Many times, I have reflected on what I think American culture is. We like food, we like privacy, we like individuality. We can be loud and obnoxious, and sometimes appear very stupid. Given the diversity in America, people find culture an important thing to talk about. Throughout high school, we were always considering cultural differences in artwork, in literature, in anything. I was pretty sure I had a good understanding of American culture, and how it was different from a more European culture, but it wasn’t until I came to Germany that I realized how little I really understood about American culture.
It is easy to point out the American stereotypes and reflect with other Americans on why people view us this way or why we might be this way. But have you ever had your culture analyzed by non-Americans? One of the classes I am taking abroad this summer is called Cross Cultural Communications, and it aims to help us observe and understand other cultures. My class contains 6 Americans, 6 Singaporeans, 3 Chinese, 3 Mexicans, and 1 Egyptian Canadian.
When people from the outside are looking in at you, they catch the things that you don’t even know are unusual. And, in return, you realize the things that other cultures do that you didn’t know existed. For example, Americans have a tendency to “talk down”, meaning usually our sentences and phrases go down in pitch instead of up. This differs from the Singaporeans, who tend to have the opposite trend. While this is a little difference, it’s things like this that become clear to you, and you learn knew things about yourself and your culture.
I’ve learned that Americans are sometimes viewed as too polite, or even dishonest. Why is this? It’s because, no matter what, everything is “good”. Your friend cooks you dinner and asks how it is- of course it’s good! How mean and hurtful to say otherwise. This, I have discovered, is not the case for a large part of the world. Honesty is valued, even in these little cases. In Germany especially, it is perfectly acceptable to tell someone “I don’t like this food” or “that dress looks really bad on you”. To them, it’s considered being direct and honest, and thats what friends are for.
We did an activity in class where each country split into groups and ranked what they valued the most. In Group USA, we could not come to a clear consensus on what we valued. Some valued family the most, some freedom, and overall, we really couldn’t come to a clear decision. But, what surprised me, is that the Americans were the only people that had this problem, As the groups went around and shared their answers, the teacher asked if everyone agreed. Every group other than us answered that it was a very clear ranking for all of them to agree on.
First off, this shows me how much individuality is valued in the United States, and how many different cultures exist inside one country. Second, it gave me a sense of the atmosphere of many other countries. How could it be that these people agreed on all of their core values? While freedom is heavily emphasized in America, maybe it isn’t so much in other places. I tend to think of culture as a mixture of an individual and a society. Sure, I am an American, and a lot of things I do reflect that, but I also think a large part of being an American is being able to believe and value whatever you want. I’m not saying these other countries are being told what to value, but obviously some things seem to be more prominent in their societies. This is something I never could have observed talking with a group of my American peers.
I cannot stress enough how much I have learned from being around students from other countries for the duration of this trip. Not only do I get to experience German culture, but I get a peek into other parts of the world. I’m learning how to adapt, period. Not just to German culture, but to any culture. I analyze everything I do, wondering why I do this, and if other people do things the same way. All I want is to be a culture sponge. Be able to absorb the habits and attitude of any place I might find myself. Always being able to respect the people by not forcing my own culture on them.
The other half of this is being more understanding. America is a melting pot, and its not unusual to find people who don’t speak english, who eat weird foods, or who act a certain way. It’s easy to get annoyed. It’s easy to think, “You’re in America, so act like it.” But now, I am in the outsider position, and things I didn’t even know could be different are different. I have grown quite used to the “Oh so you don’t speak German” look. It still takes a conscience effort to take my shoes off the second I walk in the door. Having no idea what is going on is not exactly fun. So, from the other side, I feel like I can really empathize with these diverse groups of people.
Finding these cultural differences has become exhilarating, and every day in class I search for more similarities and differences. It’s almost like a game. Instead of being annoyed by different way of life, I now realize the value of understanding, evaluating, and accepting.