Introduction to American Culture, Part 1

A Somewhat Stereotyped Story on a Sprawling Subject

American culture for non-native foreignerMany of our accent reduction students are interested not only in perfecting their pronunciation but also want to better understand the American psyche.  The American English language reveals the American personality.  Like Americans themselves, our language is a world where exceptions are the rules, where consistent pronunciation of vowels and consonants is a moving target, and where letters seem to change their identities whenever they want.  The modest vowel O might occasionally actually be pronounced as “OH” in “open” but then it might be AH as in “doctor”,  or make a quick turn into “UH” as in “oven”.  Double it to OO, and it might be pronounced /u/ (OOH) as in “food” or /ʊ/ (OUH) as in “foot”.

That tendency to go one’s own way on a whim might be a key to American culture.

Americans tend to be loud and brash and confident, even when they don’t know what they’re talking about.  We who have lived here our whole lives know and expect this and treat this trait as both a cultural virtue and a vice.  It can be useful to hear someone who is leading you – whether in the office or on the battlefield – speak as if they know the right way, and will lead you to victory if only you follow them.  Americans tend to want to lead; whether it’s coming up with the newest best and brightest innovation, running for office (with or without political experience), or directing you to the closest Starbucks.  

American culture for non-native foreignerAnd as that American CEO is loudly expressing himself (or herself), often an American employee will feel free to correct them. American culture breeds dissent, discussion and debate on every field.  Everyone is an equal (so our culture insists), so everyone feels free to have a say, even when it means challenging the boss.

Other cultures (East Asian business immediately comes to mind) work from a position of quiet courtesy and deference to the leader.  There is no pretense of equality with one’s superior, either inside or outside of the office.  One wouldn’t go to an office barbeque with your Japanese boss and expect him to be standing at the grill with a chef’s hat, flipping burgers (as happens at an American barbeque).  

Americans are happy to give advice and opinions on things (even if you didn’t ask us).  A non-native can initiate a conversation with almost any American if you ask us “a good place to…” eat, shop, travel, ski, see jazz, hike… any opportunity to share our knowledge!  Ask us, and then we’ll ask you!

Our informal culture finds its way into our American accent and communication styles.  Our students, who come from the very highest echelons of their industries (hedge fund managers, physicians, engineers, professors, international lawyers, film and stage actors) sometimes balk at our need to unwind their über-carefully cultivated speech patterns.  The tendency to pronounce all words with equal and literal precision are actually red flags to the native speaker. 

For example, the connecting words “to”, “for”, “can”, “of”, “going to”, “want to” are, in standard American accent, shortened and generally not pronounced in their full form in conversational speech. Americans rarely finish the “OO” of “to”, dropping the vowel sound or replacing it with the “schwa” (uh), so that instead of saying our idiomatic expression: “It takes two to (/tu/) tango” (which means: we both need to be involved), we would articulate it as: “It takes two t’ tango” or even “It takes two d’tango”. The absence of vowel shortening for connector words reveals that the speaker is non-native, just as does blatant mispronunciation. 

We are often asked by students if this is truly the way one high-level colleague would speak to another, or would we truly drop that vowel in a formal presentation in front of a high-level audience, and the answer is YES!  It’s truly American, and it is actually easier to understand than a too-well articulated vowel.  It fulfills our auditory expectations; it offers us what we expect to hear, which is a crucial part of communication.

Americans tend to be optimistic.  This may be bred from our culture of movies that almost inevitably end happily, unlike almost every other culture (especially European) where movies often end with no resolution, and great sadness.  The “sad” ending has culturally been unacceptable to Americans who demand and expect things to end well (which in turn all goes back to the immigrant mindset).  It’s a kind of life-justice that Americans fervently (and perhaps fancifully) believe in, and it infuses our culture with an optimistic view that Truth, Good, and Hard Work will win out.  

For sure, it’s also partly due to our youth and naiveté as a nation.  We have not lived through thousands of years of wars, invasions, plagues, changing borders, and strife that the rest of the world has experienced. Our 200 some years of existence make us the young puppies on the world map.

This optimism means that if one business fails, or a career doesn’t work out, one must simply choose another.  This is an almost unthinkable concept for people of other countries who mostly choose a career path while very young, are directed toward that path through strictly enforced academic channels; and for which straying from that path is considered highly risky, unorthodox, or even shameful.

In the U.S., failure can be a new beginning.  Switching one’s career at the age of 40 is not only acceptable, it’s beginning to be expected.  A situation where an older adult loses a job or retires, and then returns to the workforce to take on a new position (perhaps even in a new industry) is becoming the norm.  

American culture for non-native foreignerThis again, can be wonderful, but also exposes the American devotion to work, and for many Americans, work equals the Office.  Americans who work in office environments tend not to take a lunch break, or if they do, it’s in front of the computer; whereas in France, Spain, Greece, and other countries, lunch is a true break, which can last an hour or more.  And if one works for a new media or modern tech company, like Google or Facebook, one might be lured to stay on into the evening hours, given the job perks of all-day gourmet cuisine, Lego rooms, gyms, etc. 

This is perhaps why Americans tend not to socialize with coworkers outside of the office; we want to get home after a long day! 

American culture is a moving target, just like our pronunciation.  Finding your way to comfort takes practice and effort and maybe a little embarrassment (our speech warm-ups ask you to open your jaw wide, activate your tongue and make sounds you perhaps have never made before!).  But we think you will find your efforts rewarded with the pleasure of better, more effective, and much improved relationships with your colleagues and new friends.

Article to be continued next month…stay tuned for more about American culture: food, movies, and more!