Fireworks and American Culture: Personal Freedom and Contractual Obligations

As I sat on the edge of a hill overlooking the beach in Vermilion, Ohio on the 4th of July (Independence Day in the USA), I looked across Lake Erie to the twinkling lights on the tall amusement rides of Cedar Point: mecca for roller-coaster enthusiasts the world over. I spent a week in the area visiting family, but as I’ve probably been to Cedar Point about 500 times in my life (I’m not exaggerating), I opted out of spending $45 and fighting the crowds this year.

In any case, Cedar Point puts on a large display of professional-grade fireworks over the lake on Independence Day every year, which can be seen for 20 miles. The pyrotechnicians who are in charge of the show must be licensed and trained, and these types of shows are heavily regulated (as they’re basically shooting off bombs, and these have been known to go astray and kill someone every now and again).

As I swatted at mosquitoes and watched the fireflies flash their bioluminescence in the humid Midwestern evening heat, I watched some amateur pyros set up their own firework display on a stone breakwall abutting the beach. There were approximately 75 boxes of the large mortar-type fireworks all fused together, to be set off some time after dark. I would estimate the total cost of the fireworks was two thousand dollars or more. The odd thing is, it’s illegal to set off fireworks without a valid license in Ohio. In fact, it’s illegal for non-professionals to set off many kinds of fireworks in most of the United States. But in some states where it’s illegal to discharge them, you can legally buy and sell them. Confused? You should be.

If you buy many kinds of fireworks in Ohio, you have to sign a contract that says that you agree to set them off in another state. Yes, you read that correctly. Where it probably won’t be legal to set them off either. These types of fireworks are illegal for good reason; in 2008 fireworks caused 7,000 emergency room visits and 22,000 unintentional fires, which resulted in 42 million dollars in property damage in the United States. Most of the injuries were suffered by teenagers and children. Some of these injuries were from the large mortar-type fireworks (illegal to buy and possess in many states), but the majority of injuries are caused by sparklers, black cats, and bottle rockets… some of which you can legally buy in grocery stores around the 4th of July.

Fireworks have been a part of Independence Day in the USA since the 1700’s, but keep in mind that at the time people freely handled mercury and lead, wife-beating was commonplace, and dueling with pistols was accepted as a way to settle disputes. So what’s the deal? Why do Americans insist on risking life, limb, and burning their houses down for displays of combustible glory? Why don’t we leave fireworks to the professionals? The simple answer: rugged individualism. Many Americans eagerly usher their children out of the home at the age of 18, grumble incessantly about government interference in their lives, and idealize cultural icons of freedom such as cowboys in the American West. Americans tend to value individuality, particularly the ability to make personal choices, much more than most other cultures.

The culturally-held belief that the USA was founded by people seeking freedom and liberty, those largely indefinable concepts, is ingrained in Americans from birth. Even if a behavior is totally reckless and extremely dangerous (demolition derby, bull riding, riding a motorcycle without a helmet), Americans tend to believe that it’s the individual’s responsibility to know the risks of a given behavior, and to accept personal (and financial) responsibility for any of the consequences. Of course, there are plenty of things that are viewed as too generally harmful to be legal (drugs, assault weapons, etc.), but a substantial number of Americans wholeheartedly believe that “the government that governs least governs best.”

America is also oriented towards written contracts; every business deal, every licensure examination, and every application requires personal information, a signature, and a date, and often a formal contract (or even a fingerprint!). Many American universities now employ an “Honor Code,” which students must sign, promising in writing not to cheat. Americans, in our individualism, often don’t have the community ties, concern for the collective, or emphasis on familial or personal honor that has traditionally reinforced good behavior in other parts of the world, and so instead we tend to rely on written contracts.

In the USA, if you don’t insist on a contract being signed prior to doing business, the expectation is that someone will try to take advantage of you. Watch any of the popular American “Judge” shows, and observe the reaction when the judge asks: “Well, did you sign a contract?” and the plaintiff says “no”. The judge’s reaction, verbal or non-verbal, will communicate: “Well of course you got screwed, you didn’t have a contract!” However, your obligation in no way extends any farther than the specific language spelled out in the contract, or in the case of fireworks, contracts are only a formality to cover the liability of one of the parties (in this case, fireworks vendors), while the purchaser has no intention of honoring it (ie, by setting off gigantic explosives in their backyard).

For the record, I myself didn’t shoot off any fireworks this year. I did, however, exercise my American freedom by doing a “Keg-stand” on the beach with some pyrotechnically inclined Ohioans, as they all circled me, chanting “USA! USA! USA! USA!” Probably illegal, definitely irresponsible, and totally American.

Read more:
Kiss, hug or shake hands? Greetings around the world
African-American culture in the United States
Irish-American culture: pass the Colcannon

About the author

Sean Oliver
My name is Sean Oliver, and I'm a project manager for Language & Culture Worldwide, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. We also offer a full suite of language services. I have a BA in Anthropology, with a focus in Archaeology, as well as a self-designed minor in Sex and Gender Studies. I grew up in Ohio and have traveled extensively, moving to Chicago during the Summer of 2002. I have no intentions of living anywhere else; Chicago is one of my favorite places on the planet. I feel most at home in America's MidWest, though it's good to get out and see the world every now and again. I write mostly about American culture, drawing attention to the vast differences between Americans across ethnicity, class, gender, generations, etc.
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  • Very interesting post, especially the part about contracts. Here in Turkey things tend to depend more on reputation and less on contractual obligations.

    I often read about the culture of ligitation in the USA (there was a woman who sued McDonalds because her coffee was too hot, right?), how does this fit with the idea of personal responsibility?

  • In India, Diwali, the festival of lights, sees a massive display of fireworks. Everyone joins in young and old. People get burnt, some lives are lost, some houses almost always catch fire. it does not seem to matter. We are back to the daredevilry the next year!

  • Sean O.

    Liability and personal responsibility go hand and hand in the USA. The McDonald’s Coffee case is widely used to show how the US is an overly litigious society, and perhaps the cash settlement she received seems high, but in that case, the coffee was 82-88 degrees Celsius… a lot hotter than it needed to be, and hotter than any other businesses served it. There were no laws on the books as to how hot coffee could be (there probably are now), but the woman got 3rd degree burns after only a few seconds of it spilling on her. We all expect coffee to be served hot, but not to produce 3rd degree burns in several seconds if we accidentally spill it! McDonald’s also refused to settle out of court several times, and ended up paying 10x the offered settlement.

    The big difference between the US and a lot of the rest of the developed world, is that something is legal here until it’s proven harmful, and it’s often through lawsuits that that harm is proven, since the burden of proof for a lawsuit is “more likely than not”, whereas in a criminal court it’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It’s why, for example, OJ Simpson was found innocent of murdering his wife in a criminal court, but personally liable for her death in a civil (lawsuit) court. It’s easier to find someone financial liable, than criminally negligent.

    If I were a business owner, I would have the responsibility to make sure that my product is safe, and to provide ample warning about potential dangers, even if they seem common sense (ie selling buckets with child-drowning warnings, selling plastic bags with child-suffocation warnings, selling aerosol with flammable warnings). If I sell a product that harms someone, and especially if it can be proven that I knew it could harm someone and didn’t warn them, then either I, or my company, depending on the legal organization, is liable for damages. In other countries, I might try to make my product safe, as I would be concerned about my company’s honor or reputation, and others’ willingness to do business with me… but in the US it’s the stock price and dividends that tend to be the drivers of business decisions. If you have a reputation for making money (being “successful”), that can often be the only reputation that matters.

  • I’m impressed by your writing style, it’s very elegant.
    As for the liability part, I’ve seen this expression in many texts written in the US “Read and understand”. It’d sound hilarious in Spanish (of course I will understand something I read!) but I guess in the US they need to write this and use plain English so you don’t sue them…
    Very good post!

  • Sean,
    Great post and it sure shows the difference in cultures between the USA and anywhere else in the world I’ve ever been.
    Just recently, I met retired policeman who was on duty the day the coffee incident happened. I’d always thought McDonalds got took to the cleaners in that case. Then, I learned about what really happened. The guy serving at the take-out window didn’t have any hot drink cups handy. So, he poured the hot coffee in a wax paper cup and handed it to the woman (80 some years old) and the seams of the cup melted, pouring the coffee in her lap!

    Now, here in Japan, a drunken man teased and tried to kiss one of my Huskies. He got his lip ripped open and required 18 stitches. I offered to pay, knowing, in the USA that’d be a big lawsuit. He apologized to me, the dog and my wife. Cultural differences…

  • Mike, how interesting that you met that policeman in particular! What are the odds!

    I’m going to be honest here: in my opinion (I’m not American but have lived in the US for 5 years), the idea of personal responsibility has been a bit distorted perhaps? I find it difficult to believe that a society that sues the pants off of everyone for things they themselves may be responsible for (take Mike’s dog’s example, I too thought you’d be sued in the US by the man who kissed your dog. It was his decision to do that, not you dog’s to attack him) is willing to take responsibility.

    My perception is that nowadays it is easy to blame others for one’s problems. TV commercials are one example: blaming the food for your heartburn instead of eating healthily, XXX is not your fault, you may have a condition called XYZ, and so on. Even when my husband hurt his ankle, the insurance company wanted to know how and where it happened so that they could sue someone. They couldn’t believe it when h said it was his fault!

    I’m a strong believer in this too: “the government that governs least governs best” but I don’t see it happening in such a highly regulated society (not only the US, other countries like Canada or the UK are like that too.)

    Finally, I agree with Marta, great writing style :)

  • Hey Sean, we’re not ganging up on you, I promise! :)

    It’s that we all view American culture in such a different light!

  • Sean Oliver

    Thanks for all the great comments and compliments everyone! I’m glad you liked it. It was one of those posts where I was just sitting out there having a beer with my family, and started over-analyzing the situation. It practically wrote itself. I’m glad you liked it.

    Marta: that would be: “lea y entienda,” right? He-he. That would look funny!

    I think, Ana, that “personal responsibility” tends to work differently in the US, because we give corporations/companies some of the same rights as individuals. You can’t put a company in jail, so you have to sue them. As far as the “Government that governs least…” bit goes, I agree in principle, except that in the US it’s not the individual who gains from less government intervention/regulation, it’s the big corporations. At least with the government, I can vote for or against them, I can’t vote for or against the CEO of a corporation (unless I own lots of stock, of course).

  • marie

    So, Cedar Point is in Ohio? I had no idea. I went there when I was a kid living in Michigan, but of course, all I knew was that we were going to Cedar Point(!). Who cares where it is! No, that’s not the only thing I got from your post, I promise.

    This is really well written and, to me, it highlights the complexities of living in the US. For people from outside of the US, I think it’s really easy to feel like you have an understanding of the culture because there is so much representation and misrepresentation around through films, and other media. People get a false sense of what it is to be an American. Even though I lived my entire childhood there, there are many things I don’t know about or understand. I think this proves that the subtle differences are often the ones that cause the most misunderstanding between people. When we approach a situation based on a set of values we are somewhat confused when things don’t turn out like we expected and that is the danger zone. It’s when we start to stereotype to try and make sense of things. Somehow we need to work out how to change the danger zone into a learning zone for understanding other cultures. To use an American expression, it’s just my 2 cents worth.

    I’m loooking forward to your next post:-)

  • Sean O.

    Thanks Marie! Yep, I grew up 3 miles from Cedar Point. My friends and I used to dance at the laser light show every night. Good times. Totally agree about America/Stereotypes/Culture. One thing I do think though, is in a multicultural society like the US, stereotypes (or rather archetypes) have value. I live in a city of 3 million+, and if I don’t make some assumptions about who people are and their intentions, there’s a lot of bad things that can happen to me. It’s just not possible to think of every single person as an individual. Now of course, the better you really know people, and what they try to commmunicate through their appearance, the better you can judge…. Though of course I’m always pleasently suprised when people act counter to stereotypes (and I try to give them a chance whenever possible).

    I’m not sure what to do my next post on… maybe Polish Americans? Tons of Polish and Polish American folks in Chicago. Hmmmm….

  • Please do! I’m a huge fan of Sarah Paretsky’s novels and her main character, V.I. Warshawski is one half Polish American and lives in Chicago. I’ve always wanted to go there and see for myself the places she mentions. And the Polish-American community has a prominent place in the books. I’d love to hear about it from a real life Chicago resident!

  • Sean O.

    Thanks Ana, I think I will!