On the cross-culture divide

It would never occur to me to hate Britain, nor would it occur to me to hate “the British”. Such a concept is actually quite, ahem, foreign to me. But yesterday I did something I have never done before, and sent a comment on this blog to the great spam pile in the sky, for suggesting both of those things (along with the also useful suggestion that I go “home” and spare my work colleagues from having to put up with me. Nice.) Leaving aside the fact that I am home–I have no ties in the US aside from memories, family and friends, as my beloved job, my worldly belongings and my life overall is based here in the UK and has been for several years–it was a really odd thing to have my departure suggested to me by a total stranger. It caused me to stop and think about why it is that it is not terribly likely that someone in the US would hate Brits (in fact, we tend towards the Anglophilic), but yet it’s somehow seemingly perfectly allowable in Europe to generally hate Americans. It also made me very curious as to how I could have hit such a nerve with, what are (in my own head at least) drolly amusing observations about the cross-cultural divide, with no more venom intended than “taking the piss“.

Yesterday’s tongue-in-cheek commentary about a British “stiff upper lip” versus American “venting” seems to have been the trigger for much unpleasant expression, to use a British understatement. There are only four comments listed, as noted the fifth is in comment heaven, and even there in the remaining comments are some interesting thoughts. Perhaps it is because I am from the midwest, but I am the only person I know, friend or family, who has ever been to therapy. That stereotype seems to be borne of an East Coast/West Coast thing, because in the heartland people are more likely to go to church than to a psychiatrist. So the idea that a little bit of American “blowing off steam” is the same as habitual therapy couches, well, it does not resonate with this American. I have, in fact, been open about the fact that it was trying too hard to “fit in” with the “stiff-upper-lip” phenomenon that caused me to bury my personality on first arrival, and I have settled into a medium me–not as forthright as I was in the US, but not completely silent either. And I think this is a good compromise. I don’t think a “stiff upper lip” is always healthy, nor do I believe that saying every thing you think the moment you think it is a good idea in any context, workplace or otherwise.

I suspect that most expats find that there is a compromise position in the end: you retain some of what makes you uniquely “you” (including your heritage and the country of your birth and/or upbringing) and you adopt new pieces of your adopted homeland (like saying “bloody” all the time, or loving how many differently-sized spoons you now own). You become a citizen of the mid-Atlantic, when a US/UK transplant, in that you are never quite one thing or another, and having experienced the adventure, you can’t go back. There’s a recent guest post from Mike of Postcards from Across the Pond that mentions something I’ve also discussed previously (but am not easily finding the link!) that everyone should try this–everyone should live abroad for a while and take a chance to see yourself, your country of birth and your host country in a different light.

I will happily accept any constructive challenges to my opinions, which are, as noted previously, only my off-the-cuff observations on my life here. I am not an investigative reporter, and I doubt I ever will be. Because I live in Britain, the subjects of my musings are more likely to be about what I find to be surprising in Britain, as opposed to my views on the faults and foibles of America. It’s not that I don’t have issues with America–dinner with an American expat tonight revealed that we both love the UK tax system as simple compared with the US, but we both have serious concerns with two-tap sinks for hand-washing. I will continue to cling to little pieces of America when I feel homesick, and delight in the fact that there are other bloggers in my predicament (thanks, Iota, for finding me another Minnesotan in England!) I will not, however, accept the idea that my bemused commenting on the cross-cultural divide is worthy of deportation. And so if that’s all you have to say in response to my thoughts, don’t expect your comments to appear on this blog.

14 responses to “On the cross-culture divide

  1. I don’t think it is allowable in Europe to “hate” Americans.

    I also think you have had more than your share of negative comments – and unfairly so. Anyone who follows your blog knows that you are pretty even-handed. You see strengths and weaknesses in the way things are done in Britain. You regularly acknowledge that your observations are based on your own experiences, and might not be representative of a whole nation. I think you try your best to make sense of a nation full of quirks and eccentricities. You speak openly about being homesick, but who could begrudge you that?

    It might amuse you to know that my husband was in your neck of the woods for a job interview last week. He didn’t get it. If he had, one of the things I was looking forward to, was being able to meet you. Alas, ’twas not to be.

  2. I disagree with Iota. I think it is perfectly acceptable in Europe to hate Americans. Well, not really. It’s acceptable to hate America as a whole.

    I was recently reminded of this during my trip to visit family in the Canaries. We were having a conversation and they brought up my life in the US. I went on to tell some anecdotes and made a few complaints but I wasn’t “hating,” I was doing the same thing my friends and I did back in the States: venting about the problems that America has and mentioning certain things it could learn from Europe (not that Europe couldn’t learn anything from the US). Suddenly, I was told by a distant relative that America was basically worthless and was essentially a country he hated. Those are strong words for someone who spent a year there at most. I’ve seen a lot more of the negative things America has to offer than he has and I could never hate it! Still, I hear things like this a lot, even in an Obama happy world.

  3. Thanks to Iota I am now wondering whether I am a quirk or an eccentric!

  4. I do not know in what terms and tone that adverse comment was written, NFAH, but presumably it was an unpleasant, personal and rude one, in which case I am sorry if you were upset by it.

    Two things do occur to me, however:

    1) Your post immediately before this one refers to the benefits of ‘venting’ — yet perhaps that was what your unwelcome correspondent was doing?

    2) There are circumstances where expats, of whatever nationality and wherever they are expatriated to, appear to be so homesick and so unhappy with their new life that all one can recommend is for them to go home; in the same way quite often the only remedy for seasickness is for the sufferer to sit under a tree!

  5. When I was interviewing for jobs in the UK, I did not have a single British headhunter or interviewer at a firm that did not “warn” me that the employees in this country would be generally passive aggressive. I think they were worried I would be used to American-style lawyers who threw temper tantrums and confronted one another when necessary. I don’t know which style is better but as has been said in other variations- the joy of being an expat is to see that there is always another way.

    I remember when Chris Martin said to thousands of his fans at the O2 arena that they needed to let loose more and stop being so English. It was eerie to my husband and I how non-raucous the crowd was. If the stereotype of an American is that we are happy, expressive, confident, celebratory, chaotic, crazy and prone to self-analysis- sign me up.

    NFAH, one of life’s small pleasures is sending a comment to spam hell. I hope you enjoyed every second.

  6. I wasn’t aware that the British culture constantly “puts down” Americans until I had a British friend, who explained a reference to Americans in a British magazine which I had not properly understood! Then we explored the subject for a good year or more. I guess this is one way the British feel superior is to put down other English-speaking cultures. It’s not JUST americans that are put down, it’s also to some degree Australians, South Africans, and perhaps others.

    It would never occur to me to hate or put down British people either. I thought it was very strange. My friend said you’re actually brought up with it, so many people grow up and just do it automatically without even thinking about what they are doing. I used to work with someone who used to say in meetings (where I was the only American, when I would propose something), “Oh, that’s SO AMERICAN….” and I always felt confused, never did understand what she was talking about, until several years later when my British friend explained that this was actually a put-down which I had endured…then it made sense, given the person it was coming from!

    Expat 21

  7. wilma the terrible

    I personally dont think you intend to be anti-british or racist, but I do think there is sometimes an undertone of carping that sensitive Brits might pick up on (this is sometimes more in the comments than in your original posts). For example, Yael’s remark about British employees being passive-aggressive – what a whopping and unpleasant generalisation – and what a kerfuffle there would be on this blog if something similar was said about americans. And the Chris Martin remark about ‘let loose more and stop being so English’ -why should they, and what right has he to assume that the american way (raucous) is right? This is the kind of off-the-cuff dismissive comment that does annoy people, and as for ‘happy, expressive, confident,celebratory,chaotic,crazy and prone to self analysis’, you could add boastful, thickskinned and intolerant of other peoples culture.

  8. Yael wrote:
    >If the stereotype of an American is that we are happy, expressive, confident, celebratory, chaotic, crazy and prone to self-analysis- sign me up.

    None of those qualities are peculiarly or exclusively American, are they, surely? Stereotypes can be so silly and misleading.

  9. Howard and Wilma, I couldnt agree more, and what would be the reaction if at an american arena the crowd were told to “stop being so american” – uproar, I expect, and accusations of anti-americanism! Similar arguments are happening over at
    She’s not from Yorkshire.com btw.

  10. > She’s not from Yorkshire.com

    Rimfire: that’s a very weird blog, isn’t it? It appears to derive its “humour” (if you can call it that) from stereotypical thinking so extremely marked that under another kind of categorizing human beings it could be considered racist.

    Unlike our host NFAH here, the three bloggers there rarely have the courage to allow challenging counter-comment, or so it seems to me.

  11. Wait… isn’t Chris Martin English? It seems like it would be more of an insult if an American told the English crowd to stop being so English.

    Well, no matter – if you want a scarily sedate crowd at a rock concert, just come to China. I’m sure English crowds are raucous by comparison. 🙂

  12. Late to this post, but I hope my previous comment didn’t offend. I love to engage in discussions about how we expats find our host country, and often, what is being said about the UK is what I have found about the US. (For example, I often think I have to hold back here in the mid-west because people just don’t say mean things, and we Brits sometimes do.)
    I also read the “go home” comment, and to this Brit, it merely read as “go to the privacy of your own home and kick the cat”, which is a standard saying and usually not meant as “go back to the USA”.
    Anyhoo, keep blogging!

  13. wow. i don’t actually want to get involved in this discussion, but i think it’s weird that the saying in the UK is “kick the cat” and here it’s “kick the dog.” what’s that about?

  14. Re Europeans hating Americans, I do think 8 years of G.W. Bush certainly haven’t helped, in fact I know a lot of Americans who “hated” Americans during that time–by which I mean, they passionately disagreed with U.S. policies at home and abroad and were aghast at the image of America that was being promoted worldwide. But then I live in New York, which some have said is not really a part of the US at all.

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