The American Character


"What a country!" says the Russian immigrant and popular comedian, Yakov Smirnoff. This exclamation expresses his surprise, delight, confusion, or disapproval as he learns something new about the U.S.A. Most new comers to the United States probably share his mixed emotions. It's a wonderful country, they realize, but it's not heaven.

Most new corners arrive in one of the large urban areas. Some find the crowds, high-rise buildings, and noisy traffic overwhelming: however, they usually adjust to the urban environment rather quickly. It is the American people-their customs and their language-that remain a long-term mystery.

This book attempts to uncover some of the mystery, beginning with the attitudes that most Americans share. What do Americans love, hate, want and believe in? Any statement about the American outlook must take into consideration the nations' great size and geographic diversity, and the fact that it is (as John F. Kennedy said) "a nation of immigrants". Generalizations about third-generation, white, urban, middle-class Americans may not accurately describe new immigrants, blacks, rural residents, or the poor.


In area, the United States is the fourth largest nation in the world. (Only the Soviet Union, Canada, and China have more territory.) Its 50 states cover about 3,600,000 square miles (9,324 square kilometers). Forty-eight of its states form one territorial block of land. The other two are Alaska, located northwest of the nation's mainland, and Hawaii, a group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean. They became states in 1959. In addition to these 50 states, the United States government has some control over 12 island territories in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. These include Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Residents of these territories are American citizens.

"No one should have to see American for the first time," said one visitor, overwhelmed by American's size and the great variety of its climate and geography. A homesick immigrant from anywhere can probably find a place in the U.S.A. that is similar to his or her native land. The United States has all mountains and flat cornfields, desserts and tropical regions, prairies and forests, rugged coastlines and gentle, rolling hills. The climate, too, covers all extremes. Throughout the United States, summer weather is warmer than winter weather; but temperatures vary, from southern Florida, where visitors come to swim and sunbathe in December, to northern Alaska, where, in winter, the temperature may drop to 750 Fahrenheit.

The United States is also the fourth largest nation in population after China, India, and the Soviet Union. In 1988, there were about 240 million people living in the U.S.A. Although about 95% of the people now living in the U.S.A were born there, the United States has one of the most varied populations in terms of national ancestry. Racially, the U.S.A is about 83% white, 12% black, and 5% Asian. About 8% of the population is Hispanic, making the Spanish-speaking people the second largest ethic minority in the country. Newcomers are often surprised by the variety of skin colors they see, but Americans take if for granted. These differences are more than skin deep. It may take a few generations before the values and customs of the "old country" are altered by an American outlook. Some are never revised.

Traveling around the U.S.A., one also become aware ot regional differences, not only in geography, but also in the way that Americans speak and act. Most Americans can tell what part of the country another American comes from just by listening to the speakers accent. (The Midwester accent is closest to what is heard on national TV.) Styles of cooking vary from place to place, influenced by the different immigrant groups that have settled in that area and by the edible plants that grow there. Recreation varies place to place, determined in part by climate and geography.

In addition, American personalities may differ somewhat from one region to another. For example New Englanders are often described as stern and self-reliant, Southerners as gracious and leisurely, and Westerners as casual and friendly. People from southern California are considered especially eager to try new fads. Mid westerners are considered more conservative than Californians and less worldly than New Yorkers.

However, many regional differences have been erased by modern transportation, communication, and mass production. From the East Coast to the West Coast, travelers see the same kinds of shopping centers, supermarkets, motels, homes, and apartment buildings. Franchiese businesses have created stores and restaurants that look alike wherever they are. National advertising has created national tastes in consumer goods. National news media determine what Americans know about world events and also influence attitudes and styles. Thus, it is safe to make some generalizations about this diverse nation, but it must be done with caution.