“American Ways” and the Other Guy’s Culture
“American Ways, A Guide for Foreigners in the United States”, 2nd Edition, by Gary Althen is a serious book for serious Americans seeking Cultural Competence in cross cultural relations, including combat. Gary Althen served for thirty years as a foreign student advisor at the University of Iowa. It is a “must read” for Warriors.
Althen’s insights are written for foreign students to understand why we do many things that make no sense or bad sense. Of greater importance, his book helps Americans to understand their own ways that we take for granted, that others don’t. We are too close to the trees to see the forest.
Americans are proud to point out their own sense of individual independence, self reliance, and individual freedoms. This central individualistic theme goes much deeper that we ourselves realize. We tend to judge not only ourselves but foreigners whose culture stresses family or kin groups over the individual.
What we call nepotism is an obligation in many other cultures. We expect that the person with the job title got there as a result of some modicum of achievement, when it is more likely it was because of family ties.
We stress time and accomplishment more than harmony, while in the Far East, harmony outranks just about everything else and time matters only every once in a while.
We have established standards, and bench marks for out progress in the Muddle East which makes sense to Americans. We expect the Middle Easterner to learn how to take responsibility for their own development and achievement, when these concepts are incomprehensible to many in that torn up part of the world.
The character “Otto” played by Kevin Klein in the 1988 movie, “A Fish Called Wanda” was portrayed as obsessed with sniffing his own armpit, much to the amusement of Brits, but incomprehensible to Americans. The Arm Pit Sniff is the Body Oder check that American males use to shower or spray, as indicated. The Brits think we are getting off on BO.
Exporting the “Melting Pot” to Afghanistan winds up giving basic combat training to the Taliban. We hear more and more of hostiles in NATO style camouflage uniforms and carrying their AK47’s slung across the chest. Trying to build a multi-ethnic Afghan National Army trains the ethnics more than the Army.
Americans value privacy more than most to the point where friendships are compartmentalized based on context. We have neighbors, fellow employees, people we work out with, and people we go to church with, none of whom knows each other outside the compartment. Americans have fewer friends that can be depended on regardless of circumstance compared to other cultures. Foreigners mistake our outward friendly manner as indicative of a friend who will lend money or help get into the US.
The biggest disconnects are individual responsibility and the concept that time is valuable and not to be wasted. More foreigners place family over individual, and time may or may not be relevant. We judge those reactions as nepotism, corruption, irresponsibility, and laziness.
We bomb many whose intentions were misread. Mullah Omar was willing to work out a deal with us and the Iranians before the boot hit the ground. Rumsfeld blew that off, and after the Iranians had worked with us, they were put on the Axis of Evil. We promised the Iraqi Army jobs after the war, and Bremer fired them, and all the school teachers in “de-Ba’athification” When young alert and alive field grade officers suggested arming and paying certain tribes, Bremer’s retorted that tribes are the past, not the new Iraq. The officers making the suggestion got involuntary early retirement.