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The ABCs of American Culture


This small book sketches American culture in simple English. It is designed for those who are new to America and those beginning to learn English. It may also be of some interest to my fellow Americans as we debate our own culture.

Every culture has its own outlook on life. Through proverbs and sayings, the “ABCs” (the basics) of the culture are passed on to the next generation. This book looks at 234 proverbs that say a lot about the ABCs of American culture. Many of these proverbs are also found in other countries, especially European ones, but in this book they are arranged to emphasize the distinctive features of Americans.

Of course a study of common sayings will never produce a complete understanding of any culture. All cultures contain some contradictions and all cultures are constantly changing. American culture is particularly hard to describe because America is such a huge and diverse country.

The cultural observations in this book come from somewhere near the middle of American culture (if it has a middle). When the wealthy and powerful people in New York, Hollywood, or Washington, D.C. want to know if an idea will be welcomed by most of the ordinary American people, they may quote the saying, “Will it play in Peoria?” that is, will the people in Peoria like it? Peoria is a small city in the middle of the state of Illinois, which is roughly in the middle of the United States. Peoria’s people are proverbially taken to be typical of the “average” American.

I grew up in a small town eight miles from Peoria. Though I often say in this book, “We Americans . . .,” many Americans will not agree with me. My observations on American culture are probably more accurate for white Americans than others, more for small towns and cities than urban areas, more for the Midwest than other regions, more for men than women, and more for people over the age of 40 than under 40.

To help you test the accuracy of this book with your own American friends, I have provided some questions at the end of each section. You will find these under the heading, Ask an American.

Even if this book turns out to be right most of the time, you may want to dig deeper into American culture. One way is to ask Americans your own questions or compare a saying from your country with one you read in this book. Another way is to look at other books on the subject. The reading list at the back of this book has a few of my favorites.

I hope this little book helps you understand Americans a bit better. I also hope we Americans can learn a few things from you while you study us. Do not let yourself be fooled by the apparent success of American technology, entertainment, business and democracy. We Americans still have much to learn about life. As the Sesotho (southern African) proverb says, Ea bohlale o ithuta kamehla, “The wise person is always learning something.”

Click here to read a description of the booklet, The ABCs of American Culture. To order a complimentary copy of The ABCs of American Culture (while supplies last), contact GMI or click here to go to the GMI Order Form.

01/11/00 For comments on this web site, write Return to GMI Home Page

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