Understanding the Americans

Living in another country, it’s easy to get caught up the differences I see around me. And it’s not just the differences between me, as an American, and the groups of Europeans I come in contact with. It’s the differences among Europeans themselves.

Yale Richmond, who wrote the book Understanding the Americans (2009), begins by saying: “There is no typical American, just as there is no typical African, Chinese, European, Indian, or Latino.”

The longer you spend living somewhere, the more you are overwhelmed with those differences. It’s difficult to make sweeping statements about a country and its inhabitants, in part because while there may be dominant cultural values in a given place, each citizen reacts differently to them.

It can take a while to reach that conclusion. When first entering a new country, the subtle—and no so subtle—differences between the U.S. and the new place can be overwhelming. It is, for the most part, fascinating… especially when you begin to discover, that underneath the seemingly big differences, there are similarities.

Over the past year, I’ve written about my observations as an American visitor to Slovenia and England, where I’ve been lucky enough to study, but it wasn’t until I became friends with a Russian student in my graduate program and picked up the 2009 book Understanding the Americans that I thought about what it must be like for someone visiting the U.S. for the first time.

One of the first things I remember discussing with my Russian friend was the idea of having a coffee.

She found it curious that I’d done what many people I know often do: extend an invitation to coffee without an actual date or time in mind, leaving my response friendly but vague: “Great to meet you! Let’s grab coffee sometime!”

I’d meant to be friendly, of course, but I, in an attempt to do so, don’t always actually expect there to be any follow-up. It’s just the polite thing to say.

I’m glad she held me to that initial invitation because we ended up becoming great friends, but while reading Understanding the Americans, I realized how common her confusion was for a first-time visitor to the U.S.

A free Kindle download in December, Richmond based his observations in Understanding the Americans on interviews with visitors to the U.S.—and upon his extensive experiences as a cultural officer with the U.S. Foreign Service.

“Americans smile easily and are easy to talk with,” he writes. “A visitor from Asia described the United States as a country of ‘smiley people.’ But those smiles do not indicate an automatic commitment to friendship.”

In contrast, in many other countries, big smiles aren’t common. I know many people who, like me, were taught that being friendly is kind and polite—but shy away from over-committing to too many deep (as opposed to more casual) friendships.

But smiles—and friendliness—often give visitors to America a false sense of security in their friendships… and with their teeth.

I recently read an article by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic, who talked about her first encounters with American smiles.

Overwhelmed by the whiteness and straightness of American’s teeth, she thought they must be fake. A Slovenian cousin of mine echoed this opinion recently: that teeth that look too perfect actually seem too good to be true, so some people assume they are fake.

In other countries, where orthodontia and whitening, as well as preventative care in dentistry, is not as much of a focus or an option, Drakulic noted that sometimes people smile less to hide missing or imperfect teeth.

Over the course of the essay, she went from thinking that American dentistry and the number of toothpaste commercials she saw on television were completely overwhelming—to seeing that there was some benefit from it, after all.

Her excellent essay—in the book Cafe Europa (1996)—highlighted the subtle change that happens when you stay in one place for more than a few weeks.

First, you think about the way that the world you’re currently in looks different to you… and then you begin to think about the complex ways that your world back home would look different to everyone around you now.

Published in the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers last week.

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