American Values and Assumptions | University of Portland

American Values and Assumptions

Living in a foreign country and adjusting to a new culture can be a very rewarding experience. But, it can also be a difficult one if you do not understand the values and assumptions of the society. "Values" are ideas about what is right and wrong, desirable and undesirable, normal and abnormal, proper and improper. "Assumptions," as the term is used here, are the unquestioned standards about people, life, and "the way things are." People who grow up in a particular culture share certain values and assumptions. This means that most of them, most of the time, agree with each others' ideas about what is right and wrong, desirable and undesirable. They also agree, mostly, with each other's assumptions about human nature, social relationships. The values and assumptions of a culture shape the way people act. To help you adjust, we have compiled a brief explanation of why U.S. Americans behave the way they do. They are adapted from the first 17 pages of Gary Althen's book, American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States. Althen is an experienced and recognized international student advisor.


The most important thing to understand about US Americans is probably their devotion to "individualism." They have been trained from early in their lives to consider themselves separate individuals who are responsible for their own situations in life and their own destinies. They have not been trained to see themselves as members of a close-knit, tightly interdependent family, religious group, tribe, nation, or other group.


US Americans also believe in the idea, as stated in their Declaration of Independence, that "all [people] are created equal." Although they sometimes violate this ideal in their daily lives, particularly in matters of interracial relationships, Americans have a deep faith that in some fundamental way all people (at least all US American people) are of equal value, that no one is born superior to anyone else. "One person, one vote," they say, conveying the idea that any person's opinion is as valid and worthy of attention as any other person's opinion. US Americans are generally quite uncomfortable when someone treats them with obvious deference. They dislike being the subjects of open displays of respect - being bowed to, being deferred to, being treated as though they could do no wrong.

In the US, men and women are considered equal under the law. While US Americans often violate the idea in practice, they do generally assume that women and men are equal, deserving the same level of respect. Women and men may be different, but they should be treated equally in all professional and social encounters.

This not to say that US Americans make no distinctions among themselves as a result of such factors as gender, age, wealth, or social position. They do, but the distinctions are acknowledged in subtle ways. Tone of voice, order of speaking, choice of words, seating arrangements-such are the means by which US Americans acknowledge status differences among themselves.


Their notion of equality leads US Americans to be quite informal in their behavior and in their relationships with other people. Store clerks and waiters, for example, may introduce themselves by their first (given) names and treat customers in a casual, friendly manner. This informal behavior can puzzle foreign visitors who hold high stations in countries where it is not assumed that "all [people] are created equal."

People from societies where general behavior is more formal than it is in the United States are struck by the informality of US American speech, dress and postures. Idiomatic speech (commonly called "slang") is heavily used on most occasions, with formal speech reserved for public events and fairly formal situations. People of almost any station in life can be seen in public wearing jeans, sandals, or other informal attire. People slouch down in chairs or lean on walls or furniture when they talk, rather than sitting or standing up straight.

The superficial friendliness for which US Americans are so well known is related to their informal, egalitarian approach to other people. "Hi!" they will say to just about anyone. "How ya doing?" (That is "How are you doing?" or "How are you?") This behavior does not reflect a special interest in the person addressed, but rather a concern for showing that one is a "regular person."

The Future, Change, and Progress

US Americans are generally less concerned about history and tradition than are people from older societies. "History doesn't matter," many will say. They look ahead. They have the idea that what happens in the future is within their control, or at least subject to their influences. They believe that people, as individuals or working cooperatively together, can change most aspects of the physical and social environment if they decide things to do and a schedule for doing them. The ideal person is punctual (that is, arrives at the scheduled time for a meeting or event) and is considerate of other people's time (that is, does not "waste people's time" with conversation or other activity that has no visible, beneficial outcome).

Achievement, Action, Work, and Materialism

"She's a hard worker," one US American might say in praise of another. Or "he gets the job done." These expressions convey the typical US American's admiration for a person who approaches a task conscientiously and persistently, and has a successful conclusion. More than that, these expressions convey an admiration for achievers, people whose lives are centered around efforts to accomplish some physical, measurable thing. Social psychologists use the term "achievement motivation" to describe what appears to be the intention underlying US American's behavior.

International visitors commonly remark that "US Americans work harder than I expected them to." What was once known as the "Protestant work ethic" may have lost some of its hold on US Americans, there is still a strong belief that the ideal person is a "hard worker." A hard worker is one who "gets right to work" on a task in a way that meets reasonably high standards of quality.

Directness and Assertiveness

US Americans generally consider themselves to be frank, open, and direct in their dealings with other people. "Let's lay our cards out on the table," they say. Or, "Let's stop playing games and get to the point." These and many other common phrases convey the US American's idea that people should explicitly state what they think and what they want from other people.

US Americans tend to assume that conflicts or disagreements are best settled by means of forthright discussions among the people involved. If I dislike something you are doing, I should tell you about it directly so you will know, clearly and from me personally, how I feel about it. Bringing other people to mediate a dispute is considered somewhat cowardly, the act of a person without enough courage to speak directly to someone else.

US Americans will often speak openly and directly to others about things they dislike. They will try to do so in a manner they call "constructive," that is, in a manner in which the other person will not find it offensive or unacceptable. If they do not speak openly about what is on their minds, they will often convey their reactions in nonverbal ways (without words, but through facial expressions, body positions, and gestures). US Americans are not taught, as people in many Asian countries are, that they should guard their emotional responses. Their words, the tone of their voices, or their facial expressions will usually reveal what they are feeling--angry, unhappy, confused, happy or content.


For US Americans, time is a "resource" that can be used well or poorly. "Time is money," they say. "You only get so much time in this life; you'd better use it wisely." The future will not be better than the past or the present unless people use their time for constructive, future oriented tasks. Thus, US Americans admire a "well organized" person, one who has written lists of things to do and a schedule for doing them.

Others, especially non-Europeans, do not necessarily share the US American attitude towards time. They are more likely to think of time as something that is simply there around them, not something they can "use." One of the more difficult things many foreign business people and students must adjust to in the United States is the notion that time must be saved whenever possible and used wisely everyday.

In their efforts to use their time wisely, foreign visitors sometimes see US Americans as robots, inhuman creatures who are so tied to their clocks and their schedules that they cannot participate in or enjoy the human interactions that are the truly important things in life. "They are like little machines running around," one foreign visitor said.

Although this is a general overview of US American values and assumptions, it can be a helpful tool in understanding life in the US.


Source: PSU International Student Handbook