Sometimes myth-making is not a person but an idea. For example, the notion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” is a myth. It wasn’t true then: it only applied to white men. Male slaves were considered 3/5th of a man. We had to fight for the semblance of equality for women and minorities. Hell, we even fought a war, in part over this issue.
Nevertheless, there are some long-standing permanent truths about all Americans—including those waiting to get in. It’s our cultural DNA. We are the only country in the world where everyone who came to America chose to come here: the exception, of course, are slaves, mostly African. There is an obvious reason why this group of Americans has had the most difficulty being fully assimilated into American culture. Take choice away and we are not Americans.
There are seven dominant cultural forces, identified by cultural anthropologists and social research, that define Americans. These forces are:
- Doing the impossible
- Wanting Big and More
- Wanting it Now
- Oops (not a technical or sociological term, but you get the idea)
- Improvisation (Entrepreneurism)
- Search for What’s New
These seven forces are the structure of Americans, our architecture. The content of these forces is in constant change and manifests itself differently over generations, but the structure remains the same. The two terms should not be used interchangeably. It’s the structure that concerns us here.
As history would have it, these seven forces came over on the Mayflower:
- Choice: Stay in Holland for the ultimate in religious freedom or come to America in search of more.
- Do the impossible: Start a new country from scratch. Half entrepreneurs, half pilgrims—about the right mix. Continue the journey after one of the ships, aptly named Speedwell, sprung a leak and the plan had to be redrawn.
- Big and more: Landing in what is now Massachusetts was just the start of big and more. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 doubled the size of America overnight. It is now the only big country that has developed both coasts and its mid-country. Most countries abandon the middle territory, i.e. Russia, China, Brazil, Australia.
- Now: America has always been an impatient country: “Go West, Young Man.” The transcontinental railroad in the mid-18th Century brought the country together. (Somebody is working on a faster Twitter!) America is focused on the near future. Yesterday “is history.”
- Oops: (Often the trigger force for improvisation.) Chartered by King James I to land legally in what was then Virginia (a big swath of land from North Carolina up to the Hudson River), the Mayflower went “off course” and “got lost” at sea, now bound for an illegal landing in America. What a way to start a country. With an illegal landing pending and no rules to govern, the Mayflower Compact was improvised on board. It would serve as a foundation for the Declaration of Independence. Later we declared a naval war on England in 1812 at a time we had little-to-no maritime experience or ships. Oops. We started a skirmish with the South over session that was going to be over in no time but became the bloodiest war in American history—750,000 killed and the “war of session” still rages on. We declared war on Germany and Japan with no military capability. It would take four years to sort it all out. We cruised along in wars we lost—Korea and Vietnam—and we were caught napping on 9/11. Now we are fighting a cyber war that we understand so little, but we are improving our way along.
- Improvisation: We make it up as we go along. This is the force that fuels economic development. In came into full display force when other countries failed at building the Panama Canal and American improvisation and know-how got the job done.
- What’s New: For the Pilgrims, it was Native Americans, no food, winter in Massachusetts, and the whole west to explore. Then in short order there was dissension among the Pilgrims and some up and left and started what is now Connecticut. Soon there, after more dissension, there was a Rhode Island and after 13 colonies, a nation. Then to the moon and back with nothing left but outer and innerspace to explore and conquer.
If you are in doubt, try them out. Pick any issue or recent project at work or in your community organization and see if you see any of these seven cultural forces at work. They do not necessarily work in any particular order. All of them need not apply. But not knowing your project, I will guarantee you that you’ll start by exploring your options/choices, and you’ll know when the project is “over” as you and others start looking for something else to do.
If your project is bogie free, let us know and you can tell us how it worked out: we’ll post your story.
This post is based on my book, The Stuff Americans Are Made Of. It was written in the mid-nineties before the internet so there is not the usual links you might expect. But Amazon is still plugging it. The book was based on 23 qualitative and quantitative studies. For contrast in how other countries manifest their cultural DNA, one major study for the book was conducted in four countries (Japan, Germany, US, and our former neighbors, Canada). What we found is every country has a unique DNA.
If we want better relationships in trade, in program development, in joint projects, and the work of multinational team members, we are ahead of the process when we know and respect the DNA of other countries.