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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Fiat 500: American Tastes Revealed

One means of doing cross-cultural comparison is by contrasting consumer tastes; such proclivities tend to evince societal mores by which societies can be perceived to be distinctive. In the case of the E.U. and U.S., Fiat, a European auto company that controls Chrysler, an American company, is discovering some societal differences as it refashions the Fiat 500 for American customers.

For example, the pod of drink holders had to be enlarged to hold American-size “supersize” drinks. According to Fabio DiMuro, chief engineer of the 500, the in-car beverage concept is so foreign to Europeans that the workers didn’t understand his exhortations for more and bigger holders. The American taste for larger portions is known to restaurant owners and managers in the United States, but what does the preference say about the society and its people? Is it as simple as greed—a desire for more and to excess? Or is it simply a preference for convenience—filling up more so the next meal can be pushed back to make room for other activities? 

In terms of convenience, “Americans consider all-season tires a must,” whereas Europeans keep two sets (which must be changed with the advent of the snow season). Of course, this comparison over-generalizes, for we are talking about the Northern states in the E.U. and U.S. Even so, the northerners in America tend to be willing to sacrifice some traction in the snow for the convenience of not having to take the car to the garage to have the tires changed.

Furthermore, the fuel tank of the 500 was enlarged from 10.6 to 14.5 gallons “for longer distances typical in the U.S.”  The larger tank also enables American in-town drivers to drive more before having to fill up. The interstate highway system sports enough gas stations that the longer-distances rationale is perhaps specious; it probably comes from the European misconception of the U.S. being like one of the E.U.’s countries but with a larger territory. The U.S., an empire-level union of republics, is qualitatively as well as quantitatively distinct from a large state like Texas or France.

Returning to the matter of convenience, the comfort-factor may be a relevant difference. The U.S., having excelled in terms of material goods in the decades after World War II, may in the twenty-first century be more accustomed to comfort. Hence, the American 500 is to have an armrest added to the driver’s seat.

A stress on comfort may also explain why “lots more” insulation is needed in the American 500, “to keep it quiet enough for Americans.” This is a rather odd phrase, considering the growth of the car stereo industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, the notion of one’s car as a personal cocoon of sorts resonates. Might this be a manifestation of the individualism for which Americans are so well known? 

If one’s home is one’s castle, one’s car might be one’s bubble through which one passes through public space. Considering the “road rage” phenomenon and general impoliteness, the greater insulation might suggest that Americans are in general rather unfriendly when we are out and about. Hence there are “screening” devices such as fraternities and sororities, as well as country clubs and other private associations. The general American public may contain too many loud, pushing or boorish people to be palatable to the elite.

In general, James Healey’s article on the American Fiat 500 is not flattering to Americans, but perhaps Healey is pointing to indications of undesirable traits that we (for I am an American) should face about ourselves and our society. I for one have noticed that where strangers communicate without any purpose, such as in a store, politeness is the norm. However, as soon as a purpose is added, such as buying and selling a car, renting an apartment or room, or resolving a bill at a restaurant, presumptuous tends to raise its ugly head.

I don’t know if it is arrogance or a presumption that the worst is apt to be in others, but I would not disagree with a European assessment of American society in general as anti-social or antagonistic. It is perhaps no wonder that houses are castles and cars are insulated bubbles. Of course, I am over-generalizing, as the U.S. is composed of various cultures. Once flying from New York to Seattle, I was struck by the difference in how strangers treated each other; then I realized (aided by a few anti-New Yorker comments from Seattle airport employees) I had just flown over a continent! To render a continent as akin to a European state writ large is to miss the vital distinction between an empire and a kingdom politically and geographically.

Another possible source of my over-generalizing may be that modern society itself could be too much inclined to the road of most convenience.  Europeans may have their rankles as well, even as they differ from those of Americans. For example, the whole “peers/commoners” thing can be read as a matter of convenience by some at the expense of others. Such a matter of convenience is not apt to show up in an analysis of the Fiat 500. In general, we moderns may be too spoiled and too presumptuous when it comes to dealing with strangers. Humility, it seems, is out of fashion in modernity, at least in the public square. If so, my cultural critique goes well beyond the American shores. Although war and poverty are not to be wished for, it would be nice if greater human solidarity could be realized amid our lattes and 500s.


Source:

James Healey, “Fiat 500: Little Car Shoulders Huge Responsibility in U.S.,” USA Today, June 1, 2011, p. 5B.