Few things are more likely to provoke anger and disgust than generalizing about another nation or culture. Tell the guests at a dinner party that Italians are passionate and emotional, for example, or that the Japanese are disciplined and hard-working, and someone will quickly inform you that they know an Italian who is reserved and shy, or have a Japanese friend who is anarchic and lazy! Obviously, the collective psyche of Americans will never be agreed upon (if such a thing even exists). However, it is possible to identify certain traits that have been observed and commented on numerous times, both by outsiders and by Americans themselves.
Space, Movement and Freedom
One of the first things to strike visitors to the United States is the sense of space. Of course, there are plenty of large countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Russia, are all physically big. But that is not quite the same thing. For a start, large parts of these countries are sparsely populated and difficult to live in. The center of Australia, for example, is mostly desert, while much of northern Canada is very cold and, in the winter months, dark.
Throughout much of American history, the majority of migrants came from Europe, landing in the north east of the country. Many had left small, poor, densely populated communities in which they were trapped by social class. In the USA, they were now free to rise as far as their talents would take them. Romantic myth or not, people believed this.
And not only was there space to move socially, there was also a great deal of actual space. If you had left a small, cramped village in Ireland, for example, and now found yourself in Boston or New York, the sense that vast expanses of land lay to the west, open and free all the way to the Pacific, must have been thrilling and exhilarating beyond belief.
Obviously, many did not in fact head west, but always, at the back of their minds, must have been the idea that “if life becomes unpleasant, I can always leave”. And this is reflected in American film and literature. To take a classic example, Huckleberry Finn is about a journey – about escape. And it even ends with Huck deciding to set off once again, to leave everything behind and start again. The idea can also be found in the movies. As the film critic David Thomson has written, “so many American films are pledged to the energy that breaks out…our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again.”
Of course, modern migrants rarely cross the Atlantic huddled on ships. And most Americans do not just ditch their job and head west when things go wrong. And yet this sense of space and freedom is embedded in the American mind: the idea that there is always hope, that you can start again if things go wrong. It also explains why foreigners find Americans so uninhibited and unafraid of emotion. In the book Life and How to Survive It, John Cleese recalls his first trip to the United States and how struck he was by “the lack of inhibition,” which, he added, “seems to me to arise from them not holding themselves in like us: they feel they’ve got space, and they’re not frightened of anger.”
In his book America, Right or Wrong, Anatol Levin writes that “central to American national identity” lies a “faith in its own exceptionalism.” And this was true even in the 19th century. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, wrote, “we Americans are the peculiar chosen people…God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our soul.” And this sense of America as special is reflected in the intensity of nationalist emotion. For example, in a poll conducted in 1999, which asked whether people were proud of their nation, 72 per cent of Americans replied that they were, while just 35 per cent of French people said the same!
The problem with this idea is that it leaves Americans abnormally afraid of failure. America either wins and is number one, or it is a loser and failure. Being just one nation among many, with its own peculiarities, its own strengths and weaknesses, is not enough – the USA must stand out. And you can see this reflected in the excessive fear of growing Chinese power. As China, and Asia generally, begin to challenge America’s economic and military supremacy, many ordinary Americans find it almost impossible to comprehend. Surely, if you are exceptional you cannot be challenged!
Oddity, Eccentricity, and Failure
In The Education of Henry Adams, first published in 1907, the American historian Henry Adams recorded his experiences travelling around Europe. Adams writes that “the American mind exasperated the European,” in whose opinion “the American had no mind; he had an economic thinking machine,” while from the American’s point of view “English society was eccentric by law and for the sake of the eccentricity itself.” Americans often find true oddities and outsiders threatening.
Part of the explanation lies in the deep-rooted fear that American energy may run out of control. Americans both celebrate freedom and wish to contain the energy it unleashes. A good example of this is found in the cult film Easy Rider, about two long-haired drifters riding motorbikes across the Midwest. One of them notes that the locals are scared. Another replies that no, they’re not scared of you “they’re scared of what you represent to them,” adding that what they represent is freedom. Well, that’s what America is all about, replies the first. Yes, says the second, “but talking about it and being it, that’s two different things…they’re going to talk to you about individual freedom, but when they see a free individual, it’s going to scare them.”
The USA was created out of rebellion. The Founding Fathers were essentially Englishmen living abroad. And out of this small, relatively homogenous community, a vast nation gradually emerged. So, deeply embedded in the American psyche is the sense of having leapt into the dark, of having rebelled and started something new, something whose end is unknown. The USA is, in a sense, an experiment, a work in progress. Nations who do not share this sense, whose identity is ancient and settled, feel less threatened by the odd and unconventional.
They are also more relaxed about failure. To Americans, few things are worse. Take comedy shows as an example. In almost all mainstream American shows, the characters are living either very conventional or very successful lives. For example, look at Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men. In each, the central character is a success: Frasier is a famous psychiatrist with degrees from Harvard and Oxford; Raymond is a famous journalist, happily married to a beautiful wife; and Charlie, though he may be a lazy drinker, is also a self-made millionaire who enjoys his life immensely. They are all winners. Sometimes they are the butt of the joke, but more often they are the wise-cracking hero.
Now compare these to British comedy shows. In Fawlty Towers, you have an unhappily married, eccentric hotel owner who hates his job, is terrified of his wife, and is clearly on the edge of a nervous breakdown; in The Office, you have a middle-aged man who is single, deluded, bad at his job, desperate to be liked, and ultimately sacked; and in Alan Partridge you have a failed chat show host whose TV show is cancelled, whose marriage breaks down, and who ends up living in a motel.
The journalist P. J. O’Rourke once wrote, “other nations are built upon battle, blood, nationality, culture…Our foundation is the pursuit of happiness.” And “pursuit” is the key word here. But pursuing happiness is not the same as being happy. To be happy, you need to be content, to take pleasure in the small things, not be forever struggling and fighting to achieve some distant goal.
This pursuit of happiness possibly explains another trait: the dreamlike nature of America. Scott Fitzgerald captures this in one of the most admired of all American novels, The Great Gatsby, which ends with the famous lines, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future…It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.”
It also explains another curious feature of American political life, one that puzzles outsiders: that poor, working-class Americans so often vote for parties promising tax cuts for the rich. During the recent election, the British novelist Martin Amis recalled making this observation to an American friend, and how this friend had explained that they do so because they believe that they too will be rich some day.
Another unfortunate side effect is that unhappiness becomes synonymous with failure. Again, this is not true of all cultures. George Orwell, for example, wrote that the British are uncomfortable with success and in fact prefer glorious defeat (he even notes how many British military victories are forgotten, while heroic defeats or disasters, such as the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, are celebrated).
A nation’s psyche can never be defined to everyone’s satisfaction. A rough and vague map is the best we can hope for – and even that is likely to antagonize someone!