What Can Brits Learn from American Optimism?

30 Rock's Kenneth is the ultimate optomist. (NBC)

30 Rock‘s Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) is the ultimate optimist. (NBC)

One thing Brits notice about Americans is their eternal optimism; there’s nothing that can’t be done. From running for President to getting sold out tickets for your favorite band, anything’s possible.  True story—years ago I was on a girls’ weekend in Boston and as usual, we were running late (this time for the Duck Tour). Half our group was English and the other half American and the attitude towards trying to make the Duck departure was hilarious. Brits: “There’s no point in running, it’ll have gone by now.” Americans: “No, let’s just run and see.” And sure enough, the darn Duck was itself running late and we had more than enough time. Motto for Brits: “Run for that bus/plane/train.”

Australians have a name for us—“Whingeing Poms.” But here’s the thing: most people calling the English that name were themselves descended from Whingeing Poms, and by all accounts, those whingers had every reason to whinge. (“Whinge” by the way, is pronounced “winj”, and is used to describe a whiner.) Before I get completely sidetracked, I must point out that Australians seem to have out-whinged us Brits if recent polling is to be believed.

CNN’s Zane Asher (a Brit) gave us some “half-empty” statistics on February 19 about Americans’ chances of winning the $400m Powerball Lottery. Interspersed with “Technically, there is a chance” … and “Doesn’t seem to phase people, I don’t know why” … Asher reported, we had a 1-175 million chance of the Powerball win, compared to a 1-11.5 million chance of experiencing a shark attack, a 1-6 million chance of dying by bee sting and a 1-3 million chance of being hit by lightening. And, American to the core, show host Brooke Baldwin bounced back with… ”Or, win the Powerball.” I mean, somebody has to right?

In the words of Winston Churchill, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” So here, fellow Brits are a few pointers:

When someone comes up with a suggestion, instead of “Ah yes but … ” followed by ten reasons why the suggestion is doomed, try “How would that work exactly?” (and mean it) or “Good idea, I’ll give it some thought.” You don’t actually have to follow through but don’t kill it immediately.

When asked how you are, (assuming the speaker has stuck around for a reply), try “Great thanks” or “Fine thanks, and you?” instead of the Debbie Downer-ish “Can’t complain” or “Mustn’t grumble.” And don’t bother giving an honest, medical response, TMI (too much information).

If someone’s looking glumly into the middle distance, “Penny for your thoughts” is probably a better option than “Cheer up, it might never happen.” (I said that once and the American did not get my meaning at all.)

But all is not lost, fellow Brits. There’s actually a popular book out called Learned Optimism by Martin E. P. Seligman, who believes we can unlearn our glass-half-empty dogma and embrace a life of “Yes, we can.” (It wasn’t directed specifically at Brits but my, it’s appropriate.)

Alternatively, there’s a more recent book out debunking the whole idea of optimism. The Antidote; Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Brit (natch) Oliver Burkeman, claims to be “the intelligent person’s guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness.” Burkeman argues that “it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative—insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness—that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”

Oh, well then, perhaps it’s overoptimistic Americans who have something learn too?

Which way do you lean, half-full or half-empty? 

What can “cynical” Brits learn from good, old-fashioned American optimism? Join @MindtheGap_BBCA on Twitter today (Wednesday, March 12) at 2 pm ET using hashtag #MindTheChat to discuss this question, and you’ll have a chance to win a DVD of the Doctor Who Christmas special “The Time of the Doctor.”

See More:
What British Actors Should Know Before Moving to Hollywood
10 Things Americans Love About Brits
Six Things This Brit Doesn’t Miss About the UK


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • wvmtnr

    When I was in England, I noticed the “glass half-empty” phenomenon. Of course, being born and raised in America, this was my first encounter with it on a large scale basis. I hired a driver at the Manchester airport to drive me to Harrogate. He was very, very nice to me but very pessimistic in his answers to my general questions about his fine country, which Americans love. I was just amazed by it.

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      I suggest next time you’re over there you hop in a London black cab. Most of those drivers are very chirpy, very educated on world events and don’t hesitate to give you their opinions on anything and everything. Can be quite entertaining!

    • GoldenGirl

      I second Toni’s suggestion. London cabbies are the best.

  • Travelfreak74

    All depends on the individual… i have met many of moaning Americans and plenty of moaning British… myself personally i am a glass half full Brit!!… and as for “good idea i’ll give that some thought” .. that probably means the same as it’s not going to work and i am not going to think about it but i am too polite/can’t be bothered with a discussion so i am going to brush you off…

    Many Americans i have met have come across very false… personally prefer an honest approach… however again this is a general over view and some Americans are very honest as well.. as i said.. all down to the individual!

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      I’m not sure one can state so positively that “good idea I’ll give it some thought” is a brush off. Some people are actually open-minded enough to know that they don’t have all the answers and that someone might perhaps have a good idea.
      You are right however, in saying that some people are “too polite” – I find that Americans in general (and obviously there are always exceptions) don’t like to cause offense and sometimes say what they think you want to hear. While this may not always be the most helpful approach (especially when you need numbers for an event or party), I would hesitate to call it “false”.
      Personally, I find the absence of “Yes, but…” very refreshing. There’s nothing worse than someone asking your advice and then shooting down every suggestion before they’ve even thought it through.

      • Family Affairs

        I think it’s all a matter of charm frankly and if you try testing out my theory for a day I’m quite sure a lot more Brits would stop being so negative. I’m not saying I”m charming … but, my father was – which means appearing to be interested in what somebody else is saying as well as trying to be positive. Americans have it in bundles, but sometimes it feels insincere. Not sure how we get the right balance. Lx

        • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

          Hmmm. that’s interesting Lu. You could go even further and say that if you forced yourself to be interested in people (even if it’s not 100% genuine to begin with) you might find that hey – some people are in fact, interesting.

    • GoldenGirl

      I’m American and I wouldn’t take the response “good idea I’ll give it some thought” as a brush off. I would hear it as “Yes, I’ve heard you and acknowledge that you’ve offered a good idea that is worth considering.” Some of us take things said literally and don’t try reading between the lines (which can be good and bad. But it’s also why British humour fails with some Americans.) If Americans come across as fake, it’s with good intentions behind it. More than likely they want you to feel welcome or comfortable in a new situation or don’t want to say anything that might hurt your feelings. I think we could use a little bit more of that in the world frankly.

  • MontanaRed

    This is very funny, Toni! Enjoyed it a lot.

    And, Travelfreak74, having an optimistic trend of mind shouldn’t hit you (sitting in your half-empty glass) as “false.” It is a heartfelt and “honest” response, even if it seems over the top to you.

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      Thanks M. After 24 years here I am learning to be optimistic – but not too much. Wouldn’t want to get my hopes up too often LOL.

      • MontanaRed

        “— but not too much. Wouldn’t want to get my hopes up too often” I’ve never learned that lesson. Oh, well.

    • Travelfreak74

      Glass Half Full .. not empty…. and it is not always heart felt and honest… no mater if it comes from a British person or an American… but i do like your positive thinking of heartfelt and honest …. your glass is 3/4 full !

      • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

        Yup, my philosophy (especially with the written word as in blog comments etc.) is to assume the best until I am proven wrong.

  • GoldenGirl

    That optimism is my favorite thing about being an American. We believe we can be anyone we want to be and do anything we want to do. It’s what I missed most when I lived in England and it was the ‘glass half empty’ thinking by Britons that was probably the most difficult thing for me to get used to.

    However, as Americans go, I’m pretty pessimistic – at least that’s what the man says. Actually, I prefer to think of myself as a ‘cautious optimist.’ I hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I’m in Oliver Burkeman’s camp. I agree we feel we must be happy (whatever that is)100% of the time or we’re failing. Normal life is not a continual series of happy events; it’s a roller coaster ride and beating yourself up with every twist and turn (or expecting everything to be perfect) is what leads to things like depression and anxiety. Acceptance of this leads to greater contentment, i.e., happiness.

    I enjoyed the analogy of the Powerball Lottery; it’s spot on. What I find even funnier are the Americans who don’t bother to play the smaller jackpots despite their odds of winning being greater (because, you know, who needs $1 mil when you could win $365 mil?). It’s either an extreme case of optimism, or stupidity. I can’t decide which.

  • ukhousewifeusa

    An American friend said to me (I’m British) that I had a very American attitude and outlook. What did he mean? That I was very positive and forthright and optimistic and ready to give it a go. That warmed my cockles, so it did! :)

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      That he’d met a few “Yes, but” Brits and you’re very “attagirl”! Which you are!

  • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

    I was going to mention Philip Larkin in the post but word count prevailed. He is fairly recently deceased and wrote a lot of poems based on the “glass half full” mentality, but with a reason. In his collection “The Less Deceived”, his main message is that we shouldn’t always have high hopes because not only is it not always going to happen, such high hopes lead to extreme disappointment a lot of the time. (The modern theory is that raising kids with praise actually does them a disservice.)

    He wrote a famous Christening Ode to writer Kingsley Amis’ daughter Sally, (Born Yesterday) in which he actually said “May you be ordinary”. He didn’t wish fabulous things for her – you have to Google it to get the meaning.
    Another of his poems begins –
    “The widest prairies have electric fences” – which is a bit depressing. However on the whole, I think that you have to rein in your optimism with a touch of realism for life’s serious stuff. (Lottery is one thing, but facing real life challenges needs some perspective.)
    OK, that’s enough serious stuff. BTW – I studied Phillip Larkin for a few years so can quote ad nauseam.

    • gn

      “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed” (yet another Brit).

  • gn

    In the words of Winston Churchill, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”

    Actually, the words of motivational speaker Zig Ziglar. American, naturally!

  • http://www.careyrowland.com careyrowland

    Dear Toni, you’ll be pleased, I am to sure, to be reminded that your Mr. Churchill taught us Americans the dearest lesson of all about the power of a positive attitude. Thanks to Sir Winston.

  • http://www.studioemmakaufmann.blogspot.com EmmaK

    Well I am a very realistic person erring on the side maybe of pessimism. Blind optimism just seems a tad, well, naive. I suppose I am the hybrid: a realistic optimist who knows that there are better things to spend lottery money on, like chocolate!

  • Jo

    I’m a realist; the glass is not half full or half empty. It’s half a glass.

  • fernaig

    Not to drag politics into this, but I find this is relevant to the healthcare debate! Americans are constantly saying ‘the British hate the NHS.’ Umm.. no, they pretty much love it but wish it was better. I think they equate complaining about it with not wanting it to exist. It’s usually quite the opposite.

  • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis
  • jimboa26

    I’m not sure where our sense of optimism comes from! One theory I heard is that we tend to be more business/competition-driven; America at heart is a commercially and mercantile-y driven society. Business and hard work runs deep in our culture, and our general attitude is “don’t give me excuses, just find a way to get it done and make it happen.” And for the most part…yeah, we do tend to find a way to make it happen, much more often than not. As a culture, we expect more out of life and more out of ourselves, and while I think it’s naive to think that literally anything is possible, I do think that having a “just get it done! YESTERDAY!” attitude almost always breeds a positive outcome than having a doubtful, cynical attitude does. Pushing yourself to your limits is the only way to improve yourself, and if there’s one thing America believes in, it’s pushing it to the limit.

  • http://www.okhravi.com/ Mike Okhravi

    If you’ve seen the newest film version of The Great Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character represents the American ideal. “Forget about yesterday; today will be better. Our dreams will come true if we believe it.” It’s an extreme version, but hope gives us something to live for and happiness is just a matter of perspective.

    Steve Jobs is probably the closest thing to a real-life version of Jay Gatsby, if you study his back-story, and if that’s not convincing, the great, English Sir Richard Branson is known and adored for his incredible optimism. So there’s your motivation, Brits :o)

  • Kari

    I love a British sense of humor and don’t find them, as a whole, despairing. Less optimistic than the average American perhaps. However, their sense of humor and way of perceiving the state of things, makes them absolutely delightful. I also find them as hard working as Americans and willing to participate in making something happen. However, they do give up earlier in the scheme of things; but sometimes that’s the right thing to do. Why continue on the road to doom? Lotteries are for people who are bad at math. We have our differences, but that is what makes life more interesting!