August 1994 — Volume 1, Number 2
American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States
Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
Pp. xviii + 171. ISBN 0-933662-68-8.
In American Ways, Gary Althen succeeds in making American culture understandable to both foreigners and new Americans who are not familiar with their new culture. While cautioning his readers that his views should not be regarded as foregone conclusions about all Americans, Althen nevertheless provides an outline of the general trends of behaviour of white, middle-class Americans, and follows this with excellent explanations as to why these Americans tend to behave as they do. Althen is quick to acknowledge that all Americans are not white and middle-class, but points out that since that category [has] held the large majority of the countrys most influential positions (p. xiii) for some time now, it is they who have forged the main ideals of present-day American society. This book addresses and explains those ideals.
Part I of American Ways presents some general ideas about American culture, including a good explanation of their devotion to individualism (p. 4). This is followed by a discussion of how acts which express individualism are so frequently misinterpreted by foreigners as self-centered and inconsiderate behavior, and, similarly, how Americans tend to view people from countries without this individualistic trend with a sense of pity. The discussion of individualism is followed by explanations about other American ideals, namely equality, informality, the focus on future, change and progress (both personal and national), the American assumption of goodness of all humanity, the importance of time, the focus on achievement, action, work and materialism, and, last but not least, directness and assertiveness. Althen gives several explanations of cross-cultural misconceptions, all of which are aimed at helping foreigners to better understand American behaviour.
An entire chapter is devoted to the communicative style of Americans and good explanations are given for preferred topic choice, favorite forms of interaction, comfortable depths of involvement sought, preferred channels of communication, and levels of meaning emphasized in communication. These are followed by a good explanation of the ways of reasoning of Americans, including how things are best presented to Americans in the communicative act, whether it be written or oral.
Part II of American Ways outlines some specific aspects of American life. This includes a chapter on politics, where Althen explains the rather negative view Americans have of politics and politicians and the paradoxical expectation of competent service from them. Also outlined is the rule of law, which Althen explains as impartial laws [which] govern the formal aspects of social interaction (p. 45), the American ideal of compromise, and the [-1-] separation of politics from other aspects of life. Some other aspects of American life which follow include family life, education, religion, the media, social relationships, male-female relationships, sports and recreation, driving, shopping, personal hygiene, American organization systems, behaviour in public places, studying, business, and non-verbal communication. Once again, many common misconceptions are explored and explained.
In Part III the focus changes to coping strategies for cultural differences. Here, Althen begins with some helpful ideas for coping withand enjoyingthe American experience. Some areas covered are expectations, personality characteristics, traits and situations, stages of adjustment, and culture shock. The next chapter outlines activities designed to help foreigners learn about American culture. Some of these activities include asking questions, learning and practicing English, taking field trips, keeping a journal, observing ritual social interactions and reflecting upon experiences both good and bad.
As a resident of the United States for three years now (I was born in England and raised in Britain, France, and Canada), I found American Ways to be very enlightening, and was amazed by the discoveries that even a seasoned foreigner like myself was able to make from this book! I did find myself disagreeing with a few of the generalizations Althen makes. First of all, he claims that Americans often…assume that women are the equal of men, deserving of the same level of respect. Women…may be different from men but are in no way inferior to them (p. 9). While I will be the first to admit that America is much further advanced in the quest for equality between the sexes than most other countries, there are many people (myself included) who neither feel that women are yet viewed as the equal of men in America, nor that they receive the same level of respect. In many areas, women in America are still viewed as inferior to men. Althen obviously anticipated such a reaction, for he does admit that although Americans often violate the idea in practice (p. 9), the general assumption of equality is still there. In another section of the book, where Althen talks about the communicative style of Americans, he claims that Americans tend to be impatient with people who take long turns…Americans admire conciseness, or what they call getting to the point (p. 24). Again, I would say that this is relative. The British, for example, who tend to be very reserved, view the Americans as extremely verbose in comparison. This is also true in terms of how much personal information is revealed in conversation. Once again, Althen views Americans as revealing very little, whereas other countries whose citizens are even more reserved (for example, Japan) tend to view Americans as far too revealing of personal information. Althen obviously expected these differing interpretations and, as he claims right from the first pages of his book, readers should recognize that this book presents one persons views. The ideas in here are [-2-] starting points for observation, thought and discussion. They are not conclusions (p. vii).
Since almost any attempt at an explanation of American culture is more often than not viewed as impossible or far too subjective, Althen deserves to be credited with his brave attempt to do the impossible and succeed in his endeavour without offending the very people he is making generalizations about. His book would be a valuable asset to any foreigner coming to the United States (or already in the United States) who wishes to have a better understanding of what they will see and what will be expected of them. ESL instructors would also benefit from using this book. It can be used both as a tool for cultural understanding (Althen provides an excellent teaching activity to promote cultural awareness), and as an outstanding prompt for classroom discussions.
University of Arizona
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