American Sayings: Foreigners'
By Gary M. Wederspahn
Windows Into US Culture
"The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its
proverbs." - Francis Bacon
Proverbs and popular sayings are capsules that contain highly condensed
bits of a culture's values and beliefs. They are sprinkled in conversations, public
speeches, popular writing, and the media. They are passed on from generation to generation
as a legacy of folk wisdom. People tend to accept them, in an uncritical way, as "truths"
learned by their elders and leaders. They have great influence on the assumptions,
attitudes, motivations, and behavior of the members of a culture precisely because
they are absorbed at an early age and then are taken for granted.
According to the 2001 Global Relocation Trends Survey Report conducted
by GMAC Global Relocation Services, National Foreign Trade Council, and the Society
for Human Resource Management Global Forum, the United States of America is the second
most frequent destination for expatriates worldwide. Other recent studies indicate that
relocation of non-US personnel to the USA is increasing.
An excellent way for people from other countries to gain insight into
US culture is to reflect on the meaning of our sayings:
Time is money. Time lost is never regained. These expressions, popularized by
Benjamin Franklin, illustrate two of the most fundamental US values: time consciousness
and productivity. We have become one of the world's fastest paced cultures. Even as
early as the 1830s, Micheal Chevalier, a French economist, wrote that the "American
has an exaggerated estimate of the value of time and is always in a terrible hurry."
The tempo of life, and work in the United States has increased exponentially since then
due to invention of such time "saving" tools as microwave ovens, cellular phones, faxes,
computers and e-mail.
Blow your own horn. If you want a job done right, do it yourself. Speak for yourself.
These sayings reflect our strong sense of individualism. According to a study of 40
countries by Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede, we are the most individualistic culture
in the world. This value can be seen in our emphasis on individual accountability and
singling out a specific person for recognition and reward. We do participate in teamwork
and belong to groups, but we don't let the group identity overpower our individualism.
Keep your eye on the ball. Work before pleasure. These expressions highlight our high
level of task orientation. We prefer to focus on the job at hand, avoiding interruptions
and distractions. Socializing and irrelevant discussions are discouraged and usually are
postponed until the task is accomplished. Most projects are organized as a series of tasks
that are worked on in sequence. Even though we have adopted the practice of multi-tasking
as part of the computer age, we still feel we must keep the focus of each task sharp.
God helps those who help themselves. Stand on your own two feet. During the frontier
era and westward expansion period of US history, people were widely scattered and isolated
by distance. We had to rely on ourselves and gradually turned this necessity into a
virtue. Those who can take care of themselves, make or repair things and improve their
own circumstances generally are admired and respected. Most people believe that it is
good for adolescent children and elderly family members to be as self-reliant as possible
and to not depend on others.
America-Love it or leave it! My country-Right or wrong! Strong national pride
has always been a major characteristic of American politics and public sentiment. But
during times of crisis, such as after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001,
patriotism surges to become a dominant emotional force. The unique status of the
United States as the last remaining superpower lends support to the idea among
policy-makers and the public that the USA is somehow better than other counties.
This attitude rarely is conscious arrogance. Rather, it is a belief that our policies,
values, and virtues have been vindicated by history. There seems to be no viable
universal or global political ideology in our country strong enough to moderate our
nationalism. US citizens tend to be very sensitive to criticism of our country, even
if it comes from fellow Americans.
What you see is what you get. Tell it like it is! Our culture promotes simple
frank verbal and written communications. Those who are too indirect are likely to be
viewed with suspicion, as if they have something to hide, have nothing to contribute or
are lacking in self-confidence. Outside of academic and literary circles, subtlety and
sophistication are seldom valued. However, our directness must be polite enough to avoid
being perceived as excessively blunt and rude.
All men are created equal... This statement from our Declaration of Independence
enshrines our belief that all people are of equal value according to some philosophical
or spiritual standard. We reject the idea that there exists a class of "betters" who
have an innate right to high status, privilege, and power. Hofstede's study ranked the
United States among the countries with relatively low acceptance of power distance, a
measurement of comfort with having an elite controlling a hierarchy. Our tendency to
use our boss's first name, raise challenging questions, and expect equal treatment
reveals a low power distance value.
Life is a game and whoever ends with the most toys wins. Shop 'til you drop. Who says
you can't have it all? The American dream is largely defined in terms of material
possessions (the house, the cars and the labor saving and entertainment devices). The
level of consumer confidence is carefully monitored and we are constantly urged to buy
and consume more. Historically, we had what was considered a limitless resource base;
the land, the forests and the water were so abundant that waste was not a concern and
conservation was not necessary. According to a report by the World Resources Institute,
the American standard of living requires 18 metric tons of natural resources per person
per year (many times the world average).
Content vs. Context focus
Don't beat around the bush. Get to the point! Edward T. Hall, a leading intercultural
specialist, has characterized the US style of communications as being very strongly
oriented toward content (facts, numbers, dates and precise, explicit meanings). We pay
relatively less attention to contextual factors such as the situation, status and
relationships of the people involved, nonverbal cues, and timing. Our high ratio of
lawyers per capita, in part, reflects the high value we place on precise words and the
need for clarity. Countless other "wordsmiths" are required by our focus on content.
The great length and detail of our contracts are another consequence of this value.
Wendy's restaurant chain's highly successful 1984 commercial slogan, "Where's the beef?"
was borrowed for use in a presidential campaign and is still heard today in conversations
to ask for more content.
The saying, What's good for General Motors is good for the country, and a famous quotation
of Calvin Coolidge, a former US President, The business of America is business, reveal our
strong support for corporate America. Despite the recent scandals exposing the ethical
misconduct of senior executives in major corporations, the public is not demanding an
alternative to the dominance of business in the United States. The focus is on making
moderate reforms to the system rather than instituting radical changes. Therefore, the
continued acceptance of the power and primacy of private enterprise is taken for granted.
I don't care how you get it done-just do it! There are many ways to skin a cat. The
proof is in the pudding. These sayings are evidence of our pragmatic approach to
problems. We value whatever solution "works" regardless of its theoretical or
philosophical implications. Outcomes matter more than methods. People who are
practical, resourceful, and inventive are admired and rewarded. American psychologists,
William James and John Dewey, raised pragmatism to the level of a legitimate philosophy
in the late 1800s. It is the foundation of our "results driven" approach to planning.
Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. No one remembers who was in second place.
These sports expressions also are applied to work and life in general. Most Americans
seem to believe that competition is good and that it promotes excellence, efficiency,
and productivity. Children are taught to be competitive at an early age in Little League
sports and contests in school. Business executives express pride in their companies'
competitiveness. Promotions and rewards are won by competing with fellow employees.
Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Keep you nose to
the grindstone and your shoulder to the wheel. The US work ethic is evident in these
proverbs. Americans spend an average of 1,900 hours a year at work according to the US
Census Bureau. That is twenty more days each year than a quarter century ago and more than
any other industrialized nation in the world today. Americans have fewer vacation days
and less sick leave than workers in most countries. The Avis car rental company based
its successful commercial slogan; "We try harder!" on our strong work values.
Don't be a stuffed shirt. Let's not stand on ceremony. These sayings reflect American's
preference for informality in most social and business situations. It is generally
believed that informality and casualness help people at feel comfortable and that they
facilitate cordial but effective communications. To the contrary, formality may be
perceived as self-importance, aloofness or lack of personal warmth. Therefore, humor
is often used, but titles, protocol, and rituals frequently are dispensed with. Likewise,
our business interactions tend to be less structured than in many other countries.
Bias for Action
Don't just stand there - Do something! There is no time like the present. Never put off
until tomorrow what you can do today. Americans take pride in quickly taking action in
the face of problems or opportunities. There is little time spent on contemplation and
reflection. With the rapid pace of life and business in the United States, opportunities
are fleeting and dangers are sudden. Managers often respond as if doing something, even
if it proves to be a mistake, it better than doing nothing. At least, they reason,
mistakes can be corrected but inaction accomplishes nothing. Nike has appealed to our
bias for action with its slogan, "Just do it!"
The sky is the limit. Every cloud has a silver lining. It is always darkest before the
dawn. Traditionally, we Americans have felt as if we live in the land of opportunity
with boundless potential. Our seemingly unlimited natural resources plus our steady
technological progress and economic growth have supported the belief that anything is
possible. Many poor immigrants have prospered in America and have gained social
acceptance and recognition in our environment that permits upward mobility. Only the
1973-74 OPEC oil shock and the growing public awareness of our diminishing natural
resource base have somewhat moderated our sense of optimism.
Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Where there's a will, there's a way. You can't
keep a good man down. Related to our optimism and belief in self-reliance is our
assumption that a person's success or failure is almost entirely due to his or her
own efforts and abilities. We tend to reject the idea that fate and external
circumstances are forces that determine one's future. This belief in self-determination
partially explains why our social welfare programs are relatively limited compared to
most other industrialized nations.
Some of our proverbs and sayings may be similar to those in your home country. However,
to gain awareness of cultural differences that may cause misunderstanding and friction,
it is advisable to pay attention to those sayings that contrast with or which have no
equivalent in the proverbs of your own culture. If any of the sayings quoted in this
article are confusing or difficult to understand, you can ask your American friends and
colleagues to explain them to you. Most people would be happy to do so and they probably
would be pleased by your interest in learning more about our culture.
Gary Wederspahn is a leading intercultural trainer, consultant, coach, speaker, and
writer. He has designed and conducted cross-cultural training programs for hundreds
of expatriates and global executives. This article is based partly on his book,
Intercultural Services: A Worldwide Buyer's Guide and Sourcebook, available
from the publisher at www.bh.com. He can be contacted via his web site at