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?