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As with most groups of people, there are stereotypes galore about Americans. Although stereotypes exist for a reason (no smoke without fire, and all that), this particular stereotype is either the American on TV or on vacation overseas. In short, not your typical American. Let’s break some of them down:
OK, you have a point. In my experience, American conversation levels are generally louder than their European equivalents. Years ago my husband and I were in a hotel lobby in Paris. While people-watching, we noticed that the Japanese guests in conversation were barely audible as they passed us, the French and Brits you could make out as they got within about four feet, and the Americans you could literally hear before they entered the hotel! Most of the time they’re not shouting, their voices just carry. It’s all about the back of their throat, but yes, they can be loud. Loud, however, can also be happy, joyful and enthusiastic.
On the contrary, here in the Midwest at least, Americans are very polite. Every sneeze is met with a “Bless you” even when you’re alone in the dairy aisle; “Thank you” is always acknowledged with “You’re welcome”; heck, even when they’re confrontational, they’re also polite. And where else are people of a certain age addressed as Sir and Ma’am (rhymes with “ham”) by complete strangers?
I was going to point out that the sneaker-wearing Americans we see are usually trekking round tourist traps and large cities, where sneakers (trainers) are eminently sensible; however, a quick walk round my neighborhood confirms the fact that yes, a lot of Americans wear sneakers – a lot. But by golly, they’re nice and clean. Fortunately, plaid is usually restricted to golf courses and the occasional cruise ship; most regular Americans wear khaki and/or a lot of what looks like workout clothing. (East Coasters wear black of course, and West Coasters wear beachwear and roller skates.) Having seen the state of some Brits this summer though, it’s very much a case of “people in glass houses…”
Actually, about 39% of Americans have a passport, which is a lot higher than the mythical 20%. Here’s a fascinating breakdown of those numbers by state, if you’re interested. Just think, if the U.K. had guaranteed summers and the huge scenic variety of the U.S., not to mention cheap petrol, how many Brits would be popping over to the Continent for their annual holidays? The fact that there are chip shops wherever there are Brits in Spain, rather suggests that they’d prefer to stay at home. Obviously in the U.S. there are groups of people who don’t care to know what goes on around the world, but you find this type everywhere and they don’t represent their fellow countrymen.
Americans are no more more materialistic than Brits, they’re just not coy about it. Glance through most U.K. newspapers and you’ll not only read the news, but incidentals like the value of the subject’s house (Middletons anyone?), school fees they’re paying (Middletons again) or, in the case of footballers, how much they make per week. People who come from modest backgrounds and make it really big, like Simon Cowell (and the Middletons), are positively loathed for being “jumped up,” “show-offs” and worse. Many Americans I know have great-grandparents who came here with fifty bucks and a bag full of clothes at best. Having money in your pocket was not only a symbol of success, it represented safety and security. More than anything, these people wanted their children and grandchildren to do well, and that meant having the money to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, preferably a big roof. Present-day Americans are still saying, “Look Ma, look how well I’ve done”; they celebrate each others’ success as well as their own. There’s materialism on both sides of the Pond, it’s just a different animal.
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Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.