I am an American. What does that mean?

I recently was asked to lead a session for a group of SEALs in how to build relationships and work with civilians in other countries, which SEALs are increasingly required to do in their operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. In the current War, the line between civilian and military activities has blurred, as has the distinction between our civilian and military adversaries. As a result, the warriors we send forward are being asked to build relationships and trust with a broader spectrum of partners in their operational environment. I was asked to bring some of my perspectives to the discussion of how best to do that.

I decided that it would be important to discuss ourselves as ‘Americans’ in order to better understand how we can relate to people who are NOT Americans. We looked at our ‘cultural cruise control,’ a term I took from the book Cultural Intelligence by Thomas and Inkson. ‘Cultural cruise control’ refers to how much of our behavior is culturally programmed, and comes automatically – we may not be aware that there is any other way. This book claims that to work effectively overseas, we have to learn to turn off our ‘cultural cruise control’ by first becoming aware of it, and realizing that the values, customs, perspective which may be automatic in our own culture, are not necessarily universal. I used another book, Kiss Bow, or Shake Hands, by Morrison and Conaway, to look at how people from other cultures view US culture, values and perspectives.

In Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, we learned that compared with much of the world, Americans are quite comfortable with diversity in the work place. We are used to working in multi-cultural, multi-racial and mixed gender environments. We are less formal, and more egalitarian than most of the world – we are less concerned with the status of one’s family, or one’s place in society. We also discussed how in America, business happens very quickly, and business relationships are based on facts and objective information much more so than on personal relationships. We discussed how, relative to much of the world, Americans are comfortable doing business without a personal relationships, and will conduct business with just a phone call and a credit card number, or only a contract, or simply over the internet. In America, personal relationships are nice-to-have, but not essential in business. In fact, in American culture, personal relationships in business can be a distraction from efficiency and effectiveness. Americans, it seems, have few friends and lots of acquaintances.

We also learn that Americans believe in efficiency and task completion as significantly more important than building and sustaining relationships, especially in the work place. Employees are seen as replaceable, as are business partners and suppliers, especially if another employee, business partner, or supplier could help us achieve greater efficiency, and/or success in the work place. We learn that this focus on work, efficiency, and success is frequently at the expense of family, friends, and other more casual and pleasurable endeavors. As a culture, we have little anxiety about the meaning of life, while we have a high degree of anxiety about our ability to meet commitments and fulfill expectations that others have of us. We frequently choose to develop relationships through doing business rather than in order to do business, and frequently, the relationships are just that – business relationships – no more, no less.

When doing business, Americans don’t like to spend a lot of time with idle chat or conversation – we prefer to get right down to business, take care of what needs to be taken care of, and move on to the next project. As we Americans know all too well, time is money, and there is not much time to waste in idle conversation. In the words of Robert Frost, the woods may be “lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep….” (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening). In American culture, work is work, and play is play, but when we’re relaxing and ‘smelling the roses,’ our competitors are forging ahead and we may be losing ground. So, we don’t relax very well.

We are confident, proud, optimistic, and competitive. When we meet people, we look them in the eye, offer a firm hand shake, a smile, and our first name. We identify ourselves not by our family, our ancestry, or social class, less often by our hobbies or interests outside of work, but usually by our job or profession. We believe in the power and potential of hard work, and believe that with a positive attitude, a good team, persistence, and a willingness to work hard, there is little we can’t accomplish. This is not a universal belief.

But it is in our cultural DNA. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Americans seem to believe that as soon as the rest of the world wakes up to the value of hard work, confident individualism, and a government that protects individual rights, and enforces responsibilities, they too will see that all things are possible.

As I talked to the SEALS, my point was not to dispute any of this – for I find this description of American culture fits pretty well with my own experience. For I and the SEALs have inherited this in our cultural DNA, and have lived and breathed it our entire lives.

But we also discussed how we, in our ‘live to work’ culture, could probably learn a few things from people in ‘work to live’ cultures. SEALs frequently seek to embody the spirit of American rugged individualism – but much of the world believes that there is more to Life, than exercising our inalienable right to Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (at least the American version of it).

“Cultural Intelligence,” note Thomas and Inkson, requires that we develop three levels of cultural awareness: Knowledge of another culture’s values, customs and perspectives, Mindfulness, or the ability to notice when and how these are manifest, and Behavior, an ability to adapt to fit in with the values, customs, and perspectives of different cultures. Understanding oneself as an American can begin in the class-room, but in my opinion, does not truly begin until one lives in another culture. The SEALs I was talking to will soon be going overseas and getting to know themselves better, as Americans.

What have I missed? Any thoughts on what makes us American? Please email your thoughts to me at schoultz@sandiego.edu. I hope to teach this class again, and I would like to make it better. Hope to hear from you.

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