Sunday, June 24, 2007

American Mythology

American Mythology is a collection of essential values and principles that represent and symbolise the United States. Although it has close links to and was influenced by Protestantism, American Mythology is not a primarily religious concept.

  • Democracy
America declared itself independent in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. The country was founded on democratic principles like participation of the citizen and guarantee of human rights. Most Americans regard democracy as the ultimate political system. In addition, many Americans see their country as one of God’s favour. Therefore, America feels in duty bound to implement (and sometimes even to impose) democratic structures and values to other people or countries in the world in order to enlighten them.

  • Egalitarianism
Individual equality and the absence of class boundaries are fundamental for US culture. Everyone is regarded as equal and social mobility exists. This means the poor but hard-working, virtuous and independent individual can climb the latter and gain prosperity and recognition. Indeed, socio-economic inequality is obvious throughout America, but egalitarianism does not necessarily mean a fair distribution of wealth. It mainly refers to the fact that everyone has the opportunity to fulfil one’s American Dream – even if the preconditions to do so can be (very) different.

  • Individualism
America is regarded as one of the most individualistic cultures in the world: Don’t rely on others but be the architect of your own future. In private life, self-development is more important than the community. In work life, strong individual performance is significant in order to succeed. Although teamwork is appreciated, at the end of the day it comes down to the individual. From a historic perspective, the difficult conditions of the European emigrants’ everyday life made it necessary to rely on own individual skills and judgments to reach aims. Later on, John Wayne was the lonely but independent cowboy, Rambo and Superman were mavericks who fought for justice and Frank Sinatra did it his way...

  • Freedom
In America, personal freedom stands high above peer pressure. The Declaration of Independence clearly states the right of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". This is a perfect example of the significance of personal freedom in American society. Although freedom of speech seems to have suffered a bit under the Bush administration, the United States are still (one of) the freest country in the world – a fact which many Americans are proud of and take for granted as kind of a birthright.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Differences between American and German work ethic

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American employers lay more emphasis on practical experience with the training on the job concept. Contrary to, for example, Germany where your potential employer focuses very much on education and qualification. In the United States, the focus on egalitarism is stronger than for example in Germany: A person is rated rather by this practical experience and his proven expertise on the job than by this education and academic background. The latter gets less important for American managers if a person is good at what he’s doing.

Americans are pragmatic and goal-orientated. For example, German business and academic meetings are longer than the American equivalent. While German businessmen tend to discuss all topics in detail to make sure everything is settled and agreed on, their American counterparts concentrate on getting a positive result as quickly as possible without paying much attention to minor issues.

Career flexibility, the willingness to change jobs and face new challenges are much bigger in America than in Germany. For example, job security and a certain loyalty from both sides (employer/employee) still significant elements of work life in Germany and until the 1990s, it was common for employees to have worked for the same company for several decades. In contrast, it is not unusual for Americans to move cities and change jobs several times in a decade, especially if they hope to climb the job ladder.

American businessmen often make a very friendly, informal and self-confident impression on their German counterparts. Examples are the art of small talk to warm up and the use of first names from the very beginning. Both things are less common in Germany, especially the latter one. However, this informal atmosphere can be misleading because hierarchies and business decisions are is much more formal and strict than they appear to be.

Another difference between German and American ideas of work and career is the Protestant work ethic that plays a major role in American work life. This is related to the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination where it is said that God has already determined every individual’s fate. A person cannot influence his destiny but he can interpret signs that are indicators of his predestined fate. A sign for a positive destiny (e.g. salvation) is for example economic success, which can be achieved though hard work and virtue. Additionally, prosperity is a sign for God’s favour. Therefore it is highly respected and acknowledged if someone has become wealthy as a result of his hard work, individual achievement and endurance.

In Germany, this approach does not really exist. In American, however, this explains on the one hand the idea of the American Dream and the rag-to-riches myth. On the other, it makes clear why many Americans strongly identify with their job and career. One factor that also contributes to American work ethic but that sometimes seems to be neglected is the low job security in American companies. Employees can be laid off quite easily and without a warning, especially compared to Germany. However, the better an individual’s performance, the more secure this person’s job will be. As a consequence, employees are highly motivated to deliver best results and have an impressively positive approach to work.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

The American concept of freedom and individuality

Focussing on business is an expression of American goal-orientated behaviour. Decisions have to be pragmatic and sometimes the end justifies the means. This attitude can be related to the situation of the first European settlers and colonists. In those days without infrastructure or public institutions, quick decision-making was necessary to get things done and to live a convenient life under difficult conditions.

American so-called superficiality can also be traced back to the time of pioneers, settlers and adventurers who constantly pushed the frontier further west. In a new and unfamiliar environment it was important to make new contacts and to establish a network quickly. This pattern re-occurred every time people moved on to a new place. Therefore, small talk was a necessary means to for building interpersonal relationships. Even today, this mobility and the pursuit of one’s dreams exist in American society. People change jobs, move to other part of the country and start new careers. In this situation, making new friends quickly is as important as in the days of the first settlers.

Individualism and personal freedom are two of the most distinct characteristics of American culture. Again, history offers helpful explanations. Large numbers of European emigrants left their home countries for (religious) liberty, wealth and a better life. The difficult conditions of everyday life meant that the settlers and emigrants had to rely mainly on their own individual skills and judgments to reach their aims. The Declaration of Independence delivers a fine example for individualism by emphasizing the right of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

One comment about public transportation and its correlation to American individualism: Having an own car means independence and personal freedom, two attributes that don’t match with a public transportation system. It is therefore neglected, mainly due to reasons of image, convenience and being independent.