American Values and Assumptions

Individualism, Freedom, Competitiveness, and Privacy

Individualism

Americans generally believe that the ideal person is an autonomous, self-reliant individual. Most Americans see themselves as separate individuals, not as representatives of a family, community, or other group. They dislike being dependent on other people, or having others dependent on them.

Freedom

The individual that Americans idealize prefers an atmosphere of freedom, where neither the government nor any other external force or agency dictates what the individual does. For Americans, the idea of individual freedom has strong, positive connotations.

Competitiveness

Competitiveness pervades the society. It is obvious in the attention given to athletic events and to star athletes, who are praised for being “real competitors.” It is also obvious in schools and extracurricular activities for children, where games and contests are assumed to be desirable and beneficial. Competitiveness is less obvious when it is in the minds of people who are persistently comparing themselves with others.

Privacy

Closely associated with the value Americans place on individualism is the importance of privacy. Americans assume that most people “need some time to themselves” or “some time alone” to think about things or recover their spent psychological energy. Americans also assume that people have their “private thoughts” that might never be shared with anyone.

Equality

Americans are distinctive in the degree to which they believe in the ideal, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Although they sometimes violate the ideal in their daily lives, Americans have a deep faith that in some fundamental way all people are of equal value, that no one is born superior to anyone else.

Informality

Americans treat each other in very informal ways, for example, even in the presence of great differences in age or social standing. From the point of view some people from other cultures, this kind of behavior reflects “lack of respect.” From point of view of others, it reflects a healthy lack of concern for social ritual.

The Future, Change, and Progress

Americans are generally less concerned about history and traditions; they look ahead. They have the idea that what happens in the future is within their control, or at least subject to their influence. The mature, sensible person, they think, sets goals for the future and works systematically toward them. Desirable changes in the future can be produced by the progress of working towards these goals. 

Goodness of Humanity

The future cannot be better if people in general are not fundamentally good and improvable. Americans assume that human nature is basically good.

Time

Americans place considerable value on punctuality. They tend to organize their activities by means of schedules. As a result they may sometimes seem harried, always running from one thing to the next, and not able to relax and enjoy themselves. Foreign observers sometimes see this as being “ruled by the clock.” Other times they see it as a helpful way of assuring that things get done.

Achievement, Action, Work, and Materialism

Expression like “he’s a hard worker,” or “you have done a great job” convey the admiration for taking action and achievement. Hard workers and achievements are admired not just on the job, but in other aspects of life as well.

Regardless of income, Americans tend to spend money rather freely on material goods. Americans are often criticized for being so “materialistic,” so concerned with acquiring possessions. For Americans, though, this materialistic bent is natural and proper.

Directness and Assertiveness

Americans usually assume that conflicts or disagreements are best settled by means of forthright discussions among the people involved. The word assertiveness is the adjective Americans commonly use to describe the person who plainly and directly expresses feelings and requests.