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Efficiency and Serfdom - America for Real? | Print |  Email
Saturday, 15 March 2003
There is an urge in the American business culture toward efficiency in thought, word, and deed. How does an Irishman survive? Thomas Cahill offers some advice.

There is an urge in the American business culture toward efficiency in thought, word, and deed. Words are trimmed, crisp explanations are valued highly, and real results override almost every other consideration. Americans have an aversion to inefficiencies, and intolerance for whiners. "Want some cheese with that whine?" is a not uncommon phrase in commercial offices around the US.

For example, when I first arrived in the US one of the things I noticed was that their streets are brilliantly organized. Their towns look as if the Germans were given free rein on an Irish beet field. Streets were formed in a grid with 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc in one direction and crosswise streets were named after, well, dead presidents. So if I wanted to meet you I would say "I'll meet you at Lincoln and 6th." How could you get lost? It's common sense institutionalized. If you ask for directions Americans will always oblige because they are a civil people. Unfortunately for them, and me, their system is so simple I didn't get it initially.

If I wanted to go from Austin to Corpus Christi my American guide would say "Well, just go south on 1-35 for 250 miles take the "Such-and-so" exit follow the ramp around under the highway and stay east. That should put you in downtown Corpus Christi". Where are left and right? How do I know which direction is East? Or South for that matter?

With the best American directions in America's well-organized highway system, I could not easily find my way until a kindly New Yorker, with whom I was traveling the nation on sales calls, said, "Look for the sun. In the morning it is in the East. In the afternoon it is in the West." Well, I knew that! "To drive North in the morning, make sure the sun is shining in your right window. To go north in the afternoon make sure the sun is shining in your left window." I had not connected those particular dots. Americans have sun you see. They get to practice. Or is it practise?

The impact on America, of this drive for evermore efficiency, is the sense one has that Americans are living to work rather than working to live. Personal responsibility is paramount throughout the system. Don't look for a socialist safety net as we have in Europe. Vacations are two weeks and if you save for your pension you will have one. The Social Security (old age pension) cheque will not cover basics for the average American as we speak.

If the idea that you are totally responsible for your own financial survival is impressed on you in your youth you will soon develop that focused intensity that one sees in many Americans. As painful as it appears to us it is probably the best way to run a country because people are free to screw up their lives but they can also end up millionaires in retirement if the start early enough and do so with a small portion of their monthly income. I think that many older middle class Americans inherently believe that assistance from the government is tantamount to taking a train to serfdom. Naturally there are other Americans who think the opposite because this is America after all and you are free to screw up.

Now, how are you to make your way through this landscape? Firstly acknowledge to yourself that this is a personal responsibility environment. Never assume that someone else is going to do something at a given time. You cover that base if it is important to you. You will soon win friends among serious business people. Follow up thoroughly to help others meet your goals and theirs. Never miss a meeting.

Oh, never point out a person's weakness in public however great the temptation. Americans are conditioned to living with such a variety of people that ad hominem attacks in business meetings are really considered destructive in the extreme even when substantial constructive criticism is fully justified. Stick to the technical aspects of the criticism and allow efficiency to prevail.

Then wait in a dark ally with a "tubafor". OK that last was totally not necessary, although thinking that a few "south ends of North bound horses" have deserved a good "can of whoopass" expressed in the form of 2x4 "up side of the head" is fully understandable, as any red-blooded American will tell you. Hey man, "E Pluribus Unum" is tough.

Thomas A. Cahill © 2004

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