When I arrived back in the U.S., my first port-of-call was a hot yoga and barre method studio – a combination that does not exist, so far as I can tell, anywhere else in the world. The studio offered a discounted monthly membership, but specified a minimum commitment of three months.
How you feel about what happens next says a lot about your origins.
I called up, explained that I would only be in the U.S. for eight weeks, and asked if I might still be able to sign up for the monthly membership. The woman on the phone was delightful, cheerful, easy-going and friendly when she responded, “normally we have a three-month minimum, but I think we can work this out for you.”
Contrast this to a recent experience in England when I was barred from entering a yoga studio for arriving 10 – instead of 15 – minutes early. “There is simply nothing that I can do about it,” the woman at the desk said. “Even if they haven’t started yet, it’s just policy.” I smiled, took my 30 quid and walked out never to return.
I’ve written before about American niceness, and the fact that many, particularly the English, find it disingenuous.
I’ve argued that our openness is not so much about being fake as it is about something else, and having now returned to the U.S. for the longest stint since leaving it in 2011, I’m more convinced than ever that there is something truly different about the way U.S. citizens see the world and the people in it.
Whilst this has at times been called ‘American exceptionalism’, I find that the term ‘Frontier Mentality’ captures a lot more of the historical forces that ground American cultural proclivities.
Of course I’m not the first to favour the term; in 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner wrote a famous essay which commented that having been a frontier society since the first settlers arrived from Europe, a frontier mentality became a seminal aspect of the American character.
Frontier mentality has been linked to numerous faults and foibles, for instance, the tendency to behave as though natural resources are unlimited. Frontier mentality in the early Americas encouraged the belief that the land’s natural bounty was undeletable.
“The inexhaustibility of resources,” Roderick Nash wrote in explaining Americans’ lack of concern for the protection of nature, “was the dominant American myth…conservation seemed unnecessary… Even people critical of resource exploitation could not escape the feeling there was, after all, plenty of room for people and nature in the New World.
Frontier mentality has also been cited in relation to the American love affair with guns. On the American frontier life was unsettled, lacked rule of law, and communities of settlers functioned as semi-militarised groups.
Violence was common, ‘enemies’ were real, and a gun was essential to survival. Today it does not just represent virility (as many on the left would claim) but also self-preservation – a quality many Americans value immensely.
In 1890, the Census Bureau officially declared the American frontier to be closed. Nonetheless, the frontier mentality persisted.
The founding historical, environmental, and indeed social conditions of the United States engendered clear ideas about power, freedom, and ‘rugged individualism’ that have been variously demonized and canonized throughout history and global politics.
I have argued that indeed it is this same frontier mentality that encourages the American spirit of openness and cooperation. Survival, for many settlers, was entirely dependent on their social relations. If one’s crops failed, nothing but neighbourly kindness was likely to save you and your family from certain starvation.
People lived (and in many cases, still live) in small, rural settlements where one’s business is everybody’s business. One didn’t have the luxury of pessimism – no matter the difficulty, the only answer was to simply get on with it, however impossible the task seemed.
Having spent several years now living in East Africa, the Levant, France, and most recently England, I notice more than ever the way this frontier mentality appears in everyday work and life in America.
Where the English have often embraced or at least accepted state surveillance, many Americans tape over their laptop camera retinas and hesitate to provide more personal information than is entirely necessary. The first time I learned I could search any car owner’s entire vehicle history in a publically available database in the U.K I was horrified.
The desire to live ‘freely’, without undue intervention is palpable, even where It might weaken quality of life, for instance in the unbridled embrace of exploitative neoliberalism, the unwillingness to pass stricter gun legislation, or the hesitance toward moving to single-payer health.
It is not that Americans don’t want these things, necessarily, or even that they do not think them fair and just – but that for many Americans it is not the government but the community that should step in to support when an individual member has failed to thrive.
These American peculiarities are often downplayed; in the wake of England’s momentous Brexit decision, I’ve heard many speak about the natural closeness between the U.S. and England.
However, as I sit here writing from my AirBnB rental, the home’s owners are growing enough food to sustain themselves in the garden. They brew beer and distill whiskey in the basement.
On my first night in the house, we spoke passionately about our experiences of love, political views, and hopes for the future. These are experiences that, I would argue, are unique to the American experience and that have emerged from our particular history.
As a small, resource-poor country, England has necessarily developed a very different set of peccadillos.
These experiences are of course shaded by education and race in the U.S., just as cultural expression is shaded by education and class in England, but if you have ever worked in an Anglo-American workplace, the differences are nonetheless apparent.
This is not, however, to argue that the U.S. is entirely unique; indeed, Australians also have a frontier mentality that has produced, I would argue, a very similar set of characteristics.
Friendly, optimistic, and self-directed, there are many ways in which Australians (to generalize) and Americans (to generalize, again) are alike. Indeed, Americans and Australians are perhaps closer in character than either country is to the country of their shared colonial origin. Canada, too, might join this club of post-frontier states.
However we think about it, it seems clear that it is not language or law alone that defines culture – the physical environment matters. In the case of the United States, Canada, and Australia, the open space and very real threat of nature and its volatility, has shaped attitudes toward cooperation, sociality, and even success, where England might be more productively compared to other island nations like Japan and Taiwan.
In business, frontier mentality likely also accounts somewhat for things like the American willingness to, until very recently, tie health insurance to one’s employer, or the tendency toward entrepreneurialism. Indeed, America, Canada, and Australia were the most entrepreneurial countries in the world, according to the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Index (GEDI 2016), so there is certainty something there to explore.
However, it also speaks to something deeper, and that is the power environment has to shape culture and behaviour.
Recent studies have shown that work environments have tremendous impact on employee work habits. However, the focus of research has thus far been on stimulating creativity and productivity. As we can see from the persistence of American frontier mentality, environment can go much further.
Could we engineer environments that make people more open and honest, for instance?
Could we create space in such a way that it encouraged people to be more generous and giving? Could space itself improve physical recovery? Mental health? Certainly early studies on these questions seem promising.
In any case, one thing is clear – there is no escaping the fact that, for better or for worse, we are products of our environments in every possible sense.
Melyn McKay is an anthropologist and a partner at Monticello. She also happens to be a citizen of the United States.