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America's Cultural Superiority

More than half of Americans say their culture is superior to others, according to the new Pew Global Attitudes Survey (pdf, p.44):

Americans are (...) more likely than most Western Europeans to think their culture is better than others. Over half of Americans (55%) agree with the statement, "Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others," a larger percentage than in Canada, Spain, Germany, France, Britain and Sweden. But Italians are even more confident than Americans in their cultural pre-eminence; 68% of Italians believe their culture is superior.

Question to our readers: Is this feeling of superiority the American equivalent to European Anti-Americanism? While many Europeans make themselves feel good by trashing America and by describing Americans negatively, many Americans -- according to the poll -- make themselves feel good by telling themselves that they are better than others.

Personal opinion: Most Americans that I have met are not arrogant and don't act as if they would feel culturally superior.

This year's polling results are similar to those from a PEW poll in 2004, which were mentioned in the Atlantic Review post The Superiority of American Culture and Sports, which discussed how several liberal and conservative US media outlets criticize the Soccer World Cup and European culture (nihilism, infantile, defeatist attitudes, etc). Yes, I understand if you mistrust polls. Most polls have some flaws. The critics of Anti-Americanism often point to examples of Anti-American statements to make their case. That method has flaws as well and is not representative or scientific.

SuperFrenchie comments on this poll: "Aren't we the ones that are supposed to be arrogant about the superiority of our culture?"

UPDATE: On the PEW question re cultural superiority, Central and Eastern Europeans responded like Americans (see statistics on page 97), i.e. the only significant difference is between Americans and Germans, French, Brits and Swedes.

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Pat Patterson on :

Thank God for the Pew Survey otherwise one might be tempted to take other polls by comparison a little more seriously. The caption next to the above graph (on page 45 not 44) in the release notes that in some twenty other countries more than 70% think that their national culture is superior, much more than the supposedly egocentric Italians or Americans. Only those countries where translations of Emile Durkheim are widely read is this lack of cultural confidence noteworthy. Besides it would seem self evident, at least according to the nonexistent definition of culture provided by the Pew Survey, that on the basis of Coca Cola and pizza then both coutries are correct.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

"that in some twenty other countries more than 70% think that their national culture is superior," Yes, but those twenty other countries are all developing countries... PEW also learned: "On many issues, Americans share values with their traditional transatlantic allies in Europe, but on others – especially issues related to religion – Americans more closely resemble the publics of developing countries." I could have written that Americans have quite a bit in common with developing countries, but that might have been misunderstood as European arrogance/snobbishness. Thus I ignored all that and I only quoted the part about the US-Western European comparison. After all, this blog is about transatlantic relations. Of course, Eastern and Central Europe are part of the Atlantic alliance as well, thus they should not be excluded from transatlantic comparisons. PEW did not mention the statistics for Central and Eastern European countries in their paper, but in the annex on page 97 are the statistics for these nations. The percentage of Central and East Europeans feeling culturally superior is not more than 70% like with many developing countries, but is closer to the US percentage of 55%. So Americans and Eastern/Central Europeans think similarly in this matter. I will write an update.

Theresa Muir on :

I didn't realize most Americans (and I'm one) even *noticed* other cultures.

Bernd on :

Looks to me like a test of the use of modesty in the language, and less a test of personal beliefs.

Sue on :

Yes. In the US, verbal self-deprecation is often understood as a lack of self-confidence rather than as attractive humility. The twin arts of boasting and trash-talking are important in oral popular culture.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

"verbal self-deprecation is often understood as a lack of self-confidence rather than as attractive humility." Nobody is asking for "self-deprecation," although Jon Stewart's is pretty fun when he does it. There is plenty of room between boasting and self-deprecation. This high US self-confidence (combined with 9/11 fear) got you into Iraq.

Sue on :

I don't disagree. I'm simply pointing out that self-boosterism is more socially permissible in the US than in Europe.

David on :

I suspect if you asked Americans to define what "culture" is they would refer to Reality TV and Britney Spears. It is sad and shocking how few Americans are aware of their own rich cultural tradition. I'm teaching a college course and none of the students in my class had ever read Walt Whitman, and not one had even heard of Wallace Stevens.

Pat Patterson on :

Not terribly surprising that only a few knew who Walt Whitman was as hardly any high schools in the US have his works on either the syllabus or on the recommended reading lists. But they have read Homer, Virgil, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer, Pound, Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway and Arthur Miller just to name a few. It's also not surprising that none knew of Wallace Stevens because he is simply not taught at all at the high school level and rarely at the college level. Oddly enough poetry with rhyme and meter have become popular with kids as a direct spin off of the popularity of rap and hip-hop. But I don't think the lack of knowledge of two poets, one much more obscure than the other, is indicative of anything other than what one thinks knowledge of culture means.

David on :

Ezra Pound? it is the rare American college student who has even heard of him, much less read even one Canto. Also, how can one claim basic cultural literacy with respect to American literature without having knowledge of Whitman? Infinitely more important than Hemingway...

Pat Patterson on :

I would hazard a guess that thousands more were and are stll excited and energized by the words of Hemingway then the words of Whitman. How many thousands of students have gone to Spain to find out where Robert Jordan died, or Pamploma to become horn ornaments as opposed to becoming clerks in the Indian Bureau. Or to sit around Harry's Bar in Paris reading Liberation or the IHT. But in all fairness to Whitman he was quoted in a John Wayne/John Ford movie, The Horse Soldiers, a former actor now Union officer says to the bugler, "Beat, beat drums. Blow, bugles blow!" And then he dies. From his injuries or embarrassment is not clear.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

A few interesting comments at Reddit on this subject: [url]http://reddit.com/info/2zpsl/comments[/url] "For instance: As America's the world's economic and military superpower, I can understand that. But Italy? Where people live with their parents till they're 30, that's a superior culture?" So this guy thinks that military and economic might means cultural superiority. Funny comment on Italy though...

Anonymous on :

Or to put it another way: Western Europe is the exception. Everybody else thinks their culture is superior.

Elisabeth Bathory on :

I fail to see how a denegrating self-conception can possible be spun into a positive characteristic for any nation. I expect foreigners to be culturally chauvinistic; it is healthy. They're just jealous anyway. Jesus spoke English and supported the Yanks. Everyone knows that.

Pat Patterson on :

Jesus may indeed speak English but he difinitely is not a Yankees fan!

Volker on :

Dunno about english but I don't think he would be a fan of Baseball, it's too boring and quite frankly too complicated like Skat. And somehow it strangely reminds me of a game that kids play here in germany only without bats and a very big ball.

ADMIN on :

Please note that by default the comments in this blog are threaded rather than linear, i.e. some of the latest responses to comments are not at the bottom, but in the middle of the thread right behind the comment they respond to. At the top of the comments section you have the option to change the view from threaded to linear (=chronological), which enables you to see the latest comments at the end of the thread.

Marshall Hood on :

First post ever to Atlantic Review, but I've been reading the blog for sometime now (good job!). Having visited France, Germany, Spain and Canada, and spending time with actual normal people in these countries, I would have to disagree somewhat with some of the findings. First - I find it dubious that the French don't think their culture is superior by a wide margin - that was certainly the feeling I got (I don't see anything wrong with it either). Spain sounds right, as does Canada - I didn't meet one person in either country who wasn't extremely proud of their way of life and country. Germany, on the other hand, would be the only result from this poll that sounds correct. My cousins in Germany (in their early 20s) are very guarded about sounding proud of Germany and are negative about most things save the Nationalmannschaft. I often remind them of how nice Germany really is. They did give in and say Germany was superior to the Netherlands, though. Cheers- Marshall Hood

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

Thanks, Marshall!!! I agree. In fact, I find it surprising that according to this poll 42% of Germans agree with the "our culture is superior to others" statement. The term "superiority" should have made some alarm bells ring: "This is a trap." Re humility: There might be a difference between North-Western Europe and Southern Europe. The Dutch and all the Skandinavians are pretty humble and hate boasting, I believe.

Tuomas on :

As a Finn and having worked in Denmark and Germany, I agree.

Jonathan Jones on :

The question is ambiguous, at least in its English form. "Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others." This could mean "some others", or "all others". The pollsters seem to have taken the latter interpretation, but who knows what the respondents were thinking. I think it's hard to argue that there are NO cultures out there that are inferior to ours, unless you reject the idea of cultural superiority altogether. So I'd answer "yes", even though I don't believe that our culture is the best in the world in every way. In other languages, the question may or may not have been worded ambiguously. Maybe in Italian, it was worded as "some others". This is yet another poll that is worthless because of the negligence and/or incompetence of the polltakers.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

Good points. "I think it's hard to argue that there are NO cultures out there that are inferior to ours" Which culture is inferior to yours? "unless you reject the idea of cultural superiority altogether" Yeah, I do reject this idea a) because of my understanding of "culture," b) because of being humble, c) because of modesty in language (see Bernd's comment above) and d) because I smell a trap.

Jonathan Jones on :

Hmm...I'd say the culture of the Dani tribes of West Papua is inferior to American culture by just about any objective standard. I don't find the idea of objectively comparing cultures absurd. There are some things -- discoveries and inventions for example -- which are, objectively, promoted more by some cultures, and less by others. To the extent that discoveries and inventions are inherently good, the cultures that tend to produce them are objectively better.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

How big is your qualifier "To the extent"? Discoveries and inventions have let to colonialism and enabled wars with huge casualty rates and cause pollution that is contributing to severe climate change, i.e. destroying the lives of others. The tribes of West Papua stay on their own island and don't try to conquer the world and force their values on other peoples around the world killing millions of them and producing climate change.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

Still, I prefer to live in Europe rather than in West Papua. I don't idealize West Papua at all. I am just saying that the brutal life in West Papua does not let me to conclude that my culture is superior to West Papua. Besides, I am not going to compare to the cultures of West Papua and the US, since that is none of my business. Anyway, I agree with your point on the phrasing of this question "our culture is superior to others" could make some people say "yes," who only imagine that there is one culture that is inferior to their own.

Jonathan Jones on :

"How big is your qualifier "To the extent"?" If discoveries and inventions are inherently good, then the cultures that tend to produce them more are better than those that don't. If discoveries and inventions are somewhat inherently good, then the cultures that tend to produce them more are somewhat better than those that don't. If discoveries and inventions are not inherently good, then the cultures that tend to produce them more are no better or worse than those that don't. "Discoveries and inventions have let to colonialism and enabled wars with huge casualty rates and cause pollution that is contributing to severe climate change, i.e. destroying the lives of others." Technology has good uses and bad uses. Technology in general does a lot more good than harm in the world. Therefore, as a general rule, the promotion of technological development is good. And cultures that do so are better than cultures that don't. One could argue that all cultures have their strong and weak points, so that the only way to call one culture better than another is if the one is better in every way than the other. I don't use this definition of "better" when comparing foods, cars, etc., and I don't use it when comparing cultures, either. "The tribes of West Papua stay on their own island and don't try to conquer the world and force their values on other peoples around the world killing millions of them and producing climate change." Wow. I'm not taking that bait. Anyone who espouses such a view is not going to be persudaded to think otherwise by me.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

No bait. I was talking about colonialism, except for the reference to climate change. I give big kudos to the tribes of Papua for staying on their island.

Dan on :

Joerg's: "The tribes of West Papua stay on their own island and don't try to conquer the world and force their values on other peoples around the world killing millions of them and producing climate change." And "I give big kudos to the tribes of Papua for staying on their island." Maybe, just maybe, they don't choose to stay in their island, but rather lack the technology/resources to go out of it and conquer others. In that case, you'd be mistaking lack of wherewithal for virtue.

Joerg on :

Thanks for stopping by, Dan > Maybe, just maybe, they don't choose to stay in their island, > but rather lack the technology/resources to go out of it and > conquer others. In that case, you'd be mistaking lack of > wherewithal for virtue. I don't think it requires that much technology to leave the island and cause havoc. Around the corner on the Philippines the rebells/terrorists of Abu Sayyaf took a boat and kidnapped a bunch of tourists on Bali and brought them to their island. The tribes of West Papua would be capable of this as well, I assume, but they don't it AFAIK. BTW: What tribe travelled to the Easter Islands or even to South America one millenium ago? Wasn't that also some supposedly primitive tribe without technology? I did not lead to the colonisation of South America... Well, maybe they did lack firepower etc...

Don S on :

"The tribes of West Papua stay on their own island and don't try to conquer the world and force their values on other peoples around the world killing millions of them and producing climate change." True, Joerg. And the French of the era of Louis IV did try to conquer the world (or at least much of it). The Brits did the same in their heyday. Let's not get into what Germany or the Italians (the Romans & Mussolini, anyway) did. Let's not leave out the Chinese (several dynasties) and the Mughals. So therefore by you're argument we can assume the Dani are the cultural superiors of the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, China, and India?!!!! Must be a helluva tribe! I hadn't heard of them specificaly before, although aren't the tribes of New Papua renowed for interesting culinary choices? All in the family as it were? Tell you what; you head off to West Papua and serve as guest of honor at a traditional banquet - I'll mosy over to France and eat there..... ;)

Lee O. on :

I would certainly want to know more about the sample of Americans that were part of this survey as I cannot help but Agree that many Americans have a very narrow view of what American Culture is. I might also agree that it is part of an accepted level of boastfulness in American Society. This is compounded by the fact that Americans often hear (via the media) about the fact that other nations complain about American Culture Wwhile at the same time adopting it in large amounts especially the younger people.

Dr. Joni Carley on :

There’s a thread that runs through 3 very different stories I saw this AM on CNN about: 1. Playboy, Hustler & the Pentagon 2. Funky high heels 3. software that generates phony doctor’s excuses, 1. Throughout history, where there’s war and injustice, there are men who try to find balance with the horror they participate in by aggressing on women and children. Ancient cultures had sacred prostitutes who helped warriors bridge the gap between murdering for a living an d trying to fit back in to family life. So Pentagon procurement officers justify the use of our tax dollars to supply soldiers with Playboy an d Hustler because that’s the least we can do for the body’s whacked out sexual responses to war. Please, more news on the price we pay for re-integrating trained killers. 2. At first I thought I could really use those convertible heel shoes because high heels hurt and they dictate participation. The necessity for rippling footwear in order to “look professional,” indicates a deep cultural risk in its definition of success for women. Why do we take for granted that women need dangerous shoes in order to compete professionally? Violence and destruction in cultures corresponds to the degree to which women are relegated out of public eye. Imagine if we remove even such widely accepted handicaps as obligatory high heels ? 3. No wonder people buy products that compromise their ethical well-being to get out of work. Just like terrorism breeds where there is injustice, the indignity of compromised working conditions creates workers who feel no choice but to compromise their ethics in order to cope – a civil slippery slope. Anyway, how did doctors get a monopoly on the time we need to restore? The thread is that the more humanely we treat all beings, the more joy and well-being there is in the culture. We live with the rise of abhorrent sexual exploitation; we’re saturated by corporate calls for fear and consumption; and we’ve got a workforce whose rights to the highest ideals of democracy have been hijacked by capitalism. We watch gigantic hardware shows on the news with little regard for destroyed families and no remorse for devastating the fruits of many generations’ labor. Meanwhhile, we fret over how high our heels are.

Fritz Ethridge on :

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think that there is an international law forcing Americans to believe that our culture/society is inferior to that of any E.U. country. Neither does that non-law force the reverse. I would rather live in the U.S. than in any other country on earth. I plan to stay here, If the Sweds, the Brits, or any other European thinks that their homeland is better than the U.S., they can stay there. I think that it is normal for a person living in and determined to stay in a free, democratic country would think that their homeland is better. Who would think, "my homeland sucks, but I'm staying just so the others can see my patriotic suffering"?

Lee Paxton on :

Most American cities are slums, and for the other, i.e., Culture, I didn't know Americans really had any!

Pat Patterson on :

Who knew, I drove all over my city today and couldn't find one Hooverville and surprisingly pretty much all the cities in a hundred mile radius don't have any slums comparable to Paris, London or Berlin. Plus doesn't culture include at least a working knowledge of whatever topic is being debated?

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