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Yanks, Brits and Politeness: Is America Really the Best?

5 years ago
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Well, Christine, thanks so much for your piece about American politeness, which I loved, as well as your link to Geoffrey Dyer's wonderful article in The New York Times -- "My American Friends" -- on which it was based. When you first mentioned that the Englishman Dyer finds Americans to be more polite than his British brethren, I very nearly spit out my (English Breakfast) tea. Upon closer inspection, however, I think there's a lot of truth in his cross-cultural analysis.
I've written quite a bit about contrasting cultural attitudes between the U.S. and the U.K. since moving to London 3½ years ago. Much of what I've experienced conforms to Dyer's descriptions of the overly sharing American and the overly reserved Brit. Americans love therapy and have no issue talking about it, which is still a complete no-no, even in middle-class England. And when it comes to customer service, we Americans holler and complain and threaten to litigate, while the Brits just carry on with their whole stoic "mustn't grumble" shtick.

But what's really interesting about Dyer's article -- as you point out -- is his thesis that what makes Americans so comfortable being friendly, loud and agreeable is that, deep down, they actually think that they are superior. And so they have no problem sharing their feelings -- even politely -- because there's a tacit, underlying agreement that America is the best.

You wondered if that last comment was Dyer being snippy. Perhaps so. But I think he's on to something here. We Americans do think we are superior. It is, in fact, part of our national mythology -- the City on the Hill and all that good stuff -- and there's a lot to be proud of in that narrative. Unfortunately, what goes with that notion of American exceptionalism is a sense that the way we do things is inherently correct or better. (I have an American economist friend here who actually wants to write a book called "Why America Is Great." Gulp.)

I used to think this way myself when I first moved here, whether it was how to run a PTA or how to organize a supermarket. But despite having written a post for this column earlier last summer titled "Five Things I Love About America," I don't actually think America is "best" anymore. In fact, my husband and I were just saying to one another the other night how much living abroad has changed our attitudes towards any number of things. To pick a few:

*Health Care. As I wrote in several posts over the summer as Americans debated the public option, I really do believe there's a lot to be said for socialized medicine. And as I watch the American Congress patch together the final health care bill, I thank my lucky stars that I have free, excellent, life-long care for myself and my family regardless of the professional, personal or political stumbling blocks that may befall us in the future.

*Education. Maybe it's a bad idea to have to figure out what you want to do with your life at the tender age of 14, which is about the age when kids over here begin to narrow down their fields of study as they move towards a specialization. But what do kids really learn in American high schools anyway? You spend most of college learning all the stuff you should have learned in high school but didn't.

*Israel. There's no question that the press is more favorably inclined toward the Palestinian cause over here (whether or not they acknowledge it). But -- unlike before I moved to England -- I now see the pro-Israel bias in the American press as well.

In closing -- and at the risk of revealing all too many of my newfound biases -- allow me to recount an actual conversation that occurred at my breakfast table just this morning. Out of nowhere, my 6-year-old (American) daughter declared, "The U.S. is the best!" (Something she is wont to proclaim from time to time.) To which to which my 9-year-old son -- who's had more of a chance to be socialized in this country -- replied, "No, Luxembourg is the best country. They're the only country that hasn't gone to war."

Now there's a cultural virtue -- being less bellicose -- that Dyer didn't extol about his fellow Brits. And I'll count that in the plus column of their balance sheet, thank you very much.

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