November 19, 2007

Doing and Being

After such a wide reaction to yesterday's post, I thought I should take my American Culture bible off the shelf (American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-cultural Perspective -- listed in the side-bar to your right) and share some thoughts on the Being / Doing divide.

Americans are doers. We believe that we can achieve just about anything if we just "do" enough (which generally means setting goals, making a plan and enacting every step of it with perseverance and dedication). "Doing" is very high up there on our scale of values. People are evaluated by what they do and they are valued for their results. We are unfortunately convinced that this a universal value, whereas, in fact, it is a cultural one. Most cultures also value "doing", but, along a spectrum, not quite so highly. They leave more space for the role of "being". We have a hard time intimately accepting that for people of other cultures, we are not (mainly) what we do, but also (even mainly) who we are. "Who we are" is often something we cannot "do" anything about (from caste systems of various types to being European). This is the base of in-group, out-group systems. We Americans join groups (as an individual) and leave them at will. In other cultures, you often simple "are" part of a group that you cannot join nor leave (even if you really want to and work really hard at it with perseverance and dedication).

Emigrants from all over the world flock to the US and quickly become Americans in every sense, even after only one generation. Becoming European is more difficult. All my long-term expat friends agree, even after 20-30 years here, with Italian families, friends, citizenship and language, we will never be considered Italian.
It's a Being / Doing thing. There is nothing you can Do in order to Be. You just Are or Are Not. Americans, with their individualism and belief in the power of personal will, have a hard time acknowledging this cultural difference. One of the hardest of all!

a domani,


Rob said...

Firstly, I think I need to buy this book, secondly, what you say makes such sense!

I wonder if this difference is not a more basic one. The difference between the ancestral lands and the colonies.

Have to think about this a bit more...

P.S. I do appreciate the insight into the American mindset as well. As a non American I do find some of the American view of the world intriguing, and downright imperialist at times, but from what I have read here today it is all starting to make much more sense (and I can see how logical it is from an American cultural perspective as well).

Elizabeth Abbot said...

Thanks Rob. Can I have a gold star for today? I love explaining the craziness of American culture to others. Living abroad has given me a distance from which to observe and analyze my own culture in addition to learning about another one -- the big bonus of expat life!

Anonymous said...

I think you're absolutely right Elizabeth. As an Italian, it never crossed my mind that a foreigner might want to be considered Italian. Why would they want to? They are who they are. (Hope that last sentence makes sense, at least I hope you get what I mean...)

Kataroma said...

I think this also explains the system of "recommendations" for jobs here. People hire the son/daughter of a well-known person because of who s/he is (the child of a well-known person, member of a prominent family) rather than looking for someone who does the job well but has no family connections.

I remember once seeing a recommendation for a lawyer "he is the son and grandson of famous lawyers and comes from a prominent Rome legal family." Nothing about whether he was a good lawyer or not or had any experience in the relevant area of law! As a foreigner I was scratching my head!

Rob said...

Hi Kataroma,

Recommendations were a regular part of South African life when I was a kid as well. You almost always got your job based on who you knew, not necessarily what you knew.

Same here in Ireland and I think it is common to any culture where jobs are scarce - you rely heavily in the 'favour for a favour for a favour' or 'you scratch my back I scratch yours' methodology to survive in tough economies.

Elizabeth Abbot said...

Back to the ole racommendation thing! kataroma--how right you are. Part of the roots to the practice come from the fact that you are who you are (your family and social position). The funny part is that these expectations can be self-fulfilling in that you grow up knowing that you will one day become a lawyer and you spend your life preparing for that -- like growing into the family business (look at the FIAT come back).

Maryann@FindingLaDolceVita said...

Maybe it can be said that Americans THINK that their ideology is that you are who you make yourself to be, not who you are. When I last looked there were definate boundaries between races here. There is still a glass ceiling, in my opinion. And there is much seperation between the haves and have nots. Old money vs. new money. The good old boys keep a pretty tight club. So in your definition of differences in cultures, I see no real difference at all. The Italians are better than us at being Italian. This is the only truth :)