The original title of this post was ‘Five American stereotypes that the Brits despise,’ a provocative idea that it’s kind of hard to live up to. Most people, whether in Britain or abroad, find it hard to despise five things about any other country, especially when you’re dealing with easily defeated and superficial assumptions.
But being confused by another culture, and gazing in wonder at the cavernous gap between what they say and what they do, well we’ve all done that. So here are just five examples of commonly-assumed American traits which, taken at face-value, confuse the hell out of my people:
“I don’t hold with that fancy book learnin'” *spits*
The TV show Frasier is built around the gulf in understanding between the bookish, intellectual brothers Crane, and their hard-working, real man, ex-cop father. The same cross-cultural stereotypes that exist between the UK and America. We know you think we’re all like Frasier and Niles, and that you think you’re all like Marty. You can read, of course, but you’d rather watch sports, in a sports bar, wearing a sports jacket. What’s confusing about this is America is full of readers, it’s a place where literacy is still a prized asset. You know how I know this? There’s a huge market for those political books in which the left take potshots at the right in a hysterical tone, and vice versa. These books are not aimed at college professors, they’re aimed at people who can read and have an understanding of politics from watching TV. And they sell. FAR more than anything similar does over here. Oh sure, Frasier Crane would dismiss them as being unworthy of the same printing presses that churn out Dickens, but you are not people who are afraid of learning things from books. So why pretend you are?
“I JUST GOTTA TELL YA”
Sometimes you’ve just got to say what’s on your mind. I get that. But let’s be fair, it’s also nice to shut the hell up. I am all for passing compliments along, I think that’s really important. We’re all quick to criticize, but slow to praise, and bearing in mind we also forget huge plaudits and hang on to tiny insults, it means the art of flattery is a losing battle. But sometimes it is nice to have a thought about someone and just sit on it. Especially if, when you come to think about it, you’re not really talking about them, you’re talking about how great you are compared to them. It’s fine to just stop talking, stop pretending to pay attention while you wait for your chance to speak, and just, y’know, listen. It won’t hurt to let some of your feelings exist in a place where no one can hear them. Do you know why they call it an internal monologue? Yeah. And if that makes you uncomfortable, you can go ahead and keep that to yourself too.
“Supersize That For You?”
American hospitality is legendary. The massive plates, the massive cups, the massive conveyor belts of food that run from KFC to Wendy’s to Taco Bell with the people standing underneath, slack-chinned and ready to receive whatever easy-to-chew mush is about to dollop onto their gravy-smeared faces. You don’t actually have those, obviously, but international stereotype law dictates that I pretend that you do. That’s how these things work. No one makes more of a meal of making a meal than Americans do. And it’s confusing because the other thing you do astonishingly well is make a fuss about what you’re eating. You invented Coca-Cola, and then you invented Diet Coke for the people who wouldn’t drink it. There’s all that good honest, plain and simple coffee swilling about, and then there’s the decaf, non-fat, soy-milk, skinny latte side of things. You invented a kind of omelet that does not contain egg yolks. Could you not also call that a hot, sugar-free meringue? America is at one and the same time, a gluttonous mulch-bag, and a fastidious food tyrant. It’s bewildering.
“Have a nice day!”
As a nation which carries the psychological baggage of having been invaded a few times, having repelled invasion a few times, and having done a fair bit of invading ourselves (only to be repelled in turn), it is safe to say the British do not trust strangers who are nice to them. When that niceness comes in the form of a fairly bland wish, issued with a smile by the paid employee of a business or shop that hopes to gain our custom, we get so defensive and suspicious we actually find ways to be irritated by it. “GAH!” we fume, “that’s so AMERICAN! They don’t really MEAN it, and it’s not in my power to make myself have a nice day anyway, so why DO it?” And I think it’s fair to say that this is an over-reaction. What are we going to do about it anyway? Deliberately ruin our day and blame the girl behind the counter at McDonalds? Explain to the man at the coffee bar that it would have been a perfectly nice day had he not spoiled it with his *airquotes* ‘pleasantries’? No. We’re going to just bloody suck it up, like grown-ups.
“My three favorite colors are red, white, and blue”
I love my family. I love my friends. I love my house and I love the town in which I live. I love the place I grew up and I love the culture I grew up within. Sometimes, though, I find there are things about my family or my house that need a bit of attention, the things I’m not so keen on, if I’m honest. It would be extraordinarily unfair if, in the course of pointing out, say, a wobbly shelf, someone from my family suggested that I’d committed an act of disloyalty to the household, and that I should therefore leave, never to darken the doorstep again. The way to keep a household ticking over is to deal with problems as they arise and learn from mistakes. The first step being to admit that there have been mistakes. And if that works for a household, why can’t it work for a country? Why should the temperature of political debate be so high that the only positions available are “I’m right, I’m always right and I’ve always been right, you should leave” or “no, I’m right, you should leave”? What does that actually achieve?
Or to put it another way, if we only believed everything we saw about America from the news media (and of course, we don’t), we’d assume that the most successful American business of the last 20 years would’ve been the guys who cut up the two-by-fours people use for protest signs.
Fraser McAlpine is British. This explains a lot.