What Makes America Special

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I’ve been in Europe for the past two weeks, and as usual, being out of the country makes for a good refresher on what’s great about it. We’re a young nation and that’s part of the reason why we’ve become such an emotional one (have you met a teenager?), but our nation’s youth is a big part of how we think about the world, and it plays into our individual personalities.

Let’s first remind ourselves why America is so different from Europe and the rest of the world.

The U.S. is a new society while European nations tend to be very old. Most of Europe’s great cathedrals predate the Aztec and Incan Empires by a few years and the Declaration of Independence by a few centuries. By the time Abe Lincoln and Robert E. Lee squared off in the Civil War, pretty much every city in Europe looked about the same as it does today.

This old age is the obvious explanation for Europe’s tiny bathrooms and scarce air conditioning.

But look deeper and you’ll see that the age of our civilizations is also a big reason why entrepreneurship & innovation are staples of American life but rare in Europe.

To see the proof, go to lunch.

Recently while in Italy, a waitress snapped at me for raising a hand to signal her rather than calling her by name. Okay, that’s fine, my mistake. And if you’ve spent time in Europe, chances are you’ve made a similar one too.

Indeed, this is a persistent theme of doing any kind of business abroad: a long list of traditions and protocols you must follow in order to avoid alienating yourself from the locals.

Take my example of ordering lunch: doing this in Europe requires you to have a basic understanding of Class Struggle (tip, but not too much, because that’s patronizing), Tradition (which dish that’s been on the menu since the Peace of Westphalia do you want?), and Time (I hope you have 2 hours of it).

Eat enough meals in Europe – and stumble on enough of its taboos – and you’ll start to wonder how anyone ever manages to introduce a new thought.

The answer is that they don’t.

We Americans like Europe because it embraces tradition, style, and family – things our consumer culture doesn’t prioritize. But that same American culture values some other things that are hard to find overseas: innovation and accountability.

Charles de Gaulle famously explained France’s quirkiness when he said that, “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?”

But if you want to understand what’s unique about America, you need not look any further than Burger King. There you’ll find the real secret sauce of America — the belief that “the customer is always right.”

Or, as they used to say, “Have it your way.”

Americans share a near-universal belief that listening to customers is critical to success; and American institutions of every size value input from people lower on the ladder.

President Biden affirms this every time he commissions a poll of likely voters; Jeff Bezos does it whenever he hires a new employee and drills him on Amazon’s first Pillar of Leadership (“Customer Obsession”); and line workers at Burger King do it every time they let you hold the pickles, add ketchup, etc.

“Customer obsession” is not universal in other countries. Whether they realize it or not, Old World institutions, from the café to the parliament, seem more obsessed with honoring tradition than customers.  

This has important implications for innovation – and why you don’t see nearly as much of it coming out of the Old World.

A nation that prioritizes winning customers – and keeping them – is one that is inherently open to new ideas. That’s how you compete: newer, faster, stronger. This is different from a nation that has a phonebook of taboos that govern every transaction. Codes of conduct guard against turmoil, but they’re also barriers to change — the good kind and the bad. 

Which places us at one of history’s great ironies: that America’s consumer culture is actually far more vibrant than what you’ll find anywhere in Paris or Rome. A shopping mall in Indianapolis will feature a more diverse array of cuisines and price points than what you’ll get on Paris’s Champs Elysée.

Yes, America may lack substance. It might not always be elegant. But it’s creative and vibrant, and it’s not a coincidence that iPhones, Mickey Mouse, and the Big Mac all started here. We are a culture that values its customers, and that is a straight line to a culture that embraces innovation.

This isn’t all roses. Tell 300 million people that they – “the customer” – are always right, and you’re guaranteed to enable a lot of the bad behavior that’s everywhere today. Americans are obsessed with themselves to the detriment of everything else.

Old World traditions might be a barrier to innovation, but they do a good job or re-assuring people that everyone is on the same team. More and more, that feeling is gone in the US, where our shared values have narrowed to a national desire to out-compete one another and display the results on Instagram.

And that’s what America is: energetic, wealthy, exciting, shallow, and competitive. It may not be for everyone, but I love it and am glad to be home.


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