British stereotypes of Americans–and my own

In the U.K., Americans have a reputation for bluntness, but do we live up to the stereotype?

In my last post, without even noticing it I went along with the stereotype, and Belladonna Took wrote, “It absolutely fascinates me that you consider Americans ‘blunt and to the point.’ Maybe that’s true over on the East Coast, but here in the Pacific Northwest? Oh dear, hmmm, I think perhaps it may be a little different. (Note: Everything in the preceding sentence after ‘Oh dear’ is Pacific Northwestese for ‘Oh hell no.’ And it’s pronounced in a lilting smiley voice, so I should probably insert lots of smiley faces. Only stuff it, I won’t, because I’m from Johannesburg.)

“…I had lived here two years before it finally dawned on me that when smiling women remarked, “You’re very direct, aren’t you?” they weren’t actually complimenting me.”

Irrelevant photo: flowers growing in a drystone wall

Irrelevant photo: flowers growing in a drystone wall

Well, damn, it’s amazing what I can learn when I listen to people.

Although I lived in Minnesota for forty years, I’m a New Yorker by birth,by accent, and by attitude, and I don’t think I’m the only New Yorker who’s blunt, but having fallen for one stereotype I’m starting to question everything I take for granted. Still, I think that’s what we’re generally like. Not all of us, but enough to set a pattern.

For years after I moved to Minnesota, I felt like a steamroller. With no particular effort and no intention at all, I seemed to leave people flattened on the pavement, and hell, all I was doing was talking. It’s not that I like an argument, but I do like a good, spirited discussion, and to the people I was now around in Minnesota that sounded like an argument. I guess. You’d have to ask them what it was really about, although they might be too polite to tell you, because if New York’s known for its directness, Minnesota’s known for Minnesota Nice: a relentless effort to keep things bland. Smooth that surface, folks, because it’s all that matters.

Years ago on A Prairie Home Companion (and the link’s to the show’s general website, not the specific shows I’m about to mention), Garrison Keillor did some bits about how Minnesotans talk. They were, I think, from Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. One that stayed with me was what a Minnesotan would say to someone using a welding torch on a full gas tank. It was, more or less, “Y’know, most fellas wouldn’t want to do that.”

In Minnesota when you’re making people uneasy, they’re likely to say either “that’s different” or “that’s interesting.” Ditto if you’ve thoroughly pissed them off. It took me a long, long time to understand what the phrases meant.

So I had a hard time those first few years. Or was that the first few decades? From this distance, it seems like no time at all. For a while, I tried toning myself down and ended up furious at everyone. Eventually I gave that up and let people look after their own welfare. They lived through the experience and I was happier, which it made me easier to be around, so I’m guessing everyone benefited. I was never going to blend in, so the only question was to handle my difference.

I’d lived there for several decades when my supervisor at work pulled me aside to tell me I was intimidating other (unnamed) staff members. Not by anything specific I’d said or done, just by my way of being in the world. If it had been something specific, I’m pretty sure I’d have reacted differently, but since this was about who and how I was, I surprised us both by laughing. She was twenty years too late, I told her, because I’d stopped thinking it was something I could change and anyway I’d stopped wanting to change it .

Twenty was a random grab for a largish number, but the rest of it was as true as anything can be in this complicated world of ours.

If you’re looking for a nifty strategy to help you get along with your supervisor, I don’t recommend that one, but to her credit she dropped the issue, and if she held it against me she kept it to herself. She wasn’t a native Minnesotan, but she’d adapted better than I had. So how did she really feel? I had no way of knowing and I was happy enough to leave it there.

At times when we lived in MInnesota, Wild Thing’s translated for me, because indirection isn’t a language I’m ever going to understand well. But she grew up in Texas and indirection is as natural to her as what other people think is an argument and I think is a discussion is to me. When her mother was bone-deep furious at someone, she’d do what she called heaping coals of fire on their head, which meant smiling and being nice to them to prove how angry she was. And, I’m guessing, how much better than them she was.

So, yeah, Wild Thing made a great translator.

One time we’d gotten a—no, I can’t resist it—whole shitload of manure for the garden and it was sitting in a pile by the alley, where I usually parked. And being the let’s-do-it-later kind of gardeners that we are, it sat there long enough that a neighbor said something about it. I don’t remember exactly what, but it had to do with there being a lot of it. Or how long it had been there. And I smiled and nodded and said yes it was a lot and yes it had been a while.

I’m clueless but I’m not unfriendly.

Then Wild Thing explained: The neighbor wanted some, and wanted to be invited to take it. And wasn’t going to ask. Ever. So we invited and she took and we all lived happily ever after.

I’m not sure how much of the U.S., geographically speaking, values directness and how much values indirectness. I’ve only lived in New York and Minnesota. If some of you want to fill in from your own experiences, it would be fascinating.

I can say two things, though. One is that stereotypes are powerful. If they match any tiny breath of experience in your head, as this one did in mine, you can find yourself blown right into a wall on a full-out storm wind. So thanks to Belladonna for providing the wall. I’m grateful.

The other is about the grain of truth in the stereotype. What I think gives rise to the impression of American bluntness is a sort of surface openness. In public, we take up more physical, emotional, and auditory space than the British. I wouldn’t say we’re uninhibited, but we can give that impression. And we recognize different rules of politeness. It’s easy to mistake all that for bluntness.

I offer than last piece especially as a theory, and I’d love to hear what you think of it. Am I anywhere near the mark?

81 thoughts on “British stereotypes of Americans–and my own

  1. I used to run a pub in Glasgow where directness was often accompanied by a glass sailing through the air. You learn to speak directly without actually speaking directly. For example … ‘Fuck off’, he hinted pleasantly.
    Also when people say ‘Do you have a problem with that.?’, I consider it to be an act of war and will respond accordingly. (I’ll adopt the foetal position and shiver in the corner.)
    I don’t know how you cope with these differences in such big country as the USA. Maybe you should have a rule book or something. I don’t have an answer really. I”m just making conversation. The vision I now have of you as a steamroller … I may well have to get some urgent therapy.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh dear. Sorry to have traumatized you. Would it help if you thought of me as a very small steamroller?

      “Do you have a problem with that?” does sound like a declaration of war. I can’t find a single tone of voice, from the range in my head, where it sounds like anything else. Funny, since the words themselves don’t really say that.

      In the U.S., I think the differences apply to much larger regions. You’ll get rivalry between neighboring states, so that Minnesotans make fun of people from Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, but I’m not sure an outsider would spot significant differences among them.


  2. I’ve often thought, reading this blog and other ex-pat blogs, that one could just as easily write about the cultural differences between various regions of the US, as write about the differences across national boundaries.

    But I don’t know if I agree with you about stereotypes having a “grain of truth.” I think we tend to notice when folks display some stereotypical characteristic (and nod to ourselves and say, “Aha! Of course she’s that way! She’s from New York!”) and ignore the stuff that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions, so it just seems as though the person is the living, breathing embodiment of the cliché, out there being all blunt and direct all the time, when really half her day is spent, you know, gardening.

    And I wonder if a lot of the stuff we attribute to the region we grew up in is really just due to our personalities. I’m starting to think I’d be just as obnoxious if I were born in Des Moines. My husband, if you let him, will proudly declare that he was “born in the Bronx” but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a kinder, gentler, more soft-spoken person in the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think both can be true–grain of truth in the stereotype and people noticing what they expect so it reinforces what they already believe. I’m also sure that some people don’t fit the stereotype of their region or country at all, but it does seem to me that a person can be kind, gentle, and blunt, all at the same time.


      • A person can be kind and gentle and blunt (not sure they can be all at the same time, but I’ll cede that they can be kind and gentle on a Tuesday, and then blunt on Wednesday), but then that would not be the stereotypical New Yorker, would it?

        I guess I have a couple of issues with what I see as your take on stereotypes. The first one is that you seem to believe stereotypes are the rule and folks who do not behave according to stereotype are the exceptions. I think rather the reverse is true, but the stereotypical exceptions really stand out in our minds when we encounter them (because we’re human and stereotypes are shorthand for categorizing people as “Same” and “Other” in that reptilian part of our brain that is always wondering if we’re about to be attacked–but that’s a different blog post).

        The second issue I have is that I wonder if you would be as willing to embrace the New York stereotype if you did not admire the qualities you identify as being part of the stereotype (strong, opinionated, honest) because there’s a bunch of people out there who see New Yorkers as dirty, ethnic (not in a good way), angry, hedonistic, God-hating elitists.

        I probably sound like an argumentative asshole (which I am) in this comment, but I’m confident you’ll read this in the tone in which it is intended, i.e. friendly, challenging debate.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Actually, I agree with you. And I’d appreciate the debate even if I didn’t. I think the difference is a matter of the weight we give to the various elements here. I’m aware of the negative side(s) of stereotyping, and that makes me wary of them. On the other hand, when people play with the stereotypes of the group they belong to, it can be funny. (It becomes unfunny very fast when they try the same game with groups they don’t belong to.)

          Anyway, I’m happy to embrace the ethnic part of the New York stereotype, however negative some people find it.


          • You’re making it really hard to get an argument started if you’re going to agree with me . . . ;)

            And I understand embracing the stereotype, even though part (most?) of me rebels at being painted with broad, generalized strokes. Once, during a “team building” exercise at work, we were asked to describe the colleague we’d been partnered with–my coworker used the adjective “intense” to describe me and I thought (but had the good sense not to say out loud), “Fuck yeah I’m intense!”

            I don’t think he meant it as a compliment but I heard it as one. ;)

            Liked by 1 person

            • Sorry, I’m not playing fair, am I? But actually, I do agree. This seems to be one of those topics where I find myself on several sides of an argument. (I’ve always hated true/false questions. They don’t leave me room to think.) Stereotypes are destructive. Agreed. Stereotypes may (not always but sometimes) contain a grain of truth. Agreed. Oh, hell, it’s hopeless.

              I hate team-building exercises. Hate, hate hate. No ambiguity there.


  3. The thing about stereotypes, is they are not without foundation in reality. There must be a certain percentage of a given population that has exhibited the behaviour or it wouldn’t have been noticed and if it is not noticed it will probably never become a stereotype!
    the thing people forget is that just as there are people who exhibit this behavour, there are also those that don’t! In addition, it is very unlikely that every american (for example) will conform to EVERY american stereotype!

    Just out of interest, I would consider bluntness to be a compliment! In a country which exhibits almost terminal politeness, I get very cross with people not just saying what they mean!!

    Mind you, I was accused of being scary the other day because I have resting bitch face and a slightly blunt turn of phrase so when people talk to me early on before coffee has allowed me to paste on a cheerful demeanor, I can apparently appear very blunt!!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The southern stereotype is that if a southern woman stops saying “bless your heart” and moves to “oh, hell no” you might just be about to witness something akin to Armageddon. The reality is a little less picturesque but still has that kernal of truth, at least among the authentic southerner of a certain class, who seems to be born with the ability to cut out your heart with a smile and a cheery wave. (From an authentic southerner, not of that certain class.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The southern stereotype is that if a southern woman stops saying “bless your heart” (which is not quite the blessing that it appears to be) and moves to “oh, hell no” you might just be about to witness something akin to Armageddon. The reality is a little less picturesque but still has that kernal of truth, at least among the authentic southerner of a certain class who seems to be born with the ability to cut out your heart with a smile and a cheery wave. (From an authentic southerner, not of that certain class.)

    Liked by 1 person

      • When I first encountered this “Bless” response, I was utterly confused. I could see that it was a reaction to some person behaving idiotically, or at least counter-productively (it was in a work context), but I thought the speaker was genuinely fond and caring, and just didn’t mind that they had to mop up (figuratively) again. Eventually, I worked out that it is a ‘safe’ way to vent frustration, sidestepping any emotional involvement, admitting the impossibility of altering the offender’s behaviour, and being able to carry on working. You know, ‘keep calm and carry on’. (Not to introduce any more stereotypes, oh no.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Isn’t it odd that we say things like bless in order to not say something we consider unacceptable, but since the people around us know what bless means–doesn’t that make it equal to the unacceptable thing we avoided?

          See, this is why I’m not good at indirection.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Many years ago, while traveling in Spain, I shared a tour of Granada with an acerbic New Yorker, who really, really, did not want to be on the tour. He constantly sniped at the guide, who mostly ignored him and went about his business of extolling the wonders of the town. He spoke of the glory of the Roman era, the sophistication of the Moors and at one point, got carried away describing the vast wealth from the New World that flowed into the city…

    Finally the New Yorker could no longer contain himself, he cracked a sarcastic smile and asked, “Yeah, but whatya done lately?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did I mention that when we New Yorkers are obnoxious, we can be very obnoxious? And there I am again, dealing in broad generalizations, but please focus of the when and the can–I’m not making any universal statements.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Had to laugh out loud at this post, Ellen. I have been called intimidating many a time. It makes me laugh for never would it be my intention to intimidate someone and inside I’m about as soft as they come. I guess I’m just a misunderstood steamroller like you. Unintentional steamrollers unite!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I am not sure about bluntness as such but I’ve certainly found folks in the Philly suburbs to be arrestingly open. I’m quite a private person (ironic for a blogger, I know) so I find it quite startling when people I barely know share personal information with me. I even had a complete stranger tell me about the gynecological surgery she had just had. As a Brit, I didn’t quite know how to respond to that.

    One thing I am finding is that no subject is off limits. In Britain, we are trained to never talk politics or religion except with people we know very well – or in a context that makes those appropriate topics of conversation. Here in SE Pennsylvania, I’ve been dumbstruck by the speed at which people raise those subjects. The very first time I met one woman, she directly asked me what religion I was. She didn’t then know how to respond when I explained I was an atheist. People have also asked if I’m Republican or Democrat. It’s probably obvious to anyone who knows me even a smidge what way I would vote in the U.S. if I were permitted to vote but still I sidestep the question by explaining my disenfranchisement because I’m just not comfortable having a political discussion with a stranger.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops. Accidentally hit “post” before concluding.

      I don’t find the frankness or abruptness to be rude. As much as I’m taken aback by it, I’m not offended by it. It’s just very different to the cultural norms of passing conversation that I was raised with.

      Liked by 2 people

    • That’s funny about the unsolicited tale of gynecological surgery. There was a time (this was when we still lived in the U.S.) when Wild Thing and I (but for some reason especially WT) found that if we told someone we didn’t know well that we were in a same-sex relationship they mistook this for some intensely personal bit of information and felt they had to offer something intensely personal of their own. For us, it was no more personal than if you, for instance, said, “I’m married.” But it did make for interesting, if sometimes awkward, conversations. As more and more people became open about being gay, that happened less. So we knew less gossip but life was less awkward.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, there must be channeling going on, Ellen because I am working on a post called “When Stereotypes Hurt,” and it addresses the negative stereotypes we harbor about each other on both sides of the Pond.

    I would run with Ellen’s theory that we are more open rather than direct. I can give an example. I belong to a private online forum that mostly consists of British women, some of whom are bloggers. One is a mum blogger who was doing a series about emotions and pregnancy, and she was really excited about it because the emotional aspects are not generally addressed in British society. Well, anybody who is familiar with the American mom blogger knows that anything and everything is discussed. Here we go. Stereotype reinforced.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d guess that the permission to discuss emotions is fairly new in the U.S. It’s not something I’ve tracked, but I seem to be able to trace it back to roughly the seventies.


  10. I’m not a New Yorker. I’m not even an American. But I’ve been told many times how blunt and direct I am … and yes, I’ve also been told I was intimidating.
    I must be clueless too because I still consider it a compliment. Dancing around an issue just doesn’t work for me …. let’s get to the point and move on.
    The manure thing? Wow … I would never have guessed that was the secret message. Why can’t people just say what they mean?!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. You know, you got me all of a tizz-wozz! Thank you so much – not merely for the entertaining and informative post, but for making it ALL ABOUT MEEEEEE! And now people are visiting my blog and I’m going, “Oh shit, I’d better write something – but what? I have so many half-written posts and ideas for posts and thoughts about posts and … woe is me, where to begin? Alackaday, I am not worthy!”

    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks… :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course it’s all about you. Who better to be about? Just click your heels together and–

      Sorry, wrong movie. Wrong post. Wrong image. Thanks so much for challenging me.


      • Well, I’m a nimnil … I was on deadline when this came out, and befuddled thereby. Since then I’ve remained offline for a few days. So please don’t think my failure to reblog your post was rudeness – it was unintentional, and has been remedied!

        Liked by 1 person

          • It’s one of Himself’s words, and has always seemed to me to be onomatopoeic in the way klutz and eejit are. I know that technically the being of stupid doesn’t have a sound, but if it DID, it would sometimes sound like “klutz” and sometimes “nimnil”. Anyway, when you asked me for an actual definition I looked it up on Urban Dictionary and found this definition (and also the correct spelling): “A derrogatory [sic] term coined by Mork from Ork, similar to ‘schmuck’ or ‘nerd'” – which, apart from anything else, goes to show that the Urban Dictionary folks can’t spell – so why should I trust their spelling of nimnil? Plus they’re out of date and pretty dimwitted themselves if they think “nerd” is a derogatory term.


  12. I’ve not yet met an American who, when they understand the uk ”Brilliant” doesn’t just mean ‘clever’, understands that it can also be very negative and occasional neutral.

    Quick lesson?!

    (Bloody) Brilliant = Great!/Excellent!/ Well done!/Very clever/That’s the best thing ever!/ That’s hilarious
    Brilliant = Thank you
    That’s just brilliant = That’s the best idea yet/One of the most amazing things to have ever happened/I’ve never seen something so good
    Brilliant = That’s the worse thing that could have ever possibly happened
    Brilliant = You are an idiot
    Brilliant = You are a useless waste of space
    Brilliant = That’s really unhelpful
    Brilliant = That’s not a good idea
    That’s just brilliant = That’s the worst thing you could have ever done/ That’s the worst thing that’s ever happened/ It’s all gone tits up and it may or may not be all your fault

    It’s all in the subtle tone :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I had to laugh. This is exactly why I’m scared to go to New York (I grew up in Iowa and lived in Minnesota 25 years), but loved London. Even when the Brits I met were snarky, they *sounded* nice.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: Tea on the lawn: what could be more English? | Notes from the U.K.

  15. First of all, I love New Yorkers, I appreciate the directness and don’t find it obnoxious at all…in fact, it entertains me ! Mom was from Philadelphia (New York lite). Our first move as practicing adults was to Mormon country..Salt Lake City, Utah, where I came off like a barracuda. Then to Pittsburgh, Pa…very polite compared to eastern Pa., but they hold grudges. Michigan with midwestern sensibilities, western NY, where they don’t admit NYC exists, and then south of the Mason Dixon line. That was the real challenge…Yankees in the South, how dare we show up there, even 150 years after the “War of Northern Aggression”. The fake smiles, the “Bless your hearts”, it is all still there. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I couldn’t have read this at a better time. I was starting to wonder if I am some kind of weird creature who can’t get on with anyone, as every now and then someone is not happy with me. I cannot blend in either, and am, frankly, no longer trying.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Reblogged this on American Soustannie and commented:
    So there are bloggers that everyone follows because they are brilliant. And then there are bloggers who, while they may not have many followers, are so brilliant that brilliant bloggers write about them, thereby sparing them the embarrassment of being too lazy to write their own posts!

    Guess which kind I am! And then go read another great post from Ellen Hawley, featuring yours truly.


  18. I grew up in Pennsylvania, but have lived in Canada my entire adult life. We Canadians are pretty similar to the Minnesotans – syrupy nice, apologize for things we don’t need to (repeatedly), and masters of indirectness. I am always amazed at how direct and “blunt” New Yorkers are when I go visit NYC. And I wish I had a little bit of that directness in me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe it’s sharing the same weather (only Minnesota gets it second hand) that makes Canadians and Minnesotans approach life the same way. And maybe that’s a pretty lame explanation. Whichever, thanks for broadening the discussion.


  19. I’m born and bred in D.C. Actually, it think it’s being raised Catholic that makes me not terribly direct. But I was reading a bit in The Washington Post, an interview with a departing ambassador and since I don’t trust my memory, I won’t say which country. Anyway, he said the thing that surprised him about Americans was they seemed so open. Standing in line for a movie, they’d strike up a conversation with a stranger which felt odd to him. He said he thought his countrymen weren’t less friendly, but just more private in public situations. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a writer or because I’m a mother of four grown men, but I am one to strike up a conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember as a kid seeing my mother start conversations with strangers and thinking I could never do that. I didn’t understand that by the time I was an adult I wouldn’t simply be a larger version of a shy six-year-old. These days, when I find myself doing exactly what she did, I’m aware of how much I took on from her. Thanks for jogging that memory.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Well, Ellen…I do believe that I just mentioned in an email today that I remember your “tender ways.” So you’ll not convince me that you are a steamroller!

    I like the concept of someone disdainfully accusing another of being blunt. What could be more blunt than that?

    What a great blog you have! I will enjoy reading it as I recover from surgery. Gynocological surgery 😉 And I ordered all three of your books today as well.

    Lucia/Lucy, either will do

    Liked by 1 person

    • Y’know, I never thought about how blunt it is to accuse someone else of being too blunt. Thanks for pointing it out. The incident stays in my mind as one of the funnier moments in my (checkered) employment history.

      I’m glad to have reconnected with you.


  21. These exchanges are fascinating. As a New Yorker originally, I can be very direct. In South Dakota and Minnesota for a sum of seven years, I found South Dakotans to be blunt and Minnesotans to be mild. Living in Reno, Nevada, the natives were open and friendly. In Southern California, where I have lived for many years, people are more transitory. “Let’s have lunch” is a statement left wide open. It could mean the next day or the next year. I have also been stereotyped as Irish. One person said, “You know, she can tell you to go to hell and make you look forward to the trip.” Mostly, I have found people everywhere to be just that…..people who share this planet and are trying to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I’ve gotten older, I have moments where I can back away from a situation and think, How could I be most effective here? Which isn’t the same as indirection, just (or so I tell myself) strategic thinking. But they’re moments, isolated in a lifetime of bluntness.


  22. Don’t call anybody “direct” before you’ve met a German. Every time I used to be in England for a while, I arrived at the point where I would have liked to scream (I didn’t, though): “Can’t you FOR ONCE say something original?” And I’m arguably the biggest Anglophile alive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A lot of it sounds original–or did to me–when I first moved here because they used different set phrases that I was used to. The first time I heard someone called “mad as a box of frogs,” I went to pieces. Then I heard it again. And again.

      Although, having said that, I’m not sure they’re any less original in what they say than Americans are. We all, I think, seem to circle around in our little hamster wheels. Germans don’t?


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