Family, Self

5 Reasons To Love American Men (Cowboys, Capitalism And All)

american man american flag

Things men love to man: Barbecue grills. Firecrackers. Boats on the lake.

There's no holiday more American than the Fourth of July, a day that casts men in their most traditional role: the take-charge, fire-mastering, crowd-pleasing leader. Is there anything more American than a man with a mission? In fact, the traditions of Independence Day can shed a lot of light on your relationship and explain just what it is that makes your American man so... American (and appealing).

So what IS an American man? What I learned during my twenties—besides how to disguise frustration with a polite smile—was that American guys think only of one thing: success. On dates, I observed my distracted male counterparts daydreaming about their commitment to establish themselves, to set up lives of comfort, to make their marks on the world. Sure, they wanted to be happy now—but they were always thinking about the future. And it's not just my generation: during our conversations for my book, How to Love an American Man (Harper Paperbacks, Aug. 2011), my grandmother expressed disdain at how for 60 years she sometimes felt my grandfather's job was "the other woman in his life." Career success is one way of ensuring a better future.

Even in 1776 during the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin put his foot down when some of his fellow Founding Fathers suggested "Property" would suitably round out the phrase, "Life, Liberty and..." Franklin's demand for achievement over simply wealth won, and today our unalienable rights are listed famously as "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Americans are strivers.

In fact within nearly every American man there's a quiet conflict between his contentedness in the present—his family, financial comfort, the simplicity of weekend barbecues—and his goals for the future. Adrian McIntyre, PhD is a cultural anthropologist at UC Berkeley (and, yes, an American man) who has observed how American males define happiness differently from their international counterparts. McIntyre explains that since American boys first had access to radio and TV in the last century, they've been socialized to aspire to a manhood that calls them to act masculine and tough; to be capable of any task and always in control of oneself. From the Wild West to Wall Street, he says, "If you really look at the visual images people are subjected to, there's a theme of frontierism—even in contemporary life." Show me a cowboy, and I'll show you a beauty who wants to ride. 

So in honor of this most festive and quintessential holiday, let's hold our horses and try to really understand the American man.

  • The American man is autonomous. Speaking of Independence Day, there may be no culture of guys more independent than those in America. McIntyre asks us to consider the most classic male characters in our media: they always operate fundamentally alone. Think John Wayne, Gordon Gekko and James Dean: our men have been inspired by images of fellas who make their own decisions and don't get pushed around. This individualism can be frustrating (do men in other countries have as much trouble asking for directions?); but after having lived abroad, I'm certain the all-American trait of self-sufficiency is among the most attractive in the world.

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  • The American man can do anything he wants to do. No matter what faults we might find with capitalism, the fact is, it's a system that opens up possibilities for us all. An American man is driven to be the best—at work, at sports, at marriage, at raising great kids—because he's been trained to approach all of life like a competition in which every peer is a potential threat to his success. A challenge with this, McIntyre explains, is that unlike other cultures, most American boys are raised without a mentoring community to help them navigate the path to manhood. They enter the world without much preparation for life's challenges except a hard pat on the back and a, "Good luck, now go make it." A strong network of male elders—or an extraordinarily supportive father—can seriously influence whether a man sets and reaches goals, and constructively bounces back from failure.
  • The American man is extremely goal-oriented. The year I spent living in a Mediterranean country demonstrated how truly helpful it is to have been raised among American men with specific aspirations. Gender diversity expert and intercultural consultant Melissa Lamson says that goal orientation is an absolutely distinctive American trait, as men from many foreign cultures just go with life's flow and never take the bull by the horns, Marlboro-style (which is why my 44-year-old cousin in Rome still lives with his mother). But the American man knows what he wants, and he targets his desires with precision. In romantic relationships this can be especially enlightening: while a man from Europe might find a woman attractive, he may perceive her to be simply a nice conversation partner or someone who'd enjoy a trip to the museum together. It makes for a fun vacation for sure; but beyond that, he's not necessarily wooing her. But if the red-blooded American man is hanging out with a woman, she can be pretty sure he's trying to win her over romantically.
  • The American man loves his job. My very first American man, my father, has half-joked about the thrill he finds in the challenge of his business career, saying (always out of Mom's earshot), "My work is my romance." In the context of a continual search for something better, it makes sense that men would put their jobs before their love lives. The typical American man falls in love with a woman, proposes marriage, and settles down to have kids. Once married, there are no more frontiers to conquer. Maintaining a strong marriage and raising healthy kids is difficult, but the path is pretty much set. There's no more rugged individualism when you're part of a family unit. Even the single guys I dated knew that. But that's not the case in one's career; professional life offers an endless horizon of goals to reach, paths to take, professional destinies to manifest. Luckily for us, however, there's another fundamental quality of American men...
  • The American man really wants to be good at relationships. Believe it. Sure, sometimes it comes off the wrong way. "Men think their aggressive behavior is considered attractive and interesting, and they don't understand why women don't get them," Lamson says. But despite the differences in the way the genders communicate, Lamson explains that underneath the American man's self-reliant exterior is a hidden desire to connect emotionally and to engage in deep interpersonal exchanges: he really does crave love and support. American men—indeed, most men, I would guess—"are very emotional," Lamson says, "and they do need to talk about their feelings and what happens to them." We women can employ very simple tactics to make it easier for them to open up.

First, Lamson says, most men need time to decompress before they start answering questions about their emotional state. "If you ask, 'How was your day?' it will severely annoy most men," she explains. "Give him an hour to run his day through his head, and then sit down and ask a specific, tactical question like, 'Did Joe finish that presentation you were expecting from him?' He'll answer the question, and then he'll crack into the emotional part. That's where men feel supported by women."

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What else do American men respond to? Remember, they're red-blooded: they love sexual attention. "It is critically important for a man to get, say, 10 minutes of physical affection three days a week or more," Lamson says, acknowledging that an American woman wants to be heard and to connect emotionally before she can feel sexual. "Men need to understand that all they have to do is ask us, 'How is your day?' and listen for a few minutes. Then they might get as much sex as they want!" Fireworks indeed.

American men might be full of contradictions—after all, independence makes an emotional connection with family and community more difficult—but this Independence Day, let's celebrate what makes the American man unique by embracing him, contradictions and all. So step back and give him some space to light the grill and that Roman candle, and watch your relationship light up.

And if that doesn't give you enough satisfaction, then just relish the sight of him in an apron.

Kristine Gasbarre is the author of How to Love an American Man: A True Story (Aug. 16, 2011, Harper Paperbacks

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