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A Persian Letter on Cultural Patterns

BY Joanna Tokarska-Bakir

Time is of the utmost importance; Americans accomplish more by making productive use of their time

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“How can someone be Persian?” asked Montesquieu, expressing the state of mind of astonished Parisians confronted with the strangeness of others. That was precisely my state of mind upon arrival in America. In order to survive, I took part in orientations organised by my university’s Human Resource Department. Orientations can cover any number of subjects: the price of food, bus tickets, and cars, elementary and high schools, insurance, and taxes. The session I was most interested in was the one on Americans.

Everyone is familiar with the phrase “This is America”, an exclamation usually tossed at disoriented foreigners in movies. At the orientation, we were given blue handouts that contained a succinct explanation of what “This is America” actually meant. Not only did they manage to agree upon a single answer, they even succeeded in fitting it onto a single sheet of paper! I have included the table below.

Why do Americans behave the way they do? The values Americans live by.



Impact on behaviour

1. Personal control over
the environment

People can and should
control nature,
their environments,
and their fates;
the future must
not be left to fate

An energetic,
society; the belief
that society controls
its own fate

2. Change and mobility

Change is considered
positive and good,
and is synonymous
with growth and

A geographically,
economically, and
socially mobile

3. Time and its control

Time is of the utmost
Americans accomplish
more by making
productive use
of their time

Productivity depends
on punctuality

4. Equality/

People are given
equal opportunities;
what matters is who
they are, regardless
of status or background

Americans treat
everyone equally,
regardless of rank
or status,
and respect racial
and ethnic diversity

5. Individualism,
and privacy

People consider
themselves individuals
with individual
needs, not members
of a particular group;
privacy is highly

are regarded
as self-centered,
somewhat isolated,
and rather

6. Self-help

Americans pride
themselves on their
they aren’t born
into their place
on the social ladder

Americans respect
others for their
rather than for
their backgrounds

7. Competition and
free enterprise

Americans believe
that competition
brings out the best
in people,
and that free
enterprise fosters
progress and prosperity

Americans prefer
to cooperation;
this applies
to the individual
as well as the group

8. Future orientation

Americans believe
the future will
be better and happier,
regardless of the past
or present

Americans tend
to devalue the past,
focusing instead
on the tasks at hand
and looking
forward to the future

9. Action
/work orientation

believe that work,
as opposed
to idleness,
is morally good;
action is superior
to inaction

emphasise “doing”
rather than “being”;
their schedules
are filled with work
and deadlines

10. Informality

Americans regard
excessive formality
in relations
as “un-American”
and a mark of
arrogance and superiority

Informal relations
between people
regardless of their
status; people call
each other by their
first names

11. Directness,
and honesty

You can only trust
those who look you
straight in the eye
and tell it like it is;
the truth is highly
valued, no matter
what it is

Americans tend to
tell others the truth
to their faces, even
if they fear
or dishonour

12. Practicality
and efficiency

Practicality and logic
are the main factors
that influence
decision making

Decisions are made
pragmatically and
with logical
being more
important that
emotional ones

13. Materialism

Material objects are
considered a just
reward for hard work;
they place a higher
priority on obtaining
material objects than
other types of goods

Americans are often
regarded as
who care more
for material objects
than personal

What does a European do when confronted with such a table? She contemplates. She doubts. She applies it to her own experience. Then she inquires about the source, which is exactly what a fellow German and I did. We quickly determined the source of the handout. The table is based on an essay by Robert L. Kohls, an entrepreneurial cultural anthropologist who turned his thirteen-point list The Values Americans Live By (1984) into a private institution. It is a rough equivalent of what the National Centre for Culture does with taxpayer money in Poland. The studies on which the list is based remain a mystery. We open up the website run by Kohl’s institution, which has profited off the ideas of its founder for the past thirty years. There’s no doubt about it: in America, anthropology can be the subject of aggressive historical politics, just as it is in Poland.

translated by Arthur Barys

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.