Monday, October 24, 2011

I'm afraid of Americans!

As avid readers might recall, I pretty recently returned back to Japan from a trip to the big USA (East coast to be more specific), I think that most of my regular readers are smart enough to figure things out without me spelling it out, but in any case... Don't get me wrong, I actually like the US (although I don't necessarily always agree with the foreign politics run by the country) and most of my foreign friends here in Japan are Americans., but there are some aspects of American culture that I find a mixture of amusing, annoying and confusing...

Growing up in the cold, semi-socialist isolated country of Sweden (I'm taking about the late 70's and 80's here) people are just not very outgoing and friendly to people they don't know. However, once you made a friend in Sweden they're usually loyal friends for life, much like dogs, but it takes some time to get there. I mention this to give you a little background where I'm coming from here.

Visiting the US means becoming engaged in conversation with strangers at every turn... Back home in the old world of Sweden, if a stranger tries to engage me in a conversation there are are four questions that immediately run through my head:

1 Is he/she a drunk?
2 Is he/she a lunatic?
3 What the hell does this person want from me?
4 Is it a foreigner that doesn't understand how things work here?

It could probably be charted up as a decision tree thingy although one doesn't necessarily rule out the other. As this basic thought process is not unique to me, but quite normal in Sweden it becomes accurate in a twisted logic as people will not engage people in small talk of fear of being seen as a drunk, lunatic and/or overall strange person (e.g. foreigner) and the only people who will are drunks, lunatics, foreigners who doesn't know basic Swedish manners or people who wants something.

Even though I have lived over ten years in exile here in Japan now, it's very hard to change how my mind works and it doesn't help that Japan isn't a particularly outgoing country either. So coming to the US where everyone is overly social (particularly those who rely on tip...) means that my mind constantly has to go through the above thought process only to deliver the answer "You are now in the US, the thought process you initiated is not compatible here".

The constant talking, chatting and socializing I have to go through in the US is mentally exhausting... In Sweden you can easily go through a whole day without talking to anyone apart from the minimum necessary exchange of words when shopping or so, while in the US I find myself having to engage each and every person I meet in small talk knowing that don't really care at all; they're just doing it because it's the thing that you're supposed to do. Not to mention how paranoid I get when in restaurants and can't shake the thoughts "this waitress is probably a major bitch just pretending to be nice to milk some tip out of me"... After a few days of this, I find myself drained of energy, but still, it's a nice place to visit and the problem is at least not that the people aren't friendly...

14 comments:

Chris said...

Sweden should build giant ghetto's for Japan's reclusive Hikikomori's. Since they never go out you'd never be bothered and by building cheap ghettos you could pocket the rest that is charged to the rich disfunctional parents back home. Pipe porn stations and drop food by helicopters and let em be.

Could be profitable!!

April said...

Good thing you didn't go to the South, where they hug you the first time they meet you.

Mr. S. said...

Excellent post. You've nailed one reason why being a foreigner is just not so exhausting in Japan: you can choose how much you want to deal with people. As a Canadian I find Americans familiar, or just a little too gregarious, but it is in my comfort zone, or at least nominally in my mother-tongue. I couldn't deal with China though, where people are probably just as good or bad as in Japan, Canada or the US (regardless of one awful case lately): everyone gets in each other's face to get anything done.

Jennifer said...

a "Major Bitch" doesn't take a waitress job, where you have to deal with all kinds of people.

Waitresses don't "milk tips" either. They rely on them, getting paid less than minimum wage because the owner of the establishment assumes she is getting tips to make her income.

Theresa said...

Non-chattering shy people are assumed to be arrogant or not very bright in the U.S., it's hard to be a shy American. Often the loudness and bravado and boasting are compensation for insecurities inevitable in such an environment.
Americans will tell you their life stories, you're temporary best friends after an hour, a wonderful thing, that openness, but sometimes the me-me-me-me-me monologues and too much, and oversharing can be a problem. I'm exhausted by the hyperactive.
Five years ago, if I criticized the U.S. there was a 100% money-back guarantee that I'd be accused of being an unpatriotic America-hater, even though it's my own damn culture. Somehow something changed in 2008 and now it's fine. If the American self and country are so intertwined, why are self-help books and counseling so popular for the self but criticizing the many problems the country faces somehow taboo? Oh wait, I guess it's the constant repetition that the U.S. is the bestest country on the planet, bar none, from the time one is a small child. American comedians cheer me up: Larry David, George Carlin, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Lewis Black, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher.
I attended a jobs seminar once and everybody had to describe themselves. Every last one of them except for me said they were a "people person." I came to Japan soon after. I can go days, weeks, without having a conversation with anybody. A paradise.

Anonymous said...

Well said! I grew up in America and I still cant STAND this aspect of American life. As you aptly say, its exhausting and just so pointless. Besides, Im just bad at it. I never know quite what to say in these situations. All I want is my friggin coffee and not to be bothered, but that is just too much to ask here. By the way, this is MUCH worse in California and the West Coast in general. NYC in particular I find to be not so bad in this regard. Every time I leave NYC to Cali I evoke all sorts of weird hostility, as if Im being rude. Takes me a few days to realize its that I dont engage in random poinltess high decibel small talk with every single damn person I randomly encounter and never expect to see again in my life.

Mr. S. said...

Jennifer, you are missing the most attractive feature in a person: a sense of humour. Nobody is unaware of the plight of waitresses, except Mr. Pink.

Theresa, it's not much better in Toronto. I find it insufferable that the least sincerity, much less critical thinking, branded me as 'difficult'. At least the Japanese let you do it drunk, if only then.

Mr. Salaryman said...

Chris - You might be on to something there! Sweden is an excellent place to be shy in (even though the hikikomori outdo even the shyest Swedes). But could be a great business idea!

April - I'm actually quite ok with hugs, it's the constant socializing that I find harder to deal with...

Mr. S. - Thank you for the nice words about the post and yep, I can see how it can go in many different directions when you end up in a country with a culture that is different from the one you're from

Jennifer - I think you kinda missed the whole point of the post?

Theresa - I see what you mean, I guess America can be a lot harder country to live in if you're not as outgoing as the norm. You have a good taste in comedians as well, hope you feel comfortable here in Japan where it's a lot more peaceful in the small talk part...

Anon - I can completely see what you mean that this is upped to even higher levels on the West coast, I've been there too, but only on shorter visits when it didn't have time to completely drain me I guess. One of the things that make me exhausted is that I feel that I have to match the cheeriness and chatting to not be seen as a moody or arrogant person...

Mr. S. - Haha, I think that you understood this post completely

Jeffrey said...

As April added, if you think folks East of the Appalachians are a bit forward, stay out of the South (good advice in general) and the West.

That being said, most of the Japanese and the few Europeans I know who have either moved to or spent a lot of time in the U.S. actually enjoy the openness and gregariousness compared to the emotional constipation so typical of, particularly, Japanese and English society.

I've always felt that some melding of Japanese and American social norms might hit the happy medium. I used to think the same was true for political culture. But, seconding, Theresa, ever since Shrub's wars and the general and not undramatic shift to the right in the U.S., and the ongoing OWS notwithstanding, there's not a whole lot left to admire in our democracy any longer.

aimlesswanderer said...

So the whole "loud obnoxious American" stereotype has more than some validity?

Will said...

People from Sweden are shy...that means most of the ones I've had the good fortune of meeting are starkers. California must run in a slower groove than the east coast...outside LA, you might find most people distractedly mellow.

Mr. Salaryman said...

Jeffrey - I think that this is probably as individual as it can get. I can see how many people from f.i. Sweden can find the American social style very liberating after spending so many years in the cold and darkness. So it's not really any story from my side on "right or wrong", just my personal perspective :)

Aimless - Well, I think that there are "loud and obnoxious" people in all cultures and countries, but of course this is amplified in a country such as the US which is generally "louder" by itself

Will - Not sure if "shy" is the right word, but less social is probably very true

Anonymous said...

I'm an introvert but if I go a whole day without some interaction with someone I feel too lonely. I'm definately not an outgoing person but I like the way Americans talk to each other and are so friendly. I don't get the feeling they want anything from me - they just want to show interest. And most of it is genuine. Is that so bad?

Mr. Salaryman said...

Anon - No, of course it's not bad at all, I'm only talking from my perspective, if you enjoy it it's great for you!

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