How to tell if you're American
Not long ago, one of those earnest-freshman puppydogs
on the Net
declared that there was "no such thing as American culture." Right.
Fish have also been known to doubt the existence of water.
The following is a first crack at an ostensive definition of 'American culture'-- things shared by the vast majority (let's say 90%) of native-born Americans. Many of these won't sound 'cultural' at all to Americans; they'll sound like just descriptions of the way things are. But each one of them would be contested in one or more non-American cultures.
The original page was written circa 1994. Revisions (as of 2014) are in this style, so you can see what's changed in a generation.
This test has spawned a growing host of responses (most of them better written than mine).
These pages are all organized by nation or culture. Robert Delaney has put up an interesting page with
the same information organized by subject.
If you're American...
If you died tonight...
- You believe deep down in the First Amendment, guaranteed by the
government and perhaps by God.
- You're familiar with David Letterman, Mary Tyler Moore, Saturday Night
Live, Bewitched, the Flintstones, Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Bob
Newhart, Bill Cosby, Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Donald Duck, the Fonz, Archie Bunker, Star Trek, the Honeymooners, the Addams Family, the Three Stooges, and Beetle Bailey.
Or if not: Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Stephen Colbert, Rush Limbaugh, Buffy, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Lara Croft, GlaDOS, The Sims, Farmville, and Reading Rainbow.
- You know how baseball, basketball, and American football are played.
If you're male, you can argue intricate points about their rules. On the other hand (and unless you're under about 20), you don't care that much for soccer.
- You count yourself fortunate if you get three weeks of vacation a
Everybody knows that
- You're fairly likely to believe in God; if not, you've certainly been
approached by people asking whether you know that you're going to Heaven.
- You think of McDonald's, Burger King, KFC etc. as cheap food.
- You probably own a telephone and a TV. Your place is heated in the winter and has its own bathroom. You do your laundry in a machine. You don't kill your own food. You don't have a dirt floor. You eat at a table, sitting on chairs.
- You don't consider insects, dogs, cats, monkeys, or guinea pigs to be food.
- A bathroom may not have a bathtub in it, but it certainly has a toilet.
- It seems natural to you that the telephone system, railroads, auto manufacturers, airlines, and power companies are privately run; indeed, you can hardly picture things working differently.
- You expect, as a matter of course, that the phones will work. Getting a new phone is routine.
- The train system, by contrast, isn't very good. Trains don't go any faster than cars; you're better off taking a plane.
- You find a two-party system natural. You expect the politicians of both parties to be responsive to business, strong on defense, and concerned with the middle class. You find parliamentary systems (such as Italy's) inefficient and comic.
- You don't expect to hear socialism seriously defended. Communism, fuhgeddaboudit.
- Between "black" and "white" there are no other races. Someone with one black and one white parent looks black to you.
Non-Hispanic whites made up 85% of the population in 1960; it's now 64%, and will be 50% in thirty years. So if you're younger and/or urban, you're likely to have a much more nuanced racial perspective.
- You think most problems could be solved if only people would put aside their prejudices and work together.
- You take a strong court system for granted, even if you don't use it. You know that if you went into business and had problems with a customer, partner, or supplier, you could take them to court.
- You'd respect someone who speaks French, German, or Japanese-- but you very likely don't yourself speak them well enough to communicate with a monolingual foreigner. You're a bit more ambivalent about Spanish; you think the schools should teach kids English.
- It's not all that necessary to learn foreign languages anyway. You can travel the continent using nothing but English-- and get by pretty well in the rest of the world, too.
- You think a tax level of 30% is scandalously high.
- School is free through high school (at least, it's an option, even if you went to private school); college isn't, unless you get a scholarship.
- College is (normally, and excluding graduate study) four years long.
Contributions to world civilization
- Mustard comes in jars. Shaving cream comes in cans. Milk comes in plastic jugs or cardboard boxes, and occasionally in bottles.
- The date comes second: 11/22/63. (And you know what happened on that date.)
Or if not, try 9/11/01.
- The decimal point is a dot. Certainly not a comma.
- A billion is a thousand times a million.
- World War II was a just war, and (granted all the suffering of course) ended all right. It was a time when the country came together and did what was right. And instead of insisting on vengeance, the US very generously rebuilt Europe instead, with the Marshall Plan.
- You expect marriages to be made for love, not arranged by third parties. Getting married by a judge is an option, but not a requirement; most marriages happen in church. You have a best man and a maid or matron of honor at the wedding-- a friend or a sibling. And, naturally, a man gets only one wife at a time.
- If a man has sex with other men, he's a homosexual.
Or maybe bisexual, or queer, or something-- you'd have to ask.
- Once you're introduced to someone (well, besides the President and other lofty figures), you can call them by their first name.
- If you're a woman, you don't go to the beach topless.
- A hotel room has a private bath.
- You'd rather a film be subtitled than dubbed (if you go to foreign films at all).
- You seriously expect to be able to transact business, or deal with the government, without paying bribes.
- If a politican has been cheating on his wife, you would question his ability to govern.
Today I'd substitute: A public figure who's misbehaved sexually is pretty ridiculous, but if they've expressed remorse there's no reason for them to lose their career.
- Just about any store will take your credit card.
- A company can fire just about anybody it wants, unless it discriminates by doing so.
- You like your bacon crisp (unless it's Canadian bacon, of course).
- Labor Day is in the fall.
Outside the Beltway
- You've probably seen Star Wars, ET, Home Alone, Casablanca, and Snow White. If you're under forty, add Blazing Saddles, Terminator, Jaws, and 2001; otherwise, add Gone with the Wind, A Night at the Opera, Psycho, and Citizen Kane.
Or if not, add Spider-Man, Titanic, Avatar, Toy Story, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and something with Owen Wilson, Brad Pitt, or Sandra Bullock.
- You know the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Simon & Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt. If not, you know Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, and Kate Smith.
Or if not: Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Jay Z, Eminem, Kanye West.
- You count on excellent medical treatment. You know you're not going to die of cholera or other Third World diseases. You expect very strong measures to be taken to save very ill babies or people in their eighties. You think dying at 65 would be a tragedy.
- You went over US history, and some European, in school, Not much Russian, Chinese, or Latin American. You couldn't name ten US interventions in Latin America.
- You expect the military to fight wars, not get involved in politics. You may not be able to name the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
- Your country has never been conquered by a foreign nation.
- You're used to a wide variety of choices for almost anything you buy.
- You still measure things in feet, pounds, and gallons.
- You are not a farmer.
- Comics basically come in two varieties: newspaper comics and magazines; the latter pretty much all feature superheroes.
Substitute web comics for newspaper comics, though I'm told that newspapers still exist.
- The people who appear on the most popular talk shows are mostly entertainers, politicians, or rather strange individuals. Certainly not, say, authors.
- You drive on the right side of the road. You stop at red lights even if nobody's around. If you're a pedestrian and cars are stopped at a red light, you will fearlessly cross the street in front of them.
- You think of Canada as a pleasant, peaceful, but rather dull country, which has suddenly developed an inexplicable problem in Québec. You probably couldn't explain why the Canadians didn't join the other British colonies in rebelling against King George.
- You consider the Volkswagen Beetle to be a small car.
- The police are armed, but not with submachine guns.
Still true in my town, but this doesn't look so obvious after Ferguson.
- If a woman is plumper than the average, it doesn't improve her looks.
- The biggest meal of the day is in the evening.
- The nationality people most often make jokes about is the French.
- There's parts of the city you definitely want to avoid at night.
Space and time
- You feel that your kind of people aren't being listened to enough in Washington.
- You wouldn't expect both inflation and unemployment to be very high (say, over 15%) at the same time.
- You don't care very much what family someone comes from.
- The normal thing, when a couple dies, is for their estate to be divided equally between their children.
- You think of opera and ballet as rather elite entertainments. It's likely you don't see that many plays, either.
- Christmas is in the winter. Unless you're Jewish, you spend it with your family, give presents, and put up a tree.
- You may think the church is too powerful, or the state is; but you are used to not having a state church and don't think that it would be a good idea.
- You'd be hard pressed to name the capitals or the leaders of all the nations of Europe.
- You aren't familiar with Mafalda, Lucky Luke, Corto Maltese, Milo Manara, Guido Crepax, Gotlib, or Moebius.
If you're under 40, though, you're familiar with some manga and/or anime.
- You've left a message at the beep.
- Taxis are generally operated by foreigners, who are often deplorably ignorant about the city.
- You are distrustful of welfare and unemployment payments-- you think people should earn a living and not take handouts. But you would not be in favor of eliminating Social Security and Medicare.
- If you want to be a doctor, you need to get a bachelor's first.
- There sure are a lot of lawyers.
If you're under 50...
- If you have an appointment, you'll mutter an excuse if you're five minutes late, and apologize
profusely if it's ten minutes. An hour late is almost inexcusable.
- If you're talking to someone, you get uncomfortable if they approach closer than about two feet.
- About the only things you expect to bargain for are houses, cars, and antiques.
Haggling is largely a matter of finding the hidden point that's the buyer's minimum.
- Once you're past college, you very rarely simply show up at someone's place. People have
to invite each other over-- especially if a meal is involved.
- When you negotiate, you are polite, of course, but it's only good business to 'play hardball'.
Some foreigners pay excessive attention to status, or don't say what they mean, and that's exasperating.
- If you have a business appointment or interview with someone,
you expect to have that person to yourself, and the business shouldn't take more than an hour or so.
- You're on Facebook, though you're not sure how much you like it.
- You have a cell phone.
- You feel like something's wrong if you aren't connected to the web. You routinely use it to shop, get directions, check facts, and connect with friends.
- You support gay marriage. If you're under 30, it seems crazy not to.
- You can find Chinese, Thai, Italian, and Mexican restaurants in driving distance.
- You have no real expectation that jobs, wages, and living standards are getting better for people like you.