AEE 845: One Taboo Topic that Americans Avoid

death in American culture

Have you ever attended a funeral in your home country or in the United States?

How do people in your country view death?

How do Americans view death?

In the US, death is almost a taboo topic. It’s not something that we like to talk about.

When the topic does come up, we don’t know what to say.

We are terrified of it but also fascinated by it.

The way we relate to death is very cultural.

Today we’ll take a look at this topic and see how it contrasts with death in your own culture.

 

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Cultural differences:

In the US we look at death as a taboo but there are cultures that do this differently.

In my Buddhist practice we are encouraged to contemplate death daily.

An American would react to that by saying “ugh that sounds depressing” but it’s just the opposite.

If you can get in touch with the fact that our lives are not going to last forever then we can live a higher quality life while we’re here.

 

Here is the question from our listener:

Hi, Lindsay and Michelle

Thanks so much for your amazing podcast. You have brought me so many insights about American culture. You truly helped me a lot in adapting the life in North America.

I am from China and have been living in Canada for over 3 years, as it recently comes to my attention that the houses and condos which were built around the funeral homes or the graveyards tend to gain some popularity among local people and even selling at higher prices, someone explained this to me as “the nearest place to heaven”, but much to my surprise, in my culture, anything relating to death is regarded as taboo, as well, people definitely do not choose to live near funeral homes or graveyards.

How do American people treat the topic ‘death’?

Could you help me to clear it up?

Warm regards,

Jean

 

American attitudes toward death: 

I don’t know any Americans that would want to live near a cemetery.

To help explain the American view to death we’ll pull in a quote from Psychology Yesterday with Lawrence Samuel PhD

The following is a direct quote from the article:

“The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly “un-American” experiences. The rise of the self has made it increasingly difficult to acknowledge the fact that our individual selves will no longer exist. Death and dying became almost unmentionable words over the course of the last century, topics not to be brought up in polite conversation.”  

The article goes on to say that in recent years the topic of death has become a bit less taboo to discuss, but we still have a lot of work to do to not push it away as a culture.

So Americans aren’t that in touch or comfortable with death.

American culture is all about youth, beauty, energy, ambition.

 Death and aging doesn’t fit into this.

We don’t respect our elders in the same way people do in other cultures

 

How we treat issues related to death:

  • Wills: A will is a document that explains everything that should happen with your assets when you die. We might not always plan our wills when we should. We procrastinate on them. We don’t share what’s in our will with our loved ones. A lot of it is kept private and would be considered inappropriate conversation around the dinner table.

 

  • Crime shows: Americans are OBSESSED with crime shows. It probably feeds into our weird relationship with death. If we were more in touch with death and if it were less of a taboo I wonder if those crime shows would be popular?? 

 

  • Word choice: We don’t really say that someone “died” last year instead we have other words for it like “passed away” or “passed.” To talk about someone who is dead we don’t say, “my dead uncle.” Instead we might say “my uncle who passed away last year” or “my late uncle.”

 

  • Not knowing what to say: There is a culture of sensitivity and not quite knowing what to say to someone who has had a loved one die. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing so we might avoid saying anything at all.

 

How is it different in your culture?

Other cultures are more open about death.

It might be talked about differently.

There might even be laughter and lightheartedness involved.

 

Takeaway:

Recognize that attitudes toward death are different everywhere even if we aren’t aware.

There are cultural programs running under the surface and this might affect the way that you communicate and connect with people when you travel to the United States.

 

Please share comments about your culture below!

Let us know how death is viewed in your culture.

 

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