What’s Distinctive About America?

The Metafilter site has an interesting thread consisting of comments by foreigners about what they think is most distinctive about the US [HT: Tyler Cowen]. I’ve lived in the US since I was six, so I can’t really see the country from the perspective of a foreigner or a recent immigrant. On the other hand, I did grow up in an immigrant family, have spent time in many foreign countries (including teaching at universities in Germany and Argentina), and have lived in several different parts of the US. So I have some perspective on the issue.

Obviously, there are the ideological and political differences that some of the commenters cite: compared to most other advanced democracies the US is more politically decentralized (though a few European nations, such as Switzerland, are even more so); more pro-free market (though Canada is now roughly equal to the US on various measures of economic freedom); more religious; and less class-conscious. These traits are, I think, well-known. The Metafilter commenters focus mostly on differences in everyday life, and so will I.

Some of the points they stress strike me as valid. Compared to most other countries, America has much better customer service and Americans are more friendly than Europeans and Asians in casual social interactions. My father (who has visited some thirty countries) jokes that the US and Canada are the only truly civilized nations because they’re the only ones that have really good customer service. I would add Japan to that list.

However, outside customer service settings, the US edge in niceness over some European countries is not as great as many people suppose. I was, for example, impressed with how nice people were in Germany, despite the country’s mediocre reputation in that regard.

It is also true that Americans are, on average, less likely to know foreign languages than Europeans or East Asians. Some of that is indeed due to American insularity, as many foreigners suppose. However, it’s also because Americans have less incentive to learn foreign languages due to the status of English as the dominant international language.

Here are a few points that the Metafilter commenters have largely ignored:

Perhaps the biggest one is attitudes towards immigrants. Despite the xenophobia evident in the political backlash against illegal immigration, Americans are, on the whole, far more accepting of immigrants than most Europeans and Asians. You can live in France or Germany for decades and still not be accepted as a true Frenchman or German. It’s much easier for an immigrant to become a “real American.” I have relatives and acquaintances who are Russian immigrants in several European countries and in Israel. The difference in degree of acceptance and assimilation between Russians who settled there and in the US is very striking. Only Anglophone Canada is comparable to the US in this respect (though I don’t know enough to be able to tell if Australia and/or New Zealand also qualify).

Many of the Metafilter commenters emphasize how Americans are more open with strangers than Europeans. This is true to some extent. But not on all topics. Relative to people in many European countries, Americans are much less likely to ask how much money you make, or to criticize your political or religious opinions. Russians are at the opposite end of this continuum: they will brazenly demand to know how much you make even if you just met, and forcefully attack your political views at the drop of a hat. Western Europeans and Argentinians are somewhere in between these two extremes.

More generally, the US has a strong culture of self-esteem that makes it socially awkward to openly criticize people in many contexts. For example, American professors have to be much more careful about criticizing students than European ones. Russia is, once again, at the opposite end of the continuum from the US. This aspect of American culture is not entirely positive.

At least in the educated classes, Americans are more sensitive than Europeans and Asians to anything that smacks of racism or ethnic prejudice. Russians are again at the opposite end of the continuum, with Western Europeans in between (the exception to this generalization is the strong sensitivity to anti-Semitism in Germany, for which there are obvious historical reasons). Even well-educated, liberal-minded Russians will sometimes say things about nonwhites that only the most hidebound racists would dare to state here. As with the culture of self-esteem, concern about racism sometimes shades into counterproductive hypersensitivity. On balance, though, I think it’s less dangerous to be overly sensitive about racism than not sensitive enough.

Finally, Americans generally expect greater respect for “personal space” than Europeans and especially Asians. In the US, people are careful to avoid bumping into each other in public spaces. Not so in Europe and East Asia, though there is some variation between countries.