Palo Alto, San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati, Knoxville, Asheville, Durham. While the last three names won’t be familiar to many of you, much the culture nonetheless will be. Throughout the world, we receive a glossy version of US culture on our screens and from our stereos. I’m just starting the endless task of prising apart this projected, expected USA from what’s really here. Reflecting on my first month here (2 weeks on the road, 2 weeks in Durham) I’m going to simply try to illustrate four aspects of the US that I’ve seen so far. The aspects are well known, but I hope to convey some of the “aha!” quality of the particular experiences that validated my preconception.
Multi-layered diversity, in the geographic sense, with the broad regions: West, Midwest, East, New England, South, and Texas, all (except Texas) broken up further into states. A speaker at the Duke Orientation excused his use of the word “guys” for the second person plural pronoun (instead of y’all). “I’m from Illinois”, he said, “so I’m allowed to say that”. California reminds me of Spain, in climate, language, smells, architecture, whereas Ohio looked like Germany, and here in North Carolina… it’s it own thing again. Regions, states and even cities have developed their own signature food. This diversity is represented in legal form as well. A lawyer told me the best answer to any question about
US law is “it depends on the jurisdiction”. Federal taxes, state taxes. Cities and even suburbs and universities have their own police force. State flags routinely fly next to the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes (although by federal law they must be flown lower). I must mention ethnic diversity, and along with it, bilingualism with Spanish, modern-day segregation and systemic racism. It’s an especially intensified version of what I’ve seen in many other societies, including the UK and New Zealand. It is a whole other blog post right there.
People are generally speaking, a little brash. My first experience of this was after some really bad customer service while spending about an hour in a store trying to get my first US sim card to work. The two young sales clerks, who had blamed their own mistakes on me, still tooted their own horns. “Give us tens” one said.
“You’ll get a survey on your phone, give us ten out of ten for customer service… it’s how we get promoted…if we get enough tens.”
Another example was the arrival of an official to the stage during the welcoming party for us international students. A thunderstorm happened to be raging outside. “Do you hear the thunder?” he began. “That means I’m an awesome person”. It was a joke of course, and it went down well, but I’d never imagine anyone daring to make such a joke in the UK or NZ.
It’s easy to become homeless. “All you need to do is to not be able to get a job, or need hospital care without insurance” a volunteer worker with the homeless tells me. I know the Affordable Healthcare Act might be making some progress in regard to the latter, but I would be surprised if people don’t still end up destitute due to illness or accident.
Finally, people seem generally, and genuinely cheerful! Perhaps its just because its summer right now, but strangers, even in large cities, can be seen to politely greet one another. Acquaintances effuse, smile and laugh to a degree I haven’t often witnessed. The first American to greet me – a customs officer at the border – made jokes about getting drunk on vegemite. Two of my lecturers are comic geniuses as well as being great philosophers.
What can come off as over-the-top superficiality when Americans travel becomes the general baseline for enjoying yourself, and it all seems a lot more authentic when its actually a cultural one is immersed in. I also have a theory about the link between accent and cultural temperament. It’s well known that the way we hold
our bodies*and our mouths influence our mental wellbeing. Most American accents naturally form the speaker’s mouth into smiling shapes. Try reading this sentence with a British (any variant) or NZ accent and smiling at the same time. Now repeat, still smiling, with an American accent. Easier, isn’t it?
*Edit: Amy Cuddy’s research on this has not been replicated with larger sample sizes
Edited once for clarity