From King of Prussia with Love
Philadelphia is a city with a Greek name, French architecture, and Puritan roots: what could be more American than that? Ah, a suburb with the regional shopping center named after a Baltic nobleman. Maybe American culture is best expressed in what we “consume,” that is our shopping habits. How Americans spend their money drives the factories and trends of the world, for better or worse. I suspect the suburbs around Philly are interchangable with the suburbs of Boston or Chicago or Sacramento. Little do we appreciate how our time in the mall invents a life for the rest of the world.
Once in a while I have a student approach me after a workshop to ask more questions. Without reservation, I love those moments, especially because they are too few to my liking. This past week in Stavanger a student stayed after to talk, I will refer to her as “Steina.” Regretfully, I could not oblige because of the day’s schedule. I apologized, gave her my card, and then asked her to email me any questions she had. She did.
Steina was writing a paper on the positive and negative influences of American culture in Norway and she wanted my thoughts about the matter since I was the American living in another culture. Steina was kind in that she asked for only short answers, as if my down time was too precious to bother. I suspect what I wrote was a little longer than what she expected. But it is nowhere near of what I could have or wanted to write.
Below is a lightly edited version of my reply. My hands and arms are recovering from a “medical event” that makes typing very difficult for now, so I know there are typos and such in the text. You’ll have to deal with it. Oh, if you want the story then I will tell it to you in full over lunch, you buy.
Steina asked about the depth and breadth of American culture in Norway I observed, my thoughts on it, and perhaps larger global implications I noticed. Ultimately, she wanted to know, was “this influence…good or bad for Norway?” I wrote:
The American influence in Norwegian culture is strong, based on my observations. I see the dominant style of clothes worn by Norwegian teens as American. The brands, images, and messages on most clothing seems to promote or reflect an American bias. English is a heavily promoted language in Norway, it is the default second language taught to children and the additional language on most signs in Norway. I have come to expect to use my english anywhere I go in Norway, even though I do try to use Norwegian out of respect. The growth of private high schools and the policies of Education Minister Isaaksen are very American; the idea that competition, measurement, and “the market” will make education better.
I have traveled throughout Norway this year, in addition I have traveled in England, Germany, and France. In all cases, the influence of America is strong. The French seem to put up the most resistance to being Americanized. As the world’s largest economy, post-war patron, and cultural dynamo, it is not surprising that America is a strong influence in Norway. Norway also has a very strong emigrant connection to America not found in other nations like Spain or France, for example.
One subtle way that American culture may be trouble for Norway is food choice. Americans eat too much “fast food” and drink too much soda and sugary drinks. As a result, America has epidemic levels of diabetes, heart disease, and cancers. I see Norwegian teens drinking a lot of American style sugar drinks at school, that is a bad sign for the future.
Is American culture good or bad for Norway? I don’t know, that is not for me to say. I do think that there is a well of Norwegian culture that does stand apart from American culture and is a source of strength to draw on to meet specific Norwegian needs. For example, the Norwegian commitment to a social democracy in which equality is a powerful force is unique and resists American demands for individualism. Also, Norwegian culture seems to favor long-term projects and solutions to the problems you face. Such as diverting profits from the discovery of oil into a sovereign wealth fund, building tunnels for transportation and then having drivers pay a toll for the tunnels, and taking climate change seriously.
China, India, Brazil, and Nigeria will be major world economic and cultural forces in the coming century. As such their cultural influences will grow. I predict that American culture will be changed more profoundly by these new powers than Norwegian culture. As a polyglot nation, those changes will be neither good nor bad. They will just be change, as America has always changed. Norway, with a more coherent national identity, will change as well but less so and perhaps with more discretion.
Med vennelig hilsen,
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D.