Niceness in the USA and ‘Positivity Tyranny’ Theory

fake-smileAsk any Dutch person to mimic an American and they will put on an exaggerated smile and say “Oh my god, shut! Up! That’s awesome!” Or something of the kind. And obviously anyone who has actually spent any time with real human Americans outside of their own TV knows that’s a ridiculously exaggerated stereotype. But stereotyping aside, I must admit I’ve met my fair share of overly-excited Americans and the culture shock after so many years of living in calm and composed Europe – and brutally honest Holland – has been entertaining to say the least. My favorite disproportionately-excited American person anecdote is from two years ago when I still smoked. I was in a DC roof-top bar and a fellow smoker asked me for a lighter. When I handed it to her, as if I had saved her life –the irony of course being that my actions couldn’t be much further from that – she exclaimed: “Oh my god, thank you so much! You’re the best.” The. Best. That’s right, for a lighter. All I could think was “Okay, lady, if I’m the best for lending you a lighter you are in desperate need of some better friends!”

See, the thing is, while I admit this romanticism may eventually fade, I really do appreciate what I call the ‘positivity tyranny’ that so many everyday interactions with Americans seem to be guided by. People are somewhat expected to be friendly here. I realize that the neighbor I run into in the elevator or the person who greets me so happily at the grocery store or coffee house couldn’t care less about how I’m actually doing, but I can’t help but love it that they feel somewhat obliged to ask me with a smile on their faces. Never mind that every other post-purchase or post-door-holding “thank you” is answered to with “uhm-hum”, I really do enjoy being treated kindly. By people in the service industry, sure. But by fellow humans in general too. After so many honest facial expressions of “please go away, it’s raining, I’m having a bad day and I hope you die” that I’ve dealt with in Amsterdam, the seemingly American culture of ‘nice’ is a refreshing change.

My general enjoyment of ‘fluffy’ attitudes, if you will, probably has something to do with the fact that I can’t stand blasé attitudes and everyday cynicism. Never could. People who act like they’re too cool for school really get on my nerves. I personally perceive it as arrogance and I refuse to ever assimilate to this whole ‘nothing impresses me’ thing as a way of life. In that sense, I’m much more the annoyingly loud “Oh my god that’s awesome” person than anything else. I’ve seen so many different counties and cultures and gorgeous nature and yet I can still stop on my way home to look at a sunset and smile and then talk about it to other people later like it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve been known to call people to tell them to look at the moon or re-count mundane stories and laugh out loud at stupid things, unapologetically. I am really uncomfortable with silences and I will small-talk like it’s my job. The way I see it, life is way too short to be blasé. So there’s probably something there as to why I feel so comforted by being in a place where friendly equals polite. The normalization of niceness and expressions of excitement that I experience in the United States suit me just fine.

And yet it’s in being a third culture kid that this talk of ‘culture’ gets relativized. For instance, in Amsterdam, I am considered quite loud and chatty. If I had a euro for every time someone told me they could hear me from outside a restaurant or someone’s house… Well, let’s just say I would have many euros. However, when I go to Brazil my sister always comments on how much I embarrass her because time after time when she introduces me to her new friends after telling them for months how great I am, anyone who doesn’t know me thinks I’m cold and distant. Apparently just smiling and say hello instead of going into full-blown “I’ve just met you but I think I love you” mode is somehow offensive. Needless to say she hasn’t visited me Holland in a long time. Moreover, I’ve met my fair share of shy, quiet and also incredibly rude Americans with no patience or time for smiles and niceties.

While I like the change of scenery – and script – that life in the USA brings, at least for the moment, I’ve often wondered what it is about your stereotypical American loudness and excitement that bothers blasé people worldwide – Europeans or otherwise. One friend literally made me promise I wouldn’t come back any louder than I already am. But is it really a question of decibels? Or is it perhaps cultural imperialism backfiring? So like, “now that we’ve seen all your movies and shows where you comically portray Americans as annoying we assume that’s just who you are”. Or, is it rather, a form of cynicism about the possibility of anyone being that genuinely upbeat? My theory has always been that it is a mixture of all of the above. And maybe that’s fair.

For one, the world does consume a lot of American pop culture and for the most part that doesn’t do the American people much good, image-wise. If every corny movie about white people overcoming their racism stopped winning the Oscar’s, maybe the world’s perception of American culture might improve. If teen classics like ‘Clueless’ and the cheerleading movie ‘Bring it on’ stopped serving as a model for depicting teenage girls, the expectation of happy American women being shallow might actually start to fade from our imaginaries. If every working class dad figure in American shows wasn’t a selfish, overweight and ignorant white man with a disproportionally attractive but mean and/or stupid wife, maybe the world would stop expecting working class Americans to be obnoxious. You see where I’m getting at? Plus, it would probably help if the American government stopped trying to be the world’s police. But hey, that might be a little too political for the point I’m trying to make right now.

I would say Americans suffer from straight-up bad P.R. Especially seeing as people who have been to the United States and/or spent time with real-life Americans tend to have much more positive or at least more nuanced views about them. I wonder if this positivity tyranny bothers some Americans too. I know I for one don’t particularly love going to a gathering with thirty-odd people in Brazil and then being obliged to kiss every single person there on the cheek hello, only to then repeat the motion when saying goodbye – seriously, people, ain’t nobody got time for that! I wonder: is having to say “Hi, how are you doing today?” or “Have a fantastic day!” part of service industry people’s training? And is it that kind of thing that makes it trickle down to the general population while they actually hate it? So if at any point you get one customer service job the next thing you know you say “have a wonderful day!” to complete strangers out of reflex? As my great American adventure of 2013 begins, I find myself conducting participant observation everywhere I go.

And while no conclusions can be drawn at this stage, so far, the results have been nothing short of anthropologically interesting. 

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5 comments
  1. Michael said:

    I think Seinfeld is actually the one show that manages to break the stereotypes about American culture. Along with a multitude of other stereotypes it breaks. There are sitcoms and then there’s Seinfeld, I guess.

    Every nation has its quircky habits. Like the Dutch custom of congratulating every guest at a birthday party. Oh those dreadful Dutch birthdays… The horror… The horror…

  2. Having travelled a part of the US, I do hear what you’re saying and yes: it is much more pleasant to be greeted with a “Hi, how are ya”, rather than shop assistants pretending dusting off chairs while passing by and pretending not even noticing you, while on the search for a suit. And yes, I much more prefer the “Hi, my name’s Bob and I’m your waiter, here’s the menus, can I get you anything to drink? I’ll explain today’s special when I come back” over the “Ja?”.

    But do remember that there’s a motto in NL the majority goes by: “Doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gewoon genoeg” which does not translate easily into English, but it comes down to “No nonsense, no overtly happy stuff, no posh-attitude, no hassle & no fuss”. A motto which is happily adopted by all kinds of people in various settings and not limited to any degree of intelligence nor scholastic backgrounds.

    Having said that; it can be amusing to see how rude and totally oblivious to any kind of social behaviour people can be, and not only in the Netherlands. And annoying, but I try to turn it into a more positive approach, thus amusing. Have you ever watched Nick & Simon – The American Dream? I noticed the lack of using the word “Please”. So there’s a waiter taking their order, saying ‘would you like fries with that?’, where N&S replied “Yes”. Yes? Yes, “Yes”. “Please”, I added.

    Anywho, you’re the best is what I also use, it’s funny to use and only used in situations where your help was inevitably necessary. Otherwise a simple “Thank you” would suffice.

    Keep those blogs coming, I really enjoy reading them!

    So, have a fantastic day, you’re the best and we haven’t seen eachother for a while but I think I love you! 😀

  3. inaie said:

    Lau, eu cheguei a pouco tempo, como você, mas vindo do Oriente medio, onde até os brasileiros parecem calmos, tranquilos e “obedecedores”de regras, a minha maior frustração é não ter ganho a minha torta.
    Fui até reclamar com o meu vizinho. Disse a ele:

    – Olha aqui, eu sou estrangeira, mas você não em engana. Assisti filmes suficientes para saber que vocês estãod e devendo uma torta de boas vindas.

    Ele riu, chamou a esposa, que também riu…mas a minha torta nunca vem!!!

    Enganadores…

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