Nussbaum, Stan. 2005. American cultural baggage: how to recognize and deal with it. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Nussbaum gives a sketch of American culture based on 235 common sayings (many are “proverbs”) that demonstrate values. To help understand such values, the author provides non–American readers with sayings, complemented by questions to ask Americans, based on each section. [A shorter edition of the book, Why are Americans like that? A visitor’s guide to American cultural values and expectations is available at]

Chapter one begins with the so–called “Ten commandments” of American culture:

  1. You can’t argue with success (be a success)
  2. Live and let live (be tolerant)
  3. Time flies when you’re having fun (have lots of fun)
  4. Shop till you drop
  5. Just do it
  6. You are only young once
  7. Enough is enough (stand up for your rights)
  8. Rules are made to be broken (think for yourself)
  9. Time is money (don’t waste time)
  10. God helps those who help themselves (work hard)

Nussbaum outlines the top priorities in American life in the chapters that follow. I include a sampling of the sayings he uses to illustrate American values (which I have put in bold).

For Americans, individual success is an ideal, which means that they must set goals and choose strategies, encapsulated in sayings such as “All’s fair in love and war” and “One thing at a time.” Americans are confident of success (“Go for it,” “Every little bit helps”), take risks cautiously (“Too good to be true,” “Pride goes before a fall”) and face setbacks with determination (“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”),.

Americans also believe in self–esteem and fun (“Live and let live,” “Looking out for number one”) and look out for options (“Variety is the spice of life,” “There is more than one way to skin a cat”). There are a number of ways to enjoy success, self–esteem, and fun and love is one (“Love conquers all… makes the world go round… is blind”). Money is the next way (“Money talks,” “A fool and his money are soon parted”), so Americans play to win (“Nice guys finish last).

In order to achieve their goals, Americans need freedom (“The land of the free and the home of the brave”), personal initiative (“Put your money where your mouth is,” “No pain, no gain,” “First come, first served”), and self–dependency (“Stand on your own two feet”) and initiative.

American’s view of human nature is summed up in a number of sayings: Nobody is perfect, To err is human, Boys will be boys, and Keeping up with the Joneses. Age and gender are relative (“You are only as young as you feel,” “Celebrate diversity”), and duties and loyalties are reciprocal (“If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” “Rats desert a sinking ship,” “Birds of a feather flock together,” Misery loves company”).

Americans have strong views of fairness, blame and conflict: Enough is enough; What goes around comes around; Two wrongs don’t make a right; Finders keepers, losers weepers; The devil made me do it; You made the bed, you lie in it; There are two sides to everything. Regarding conflicts Americans say “It takes two to make a quarrel,” “Opposites attract,” Let bygones be bygones,” “Time heals all wounds.”

Time and efficiency are highly valued: Time flies; Time is money; Make every minute count; Now or never; He who hesitates is lost; Better late than never. This is true even in the midst of change: Time marches on; The worm turns; Here today, gone tomorrow; Tomorrow is another day; The leopard cannot change his spots.

Americans are optimistic: Look at the bright side; Every cloud has a silver lining; Marriages are made in heaven, although there is a dark side: The good die young; You can’t fool Mother Nature.

Nussbaum concludes with this observation: “Like all cultures, American culture has some great strengths, some glaring weaknesses, and some strange paradoxes. It may be too simplistic to conclude that Americans are lonely superachievers, but there is some truth to that” (p.146).