Friday, April 23, 2004

An American Cultural Peculiarity

As I was writing down my thoughts about the difference between American and British perceptions of adversarial interviewing, another notable cultural oddity of Americans occurred to me; the penchant for smiling at strangers, and, more incredible yet, attempting to engage them in conversation. I've grown accustomed to it with time, but I have to say that, having been resident in the UK in the years preceding my move to the United States, I found this American friendliness rather grating on first encounter, as if others couldn't recognize the boundaries of my own personal space and were wilfully trying to intrude on it. The only reasonable explanation that could occur to me for an individual to smile at strangers at a train station or in a supermarket was that the person must either be a mental case, a boorish extrovert or a conman on the make! Looking back, it is obvious that I'd internalized the British attitude to a "T"; I've long lost track of the number of times I've been asked why I'm so glum by an American, when as far as I was aware, my expression was completely neutral.

Of course, having since adapted to the American way, it's now the sulky demeanor of Old World types that I often find distasteful, the worst offenders in that category being undoubtedly those from Slavic and (unsurprisingly) German-speaking countries.* I know it's engaging in stereotypes to say this, as there are warm and outgoing people from those parts, of whom I've met more than a few, but as a rule Russians, Poles, Czechs and other Slavic-language speakers tend to have a morose look in casual interactions with strangers, while with Germans and Austrians one often gets an impression of annoyance, though I'm sure that's far from an accurate perception of how they really feel. Still, there is one aspect of daily life in which I continue to prefer to the European approach, and that is in dealing with people in the service industries. Few things get on my nerves more than an over-attentive, talkative shop assistant or waiter, particularly when all one has on one's mind is quickly getting the shopping over and done with in order to be somewhere else, or when all one desires is a few moments of quiet reflection while having supper.

*Thought I'd say the French, didn't you? It's true that the French aren't big on smiling either, but they don't tend to go in for the glum Slavic expression or for German curtness either. It's been my experience that most French people will readily say "Merci" and smile after being done a kindness or shown a courtesy, while with Germans as much a reluctant half-grimace is really pushing it.