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Monday, June 26, 2006

A Dour Commentary On Nice Americans

I ran across this at Betsy Newmark's. The comments at her post are quite funny, and the column in the Guardian Unlimited is funnier yet. It begins:
Greetings from America, where everyone's so bloody friendly and laid-back and nice it makes you want to puke blood in their faces.
"Hello there," says the engineer. "My name's Frank." He taps his nametag. It is indeed. He smiles. "You need anything fixing, any trouble with the TV in your room, computer problems, anything - just call the front desk; ask for me."

"Um, OK," I say. "Thanks Frank."
I almost have to pinch myself. I've just experienced precisely the sort of benevolent human encounter that only occurs in pre-school children's programmes, except it was real.
Funnier yet are the comments on the column. There are various theories advanced as to the root cause of this American abnormality:
I prefer German/Dutch 'service' to that found in the USA. Providing grovelling service to fat, overpaid, self-important morons by supplying them with overpriced coffee and sandwiches is an indignity that we are all complicit in, in order to generate the trade required to avoid the neccesity of sleeping in our own faeces to keep warm at night. No-one in their right mind takes service sector jobs seriously, nor should they. (The exception to this is, of course, independently owned and run establishments, as opposed to soul-destroying starbucks and their ilk) A lot of Europeans have the good grace to recognise this and behave accordingly. I find the excruciatingly hollow experience of 'customer service' in the States rather depressing. That said, I tipped my hairdresser a fiver this morning because she told me I have beautiful eyes.
This theme gets developed:
I harbour the gravest concerns about the US as a political entity, in particular its foreign polcy, but the ordinary people are generally lovely, and not just those you meet in service roles (although my experience is only of California, which may not be representative...). I suspect the folk memory the English have of working as maids or other domestics is still a bit too strong for them to make good serving staff, that and our very sharp class-consciousness.
One person wonders why Brits are so miserable, and some theorize that Americans are simply happier. Several people write in noting that Germans are much, much more miserable and rude than Brits, and one American writes in about the following encounter:
I know it's hard to understand - but I will try to explain this with a little story. My Mother was from Germany. Her brother came over for a visit. My Mother and my Uncle, her brother, went to the bank. He could NOT understand everyone standing in a nice straight line, talking politely to each other, waiting to be served by the bank teller. In Germany, it turns out, they would mob the teller windows and the most aggressive got served first. So my uncle came home and was telling my dad this story about the most aggressive getting served first in Germany and he did not understand why my mother or anyone would JUST stand in a line AND WAIT! My Dad's answer to this was: "We carry guns".
Well, I'd be grim too if going to the bank turned into a scrimmage, and I kept seeing the elderly and the frail shoved to the back of the line. And then a commenter using the handle "ColdRussian" tells a harrowing tale about Texas to support that theory:

I travel extensively, including the United States. Two experiences: 1. I had auto (radiator) trouble in the middle of nowhere Texas. A family promptly stops, tows me by strap to a town and mechanic. A part had to be ordered, and I was going to check into a hotel. They would not hear of it and set me up in a guest room. When I showed up at the mechanic the next day, the bill had mysteriously been paid. 2. They are gun crazy. I think this explains why they are so polite. Everyone has a gun.
A Texan in the service industry tries to explain:
Hi Y'all. Wonderful comments y'all have posted here, so I'll add to the fun with my own. Americans are friendly because we are taught to be so, and the whole culture is one of friendliness. We are happy because we pursue happiness. The service people you deal with in the US are of three types. 1. Those who enjoy what they do. If they didn't enjoy their work, they would quit and do something that they adore. 2. Those who are doing the job who are on their way to something else, such as a degree in Physics, etc. 3. Those who have every intention of owning their own business in the same industry and are learning the ropes. In many industries this segment may be 80 to 90% of the workstaff(I include myself in this group). As to why we are so confident and so geared towards the future. 'Cause the future is bright and you can make whatver you wish of it. Woohoo!!! Hope I answered some questions...
So there you have it. Take control over your own destiny, refuse to live in fear (even if you need a gun to do that), be happy, treat other people nicely, live long and prosper. It's the American way.

That last comment is especially lovely, MOM. It's good to think about the good here, isn't it? Optimism, too, is worth pursuing.

Glad you're back...you were away for what...a decade or so?
Hope your Mom is continuing to improve.

"Greetings from America, where everyone's so bloody friendly and laid-back and nice it makes you want to puke blood in their faces."

Ahhh, and now isn't that just the fastest way to make friends and influence people?
Puke in the face of folks who are being nice to you.

Then this surly Limey can see us when we're on "not-friendly mode".

I reckon he'd probably wish for some "down-home manners" and friendly cheerfulness then.

I think ColdRussian was on the scent...Alexis de Tocqueville commented in the 1700's on how Southerners were seemingly addicted to duelling, and it's no secret that Dixie is American Ground Zero for folksy politeness.

If you weren't polite, you'd be dead or grievously wounded.

Old times there are not forgotten...

Anniebird, learning how to live a reasonably happy and productive life that doesn't impair other people's chances at happiness is pretty much the bottom line to me. I think the pursuit of long-term happiness is a very worth-while goal. Deciding to be happy creates happiness and cheer for others, as well as opportunities for oneself.

Bilgeman - at least a decade, according to the geese.

Chief No-Nag commented to me long ago that southerners will be polite to you until they decide that you need to be killed. I don't see anything wrong with smiling and being helpful. A cheerful attitude spreads, and so does a misanthropic, surly, pessimistic one.

I think my mother will do just fine. She is a very wise woman who is capable of great self-discipline. And she is a generally happy woman who worries about others more than for herself, which is the best medicine for many ills.
If all the good-byes of your young life contained the admonition "you be sweet, now", you'd be a little ray of sunshine, too - or a homicidal maniac.
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