By Jennifer Planeta
Photo credit: Knick Flanigan
I’ve never really thought of the United States as being defined as a “class/caste” society. America is the land of promise. If you work hard enough the sky is the limit for your success. Here, our lot in life isn’t defined so much by what we are born into as what we do with what we have. There are countless stories of millionaires who broke out of extremely impoverished childhoods. In America, your current socioeconomic position isn’t etched in stone. You can always do better and work for more.
This is one of the reasons why I wanted Artur to come to America vs. me staying in Italy when we decided to take our relationship further. I felt that our pool of opportunity was much grander than anything we would have in Europe, especially as both of us were foreigners in Italy. In America, at least one of us was native. An immigrant in America has a lot more opportunity to live his or her dream than in any other country in the world. Anything is possible.
One can never foresee everything that the future holds. Nor can you see yourself as clearly from the inside out as someone else can see you from the outside in. Artur moving to the United States has enlightened my perspective greatly on American life and our culture. I recently read an interesting guest post by Jean Brittingham on Posterous about business culture and find that it beautifully articulates the quirky nature of culture in general.
“Culture is an amazingly strong and unwieldy force. It is largely unnamed and invisible. Asking someone to explain the essence of their organizations’ culture is like asking a fish to explain water. The Denison Culture Survey folks, arguably the holders of the world’s leading database on organizational culture, say that culture is like an iceberg—most of it is hidden and underwater. (…)
In his book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn unveils the concept of “mother culture” as a way of helping us understand not only how ubiquitous and unexamined most of our culture is, but more importantly how deeply we respect and obey these unexamined norms. Our culture is who we are and what we will become. It is our protection and nutrition. Our laws and societal norms don’t form our culture—they are built upon our culture.”
About a year ago Artur and I had a conversation about the relevance of one’s socioeconomic station in the US. He was expressing frustration about how much emphasis Americans put on it. He feels that Americans don’t mix much with others outside of their own economic strata. Going to parties isn’t that fun for him as nearly all of my friends are white collar workers.
As a blue collar worker, he has always felt extremely out of place; not as important. I found this to be unreal as I have always felt that one of the great things about America is that we all mix together. My step father who is an architect can roll up his sleeves with the plumber, dry wall guy, painter etc. I personally have never thought I judged my friends by what they do for a living nor them me.
This perspective was so shocking to me that I found myself analyzing this idea over and over again. I wanted to know more from Artur and what he was seeing. He explained to me that while an Architect here may work beside a plumber, he isn’t necessarily going to invite him to his house for dinner. In Italy, Artur was friends with all kinds of people both at work and otherwise.
I had a conversation with a woman last week who lived in Europe as a child and she brought up this exact notion. In Europe, you are who you are. What you do for a living doesn’t absolutely define you. If you are a garbage collector that is just as important and respectable as being a lawyer, banker, architect. Everyone is equally friendly to everyone. People are defined by so much more than what they do and what they have.
I had a huge realization after that conversation. She and Artur were right!
One’s socioeconomic rank really does matter more to American’s than to Europeans. It’s everything to us. We all know that Americans are obsessed with work, talking about work and defining ourselves by our work. What’s one of the first questions that comes up when you meet someone new at a party or see a friend? WORK. Could this be a product of the “American Dream”?
Because change is so possible here, we are constantly chasing it, trying to be more, have more and do more. If it’s there, you are supposed to go after it. Being content with what you have and who you are shows a sense of apathy, laziness and perhaps someone who is utterly uninteresting.
This “American Dream Syndrom” is exactly the frenetic and unsettled energy I always feel as soon as I step back on American soil after trips abroad. At the same time, the lack of it when I am traveling abroad, gives me a huge sense of relief and peace.
The very thing that makes living in America so great and unique is exactly what makes us miserable and unable to enjoy life. A beautiful philosophy has turned us all into these half empty, stressed, unhappy beings who can’t appreciate what we have and who we are. What’s more, we apply that judgment and pressure to others and the world around us. We are swallowed up by the infinite possibilities available to us.
Perhaps the more restrictive class system in Europe allows much more personal freedom and happiness. If you know that what you’re born into is more than likely where you will stay for your entire life, are you less obsessed with constantly doing more and trying to get ahead? If you spend less time chasing the “dream,” do you have more time to enjoy the present and appreciate the little things? Do relationships, community, family, food and fun become just as important if not more so than making a living?
Would Americans be happier without the “dream”?
Do Americans focus too much on what they do for a living and less on simply living it? Do Europeans (and other cultures) understand the value of “embracing life” more than Americans? What are your thoughts?