Home » Academic » Ambiguous Americans: Cultural Identity in Argentina and the United States
Argentina

Ambiguous Americans: Cultural Identity in Argentina and the United States

Whenever I try to call myself “American,” Lucas looks at me and smiles. Only then do I remember with a sudden pang of conscience that I’m not the only one. After all, he is American, too… South American, that is. Lucas is from Argentina. He is also one of the more enigmatic people I have encountered thus far in my life. When I first saw him, huddled in the shadows of one of our campus cafes with a small group of international students, I took in the pale pigment of his skin, the mousy brown shade of his hair, and assumed he was from Europe, if anything; maybe French, I thought. Next he started talking in a Latin accent as thick as syrup, so I quickly began to rethink my hypothesis. Maybe he’s Argentinean, I decided, remembering we were expecting an exchange student from that country. Of course, that time, I was right, but as I continued to get to know Lucas, he continued to confuse me. For instance, although I speak a good deal of Spanish, I find it incredibly hard to understand Lucas when he tries to speak Spanish to me. His almost Italian accent, the mystifying cadence of his speech, they cloak the words in an exotic unfamiliarity that reverts me back to elementary Spanish proficiency. “No hablo español,” I find myself explaining meekly, and Lucas laughs. His bizarre sense of humor is disconcerting, too, as it tends to turn up unsolicited in the midst of his otherwise quiet and rational intelligence.

The more I interacted with Lucas, the more I had to wonder: what does it mean to be Argentinean? Could it be that the concept of enigma is as integral to Argentinean cultural identity as it is to the person and personality of my Argentinean friend? Upon conducting an investigation for the purposes of the project, I indeed discovered that Argentina has a way of integrating an eclectic blend of characteristics from surprising sources to create an identity that is hard to classify, and proudly one-of-a-kind. My research journey involved a careful study of how Argentina fit into the cultural values systems proposed by Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (Cooper, Calloway-Thomas, & Simonds, 2007, p. 22), Hofstede (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 26), and Hall (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 25), as well as a look at significant components of Argentinean cultural identity such as cultural identity formation, region, language, ethnicity, beliefs, values, and norms. The results of my study not only enhanced my understanding of Lucas’ native culture, but also shed new light on the dominant culture in my own country. These two societies, which have the interesting fate of sharing that rather ambiguous label, “American,” seem to be both intriguingly similar and strikingly different.

I made use of primary as well as secondary research methods in conducting my investigation. For my primary research, I interviewed Lucas Francisco Garcia, a native of Río Cuarto, Argentina. With the exception of the year that he is currently spending in the United States as an exchange student, Lucas has lived in Río Cuarto continuously since his birth there in 1991. For my secondary research, I consulted three books and online database. The first book, Intercultural Communication: A Text With Readings, written by communication specialists Pamela J. Cooper, Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, and Cheri J. Simonds, presents many of the concepts I used to evaluate the Argentinean and U.S. cultures. The second book, Culture and Customs of Argentina, written by anthropologists David William Foster, Melissa Fitch Lockhart, and Darrell B. Lockhart, supplied me with detailed information regarding social customs and cultural identity in Argentina. Thirdly, the book Passport Argentina, written by Andrea Mandel-Campbell, provided invaluable details about Argentinean communication patterns and way of life. Finally, I found further facts regarding cultural identity through Advameg, Inc., an online database containing academic articles on a variety of subjects, including numerous world cultures. The article “Culture of Argentina” was helpful in laying the groundwork for my interview with Lucas Garcia.

Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s five value orientations served as my first basis for evaluating Argentinean and U.S. cultures (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 22). The first of these value orientations concerns a given culture’s view of human nature. According to Lucas Garcia, most Argentineans see human beings as essentially good (2014). This contrasts with the more complex situation in the U.S., where there is little consensus as to whether human beings are essentially good, essentially evil, or a combination of the two (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 23). The second value orientation addresses a culture’s take on the relationship between humanity and the natural world: do we control nature, does nature control us, or do we live in harmony with nature? Offered these options, Lucas was quick to assert that “we control nature” (2014), which would be parallel to the dominant U.S. viewpoint (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 23); however, he also added with an ironic smile, “That is, until there is a disaster,” a statement which deftly acknowledged the limitations of the previously-taken position. This admission suggests that the Argentinean view of the matter, while basically oriented toward human control, is nonetheless flexible, leaving room for inevitable exceptions. Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s third value orientation involves a culture’s sense of time, and whether the past, the present, or the future is emphasized. Lucas seemed reluctant to commit to any of these three choices, commenting, “It depends. I don’t think there is a general rule” (2014). In U.S. culture, by contrast, there is a pretty clear emphasis on the future (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 23). The fourth value orientation concerns the cultural attitude toward human activity: is there an emphasis on accepting things as they are and enjoying the moment (“being”), self-improvement and inner growth (“growing”), or achievement and progress (“doing”)? I barely had a chance to finish asking this question because Lucas was so eager to identify his culture with the first of these options, the “being” orientation. He attributed this emphasis on “enjoying the moment” to the fact that Argentina consistently undergoes periods of economic and political instability. He remarked that “we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, so we have to just enjoy today” (2014). In the U.S. there is instead a clear stress on progress and achievement (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 23); one can’t help but wonder if this would be different were U.S. Americans to face the kind of regular crises and upheavals that Argentineans have known. The last of the Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck value orientations asks how humans relate to one another within a culture, proposing that some cultures have an authoritarian social structure, some focus on a sense of belonging to a group, and others are individualistic. Again, Lucas barely let me finish this question. “The group is most important,” he said, with a note of finality in his voice. “It’s all about friends. Friends hang out together all the time” (2014). On the other hand, in U.S. society, these sorts of strong interpersonal bonds are much harder to find. Our culture falls into the individualistic category (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 23).

I also considered Hofstede’s four dimensions of work-related cultural attitudes (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 26) in comparing and contrasting these two cultures. The first dimension is that of individualism and collectivism. According to Lucas Garcia, Argentina is a collectivist culture, in which people value the needs and views of their important groups more than their own individual needs and views (2014). The U.S., conversely, registers on the individualistic side of the spectrum, placing a high value on the individual self and its goals (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 27). In the second dimension, power distance, Argentina and the U.S. are on common ground, both having little tolerance for inequality and thus being characterized by a relatively low power distance. Lucas expressed that inequality in its various manifestations, including social, economic, and racial, is definitely considered to be negative in Argentina, and is fought by the general populace (2014). Hofstede’s third dimension concerns uncertainty avoidance: how much a culture is able to tolerate ambiguity (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 28). When I asked Lucas about this, his response was interesting. “We don’t like uncertainty,” he said, “but it happens.” He referenced the fact that in Argentina there is said to be a new political or economic crisis every five years on average. “There is a lot of instability, and we just have to deal with it,” he remarked (2014). My interpretation of this answer would be that Argentina has had to develop relatively low uncertainty avoidance, making it similar to U.S. culture in that respect (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 28). The final dimension Hofstede proposed is masculinity and femininity, referring to whether a culture places value on stereotypically masculine or stereotypically feminine qualities. To obtain an answer for this question, I asked Lucas whether things like material success and progress were more important in his culture, or things like quality of life and relationships. Again, his response fell slightly between the cracks: “Both,” he told me readily. “I mean, you sometimes need money and progress to have those other things. In a very poor country there is not going to be a very good quality of life. So both are important” (2014). It was a clever and an ambiguous answer. However, a few factors lead me to conclude that Argentinean culture in general is more masculine than feminine. First, while Lucas did make a point of saying that “both are important,” he seemed to make the assumption that material success leads to quality of life, rather than considering that the reserve might also be true. Thus, he was more focused on the masculine side of the equation, and implicitly placed more value on that side. Second, in answer to a later question, Lucas indicated that family roles tend to be pretty traditional in Argentina, which is another feature of a masculine culture in which men are generally expected to be dominant and assertive, women nurturing and supportive.

Additionally, I tried to determine whether Argentina ought to be considered what Edward Hall calls a low-context culture or a high-context culture (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 25). Characteristically, the results of my inquiries into this matter do not point exclusively in one particular direction. On the one hand, Argentina clearly places a fair amount of importance on nonverbal communication, which would seem to be a trait of a higher-context culture. According to Mandel-Campbell, “Argentines rely heavily on body language to communicate. Facial expressions and gestures go far to achieve a dramatic effect… ‘With gestures you don’t need to say anything,’ notes one Argentine” (2001). However, I also observed evidence of a preference for a clear and direct style of verbal communication – a hallmark of low-context cultures. Lucas noted that interpersonal conflicts tend to be dealt with “directly. Lots of yelling, very loud” (2014). That is certainly not a high-context approach. When talking with me, he definitely used a forthright, direct communication style, and had no qualms about stating his opinions boldly. In the last analysis, I am willing to concede that the culture may well lean toward the low-context end of the spectrum, although it should be observed that high-context traits, too, have their niche in Argentinean culture.

One of the main issues that intrigued me as I prepared to investigate the culture of Argentina more closely was cultural identity – that question of “what it means to be Argentinean.” Interestingly, it didn’t take me long at all to discover through my secondary research that Argentineans themselves seem to be asking this same question with an equal degree of curiosity. According to Advameg, Inc., “Argentines are quite uncertain about who they are. They oscillate between seeing themselves as a highly educated western nation and defining themselves as a Latin American-mestizo nation” (n.d.). Indeed, “ambivalence dominates the Argentines’ self-identity,” resulting in an “often obsessive search for a national soul” (Advameg, Inc., n.d.). Apparently, then, many Argentineans could be said to be in the second stage of cultural identity formation, called cultural identity search (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 72), as they are eager to understand the implications of their various cultural memberships and still have many unresolved questions, but have definitely established a strong emotional connection to their culture and take it very seriously. Paradoxically, in searching so restlessly for an identity, Argentineans create one for themselves: “Discussing the Argentine identity crisis, ironically, has become an essential characteristic of the Argentine national identity” (Foster, et al., 1998). In the U.S., by contrast, people are generally less preoccupied with cultural identity, having largely internalized its implications. This would be put them into the third stage, cultural identity achievement (Cooper, et al, 2007, p. 72).

Despite the promise of a challenging quest, I nonetheless set out to unearth clues as to what defines the Argentinean culture. I laid some groundwork by asking Lucas Garcia about regional differences that exist within his society. I had read that, “In Argentina, one must be aware of the differences that separate the Porteños, or people of the port city and capital of Buenos Aires… from the Argentines in the rest of the country, or the ‘interior’” (Foster, et al., 1998). Without even having this distinction mentioned to him, Lucas confirmed it: “There is Buenos Aires, and then there is the rest. No one likes people from Buenos Aires” (2014). When I asked him why not, his answer was simple: “Because they are stupid.” Foster, et al. elaborates: “As a general rule, those of the interior regard the Porteños as aggressive, pretentious, high-strung, and loud” (1998). However, when I proceeded to question him about whether there was anything that all Argentineans, in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, had in common, he answered without hesitation, “Maté. Maté and soccer.” This also confirmed my research. Maté, a bitter green herb used to make a strong tea, is consumed almost universally in Argentina, and “soccer, like the consumption of maté, may be said to be a unifying factor that transcends class, wealth, and status” (Foster et al., 1998). As such, soccer and maté can be considered nonverbal markers (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 85) that help define Argentinean culture. According to my observations, region and nonverbal markers are similarly important in U.S. culture.

I also asked Lucas about how language is tied to culture in Argentina. He explained that Spanish is virtually the only commonly spoken language in the country, noting that a few indigenous languages also exist, but they have been relegated to the periphery of mainstream society. He also emphasized that Spanish in Argentina is unique in that it has been heavily influenced by Italian, thanks to the prevalence of Italian heritage among Argentineans (2014). “Argentina’s immigrant history can be heard in its Spanish, spoken with a distinctly Italian lilt,” according to Foster, et al. (1998). This led easily to a discussion of ethnicity in Argentina. Lucas was quick to quote a famous national joke: “They say that in Chile they came from Incas, Bolivia from Incas, Paraguay from Guaranis… but in Argentina, they came from ships.” In other words, “They are all from Europe” (2014). Lucas himself boasts a heritage that is four eighths Italian, three eighths Spanish, and one eighth French. Considering that Argentineans are surrounded by countries where mixed European and indigenous ancestry is far more common, I had to wonder whether their identity as primarily European contributed to a sense of Argentinean uniqueness, and possibly to feelings of ethnocentrism (Cooper, et al., p.43). Lucas confirmed this, summarizing Argentineans’ basic attitude toward their Latin American neighbors in one word: “Superior” (2014). Of course, U.S. Americans have certainly had their own problems with ethnocentrism. However, perhaps this is kept in check in our culture by the fact that non-European ethnicities are much more visible in the U.S. We are also increasingly being exposed to multilingualism in a way that is less common in Argentina, particularly as the Spanish language makes deeper inroads into our society.

My final area of investigation into Argentinean cultural identity and its relationship to U.S. cultural identity involved a look at the beliefs, values, and norms that are prevalent in these two cultures. In considering beliefs (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 20), I made inquiries about Argentinean religion. According to Lucas Garcia, the major religion in Argentina is Roman Catholicism; but Lucas also made a point of saying that religion is not all that important to Argentineans, particularly those of his generation (2014). The situation in the U.S. is somewhat similar, although Protestant Christianity tops Roman Catholicism as the faith with the highest number of adherents. There also appears to be a bit less religious diversity in Argentina compared with the U.S. When I asked Lucas about some basic Argentinean values, that is, things considered worthwhile and desirable in that particular culture (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 20), he first mentioned peace, then relationships, particularly family relationships (2014). In fact, he was emphatic that family is highly valued in Argentina, and people feel a strong sense of identification with and attachment to their families. This contrasts somewhat with the U.S., where independence is a key value and, consequently, individual freedom sometimes trumps interpersonal bonds, including family ties. Finally, I investigated some of the cultural norms, i.e., codes of social conduct (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 21), that are common in Lucas’ native culture and compared them to my own culture’s norms. The kinds of norms I found most interesting involved chronemics or behavior related to a culture’s view of time (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 136), and haptics, which is touching behavior (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 139). Argentina’s view of time contrasts with the U.S. view: the U.S. is a monochromic culture, compartmentalizing time, valuing punctuality, and so on, whereas Argentina is a polychromic culture, viewing time as more free and fluid (Cooper, et al., 2007, p. 136). This difference in viewpoint plays out in a variety of different norms for each culture. Lucas told me that, for example, it is common in Argentinean universities for students to turn in assignments late without repercussions. The point is to do the assignment well, not just to meet a deadline (2014). This would be incomprehensible in many U.S. university settings. Norms involving haptics also provided striking contrasts, as Argentineans tend to make much more extensive use of physical touch in interpersonal situations than do U.S. Americans. Lucas related that in Argentina, it is normal for friends of either gender to give one another a kiss upon greeting one another or taking leave (2014). Again, this is simply not done in the U.S., as kissing has a much more intimate connotation here. Lucas learned this the hard way when he absent-mindedly tried to give a female friend a greeting kiss upon arriving at a party here in the U.S. Needless to say, his behavior caused a stir: “She pushed me away and said, ‘Dude, what are you doing? Have you been drinking already?’” Obviously, casual kissing was a norm he had to unlearn while in the U.S.

As I complete this project, which has been full of enlightening and surprising discoveries, I feel that I am just now making a final discovery: namely, my curiosity about the culture of my enigmatic friend Lucas Garcia has not been fully satisfied by this investigation. Even after examining both Argentinean and U.S. cultures through the lens of the cultural values systems proposed by Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, Hofstede, and Hall… even after searching out key aspects of Argentinean cultural identity under such categories as cultural identity formation, region, language, ethnicity, beliefs, values, and norms… I know that there is so much more to learn; or, perhaps, so much more to wonder, so much more to be perplexed by and curious about. In Argentina, categories overlap, and hard-and-fast classifications are hard to come by. Yet through it all, an identity emerges – one characterized by originality, complexity, and paradox, but an identity nonetheless. Maybe Lucas said it best that day when I completed my interview, stashed away papers in my binder, and stood up to leave. I looked over at him – the South American with the white skin and mousy brown hair – and he was grinning at me.

“You should title your paper, ‘Argentina: It Depends,’” he suggested.

References

Buehrer, E. (Interviewer) and Garcia, L. (Interviewee). (2014). Personal interview.

Cooper, P., Calloway-Thomas, C., and Simonds, C. (2007). Intercultural communication: a text with readings. Boston: Pearson.

Culture of Argentina. (n.d.) In Advameg, Incorporated. Retrieved from http://www.everyculture.com/A-Bo/Argentina.html

Foster, D., Lockhart, M., and Lockhart, D. (1998). Culture and customs of Argentina. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Mandel-Campbell, A. (2001). Passport Argentina: your pocket guide to Argentine business, customs & etiquette. Novato, CA: World Trade Press.