On Being American,

published at 4:08am on 08/23/06

The term “lazy” comes up far too often in conversations when talking about Americans for it to just be a fluke. Where exactly does this notion come from? After all, if you look at the amount of innovation that has originated in the States over the course of its history there’s no denying that there’s something happening here that’s going well. But there’s this underlying belief that we’re just a bunch of lazy slobs, and that the world is going to eat us for dinner. So what is it?

Let’s think about what Red Herring (08.28.06) had to say about the growth of Asia’s economy in the early 1980s:

The model also assumed certain putative elements of Confucian culture such as an emphasis on education, discipline, and harmony in the workplace…

Fascinating. That certainly doesn’t sound like the US at all. Maybe we’re onto something here. After all, half of my friends are going to law school these days, and the other half of them are already lawyers (leaving a remaining half of my friends who are just shocked that I am a software developer who can’t do math), and a country that churns out this many lawyers must have some pretty hard working individuals. Well, except that upon further examination, it seems like law school is the fall back position for people who have no idea what they’re doing. A friend of mine was telling me about her friend the law student who, despite being particularly bright, did not seem to have any ambition (and was subsequently moved from the “fun to date” pool to the “how do I get out of this” pool). “But he’s an engineer,” she said, “So it’s not like he’s not motivated at all.”

Oh really? Consider for a moment the work that one needs to go through to be a successful engineer over the course of one’s life. And consider that engineers in our society are really not pushed to the top of the earning bracket within a particular organization. And then consider that the average first year associate at a law firm can make, with bonus, far more than an engineer well into his career, with guaranteed advancement as long as you maintain your billable hours (and don’t royally screw something up) and it seems more to me that the primary motivator for going to law school is that it’s probably one of the easiest (and by easy, we mean least ambiguous) career path one can choose in this country.

So what’s the point? The point isn’t that Americans are lazy. The point is that Americans would rather not do work that they don’t have to do. We are all taught that we have options in this country. We have opportunities. And for the most part, we can, and are encouraged, to maximize in any way possible our own lives in order to advance, not the common good, but our own. After all, a society where everyone is picking himself up by the proverbial bootstrap can only pull up the entirety of society in the process.


Well, probably not. Along with selfishness in one’s own role in the world comes a general feeling of entitlement and selfishness that doesn’t go away simply because we’re talking not about a career path but rather, say, running to the subway.

The subway? Sure. The other day, I was sitting on the train, along with a hundred other people, and the doors were closing, and a man came tearing through the turnstiles and stuck his hand between the doors. As his friend was busy swiping his card through the machine, the man stood in the doors, preventing the train from leaving. After what was probably no more than a minute, but seemed much longer, both of them ended up inside the train car and the doors finally closed. For the sake of two people’s convenience, an entire train full of passengers was delayed. The train behind ours was probably thrown off schedule a little bit. The passengers waiting for our train were affected a bit. And while one could argue that the difference of a minute in the scheme of things does not really matter, the truth of the situation is that this is something that happens every day, on every train in New York City, and it happens simply because there is no regard for what one individual’s actions mean to the larger system.

Or take my fellow cyclists, for example. From my apartment I can look down at a particular intersection and see, on any given day, at any given stop light, cyclists riding through the red light, circling around cars that have the right of way, cursing at the cars, and then continuing through the intersection, leaving a mess of traffic in their wake. The consequences to the cyclist are nothing but positive (other than in the increasingly not-so-rare situation where a car and a cyclist actually succeed in sharing the same patch of road at the same time – in those instances the automobile generally wins the fight). The consequences to the drivers are two-fold: first, they are inconvenienced and aggravated, and second, they have their belief reinforced that bicycle riders are nothing but a public nuisance who should all be run off the roads. Subsequently, the consequence to me, as a cyclist, is that I am routinely told to “get off the fucking road” by irate drivers who know that I will probably do everything in my power to piss them off, which I probably will now that they are giving me shit, and so on and so forth.

So, no, Americans aren’t lazy. They just don’t give a shit about anyone else.

Filed under: Observations

At 1:08 pm on 08.23.06, dawn said,

No, I am fairly sure that we are lazy.

At 2:28 am on 08.24.06, mc said,

hmm although this is an interesting elaboration of the original quote (as removed as it is from all semantic context) I think you are missing the key word “putative” which indicates “everything which follows is a bunch of handwavey horseshit”. I submit that your law school friends are merely afraid to be “poor”, an occasion which would warrant their removal from the exclusive fun club called new york city. I also recommend a journey to the humble, bike-friendly metropolis of chicago, where (barring certain avoidable thoroughfares) the cars generally politely get out of my way.

At 9:22 am on 08.29.06, Ahole said,

there are a couple of other things I never get about the whole ‘americans are lazy’ thing: one, Americans are frequently criticized by euros for believing that ‘you are your job’, ‘live to work’, etc. In american society, the first thing a stranger asks you is, “So, what do you *do*?” Second, those stupid studies about how americans work the greatest number of hours per week and take the least vacation days come out at least once a year, and get written up all over the place.

At 11:01 pm on 01.04.07, Katie said,

I wholeheartedly agree with your premise, that it’s not so much that Americans are lazy, but they just don’t give a shit about anyone else. And I don’t live in New York City- I live in the Heartland in a state that New Yorkers probably often confuse with Michigan. You’d think that with the seemingly flattering name we’ve acquired for ourselves, “Minnesota Nice,” that we really would be, but it’s all a sham. People are only looking out for Number One.

And about Americans working more hours than any other country, blah, blah blah, I think it’s because they’re not really working. They’re procrastinating (read: lazy) and they really could do in 8 hours what they do in 12, but they want to appear “hard working”, so they stay the extra howeverlong to look like a good employee. Perhaps if they didn’t spend half their day playing solitaire and chatting it up with their cubemate, they might actually be able to go home at 5:00. They don’t really like to work, but they know SOME amount of shit has to get done in order to keep getting paid, so they “work” a 12 hour day. Does this make sense to anyone? I think it might be because they’re dissatisfied with the rest of their life. Why else would you waste away your entire day+ at work? But I digress.

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