Are American attitudes towards wealth vulgar?America often shocks other countries with its populist cultural response to money. Many non-Americans are uncomfortable with America's...

Are American attitudes towards wealth vulgar?

America often shocks other countries with its populist cultural response to money. Many non-Americans are uncomfortable with America's bluntness regarding their out-spoken desire for riches and the habit of reducing anything valuable to a monetary number.

I remember, years ago, showing my newly-given engagement ring at a party in Germany; while other guests coo-ed and praised, the American guest loudly and unashamedly asked my fiancee much the ring cost, (to the frozen horror of the other guests, including myself) And in my personal experience, Americans often loudly express the supreme worth of something by its monetary value.

I realise this question is confrontational and perhaps offensive, but I really wish to understand this behaviour. I do not seek to offend, but I am looking for some insight on this cultural divide.

Do American attitudes towards wealth and money tend towards the vulgar?

Asked on by stegny

9 Answers | Add Yours

litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I actually think that Americans are obsessed with success. This is interpreted negatively by other cultures, and can be viewed as vulgar. I do not think it is inherently so. We have just been fed the belief that anyone who works hard can have whatever he or she wants, and so we want it all.
clairewait's profile pic

clairewait | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I think many Americans simply regard money as a "tool" and as such, the casual speaking of it is exactly that: casual.  It just happens to be a tool of measurement for many people.  In the same way that fatness in some cultures equals "wealth" or "comfort," stuff in our culture is the same.  You can call it "vulgar" but I don't really see it that way.  I guess I just see is as the easiest and quickest way to connect for most people, simply because having things, buying things, wanting things, etc. is an easy way to see what people are all about and who they are.  We find similarities and differences in each other through the things we want and the things we have.

If we were a tribal people, perhaps we'd converse about the abundance of buffalo (or other food source).  I'm not saying this to be flippant.  Perhaps the American propensity toward materialism is pitiable, but it is what it is: a point of connection.  As an American, to scoff at it would simply mean I'm making a connection to another group.

kapokkid's profile pic

kapokkid | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The attitude towards money that I think is the most vulgar is one that is shared by most people, so I don't think it is unique to Americans, but it is certainly present.  It is the idea that money equals happiness and of course everyone would say that a certain level of income helps to create safety and comfort, but we certainly often get caught up thinking that more money will make us happier because we can do more, buy more, etc., but we rarely consider what we give up to get this greater wealth and what it sometimes costs us.

ask996's profile pic

ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted on

Please don't group all Americans in this way. I have no expert proof to back this up, but I speculate that those who are so concientious about the price of things are from really wealthy upbringings or from impovershed backgrounds of some sort. This impovershiment could be monetary, emotional or etc. I remember many years ago that a former sister-in-law was able to thumb through some magazine like Vogue and rattle off the price tag for every item of clothing and accessory in the magazine.

lrwilliams's profile pic

lrwilliams | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

I would say that Americans are very materialistic and concerned about wealth or a lack of wealth. I think that some of the behaviors you described are not typical of all Americans but I have also known some who act the same way you described.

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Americans are materialistic as a whole to be sure.  However, those that ask the price of something are usually not well-mannered, or they are of an ethnic culture that values money very highly--as wealth is considered a measure of success--and do not consider asking such questions about cost impolite. In addition, because the "American Dream" was founded upon the acquisition of wealth and social prestige, there has been a fusion of the two in the thinking of some.  This attitude of what were the "nouveau riche" in the Jazz Age is exactly what F. Scott Fitzgerald satirized in his novel, The Great Gatsby.

jmj616's profile pic

jmj616 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

Posted on

I don't know if vulgar is the word I would choose.  The American view of capitalism and materialism is deeply cultural, that is, it has been this way for a very long time and our economy was designed and developed with that in mind.  When put in contrast with the common European view that wealth is fine but not the most important thing, it can sometimes be a stark contrast, as you mentioned.

I think Americans tend towards the material more than others, and that this is not always (or even usually) a good thing for our society.  In some ways it even denies us a society, as opposed to just a competing group of individuals.

I think "vulgar" is just the right word.  As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.  In this case, "vulgar" is the right word.  Other good choices would be crass, superficial, and materialistic.

Just a thought from a life-long American who loves his country but:

* once bought a package of ricecakes for $3.00 because he didn't bother to look at the price 

* only owns one car

* has resisted the temptation of taking a second job after finishing teaching at 3:00 P.M.

* doesn't know how much money is left to pay off on his mortgage

* never watched "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think that this must vary across America, or by class, or something.  I say this because I have never experienced anything resembling what you mention.

Compared to people of the culture I grew up in, Americans tend to be pushy and nosy about many things.  I continue to have a hard time dealing with Americans' propensity to act like they're your best friend when you've barely met them and I think Americans have an excessively familiar attitude towards their elders.  My point here is simply that I'm something of an outsider and am critical about much of American society.

But I am not critical about Americans' attitude towards money.  People I've met would not ask and have not asked about things like what my salary is or how much my house cost.

So I'm not really sure about this.  I do think Americans are very materialistic, but so are people from other cultures I've been exposed to (Micronesia, Japan).  But I do not think that Americans I have met tend to reduce the value of things to their monetary value.  Perhaps this comes from the fact that almost all of my adult life in America has been spent in the rural West.

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I don't know if vulgar is the word I would choose.  The American view of capitalism and materialism is deeply cultural, that is, it has been this way for a very long time and our economy was designed and developed with that in mind.  When put in contrast with the common European view that wealth is fine but not the most important thing, it can sometimes be a stark contrast, as you mentioned.

I think Americans tend towards the material more than others, and that this is not always (or even usually) a good thing for our society.  In some ways it even denies us a society, as opposed to just a competing group of individuals.

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