Culture is a funny, and so often misunderstood, thing. We all have complex cultures--each of us, but we believe it's something only others have. We look to foreigners, to those who are ethnically and/or racially different from us and think
is all about them. Even the term "ethnic" is widely misused and commonly understood to imply a reference to non-whites, when in fact every single one of us does indeed have an ethnic background whether it be Irish, Italian or a neat combo of the two.
But then we travel abroad and discover that just as we did, residents in other countries perceive us as "other," and as having a culture that is quite distinct and different from their own. "You must be American," they speculate, and we scratch our heads confused about what exactly it was that tipped them off.
I read an interesting article about culture in May's issue of Self Magazine written by Caroline Hwang. As an Asian-American, Caroline travels to other countries and is immediately recognized, not as East Asian, but as an American. The reason? Her big, happy smile. Meanwhile, back in America I would imagine her experience is quite different--the assumption more commonly being made that she's from elsewhere.
Americans of all colors, classes, shapes and sizes, it seems, do indeed share some common cultural traits. Our uninhibited display of emotion, clearly being one.
Scholars on the subject of culture also attribute other characteristics to Americans: value for fact over feeling, focus on action rather than being, focus on present and near future (rather than past), belief in independence--"every man for himself," belief that everything happens for a reason "where there's smoke there's fire," etc.
While non-Americans often immediately identify these traits in us, it's very difficult for us to do so. Why is that? It's primarily because 'This is how we do things, and doesn't everyone do things this way' is how we think. (And this, by the way, is also a very American trait.)
In order to understand how we are really alike or different, we first need to understand ourselves. So, when you travel to another country and approach a non-english speaker in English, or, you wonder why people in a particular Asian country aren't very friendly or don't smile very much, or, someone reacts in an unexpected manner to something you say or ask, shift your focus from figuring out what's strange about them...and instead, know that your culture is showing!