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Chapter 8: European Americans: Vignettes

In the vignettes that follow, Ellen, Tom, and Tony are all European Americans. However, they not only have different emotional and interpersonal concerns; they also come from different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Their backgrounds have influenced what they do and how they see the world, as is the case for all human beings.

Vignette 1, Ellen:

Ellen, a 35-year-old vice president of a paint manufacturing company, earns $240,000 year and has stock options. For this, she is expected to work long hours and travel frequently to several different locations. In addition to her job, Ellen, a Ph.D.-level chemist, has two children—a boy, three years old, and a girl, six. Steve, Ellen's husband, is also a Ph.D. chemist, but unlike his wife, he has not risen rapidly to management. He remains a bench chemist. Steve, Ellen, and their children are Reform Jews who practice their religion. The children attend Hebrew school one afternoon a week and on Sunday. During the week, they attend both private school and day care after school until one of the parents can pick them up.

There are several problems in the household. Although Steve is proud of Ellen's

success at work, his salary is only a third of hers. He also sometimes resents the amount of housework and childcare that he has to do when she travels. Furthermore, Ellen's mother, an Orthodox Jew, disliked the fact that Ellen became Reform, which is a liberal movement in Judaism, when she married. Becoming Reform was a compromise for the couple because Steve had little contact with religious Judaism in his life. His mother was a nonpracticing Jew by birth, and his father was not Jewish. By contrast, Ellen grew up in a household where the Sabbath and the Jewish dietary laws were strictly observed. Her grandmother and grandfather used to converse in Yiddish, a language that her mother had learned but Ellen did not learn. There are times when her grandparents still speak Yiddish around Ellen. She thinks that they do so only when they are talking about their displeasure with her marriage to Steve. It annoys her.

Ellen thought she would please her mother by becoming a respected professional and a good homemaker. Instead, her mother seemed to always be on her. [AU: criticizing her?] In retrospect, it seemed to Ellen that where her mother was concerned, she was never able to do enough. She didn't really know what her mother expected of her. Furthermore, when her mother really seemed riled about something, she involved the kids, especially the six-year-old. Ellen would hear her say things to the children like, "You should come to my house, and have a REAL shabbos [Sabbath] dinner with candles and wine, not like your other grandmother who would serve you bacon if she could."

Ellen's mother often remarks directly to Ellen that if Steve were a better provider, as she thinks he should be, Ellen wouldn't have to work so hard and be away from the children so much. Ellen loves her work, but every now and then she thinks that life would be much simpler if she would return to being a bench chemist, earn what Steve earns, and place the children in public school. Recently, the live-in maid quit working for Ellen and Steve. Feeling overwhelmed, Ellen decided to seek counseling.

Vignette 2, Tom:

Tom, a 52-year-old computer analyst, manages a department of 10 employees responsible for computer training in a large state government agency. He has a college degree that he earned on the G.I. Bill after serving six years in the Navy. He received his initial computer training as a young seaman and has since acquired on-the-job training through the government agency where he has worked ever since. Originally from northeast Pennsylvania of Scotch-Irish and German parents, Tom grew up in an economically depressed area. Some Polish and Italian families lived in the area, but Tom's parents looked down on "those Catholics" and didn't want him to associate too much with them.  His family, as Protestants and older white Americans sometimes do, thought of themselves as "the real Americans" and considered themselves to be better than more recent arrivals. Originally the family worked on a small farm and were "dirt poor," like the soil they tilled, but in two generations they had saved enough money to buy a small general store, where they sold clothing and notions to the miners. However, they lost what money they had made in the store during the Great Depression of the 1930s. That's when Tom's family started working in the coal mines.

Tom could have been a miner too, but the military took him away from that difficult occupation. He joined the Navy right after graduating from high school. Then there was college and the corporate life. He is the father of three college-age daughters. He has been separated from his stay-at-home wife for six months and has temporarily moved in with his older sister and her husband. This living arrangement is not common in his culture and is a source of tension. Tom considers himself to be a self-made man. He has always been proud of his independence, a trait that he acquired from his Scotch-Irish father's side. He is emotionally restrained, although he sees himself as pleasant and friendly. These qualities, he feels certain, come from his mother's side. His mother called this calm cheerfulness "gemütlichkeit." She herself had the gentility that comes with this warm, yet restrained style. Tom admired those traits in her.

Tom has been turned down for two promotions in the last three years, although he was fully qualified for both jobs and has had outstanding performance evaluations. In each case, Tom believes that the individuals chosen—a 40-year-old African American female and a Dominican 34-year-old male with "a strong accent"—were less qualified in years of service and amount of training. He expresses anger and resentment toward them and toward the government policies that he feels gave them preferential treatment.

He has been referred to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for counseling because he has been experiencing symptoms of anxiety and stress. He is both angry and depressed and has been drinking nightly at the roadside tavern.

Vignette 3, Tony

Tony, a high school senior, is expected upon graduation to work in his father's Italian delicatessen and grocery store, where he has worked afternoons after school since he was in the eighth grade. His father told Tony that upon graduation, he could earn a real salary in the business and soon start doing some of the buying. It is obvious to Tony that his father is very proud to be the owner of a store that started as his immigrant great-grandfather's pushcart and has been passed down from generation to generation. It is also obvious to Tony that his father intends for him to own the business in the future. The problem is that he is not interested in doing so and does not know how to tell his dad.

Although Tony plays on the school football team and enjoys it, sports are not his main interest either. Ever since Mrs. Garner, his English teacher, praised him for his latest composition, Tony has toyed with his real love: writing. He has always secretly enjoyed writing, not only stories but poetry, which he keeps hidden in a secret place under the loose floorboards in his room. He never expected to go to college, but when Mrs. Garner told him that he should consider attending the state university and that he might even qualify for a scholarship, the thought of college began to take concrete form. The problem is that he could only imagine how disappointed his father would be. His father considers college impractical. What seems really strange to him is that his sister, Mary Louise, has a real head for business and his father doesn't even see it. She could run the store, but if his father has his way, that will never happen.

Tony feels stuck. Mrs. Garner thinks he should begin to apply to colleges. Dad thinks he should go to work. When he told his teacher that he will have to go into the family business even though he doesn't want to, she suggested that he talk to his school counselor. No one in his family has ever talked to a counselor, as far as he knows. Every now and then, his mother goes to talk to Father Leo, the local parish priest, but Tony does not know what she talks about. And if his dad had problems, he would never let anyone know it. Tony does not know what to do. Perhaps he will speak with Mrs. Garner again. Maybe seeing the school counselor will help, but Tony sure doesn't know how.

Tom, Ellen, and Tony are all European Americans, although their worldviews are quite different. Activity 8.1 requires you to think about how you would counsel each of these clients.

ACTIVITY 8.1: Responding to the Vignettes

Imagine that Ellen, Tom, and Tony are your clients.

What do you see as the important issues for each of them?




What counseling approach would you use in working with each of them?




What do you think you need to know about European American cultures and history to work effectively with Ellen, Tom, and Tony?




After reading this chapter, the answers to these questions may be fairly obvious to the reader.

Social Privilege/Entitlement:

The vignette that describes Tom's feelings when he is twice not promoted illustrates this concept. Tom is distraught about being turned down for two jobs. He belongs to a group of Anglo Americans who believe that they are entitled to get what they want. He is particularly upset because members of groups who were not as qualified, as he sees it, were given the opportunities that he thought he deserved. While it is natural to feel disappointed when one does not get what one wants, Tom adds bitterness and resentment to his anger and depression. He was not only upset because of losing two job opportunities; he was also resentful because those opportunities were given to people who he believed were inherently not as capable.

ACTIVITY 8.5: Northern European Protestant Culture and the Case of Tom

The case of Tom from the vignette at the beginning of this chapter illustrates aspects of Northern European culture.

What Northern European traits do you see in Tom?

How do you think Tom's inherited family characteristics will affect the counseling process?



How would you respond to Tom's resentment and anger?

How might what you know about the phases of white racial identity (from Chapter 4) help in understanding and helping Tom?

Would you or would you not introduce the concept of white privilege with him?

Individualism and Isolation:

In the vignette that opened this chapter, Ellen follows an individualistic pattern that brings gain and loss to her. She leaves the Orthodox religion of her childhood. When she does this, she loses some connection to her family of origin. She feels fragmented because she does much work with very little help and few people to turn to. She seeks a counselor to assist her with her concerns partly in order to connect with someone whom she believes will be helpful.

Gender Issues:

In the area of family roles, there is great conflict due to gender differences. Men, rich and poor, black or white, have problems adapting to the changing roles of males within the family. The revolution in the roles of today's dual-earner family has caused many men to seek counseling for their confusion about the way they might act as husbands and fathers, compared to the roles that they grew up expecting to play. That confusion includes what is viewed as acceptable sexual behavior and other couple issues such as who diapers, cooks the dinner, and earns the higher salary. In the case of Ellen, from the vignette at the start of this chapter, there is a reversal of traditional sex roles (see Activity 8.4). Ellen earns more; she travels for work. And Steve, her husband, resents being left with childcare and housework. The next sections will further explore the European American gender dilemmas.

ACTIVITY 8.4: Gender in the Case of Ellen and Steve

The role reversal between Ellen and Steve is becoming more common among European Americans.

As a counselor, how might you help Steve?

Think about all of the gender issues in the story. List them.

How would you address each of them?

In what ways is the gender gap between white women and white men narrowing?


European American women:

Since many European American men "live to work," many men still expect women to keep a home and care for children while those women are also working outside the home to help support the family. As a result, European American women (and some men) experience a major struggle to balance work and family responsibilities (as do Ellen and Steve in the vignette).

Counseling considerations in working with Scotch-Irish Americans:

Tom, in the vignette at the start of this chapter, is partially of Scotch Irish descent. Significantly, little is said about the nature of Tom's relationships with others. Tom's tale illustrates the hyper-individualism and aloneness that can be problematic for people of Scotch Irish descent. The reader is encouraged to complete Activity 8.5 in order to apply some of these characteristics to the case of Tom.

ACTIVITY 8.5: Northern European Protestant Culture and the Case of Tom

The case of Tom from the vignette at the beginning of this chapter illustrates aspects of Northern European culture.

What Northern European traits do you see in Tom?

How do you think Tom's inherited family characteristics will affect the counseling process?



How would you respond to Tom's resentment and anger?

How might what you know about the phases of white racial identity (from Chapter 4) help in understanding and helping Tom?

Would you or would you not introduce the concept of white privilege with him?

Counseling considerations in working with Jewish Americans:

Most Jews express their feelings readily. What may be taken by outsiders as anger might simply be disagreement and may well be understood within the group as an expression of affection. Communication is generally quite direct and can seem even aggressive to those from other cultures. Jews are likely to seek counseling for just about any problem when they think that counseling will benefit them. Counselors of Jewish clients should not feel shy to ask their clients about the relative influence of Jewish religious observances on their lives. The case of Ellen illustrates these themes. Note the reference to dietary laws and Sabbath practice in the vignette and in Activity 8.7

ACTIVITY 8.7: Jewish Culture and the Case of Ellen

Review the case of Ellen from the beginning of this chapter. Respond to the following questions:

What do you think is behind the conflict between Ellen's mother and Ellen?

Are such conflicts universal?

Do you see any ethnic characteristics in the family relationships in this vignette?

Do you think family therapy or couples counseling is warranted?

In what ways does religion play into Ellen's life script?

What do you think Ellen's mother means when she says, "serve you bacon if she could"? Is it about only religious practices and food, or is something else going on here?

 How much does Ellen's counselor need to understand about Jewish dietary laws and Sabbath practices to work with Ellen?


How much do you now know about religious difference among Jewish groups?

Counseling considerations in the case of Tony:

Counselors should understand a client's need to be both close to family and to get away from it. This situation was seen in the case of Tony, who wanted to be his own person. However, he did not want to displease his parents, particularly his father.

Counseling issues vary with the generations. Some older Italians may enjoy the strong role the Catholic Church has played in helping them feel at home here, while their offspring may resent the restrictions that it imposes. Young adults may seek counseling concerning interfaith marriage, abortion, or the use of birth control, all of which are inconsistent with traditional religious beliefs. In the area of sexuality and gender, many Italian women dislike the double standard for sexual behavior; younger people are most likely to disregard it or seek counseling with regard to it. Many of these issues of generational conflict are present in the vignette of Tony (see Activity 8.6).

ACTIVITY 8.6: Italian American Culture and the Case of Tony

Review the case of Tony from the vignette at the beginning of the chapter.

Why do you think Tony is so confused?

What class-related work ethic does Tony's father represent?

Why do you think Tony feels that his father does not see Mary Louise as a potential store owner?

What role does Tony's mother possibly play in this vignette and in life?

What is the role of Father Leo and the Church within the community?

What might/should Tony do?

Box 8.1 Counseling Strategies in the Vignette Cases

At the beginning of this chapter, three very different European American clients were presented. Each came into counseling without an awareness that his or her issues might be culture-specific.

Ellen's counselor worked with her individually, but was nevertheless well-versed in family therapy. She helped Ellen decide that her allegiance needed to be primarily with her husband, rather than with her mother. Eventually, Ellen and Steve entered couples counseling where they were able to resolve their problems and learned to live in greater harmony, each realizing how their different understandings of "being Jewish" had contributed to their discord. They vowed to raise their children in a different way than either of them had been raised. 

Tom's EAP counselor addressed his frustrations and anger using cognitive behavioral processes and techniques. He worked with him on his inappropriate use of alcohol to relieve his anxiety and stress. Tom learned to channel his stress into the healthier outlets of running and family activities. Although Tom did not gain appreciable insight into his prejudice or an understanding of his position of "white privilege," he was able to come to terms with how his use of alcohol might have contributed to his lack of promotions. He learned to live life with less anger.

Tony's school counselor initially empathized with Tony, using Rogerian client-centered processes, then moved to using techniques from solution-focused therapy and assertiveness training. These approaches helped Tony gain insight into his family situation. He was able to articulate to his counselor what his own desires and goals were. He rehearsed how he might express his desires to his father while still honoring his father's traditional Italian values. When he finally did so, his father was more accepting than he had anticipated. Tony's prior talk with Mom and Mom's subsequent talk with Father Leo had added to his father's understanding. Tony also talked to his sister about her telling their parents her business interests. Tony planned to attend community college for his first year of college so that he could continue to work in the family store and train his sister to take his place. He applied for a scholarship to the state university under a delayed entry program.