Do Americans Know They Are American?

Most Brits, if asked, will claim that Americans have a much stronger sense of national identity than they do. As evidence, they will point to American displays of flag waving and the prevalence of the expression ‘God Bless America’. I disagree. Contrary to conventional UK wisdom, I think the English have a much stronger sense of nationality that their cousins across the pond. Truth be told, I think many Americans do not even know that they are American.

Certainly, I used to fit into that category. When I first came to England I had the experience of suddenly becoming aware of my nationality. Previously, I would have never referred to myself as American. Delawarean sure, but not American. The thought never occurred to me and then suddenly, it was what defined me.

Many Americans will never self-describe as American. When I was a kid, school children loved to define themselves with a detailed pie chart of their ancestry: ‘Why I’m 60% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% Cherokee . . .’ and so on. Growing up, I would have frequently described myself as ‘German’ because of my German ancestry. In England, I quickly realized I couldn’t go round calling myself German. Brits would find that ridiculous.

I believe the reason Americans don’t think of themselves as American is that you have to leave America in order to identify what constitutes American culture. How can a fish know it lives in water when it has never known anything else? US culture is so large and self-sustaining that it’s difficult for Americans to see it for what it is. So weak is the American sense of identity that many have told me that there is no such thing as American culture. For example, they don’t notice the flag-waving because they’ve never seen anything different. And few are aware that they live a country that is exceptionally religious, by European standards. Many would be surprised to find supermarkets in other countries selling fried chicken in American-flag packaging. Yet every Brit is aware that Fish and Chips is marketed abroad as a quintessentially British meal.

A strong and unique identity requires awareness of the Other, something Americans are missing. This lack of national identity is directly related to that frequently-lambasted American trait of insularism.  (American insularism of course makes perfect sense when you consider the sheer size of the US, but that’s a topic for another blog entry.) For many Americans, travelling to a foreign country is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, or a happens-to-other-people thing. I can remember my sixth grade teacher telling our class that Europeans ‘travel between countries the way we travel between states’. This boggled my mind, but I can now confirm it’s true. Many Brits travel outside the UK, often every year, and think nothing of it. This enables them to keep a constant sense of what is British and what is not.

In my experience, English folk (admittedly I’ve less personal experience with the Welsh, Scottish and Irish), love to discuss their national identity and are frequently heard to remark, ‘oh, how very English’. If anything, the proliferation of television programmes and newspaper articles that aim to unravel and define English culture suggest that the English seem to be going through a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. Perhaps then the Americans’ weak sense of identity is not just due to insularism but also (over)confidence?

3 Comments

Filed under Transatlantic Divide

3 Responses to Do Americans Know They Are American?

  1. Alex Zimmerman

    Lauren,
    Lately I have been watching a lot of British TV shows, movies and reading books written by British authors. One thing that stands out to me are some words used that label things differently. Little things like “people carrier” instead of “minivan” jump out at me. Was this something you had to adjust to? Do you think now you use more English words or American words? Just something I’ve been thinking about.
    Love,
    Alex

  2. Lauren

    Thanks for stopping by, Alex. Yes, absolutely, there are all sorts of different words, as well as different idiomatic expressions, spellings, syntax, and punctuation rules (e.g. a Brit would not use that last comma before the word ‘and’). Because I live with an Englishman, and work in a predominantly English office, I’m now used to saying English words instead of American (though there are a few American words and expressions I can’t/won’t let go of). Although nowadays I consider myself fluent in British English, I still occasionally come across slang and idioms I’m not familiar with.

  3. Angelo

    My Italian teacher told me Italians don’t know that they’re Italian until they are outside of Italy. Inside Italy, they identify with North, Mezzogiorno, South, Sicily, Tuscany, Calabria, Lombardy, and so on. Their regional identity is strong, their national identity is weak.

    Being American in America is something many take for granted. American identity is extremely fluid. It’s not until you travel outside the USA that you find you have a national identity that extends beyond region or a particular ethnic/racial subgroup.

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