the American person ends with, “I would have paid for my kid’s college first,” the immigrant is clear that this decision reflects a worldview difference. S/he can then say to the American coworker, “That makes sense within your culture, as my decision makes sense within mine.”

Social relations is another area that seems to impact immigrants a lot if they come from group or lineal oriented cultures. In America, since the social relations sense is individual- a college kid decides his own major, a young woman moves into her own apartment, a young man gets a job and does not give money to the family. In many other cultures these behaviors would be considered, at least disrespectful if not outrageous. The difference is how we view the individual’s proper role; in America that role focuses on providing for oneself and learning to function independent of one’s family. So, should a young woman move to another state for a great job? In America, the answer is yes. Should an older man take on his father’s obligations after he dies? In America, the answer would be no. And these folks are not being heartless or selfish; they are simply taking care of themselves, as is their first obligation (and sign that their parents prepared them well) within American worldview.

Still, each immigrant comes with her/his own culture and worldviews. How then do you explain these to your American coworkers, friends and neighbors? First, realize that you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Then realize that there is much to be gained if you choose to make the effort. Once, an Indian mother said to me, “You Americans, you don’t help your children on the most important thing.” I asked her what she meant, and she said, “You send them out into the world to find love with no help at all. You just say, ‘Good luck. I hope you find someone’.” She was the first immigrant to help me to understand the rationale behind arranged marriages. From an American point of view, that decision comes from the individuals involved, yet from many other cultures it is the parents’ solemn responsibility (lineal worldview). That mother’s effort to help me understand increased my effectiveness as I addressed other couples facing arranged marriages. Because of her, I do not assume that such matches are improper or pointless. Because of her, I recognize the value of doing things the other way. So, if you take on the challenge, most Americans can benefit from similar efforts.

Next Section:American Worldview Part III

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