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Understanding American Worldview: Part III

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

The preceding articles included just a few examples of the wide variety of decisions that can arise from different worldviews. Sometimes they can be comical, but other times they can mean life and death. For instance, consider the notion that human beings should master nature. This point of view has lead to such medical advancements as antibiotics and effective surgeries. This worldview suggests that we should be able to defeat diseases, and an American family would likely choose whatever invasive procedures necessary to cure a family member of a disease. But would an immigrant to America make the same decision? Maybe not. Some immigrants might feel that the disease reflects some imbalance in living (harmony worldview), and thus decide that changing her/his way of life would be more effective. Another immigrant, coming from a subjugation point of view, might decide that the disease is his/her destiny, and that it only makes sense to give in to it with dignity. Most Americans would have trouble understanding such a decision. The important thing for the immigrant is to realize that s/he is living within a mastery culture, and that is the point of view s/he will have to manage.

Human nature is another important aspect of the five identified dimensions of worldview. As stated previously, in America, human nature is thought to be good or mixed. Thus, in this country, personal freedom is a core value; it suggests that the society as a whole will work better if you count on the individuals to live up to their best selves. It is a notably optimistic view of human beings and suggests that the fewer constraints imposed on people the better. However, in many other cultures human nature is viewed fairly pessimistically, and it is considered, at core, bad. In this case, people need rigid controls in order to stay on the right path; they need to be monitored closely so that they do not have the chance to give in to their negative impulses.

Finally, worldview addresses the appropriate “way of being.” In America, the preferred worldview is that “doing” is most sensible since it leads to achievement. In this country, one of the first questions acquaintances will ask is “what do you do?” What one spends time doing is of primary importance in deciding one’s status. Further, if you mention a vacation, Americans will ask, “Where did you go? But also “What did you do?” We will expect to hear about your activities, even while you were on vacation. If an immigrant reports that “I went back home to look after my parents,” the Americans will likely give a polite “Oh,” but they will not really understand. Even a statement that “I spent some time with my grandparents,” will likely confuse the average American. These activities reflect a being-in-becoming or being point of view wherein how one conduct oneself is more important than what one achieves.

Once again, we come to the question of what an immigrant person is to do with these differences. These three articles on worldview were written primarily for the purpose of lending understanding of differences that can be quite confusing. While most Americans do not know this model of describing cultural worldviews, they do live within these noted American worldviews, and will likely recognize them if they are discussed. Thus, person-to-person conflicts, or simple misunderstandings, can be explained by immigrant people using this model. There are advantages and disadvantages to every way of thinking, and being able to discuss the advantages of your different worldviews might go a long way to bridging the gaps in discourse. Yes, Americans believe in mastery over nature, but we are also having to realize that the overuse of antibiotics is creating super-germs. We are coming to recognize that recycling (harmony worldview) is a beneficial, and perhaps, necessary societal activity. We may believe in a good human nature, but recent incidents of terrorist killings have given us reason to reconsider. Those nations that closely monitor their citizens (human nature bad) are appearing much more sensible to Americans in light of these events. And the crooks at Enron, who achieved great wealth, but failed to be good custodians of their workforce, make us review our emphasis on doing over being. Cultures wherein the leaders of such companies encounter serious loss of face in the society (being worldview) suddenly make more sense to us.

In short, the immigrant does not have to decide to adopt American worldviews to live in America (assimilation); nor does one have to hold rigidly to the culture of origin (rejection). Rather, it is simply a more effective living strategy to recognize the cultural differences and consciously negotiate them. In this manner conflicts that may erroneously be considered personal dislike may be more accurately identified as simple differences in worldview. Decisions that are confusing or even unthinkable or absurd may be rendered sensible with the articulation of these different worldviews. And the task of engaging peculiar cultural others in one’s personal or professional life can be rendered interesting social challenges rather than confounding moral dilemmas.

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