I was sitting next to a French couple in a small bar called Pastis in Barcelona one night. (Pastis, by the way, was one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been in. Barely bigger than your closet, Tim Burton-esque accoutrement, an accordion-vocals duo, and, of course, homemade pastis- a liquor made from anise. Basically tastes like licorice but gives you a buzz, which really makes it the only way to consume anything that tastes like licorice). Anyway, he didn’t speak much english, but enough to hold a basic conversation. He was her translator. After some niceties and botched efforts at finding common ground, I asked him “what’s the biggest stereotype that the French have of Americans”?
He thought for a second and, once realizing he didn’t have the english vocabulary to express his favorite stereotype, set the tips of his index fingers in the corners of his lips and traced a Joker grin across his cheeks and up to his ears. Then he sat there looking at me like a Black Holed Sun character with a big creepy grin and a fake creepy face. The message was pretty clear.
“I get it. We’re clowns”.
The culture of personality
It’s not that we’re clowns in the sense that we wear too much makeup and generally have a shit sense of style. It’s more that, by and large, Americans always expect each other to be happy.
I’m by no means the first person to observe or write about the phenomenon. For instance, Susan Cain, in her book Quiet : The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, discusses the culture shift at the turn of the 20th century caused by urbanization and the need for job seekers to separate themselves from the rest of the candidate pool by flaunting their (often contrived) charisma. The ‘culture of personality’, as Cain puts it, was a significant and long-lasting shift from the long standing ‘culture of character’ (think Abe Lincoln) and one that places a higher value on extroversion and the glass-half-full clowns. You know, people who can sell things.
The norm is more easily identifiable in the simple greetings (and responses) Americans trade with each other on a daily basis:
American A: “Hi. How are you?”
American B: “Good!”
Except for 1) American A doesn’t really want to know how you are. It’s just the routine surrogate for “Hi” and 2) American B might very well be shitty but is going to say “Good!” anyway. [Note that common response #2 is likely “Busy”, which is rant-worthy, in and of itself, but one that I will defer to Tim Krieder and his opinions on the Busy Trap]
Alina Simone, a Russian-American journalist implores Americans who are visiting Russia, “Don’t let ‘How are you’ be your Waterloo. Instead, take a vacation from fineness”. In other words, tell it like it is.
Give it to me straight
Authenticity seems to be a lost skill these days. Not that I’m all that great at spotting it. Nor that I’m the poster child for straight talk. I often catch myself acting in ways and saying things that I don’t really mean (I’m pretty sure it’s called ‘small talk’), but do my best to pull my inner clown back in and get back to my authentic self (usually cynical, profane, and not really that interested in talking to you).
The causes are largely institutional. It’s standard policy, for example, that every cashier in my local grocery store ask you 2 questions; “How are you today?” and “Did you find everything ok”? Two absurd questions that likely have the support of a focus group somewhere. The same scenario in Germany, however, is refreshingly honest: “Hello…..(rings up your merch)…that will be ___ Euro”. I respect the shit out of a person or organization who doesn’t pretend to care how I am today or whether I found everything ok. I obviously found it, or else I wouldn’t be standing here trading it for currency. Unless I stole it, which would be a good way to avoid stupid questions.
What would the world be without smiles and small talk? I’m not saying we should abolish smiling and asking people how they’re doing. I’m saying let’s shake the fake-ness. After a while it’s going to burn you out anyway. Let’s be more judicious and purposeful with our words. Embrace silence. Ask questions that you want honest answers to and enough time to listen to them. And please, be depressed every once in a while. I’m not going to be your therapist, but maybe you won’t need one if you’re willing to tell your friends that you’re depressed in the first place.