Monday, August 12, 2013

Yes, Virginia, you do have a culture

A lot of bloggers have been blogging today about the perception some  people have that America doesn't have a culture of its own. Instead of echoing all the wonderful things that have already been said, I'd like to explore this idea a bit and think about why it is that people think this way.

The first thing to be clear on is the definition of culture that you're working with. Some people mean things like going to opera, eating fine food, or reading intellectual books when they speak of "culture." Others use the term keeping things like dressing styles, jewelry, music, and other art forms in mind. Even with either of these mindsets, it is fairly clear that Americans do, indeed, have a culture (or a few cultures!) and that any statement to the contrary is metaphorical and intended to judge the quality of American culture, which is of course a subjective measurement. In this case, it is good to look at who's doing the talking. Is it an American who actively rejects components of American culture? Is it someone of another culture who views their culture as superior? It is more likely than not that you cannot have an intellectual discussion on culture with either of these people, as their minds are already made up; to them I say To each their own and go on about my merry way.

A very broad definition of culture used by anthropologists is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." This is the definition that I will be using throughout this entry, with the caveats that culture is not monolithic - there is always local and individual variance - and that cultures are continually changing.

For those people who are not using the term "culture" as a subjective measure of how refined, advanced, colorful, or traditional a culture is, many may still not think that the United States has a culture -- or that they, particularly, do not have a culture -- because they are constantly surrounded by their culture and just see it as normal. Derek Sivers once wrote an essay on this, using the metaphor "A fish doesn't know what water is." We land-dwellers know that water is an important part of a fish's environment, but the fish doesn't know anything else until he's caught! This is particularly true for White American culture, which is so pervasive in media and the world around us that it doesn't seem there is anything "cultural" about it. In fact, it is often seen as the 'norm' and anything that deviates from that 'norm' is considered 'cultural' or 'ethnic.' Let's look at food as an example. Hamburgers, French fries, spaghetti, meat loaf, chicken and dumplings, turkey and dressing, pizza are all seen as 'regular' or 'normal' food. You will find them in most any diner or cafe, and on nearly every children's menu, regardless of cuisine in the United States. Do we ever really think about the fact that hamburgers are named after Hamburg, that spaghetti is Italian? I had to Google to find the origin of meatloaf (likely also German). These are not "ethnic" foods to Americans even though they have origins outside of the country. They have blended into our cultural landscape in ways that things like empanadas, pho, samosas, kimchi, and even oxtail soup and collard greens have not.

This inability to see the culture that surrounds us, that has 'simmered down' into Americana after twelve to fifteen generations in this country, becomes even greater in conjunction with the "us vs. them" narrative that pervades American culture from our children's games of Cowboys and Indians to our history lessons on Manifest Destiny and even orientalist portrayals of "faraway lands" in movies such as Aladdin and the Indiana Jones films. Movies such as Avatar, The Last Samurai, and Dances With Wolves take a relatable white character and plop him down in the midst of the Other and the story arc is always the same: struggle with the other culture's Exotic Ways, become tolerant enough to learn some of their ways, and in the end save the people who due to their Exotic Ways, were unable to save themselves. Eat Pray Love does a similar thing; I really do not like books and movies of this genre because they further the narrative that the only way you can "find yourself" is by going to some far-off destination where people are simpler or more spiritual than yourself and your rotten culture. A spiritual life is found where you look for it; you don't have to jet halfway around the world to find a god or supreme power that is supposed to be everywhere at once.

The truth is that there is nothing truly exotic. Everything is normal if you are used to it. There is nothing magical or special about a siesta if everyone's taking one and that's just what you do. A sari is everyday wear for many women in India and does not imbue anyone with spirituality in the mere act of wearing it. And the shorts and tank top you are wearing right now may seem exotic in the eyes of someone who has never worn such a thing! Shorts and tank tops are very much part of American culture, as are saying please and thank you, taking food to bereaved families, and flipping the bird as a sign of disrespect. If you get a pop culture reference, if you say "Bless you" without thinking when someone sneezes, if you understand why your niece's Sweet Sixteen is a Big Deal and you shouldn't just skip it to play Xbox, if you have ever had a moment of nostalgia about a certain song, toy, movie, or game from your childhood, you can thank American culture for that.

And finally, if you're still not sure that there is culture in America, just Google "buzzfeed" and your city or state's name. Likely you will come up with a handy list of some of the greatest parts of your local culture, such as this one for the Rio Grande Valley, or the Bay Area, or New England, or even this one for Catholic school. You're already trained to see culture in faraway places; it's only when you can see it in the place you are from as well that you can really communicate interculturally without ideas of what is 'normal' and 'exotic' or value judgments getting in the way.

This blog post is part of a carnival on "not having a culture." You can read others' posts on the same topic at:
Americans Don't Have a Culture at Authentic Journeys
Really? Yoopers Have No Culture - The West Has Culture at AttachedMoms
Swiss Have No Culture at Cyn's Adventure in India
Southern Americans Have No Culture at American Punjaban PI

(And if you are wondering how I have finished this whole post and said nothing about Virginia, read the cultural reference behind the title at the Newseum site.)


  1. Nice post. You are right, there most certainly *is* a culture in the US, one which varies distinctly by region and as you pointed out has been richly informed by the immigrants who populate this nation. And the mashing and melding and transformation of these many cultures have resulted in many social norms that make up the distinct American culture.

    I can think of many examples, but I will mention a couple that friends and relatives from other countries often cite.

    1) It is very very very American to talk about getting together or calling someone and never actually doing it. It takes immigrants a while to know what is a genuine invitation and what is the social dance we do here around those invites, especially when we sometimes never mean to actually extend one.

    2) We are often transactionally based even with people we are close with. As in "You bought lunch the last time, I will buy lunch this time." Some cultures feel like we are keeping track and this makes them feel awkward. We think it's only fair and don't want to be seen as taking advantage.

    3) "Hey how are you?" is a very standard greeting. Almost no one wants to really know the long tale of woe. You're really just supposed to say "Fine, and you?"

    5) Business has it's own culture and actually different business circles vary widely. And that is why we send people to classes before they go overseas. Our business culture is one where people often call their bosses by their first names (gasp!), will disagree with higher-ups (unthinkable!) and will be open and honest when things are not going well. In India, you call your boss Sir, you never contradict and things are always fine until, well, until they aren't. But you wouldn't come right out and say it. Many Eastern cultures share those traits, but we take the opposite to extremes here in the US. Many immigrants are shocked.

    These are a few small examples of culture here. There are millions, from the anecdotal to the well documented.

  2. Very well stated! It's important we try to pay attention to the things around us that have become common. It would be impossible to be completely without culture, regardless of who you are and where you are. Thanks for sharing your take on the subject!

  3. Well written article, Andrea!! You have touched on many salient points.


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