characters / culture / descriptors / writers resources

How to Describe an American–if You Aren’t

If your novel deals only with Americans, skip this post.unknown american

If you’re in the POV of a foreign character who interacts with Americans, or if you’re showing the reaction of a foreigner to an American, read on.

When I introduced non-Americans into my novel, I realized quickly they didn’t seem authentic. So I started reading blogs and forums of foreigners, see how they talked and thought and the connections they made between events. Then, I morphed to their attitudes toward Americans and our stuff–our patriotism, work ethic, individuality, those things that we take for granted but the rest of the world finds odd. That’s where I found the core of my foreign characters.

Every nation is unique. Their culture, people, are perfect for their country, but often odd to the rest of the world. If you’re an American author, you need to understand what it is about Americans that the world loves and hates, what they see in us, how they would describe us.

Here are some ideas I collected from sites that discuss Americans with foreigners,  traits that have been observed by foreigners. Obviously, they do not all reflect my personal views. Here goes:

  • Friendly
  • Generous
  • Hard-Working; Workaholics
  • Overweight
  • Uninterested in other cultures
  • Religious; socially conservative (by Euro standards)
  • Socially liberal (by Middle Eastern standards)
  • Great disparity between the rich and poor
  • Shallow or superficial (goes along with friendly)
  • Warmongering
  • Optimistic
  • Open to new technologies/ideas
  • Sensationalistic
  • Ignorant
  • Loud
  • Live with lots luxuries
  • Rich/Wealthy
  • Lightly taxed
  • Love fast food
  • Car-oriented (main/only form of transportation)
  • Not family-oriented (nursing homes, etc.)

WHAT ARE AMERICANS LIKE
The American society is composed of people from many social, cultural, ethnic and national backgrounds, different economic situations, and vastly different philosophies of life. Because of this, it is difficult to generalize about Americans, however certain traits may seem most obvious to people from other countries.

Individuals

Probably above everything else, Americans consider themselves individuals. Although there are strong family ties and strong loyalties to groups, individuality and individual rights are most important. This may seem like a selfish attitude, but it also leads many Americans to an honest respect for other individuals and an insistence on human equality.

Independent and Self-Reliant

Related to this respect for individuality are American traits of independence and self-reliance. From an early age, children are taught “to stand on their own two feet,” or to be independent. Since this is such a marked trait in the American style of relating, you are expected to take care of yourself, and if you do need help, ask for it. Others will usually not offer help until you ask.

Direct

Americans are very direct. Honesty and frankness are important to them. They are quick to get to the point and may seem blunt at times.

Informal

Americans are informal and treat each other the same way, even when there is a great difference in age or social standing. Most people call each other by first names, regardless of age or social differences. Although this may be different from what you’re used to, it is part of the American Culture.

Competitive

Americans are generally competitive. They place high value on achievement, and this leads them to compete against each other. You will find friendly and not-so-friendly competition everywhere. Competition is apparent not only in sporting activities, but also in conversation, (seeing who can get the last word in). You may find it disagreeable, but such behavior is natural to Americans.

Team Players

Although often competitive, Americans also have a good sense of “team work,” which means cooperating with others to achieve a common goal.

Achievers

American are somewhat obsessed with records of achievements in sports and business.

Friendly

Americans are friendly and open people. In general, friendships among Americans tend to be shorter and more casual then friendships among people from other cultures. This could have something to do with American mobility and the fact that Americans do not like to be dependent on other people. Americans also tend to “compartmentalize” friendships, having “friends at work,” “friends at school,” “family friends,” etc.

Materialistic

Americans are often accused of being materialistic. Success is often measured by how much money a person has and how many materials goods an individual accumulates. However, there are many American who do not share these feelings–people who are “down to earth.”

Time Conscious

American are very time conscious. They keep appointment calendars and live according to schedules. They usually are on time for appointments and expect that of others as well. American may seem “always in a hurry,” and often times hasty, but they are generally efficient and get many things done simply by rushing around.

Energetic

The United States is a highly active society, full of movement and change, therefore. If you pursue a more leisurely pace, you may find the fast tempo exhausting.

Internationally Naive

Many American children and adults are not very knowledgeable about international geography or world affairs. They may ask uninformed questions about current events and may display ignorance of world geography, but their questions usually grow out a genuine interest.

Desire Eye Contact/Body Distance

Americans consider it important to establish eye contact with addressing a person, but feel uncomfortable if the other person is standing too close to them. Some Americans are very open and “touchy” and others are somewhat closed and like “their personal space.”

Americans in very negative terms

‘loud, badly dressed, graceless, arrogant, provincial’, the usual ‘ugly American’ stereotype, where people are only concerned with vanity and appearance.

For more descriptors for characters and settings, click here.

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57 thoughts on “How to Describe an American–if You Aren’t

  1. Very insightful observations. Even after taking the exceptions into account, I’d say the majority of Americans (from various ethnic and philosophical backgrounds) are accurately characterized by these areas you’d delineated, especially in the independent, individual, ambitious and goal-oriented fields.

    • Research/reading…invaluable. However, the best way to learn about other cultures or to see and understand how others see Americans is to travel — not as a tourist visiting all the hot spots, but as a traveler immersing yourself in the host country and culture. That’s when your insights will become authentic and your characters likewise.

      • Certainly. As an Asian-American, I unavoidably think about the ways in which my American identity and my Asian identity clash or complement one another.

        I think Word Dreams’ assessment resonates … and doesn’t over-generalize.

  2. worddreams,
    I am new to wordpress. I do not have time to read through your sidebar elements at this time, but I did read your post and simply could not resist commenting. Firstly, congratulations on the hard work you did and the effort you made to cross national boundaries and make your characters more authentic. You post is excellent. Then I glanced at your sidebar only to see you have written 9 books. Why am I not surprised?
    I have never tried to get published myself, but I am an aspiring writer. Actually, I’m just writing for free right now. Got to start somewhere, right?

    worddreams, your post is an inspiration to other bloggers. I have little time to read blogs all day, as I’ve been busy writing. No to mention those mundane activities I’ve been procrastinating on.

    I just wanted to say you are not only an estute observer, but an intelligent one. Kudos to you!

  3. Interesting perspective. “Lightly taxed” is certainly true in comparison to other nations, but it is an issue that a politician wants to be a part of every time–lowering taxes.

  4. Pingback: Americans through the eyes of a foreigner « employee circus

  5. America is a huge place. People are different depending on where you live. Grouping Americans as just one lump and not breaking it down depending on state, city and culture is crap.

  6. Pingback: Describing Americans « The Phoenix Inquirer

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  8. As an American sitting in Amsterdam right at this minute (was in London yesterday) and speaking only from a European point of view because that’s where I had my last 3 days of conversations with “foreigners” – you should hear them talk about each other! So when you’re writing up your European characters – they will hold interesting views on their neighbors as well. It also makes for interesting and realistic dialogue.

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  10. I think it is exceedingly difficult to characterise a nation, but you seem to have attempted it gallantly. However, I’ve noticed that you’ve really downplayed a lot of the bad traits, with a meer mention of them at the end. Being ignorant of world affairs isn’t a side note, or a cute trait, especially from a nation that inadvertently effects the world so much.

    I’m Australian, yet the majority of blogs I read are by Americans. I have a lot of respect for their opinions.

    In ‘real life’, when I’ve been travelling overseas I’ve been exposed to both sides of the coin:

    * York, England. I was in a cafe and there was a Californian woman who was talking so loud that none of the other patrons could hardly hear themselves think. I now know that her son goes to College and drives a BMW (even though I wasn’t even talking to her). I was amazed by her, because she was the embodiment of a cliche. At the time I couldn’t believe people actually behave like that.

    * Stuttgart, Germany. Standing in line to get food. Two American boys are behind me. (probably 20 years old or so) One starts saying loudly that ‘there’s no way I’m going to bother learning any f*cking German, I’ll just yell English at them louder’. The other laughs and they start making more disrespectful commentry. Everyone is quiet. The boys don’t seem to know that a great deal of Germans (and Europeans in general) speak English fluently and that their witty ‘private’ conversation was understood by 75% of the room.

    * Eiffel Tower, Paris. I’m in line and I strike a convo with a woman from Colorado. We both love Devotchka, a relatively obscure band from where she lives. She is delightful to speak to, well educated and gracious. She has travelled quite a lot and is taking her parents around this time.

    Still, if people were to talk about how Australians come across overseas I’m sure the results wouldn’t be much better. I’d hate to see what the people of Bali think of us, considering we treat their country like a brothel.

    • There are those Ugly Americans that travel the world and just don’t get it. I guess they come in all cultures, but being American, I’m particularly sensitive to our species.

      • As an American who travels a great deal I spend a lot of time in airports. And I hear a lot of comments regarding my fellow countrymen.

        Experience has taught me to neither be an apologist nor a defender. Most “foreigners” who have the best understanding of America and / or Americans are the ones who have lived there. Those who have vacationed there or have been invaded by the Ugly Americans as we travel to different places have a different view. And that’s understandable.

        That being said, the Americans I have encountered while traveling – mostly on business and mostly in airports have been very helpful. They are antithesis of the ugly American tourist. They are more like the quiet Americans – you barely even notice them.

        Example…once in Frankfurt while waiting for a flight at the gate, I had a seat on the end of a row. Directly behind me was a man. We were back to back. A middle aged woman and her elderly father in a wheel chair approach…there are only middle seats left. This is not easy access for either of them because it put them in the middle of passengers milling about.

        Both the gentlemen behind me and I stood up and moved to another area of the gate. The father / daughter took those two places as it was the most comfortable spot for them. Later I spied the gentleman who was seated with his back to me standing in line ahead of me. I tapped him on the shoulder. I said, “You’re American aren’t you?” And he said yes how did you know? Well apart from his shoes :-) I told him only an American would think to do that – or quite possibly a Canadian. He just smiled.

        Once, when I was late for a flight in Amsterdam, there were several American businessmen in the line in front of me. Hearing my plight they not only let me cut ahead of them but asked the people in front of them and so on until I got to the front of the line. thanks to them I made my flight.

        I’m a small woman and sometime I have trouble lifting my luggage to the overhead. If I’m on a foreign flight and there’s an American or Canadian male in the vicinity…he usually places it for me.

        I think Somerset Maugham put it best when he said, “There are too many tourists and not enough travelers.” It doesn’t matter what the nationality you can always single out the tourist from the traveler and give them a wide berth.

        Bon Voyage.

      • cafegirlchronicles–I like your term ‘quiet Americans’. That probably includes 95% of the population. It’s sad but true that often the other 5%–the loud ones–become the face of a group. I enjoyed your stories. Thanks for sharing.

      • Dear Dreams,

        Wish I could take credit for the quiet American reference, but that’s actually the title of a Graham Greene novel. I don’t know if you’ve ever read him, but I think you’d like him. I think he’s a writers’ writer…

        I’m glad you liked the stories. Thanks for the feedback, it’s much appreciated.

        Cafe Girl

  11. Pingback: Interesting find: blog describes American culture « Classroom reflections and more

  12. I would say Americans are patriotic but that’s because here in Sweden we aint.
    And we would say that your politics sucks.. And the most of us didn’t like bush really… but some ppl dont like the head of our state either here in sweden so that i can understand.

    But!! I would say… Why are always USA in every war nearly?

    But i love alot of your tech and many great things come from USA.

    But to give normal ppl guns? That’s insane :O

    • Hi antonht–I do get the sense that Americans as a rule love their country and many other countries see theirs as the government. Interesting difference which I try to include in my characters.

  13. i find your blog very helpful to writers who are trying to write their first book, or even if it’s not their first book anymore. it’s very informative…. thank you for sharing… *wink*

  14. Great post. I have lived around the world and am always surprised by the reactions people have towards Americans (both good and bad). I lived in Panama just after Noriega was taken out of power, and we (Americans) were hated. In Germany, if one made the slightest effort to speak the language, they would be welcomed with open arms.

  15. After living in the U.S. for a couple of years, I agree with most of your observations about Americans. I think the most noticeable traits are individualism, independent/self-reliant, directness and internationally naive.

    I agree that Americans are energetic but I do NOT think Americans live in a fast pace. Compared to Asian countries, Americans have a much more leisure pace. For example, it is perfectly normal for people in Asia to stay in the office after 6pm but it is rarely expected in the U.S.

    Besides the characteristics you mentioned, Americans put a lot of emphasis on maintaining a balance between work and family life whereas it is not as important as in other cultures.

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  17. This is very good. So are the comments. I was particularly amused by the Australian’s comments, being as last time I was in a mixed group of American and Australian tourists (this was in either Britain or in Mexico, I’m sorry I don’t recall which), the Australians were far and above the loudest and rudest. Of course the sample size was too small to be regarded as representative.

    Anyway I’d like to add an observation about foreigners in America. In the very competitive high-tech field, I’ve noticed a great many of the most successful people are either Indian or Chinese who have clearly worked hard to adopt American habits of diligence, forthrightness, and a competitive spirit. As converts after a fashion, they often end up out-Americaning many Americans. It is a joy to observe.

  18. I really was taken in by your insight of Americans. I can honestly say that you hit the head on the nail. But I just have one question. Doesn’t the above mention,ed mean the same thing for a lot of people around the world. America is a larger melting pot than ever. I have traveled to a few of our neighbors across the Atlantic and Pacific and I have found many with the same goals and dreams. Their geographical bounders were just different. Anyway, I liked you analogy.

    Respectfully
    Rev Greg

  19. Hi, I just found your blog and I got interested in the post since I have many American friends. Most of it is pretty accurate, but I don’t agree much with Americans being direct. For example, they won’t say something about you right in your face, and that’s what I understand by being direct. It’s related to being individuals. American, most of the time, respect other people’s opinions. They take “it’s none of your business” pretty seriously. Here in Brazil (yes, I’m Brazilian) people love to mind other people’s business. It’s really annoying.
    Something else I noticed is the ‘informality trait”. Yes, Americans are informal, but compared to whom? Americans are more informal than some European countries, but less informal than Brazilians. So that’s all. Nice post.

    • but I don’t agree much with Americans being direct. For example, they won’t say something about you right in your face, and that’s what I understand by being direct.

      Whether or not a person is direct, straightforward, blunt, or excessively considerate when communicating an idea has more to do with the individual.

      People who tell you exactly what they think or feel without “sugar-coating it” could be called direct. You ask them if the pants makes them look fat and they’ll say yes. There’s that kind of “direct,” which is being frank to the point of being rude.

      People who get right to the point and don’t say more than they need to could be called direct as well. During conversation, you would almost never have to tell them to, “Please, can you just get to the point?”

      And then, there’s the kind that you mentioned…about saying things to your face or behind your back. Saying things to someone’s face risks confrontation. I’m not sure Americans are confrontational as a whole. It depends on the person.

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  22. If you are an American, living in America – what is there to describe? (you are, after all, one among many others, living, sharing one similar character and behavior.)

    However, the catch lies when you are not one with them but is still expected (of course, not by them) to blend in. Another words change everything about yours in order to fit into theirs, their culture, body language, hidden signs and unspoken gestures.

    One thing most appealing about Americans, if you are not one, that is, is how inflexible and strong they can really be. (True – they don’t seem to be authentic but then again, they don’t seem to be fake, either.)

    Americans don’t listen well, if they listen at all.
    (When they finally do, it would be only temporary.)

    Americans don’t like to remember, which works well if you like the act of repeating and shouting.

    Americans don’t take criticism, not in the slightest bit. Watch out for their extreme reactions, once they sense it. Once you have gotten it, the effect lasts a lifetime.

    They do, however, like to drop hints, here and there, enough to leave you with the rest. They are always impatient, in a hurry, for God-knows-what?

    Americans love small talks which is okay if you share their monotony, even if you don’t, you are there simply to read in between their lines. It comes without you even asking for it and they don’t see anything wrong with it.

    Simply put, they aren’t able to accept the fact that they are not any different or unique from the next person living in America, if not, living in some other country.

    Another words, Americans are the best people, if left alone. Watch out when they have finally figured it out – you suddenly turn into an American, by contrast or at least, a half-way reflection of them.

    Thank YOU, Americans.

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  24. Jacqui, I finally got a chance to read your WordPress Freshly Pressed post. What an interesting article. Well researched and informative and certainly deserving of the recognition. Thanks for all your hard work.
    Shari *: )

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  27. Hi. I just wanted to say that, as an American, I believe the majority of these comments are accurate. Thank you for ignoring the negative stereotypes and focusing on the general beliefs of the nation as a whole. It is very appreciated.

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