Over the last ten years I have been fortunate enough to split much of my time between North America and Europe. Along the way I’ve witnessed many debates between champions of the two cultural giants over which is the superior.
Which side you prefer is a matter of perspective that can only be gained by experiencing the two cultures for yourself. Instead of sitting in the comfort of our own homes and criticizing the other, maybe there is something that can be learned by listening to what they have to say.
Where My Perspective Came From
Before I give you my take, I think it’s important that I share where it comes from. I’m an American who has spent a significant part of my life in Nebraska, New York, Texas, and Los Angeles. If that doesn’t cover American culture with a broad brush, I don’t know what does.
My experience with Europe began in 1998 at Oxford University when I participated in an exchange program, taking courses in European economics at Mansfield College. After that, I partook in the classic collegiate right-of-passage: backpacking through Europe. My adventure included staying with a foreign exchange student friend in Germany and friends of my family in Italy.
In the year 2000, I started on a series of many trips to Nice, France for several months at a time with the goal of learning the language while living with a local family. In 2001, I became a French Interpreter for Continental Airlines, flying between New York, Paris, Geneva, and Brussels several times a month.
A Strong Sense of History
The first thing I noticed about Europe on my initial voyage was a strong sense of history. Many of the buildings and traditions in Europe have been around for thousands of years. This was a big shock to a person whose country is only a quarter millennium old, and who grew up in a neighborhood build about the same time he was born.
Along with this sense of history, Europeans tend to possess a strong sense of pride for their cultural roots. Most people know their heritage and keep strong ties to their ethnic influences.
This is something that Americans can learn from Europeans. Many Americans, especially the ones of European decent, have lost touch with their cultural ancestry. Because most of us are the product of several ethnicities, many of us have resorted to being generically American.
Do you know your cultural history? Do you know how your family came to live where it does and where your traditions, values, and habits come from?
I believe it’s important to understand where you come from. Even if you are a mix of several backgrounds, knowing your influences can help you to understand how you became the person you are, and how you might choose to create a legacy for yourself.
The United States is a High Contrast Society
When I was taking French classes with students from around the world in Nice, one of our favorite class activities was to debate and defend our different cultures. When the heat was put on me to defend the United States, I would always get questioned on the same things. Is it true that all Americans run around with guns and cowboy hats? What’s up with all the school shootings, mass murderers, and gang violence? We really like your movies, but are you all crazy?
My European friends had a hard time understanding that the United States tends to be a high-contrast society. By high-contrast I mean that since we believe strongly in the principle of liberty, we tend to be a society of extremes. Not only do we have the best of the best in our culture, but we also have the worst of the worst.
Since we believe that people should be able to do pretty much whatever is in their power to do (up to the point of infringing on someone else’s rights), there tends to be a wide range of how people have chosen to interpret this principle.
For example, we are a society of the richest of the rich, and the poorest of the poor. We put the first man on the moon, but we somehow breed disenchanted youth who decide to shoot up their schools. We are the land of extreme conservatism and extreme liberalism. We lead the developed world in technological advancements and teenage pregnancy.
Whether or not a high contrast society is a good thing or bad thing is in the eye of the beholder. You could say that the good makes up for the bad, or you might just focus on the bad.
In Europe, in my opinion, there tends to be less diversity of lifestyles. You might consider this a good thing because most people live a decent life. You might consider this a bad thing because you are the type who wants to shoot for the stars.
One thing is for sure: America is the land of diversity of opinion. We are so concerned with preserving our freedom of speech that our media is obsessed with debate. People in this country disagree in sometimes very public and provocative ways. Most Americans will agree that a healthy debate keeps the democracy flourishing, but you also might say that too much fighting is harmful.
In my experience, I have found the European press to contain less diversity of opinion than the U.S. press. One example occurred at the beginning of the Iraq war. While it was a hotly debated topic in the U.S., most Europeans papers held the same opinion.
Once again, whether or not you like a high-contrast culture is a matter of perspective. In my opinion, it is good to know the difference before you write off the other culture as weird.
Europeans Value the Art of Living
One of the most beautiful parts of European culture, in my opinion, is their ability to enjoy life. In the time I spent with European families, I found that they tend to place a much greater emphasis on the arts, spending time with family, and relaxation.
Paris is a perfect example of the value Europeans place on the arts. The entire city is a work of art. From the architecture, to the art galleries, to the artists on the street, it is hard not to be inspired by its beauty.
Europeans also tend to take much more time to enjoy the dining experience. While Americans tend to love fast food and dining on the go, dining is a sacred time in Europe. Whether at the family dinner table or a restaurant, Europeans take their time savoring every course and enjoying conversation.
I’ve never witnessed a European skipping lunch. On the contrary, some parts of Europe go to the extent of shutting down for several hours over the lunch hour. There is never a rush to leave the cafés of Paris, which are a daily tradition for Parisians who want to savor their day.
Most jobs in Europe come with four, six, eight, or even twelve weeks of vacation! Can you imagine? Here in the states, most jobs require you to work ten years for the company before you build up to three weeks of vacation while some Europeans are taking a quarter year off.
A few years ago, France passed a law that essentially limited the work week to 35 hours. That law has since been repealed, but it illustrates the mentality of European culture.
It’s also difficult to work more than one job because of the tax structure. In the U.S. it seems like everyone either works sixty hours a week or has two or three jobs.
I think that Americans can learn a lot from the Europeans on the art of living, but good luck trying to slow down a work-addicted American. Besides, maybe there is a reason that Americans don’t have time to smell the roses.
Americans are Productive
What Americans lack in leisure time, we tend to make up for in work ethic. The U.S. consistently leads the world in economic indicators like worker productivity, GDP, growth, and unemployment. We know how to produce.
All of this productivity has created a very high standard of living for most Americans. We tend to have bigger houses, nicer cars, and more stuff than the average European.
Europe has been struggling with economic issues for years. Even though the European unemployment rate has recently fallen to the lowest level in nearly 25 years, it is still about twice as high as in the U.S.
This is one of the reasons the European Union was formed. The countries banded together to compete with the U.S. economically. While this has helped to some extent, the real difference is cultural. Europeans tend to value the art of living while Americans tend to value the art of work. Once again, which culture is better is in the eye of the beholder.
Europeans Have a Stronger Worldview
One of the biggest criticisms I hear from Europeans is that Americans are very ethnocentric, meaning that we don’t know much about anyone but ourselves.
At first I was offended, but then I realized that they were right. Most Americans only speak one language. Most of us have never been to another country. Most of us only read news about what is going on in the U.S.
In our defense, it isn’t our fault. We live in a huge country with lots going on, surrounded by huge oceans. Our economy is largely self-sufficient and most of us don’t have the opportunity to interact with other cultures. We don’t know much about the rest of the world because we haven’t needed to, but this is changing as the world becomes more interconnected.
That being said, the Europeans have us beat on worldview. They are much better equipped to move from nation to nation and fit in on a basic level. On the other hand, Americans tend to stick out like a sore thumb when in other countries.
In this ever-increasingly interconnected world, we would be well served to learn a lesson from our European friends and take better notice of the rest of the world.
The Melting Pot
Ironically, even though we tend to be more ethnocentric, our society was created by a melting pot of different cultures. Even though racial divides have been a high-profile part of our history, these clashes of culture have taught us to be uniquely tolerant.
While racism still exists, the average American in the 21st century is highly sensitive to different ethic backgrounds and cultures. Most of us share friendships, relationships, work spaces, neighborhoods, and our lives with people of many different races and cultures. The fact that we still debate the relationship between ethnicities shows that we value racial tolerance.
Foreign visitors to the United States often rave about how nice Americans are. The ability to reach out to people of different backgrounds is embedded in our national identity. Although we are not perfect, I would argue that the United States is the most culturally tolerant nation in the world.
Europeans are More Pragmatic
If Americans tend to have their heads in the clouds, Europeans tend to have their feet on the ground. European society seems to be better equipped to handle certain practical issues like sexuality, environmentalism, mass transit, and addiction.
For example, The Netherlands has the lowest teen pregnancy rate in the world. This is mainly because the Dutch look at sexuality practically and educate their children appropriately. We in the United States tend to have more traditional views on sexuality.
The Europeans are much more advanced when it comes to recycling, driving more fuel efficient cars, and accepting mass transit. Since Americans are more traditional when it comes to drugs and alcohol, we seem to have a bigger problem with over-indulgence and addiction.
Americans are Idealists
Here in the land of opportunity we tend to be idealists and why not–our country was formed by a bunch of long-shot idealists who fought tyranny and formed their own democracy based on idealistic principles. We are told that we have a chance to get a piece of the American dream. We believe that we can do anything we put our minds to.
We encourage entrepreneurship, individualism, and charity. The United States gives more in aid to the rest of the world than any other country. Americans are known for gladly stepping up and giving of themselves when called on to do so.
As a country that believes in religious tolerance, many Americans hold themselves to the high ideals of their religion. We expect a lot of ourselves and each other. We tend to want to make the world a better place.
Once again, the merit of this quality depends on your perspective. Many Europeans claim that we try to push our idealism on the rest of the world. From their perspective, just because we think we have the best way doesn’t mean that our way is the best for everyone else.
From the American perspective, it’s hard to argue with our track record. We think we have a really great country by many different measures and we want everyone else to experience the freedom, prosperity, and quality of life that we do.
Which is better: idealism or pragmatism? Both answers are right.
Can’t We all Just Get Along?
Europeans and Americans share a long history together. Most Americans are descendants of Europeans. Europe has been heavily influenced by American culture, especially American entertainment and products.
We can learn a lot from each other. It can be easy to judge the other without understanding why each culture acts the way it does. As we learn the cultural principles and values from which each side operates, it becomes easier to reach out.
One society is not better than the other, just different. Each has something positive to offer the world. Each has reason to be proud of their cultural identity.
Which culture you prefer is a matter of perspective. You might think differently if you had grown up in the other culture. Would you really want the world to be the same anyway? Diverse cultures make our world rich. Without differences, it would be more difficult to know ourselves.