Archives, Culture

Cultural Notes from an American Perspective

If you’ve seen literally anything from my blog, you know that I have been traveling around quite a bit lately. As I travel to corners of the world, its inevitable to pick up on cultural differences in each place, but I’ve also been challenged to think of the differences from a particularly American perspective. I understand that a European or Asian traveling alongside me will notice things in a completely different way and pick up things that I completely miss. Our environments in which we grew up impact us in ways I never had the opportunity to fully understand! This realization has caused me to better understand Americans, and American culture in a way I never would have been able to, had I not taken a step outside of the society and noticed. So, here are some of those notes I thought worth sharing.

The ability to speak English fluently has to be one of the biggest blessings of my life. I never understood what a gift it was to have that skill set until I was in a normally non-English speaking environment. I automatically have such a leg up in comparison to non-native speakers, especially since I’m confident using it in a professional setting. Since it’s so conveniently the global language, I can honestly go anywhere and the likelihood of someone speaking my native tongue is pretty high no matter if I’m in the Amazon rainforest or the Norwegian fjords. The simple accessibility this gives me to the world is mind blowing, and one that I am so incredibly appreciative of.

The way in which Americans speak English too, I noticed, is slightly different than those of other cultures. I had a very interesting experience in Rio with fellow American and Norwegian classmates. After we saw a beautiful view of the city, we Americans were all buzzing about how incredible it was, how lucky we were to be there, and how taken we were about the day’s experience. The Norwegians cut in saying how crazy it was that we were all so expressive about what we saw. They said if we were to have gone on the same trip with majority Norwegians, we would have seen people look, take in the view for a moment, and move on. We often act like what we do or see is the best or worst things in the world. Saying things like “You’re the best” “I’m starving” or “This is incredible” are all extremes Europeans are not used to. We also always have opinions about things. In school, we are trained to be able to ask questions and form our own singular voice about topics in literature and history. Having original thought and a well-developed opinion in many ways makes you smarter and a better student in our educational system. This plays out in our everyday life as us always having something to say or input about a certain topic, even if we are not knowledgeable in the subject. I think this has played a part in Americans having the stereotype of being blusterous and loud mouthed about everything under the sun, when in actual reality that’s just what we were told to always do.

On the topic of language, I for a long time was confused at why Americans struggled to learn second languages. Europeans, for example, start learning a second language in grade school and then add a third language on before they even graduate high school while we are over here still covering basic Spanish concepts in high schools to the few students who can fit it in their schedules. I’ve come to realize now, that not only does the Global Language aspect play a part in this, but also the extremely limited exposure we Americans get to other cultures’ entertainment. I cannot tell you how many people I have met over the last year who taught themselves English just from music, TV, or books. If people so choose, they have the opportunity to fully submerge themselves into just American entertainment, whereas Americans themselves have absolutely no opportunity to do that. There may be the occasional French or Spanish show on Netflix and we may stumble across some cool Latin music every now and again, but we have no access to huge block-buster films in other languages, best selling novels in foreign languages, or even to be aware of other countries current affairs unless we really dig for it. All this and more is so widely available in other countries that sometimes I found people who knew more about American culture than I did. Because of this exposure and practical usability in other places, the act of learning a language seems all the more logical. Americans, however, do not see the incentive or practical application of this and so most of us don’t bother to try. Or, even if we do bother, most of us end up forgetting due to lack of use. This has put us far behind intellectually to the rest of the world and is something I think can be changed.

Another note in relation to culture and current events I noticed is that Americans are watched more closely than I think we realize. It is a known fact to us in the USA that we are the leaders of the free world and that the rest of the world takes note of our actions, but I don’t know if we realize the extent of that. When I was just recently in Europe, I was shocked at how many news stations covered lengthy American stories, and how common it was to see American influences. For example, more and more high schools are celebrating Prom, going all out for their 21st birthdays (even though nothing is legally different), and wanting to go on road trips. I remember feeling a bit guilty on my trip, seeing all this and fulfilling the stereotype of being the unaware American. I would love to know just as much about their culture as they do mine, but without having to dig so extensively, or feel so singularly interested in it. As a note to my fellow Americans, I urge you to be hyper aware of your actions when you go abroad and make sure that you don’t represent us badly, because believe me, people will notice and remember it.

Changing gears a little bit now, I’ll move on to a few of the big things I noticed in South America that were different from what I knew. Growing up American, it was always a positive attribute to be independent and to know how to work alone. Parents would strive to foster that sense of independence in their children as they were raising them. The more independent you were in younger years, the more successful you could be at moving out of the house and not relying on anyone financially later on in life. Parents enjoy this factor because they also wish to eventually regain their own independence once their children move out. Hell, independence is a cornerstone of our nation and is something we celebrate every year on the fourth of July! But, in Brazil, this sense of independence is radically different.

Most times, warm climate cultures highly value family and community. Being independent is not an essential value to them because once you grow, you are expected to remain in the community and give back to those who have helped you before. Children will often stay in their parent’s homes until the age of 30 or 40, remaining dependent on them for much longer than what would be socially acceptable in the USA. Here, if someone remained living with family until that age, most people would think there was something wrong with them! But, there, people just don’t see the draw of gaining independence or privacy. This, I noticed, made me think Americans were significantly more ambitious, but also significantly more lonely. It’s becoming more of a common theme for lack of human contact to be mentally affecting young people today. People don’t know how to meet others, talk on the phone, or understand the complexity of an intimate relationship. We have fought so hard to become our own island that we forget how good it can be to have others to share with. Values of hard work may not go unnoticed in the States, but we all need love to thrive, and no matter who you were or where you came from in Brazil, I felt that everyone had an ample supply.

There are so many more things that I know should go into this post, but I’ll leave it here for now. The complexity of cultural differences takes lots of time to fully understand and be able to adequately explain so I know I have much more learning to do in the years to come. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and as always, should you have any comments or notes of your own, please leave me a comment! Have beautiful weeks everyone!

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