Americans at Work: A Guide to the Can-Do People
Craig Storti is the author of ten books on cultural studies and has more than thirty years of worldwide experience training business people, civil servants, military personnel, and foreign aid workers. In his book, Americans at Work: A Guide to the Can-Do People, Storti explores how core American values are expressed in the ways that Americans behave and act in the workplace. The book has a two-fold purpose. First, Storti aims for the book to be a “cultural guide” for non-Americans, to help them better understand and know what to expect from their American colleagues in the workplace. Second, the book is meant to help self-reflecting Americans understand how their own ways of acting and behaving in the workplace may be interpreted by those from other cultures (pp. 1–2).
Before unpacking these values, Storti makes the shocking point that Americans really don’t believe in foreigners, and that even if they do accept the reality of such people, that any differences between themselves and others are “insignificant” (13). The reasons for this are rooted in the geography, history, and values of the American people. Americans, Storti argues, have become blind to the reality of culture because of the “assimilation ethic,” and to a certain extent, quintessential American values like individualism (14–16). Storti goes on to argue that the unique geography, history, and newness of the American experience conditioned early settlers in the nation to believe that there were no limits to what was possible. Americans were free from Old World shackles and had a land full of seemingly limitless opportunity before them (20). This combination of circumstances gave birth to the “can-do” mentality, which is now famously synonymous with American culture. Part and parcel to this mentality was the conviction that they had the power to shape the world as they pleased and need not be defined by the ways of the past, or for that matter, the obstacles of nature.
In the first section, Storti explains core American values like optimism, egalitarianism, productivity, efficiency, as well as a suspicion of accepted tradition; he then unpacks the ways in which these values directly impact Americans’ approach to work, including their views of colleagues from other cultures. What stands out in this core section of the book is Storti’s description of both the drive of Americans for speedy results and their relentless passion for making an impact. Storti notes that in their optimism Americans are fond of “hype,” and that this tendency towards exaggeration can come across to people from other cultures as “unrealistic and even untrue” (25). Interestingly, he goes on to explain how the optimistic drive for results also means that Americans “are not really interested in quality” (94).
The second and shorter section of the book goes into the nitty-gritty of workplace life and explains American expectations and attitudes towards issues like relationships, communication, meetings, presentations, and dress. Storti admits that entire books and chapters have been written on each of these individual topics which he treats lightly with just a few pages. While all of the book is written with the context of office work in mind, that is, work carried out mostly in meeting rooms and at computer desks, it is particularly in this second section that the specific context of office work looms large. Despite the fact that this book is geared towards those working in the corporate office world, the first section of the book is a relevant and practical guide for someone who wants to think through the role that American cultural values play in modern day mission strategies, approaches, and methodologies. At risk of sounding harsh, the book is relevant at the very least because the cultural values at play in the corporate pursuit of profit are not much different than those at play in the missional pursuit of “fruit.” The drive for quick returns and the pragmatic acceptance of “whatever works” can be found in both spheres of work.
I became aware of Storti’s book after a former professor of mine, who is an American missions leader with numerous decades of service overseas, made the comment that the book is a helpful guide in understanding the ethos and values of a specific mission agency. My interpretation of his point at the time was that while this mission agency had become diverse and multi-cultural over the years in terms of the composition of its personnel, its way of working was still thoroughly American. This comment, and my own more than ten years of personal experience as part of the modern missions enterprise overseas, has set me on a path of thinking more critically about the ways in which our actual approach and means of doing mission are often shaped and guided more by American values than careful biblical reflection. It seems that while there is much talk within the mission world about sensitivity to cultural dynamics at play in matters like communication, relationship building, peacemaking, and even the practice of theology, there is less thought given to the cultural realities at play in the organizational, strategic, and operational aspects of missions.
Many Americans have left the shores of the New World to enter foreign fields that they have been assured from both the Bible and their leaders are white unto harvest. Whether they realized it or not, they also left with the confidence that comes from belonging to and enjoying the protection of the greatest superpower on earth. Unfortunately, the hard reality of missions, especially in areas that are considered “unreached,” means that a whole host of challenges threaten to quickly dash their exaggerated expectations for quick results. To move forward in advancing and sustaining mission in the future, it is high time to give thought to the place which American values have played, and continue to play, in framing our expectations and approach to the work of mission. Is it possible that unbridled optimism, exaggerated expectations, and restlessness, combined with the hard realities of ever shrinking space for western workers in many countries, is quenching the flame of mission? Storti’s insightful analysis of Americans at work leads me to conclude that Americans must adjust their expectations and methods of working to biblical realities if we are to persevere and enjoy true fruitfulness in the advancement of biblical mission in the world’s most challenging environments.
Further, it is evident that the future of missions for Americans and others lies in partnership, that is, specifically partnership of foreign mission entities with local and proximate peoples and ministries. Partnership necessarily entails working together, and so it is only logical that as Americans in mission reflect on their own attitudes and approach to work, it will ultimately serve them in the building of effective, faithful, and fruitful mission endeavors with their local partners. Furthermore, the more prepared that their partners from outside of America are in understanding their American colleagues, the better equipped they will be to work effectively with Americans. Herein lies the value of Americans at Work, although it was published a decade and a half ago. A more recent publication that is not focused on Americans per se but proves helpful in adeptly and clearly situating US majority culture among others, including various organizational dynamics, is Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures (Public Affairs, 2014). A Christian perspective on the rationale, mechanics (as it were), and benefits of cross-cultural partnerships that combines theological reflection, personal anecdote, and anthropological insights is Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church (IVP Academic, 2009) by James E. Plueddemann.