Few of us like to be told that we’re average, and Americans are no exception. Far worse, however, is to be told that we, or the things we do, are typical of our nation. “Oh, that’s so typically American (or British, or French, etc.).” is the kind of statement most of us object to. Generalizations about nationalities (Americans are incurable optimists, Germans are professional pessimists, and Italians are amused by both) are usually not welcomed, even when they’re basically accurate.
With Americans, this reaction may even go deeper. One generalization often made about Americans is that they value their individualism quite highly. They place great emphasis on their individual differences, on having a great number of choices, and on doing things their own way. This is perhaps why general statements about American lifestyles are frequently resented by. Americans. Part of being an American is not being, and not wanting to be, typical.
There are other difficulties with summarizing American ways of life and attitudes. Whereas, for example. Italians or Germans form a largely homogeneous society, white, Christian, and speaking one language, Americans do not. And whereas a country like Britain exhibits considerable variation in climate and landscape, the differences across the continental U. S. are extreme.
Such difficulties, which stem from the enormous variety of America and Americans, should be rather obvious. Less apparent at first thought is that much of what was once said to be typically American is often no longer just American. Largely since the Second World War, more and more American social and cultural habits have taken hold in Europe, from cornflakes and the televised news for breakfast to the evening barbecue or grill party.
In the early 1960s, for instance, it was still possible for an American to quip that “in the U. S., we take a shower every day and go food shopping once a
week – in Europe, they do it the other way around.” Today, of course, this is no longer the case. American habits have not changed that much, but European ones have, along with the increase in supermarkets and shopping centers, the number of cars, and the modernization of housing. So-called convenience and frozen foods are now as popular in Europe as they are in America. Similarly, to talk about a car culture, a throw-away culture, or the generation gap as exclusively American concerns makes little sense today. Such concerns are now as familiar to most Europeans as are, well, traffic jams and beer cans, pollution control or “walkman” radios.
For their part Americans are now buying smaller cars, and walking more. More and more of them are cooking “from scratch” instead of using prepared foods. And. certainly, Italian fashions and French wines (as well as French fashions and 60 Italian wines). German cars, and Dutch cheese are selling well in the U. S. Yet overall, trends in lifestyles have moved and still move across the Atlantic from west to east. Another generalization, this one European, says it well: “What they’re doing in California today we’ll probably be trying in Europe tomorrow.”
As a result, there are at least two generalizations that can be safely made. First, Americans tend to be trend-setters in lifestyles. And, secondly, what is thought to be typically American today probably won’t be so for long. Most interesting therefore, are those habits and attitudes, customs and conventions which have been consistently observed among Americans over time.
A Friend in Need
A report consistently brought back by visitors to the U.