The Insight And The Outsight

Images of America of the Authors Paul Watzlawick and Bill Bryson

Seminar Paper 2009 21 Pages

American Studies - Miscellaneous


Table of Contents



3.1.1. Infrastructure
3.1.2. Everyday Life
3.2.1. People and Lifestyle in America
3.2.2. Nature in America


5.1. BOOKS

1. Introduction

The reason why I decided to focus on this topic is simple: There are innumerous images and concepts of America1, written down by an equally uncountable number of writers from all around the world, also including citizens of the United States themselves. Moreover, I tend to believe that there is no other country in the world, which had inspired more authors to deal with it in their literature. This might be a result of the well-known picture of America as the land of unlimited opportunities, which spread around people’s minds ever since the “New World” had been discovered in 1492.

As many people still regard America as the “promised land”, there surely developed Images of this country, which might not always be true, or at least not as positive as some dreamers might think. Therefore, I decided to base my essay on the books of two quite critical authors, Paul Watzlawick and Bill Bryson, who present America in a questioning way and do not simply glorify its social, economical and political structures. Nonetheless, both authors succeed in drawing a rather sympathetic Image of America. This literary contrast encouraged me to compare both: authors and novels, but most importantly, the development of their Images of America.

2. The Authors and their Backgrounds

2.1. Paul Watzlawick

Paul Watzlawick was born in Villach / Kärnten (Austria) on the 25th of July 1921. After finishing his Matura (Austrian high school degree), he studied philosophy and philology at the University Ca´ Foscari in Venice (Italy) and did a doctorate in philosophy in 1949. In the following four years, he furthermore gained his degrees as a psychotherapist in Zurich (Switzerland). In 1957, he became professor of psychotherapy at the University of San Salvador (El Salvador) and only three years later he left to California (U.S.A.), where he started to work for the “Mental Research Institute” in Paolo Alto. There he stayed until his death on the 31st March 2007 (cf. Munziger 2009).

During his carrier, he wrote numerous books, such as the well-known psychological guide The Situation is Hopeless, but not Serious (1983), which is also known as The Pursuit of Unhappiness. Less famous was Gebrauchsanweisung für Amerika (‘Instructions for America’), which was published in 1978 and since then, had been revised and updated by the author multiple times. Its substance, literally is a collection of instructions, how to handle the American peculiarities, being a European. Therefore, this book will serve as a basis for my research about Watzlawick’s image of America.

2.2. Bill Bryson

William ‘Bill’ McGuire Bryson was born in De Moines, Iowa (U.S.A.) at December 8, 1959. He dropped out Drake University in order to go on a backpacking trip to Europe in 1973. During his travels, he met his future wife Cynthia in England and, after having finished his studies in the United States, decided to live in with her in North Yorkshire (England). There, he worked, just like his parents, as a newspaper journalist and book author. In 1995 he returned to America together with his family and lived in Hanover, New Hampshire. However, in 2003 the family moved back to England and now lives in Wymondham, Norfolk (cf. Randomhouse 2004, Biblio 2009).

Bill Bryson became famous for his travel journals and his books on cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. His most popular work probably is Notes from a Big Country (published in 1998), which is based on a number of newspaper articles that were published in the Mail on Sunday’s Night and Day magazine between October 1996 and May 1998 (cf. Bryson 1998, binding). In those short columns, Bryson takes a humorous look on the differences of every day life in the U.S. and England and, as well as Watzlawick, ridicules some of the specific features of the American system.

3. Images of America

The New Oxford American Dictionary explains the word ‘image’ as “a mental representation or idea”. According to this definition, one could say that the different Images of a country (in this case America) are nothing else than an internal cognitive construction. An image cannot be true or false, but forms in a person’s mind and is therefore based on individual experiences and external influences on the person towards the country. That is why I will not assess the different images of America as described by the authors in the following paragraph. My intention rather is, to find out how their image developed and how it is connected to the author’s experiences.

3.1. The European View on the U.S.

When Paul Watzlawick settled down in the United States of America, he was already 39 years old. He was a quite successful scientist and had been to other foreign countries already. This might imply that he was not completely surprised when he saw himself confronted with the unfamiliar American system. Nonetheless, he was raised and socialized in Austria, which means that his perception of how every day life has to look like was strongly influenced by a European culture. It therefore sounds reasonable to suppose that his instructions about how to deal with the American culture were written by him in order to prepare other European people to whatever was going to be different in America, compared to their Non-American socialization. Illustrating this ambition, Watzlawick structured his book quite practically: He starts with the arrival, goes on with ‘typical’ problems of immigrants and visitors and then finishes with the American people themselves (cf. Watzlawick 2002, Table of Contents). By doing so, he constantly points out differences to the European system and thereby focuses on two major subjects.

3.1.1. Infrastructure

The first important issue in his valuation is the American infrastructure. Historically grown cities, as one finds them in most of European countries are quite rare. Especially the large metropolis was often planned on the drawing board and therefore resembles a gigantic chessboard. Watzlawick calls this pattern monotone and hostile towards nature (cf. ib. p.54) but almost instantly admits that there are a few European styled cities, such as San Francisco or the French quarters of New Orleans, which flatter the Non-American eye. Attached to the cities is the broad highway system. According to Watzlawick, it enforces the inhospitable impression of constriction of those large cities (cf. ib. p.51). In contrast, he points out that Americans are “the most reasonable, the politest and most helpful drivers, you can imagine” (ib. p.42, transl.2). In this context, he additionally lists up numerous traffic regulations, which differ from the European standards.

Another structural difference (and probably one of the most discussed ones in the context of American infrastructure) is the health insurance system. Rather cynically, Watzlawick gives advice, better not to get hurt or ill in America without having taken out private insurance. As there is no public insurance as in most of the European countries, this hint is not only helpful but also may seem very uncommon for Europeans (cf. ib. pp.126). Additionally, Watzlawick explains the American measurement parameters: feet, inches, degrees Fahrenheit, gallons, miles, etc.. He thereby puts emphasis on the fact that the decimal system, which is the basis for almost all of the measuring units in Europe, has never entirely been established in the United States (cf. ib. pp.38).

Furthermore, Watzlawick introduces the American financial system as a system, in which being indebted is not only common, but also encouraged: “[...] to be respectable, you have to be in debt” (ib. p.62, transl.). According to Watzlawick, the reason for this development is the large circulation of credit cards and the inability of American citizens to handle them. In order to support this argument, he quotes a survey of the American Express Company, which proved that only an insignificant number of credit card owners were able to answer some of the most basic questions about how to deal with their cards (cf. ib. p.66).

A final difference in infrastructure, depicted by Watzlawick, is the communication network, such as telephone networks or the U.S. postal service. The latter contrasts the reliable systems in Europe. For Watzlawick, it is not comprehensible, why letters in America sometimes are sent to a sorting facility, which is further away from the addressor than the receiver (cf. ib. p.112). This contrasts his image of a modern, progressive and economic America.

Regarding these observations of the U.S. infrastructure, it becomes clear that, in this context, Watzlawick has a divided image of America. On the one hand, he regards the United States as a very advanced nation state in which modernity is multipresent (e.g. cities, streets, financial system). On the other hand, he seems to be astounded that some structural patterns in this progressive country seem alarmingly underdeveloped and behind the time (e.g. health insurance, postal services, measuring systems).

3.1.2. Everyday Life

Secondly, Watzlawick takes a closer look on differences between Europe and the U.S. in everyday life, such as behavior in restaurants. He explains the common rule that a guest is not supposed to choose a table by himself. Instead, he has to wait for an employee of the restaurant who guides him to a free table (cf. ib. p.119). Additionally, Watzlawick mentions the American habit of cutting everything on the plate before starting to eat. This quirk often appears funny to Non-Americans, but Watzlawick encourages the reader to consider that rules of ones own society might not necessarily be ‘right’ and that, in conclusion, other habits therefore cannot be considered ‘false’ (cf. ib. p.34).


1 Whenever I refer to „America“ in this essay I thereby mean the nation State U.S.A. and not the geographical Continent.

2 The quotes marked with „transl.“ are translations of the original German version of the book.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Institution / College
TU Dortmund – Anglistik & Amerikanistik
Insight Outsight Images America Authors Paul Watzlawick Bill Bryson



Title: The Insight And The Outsight