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?

Cross-cultural adventures: Two Americans call a cat in Britain

Fast Eddie went over the fence for the first time this week. We knew the day was coming, but we’d hoped it wouldn’t come quite so soon. He’s still a very small cat in a very large world. He’s built for climbing, though, and climb he did.

The first we knew about it was when we heard a bird doing what Wild Thing calls checking and our neighbor calls alarming.

Fast Eddie, the fiercest kitten for 10 yards in any direction

Fast Eddie, the fiercest kitten for 10 yards in any direction

Americans and Brits agree on what the noun alarm means, but use it any other way and we get into that odd stuff that happens when we think we share a language. In the U.S., if you’re alarmed, you’re moving in the direction of panic. It’s a feeling. Once you cross the Atlantic, though, being alarmed is more likely to involve wiring, as is demonstrated by the signs that say, “This door is alarmed.”

And there I was thinking the door was an inanimate object. So now I’m alarmed myself. The announcement seriously destabilized my world view.

Alarm can also involve actions—for example, the bird we heard was alarming, as in making an alarm call, not as in scaring the hell out of us.

So, with today’s language lesson out of the way, let’s go back to the bird. We heard it making a checking / alarming sound, and Wild Thing asked if I knew where Eddie was.

Insert a moment of, ahem, alarm here, because he was nowhere in the house. We went outside and called. He still wasn’t in the habit of coming when we called (we’re working on it), but we did it anyway because, what the hell, humans are a very strange species and it was something we knew how to do.

I need to interrupt myself for a minute here to talk about cross-cultural cat calling. I can’t swear that this is universal, but the Brits I’ve noticed calling cats tend to bend over, rub their fingers together, and say something quiet, like “puss, puss, puss.”

How do Wild Thing and I call our cats? With a two-note call that’s approaches a yodel: “kitt-TEEEE. KITT-teeee” You can hear us most of the way to Devon. Even in Minnesota, it marked us as not being local.

Okay, it wasn’t the only thing that let people know that, but I do remember standing on our open front porch one night when the air was so cold I thought my lungs would shatter and calling our cat by yodeling, “FUZZbucket, KITT-teeee.” (Go ahead, laugh at the name. Everyone else did. A friend used to call him Fuzzbuster and Fuzzduster, with the occasional Fussbudget thrown in for luck. I still think it was a great name.) From the far end of the dark street, a man’s voice echoed, word for word and note for note, “FUZZbucket, KITT-teeee.” I’d call, he’d call, I’d call, he’d call. He had the notes and the tone down perfectly, and I figured if Fuzz had any intention of coming in the echo wouldn’t hurt.

He didn’t, of course. He was a cat. And an old lady down the street used to feed him canned shrimp and keep him with her during the coldest weather. I’m sure he told her he had nowhere else to go.

But that’s a different story and a different place. In this place, I was worried that Eddie might have gone over a fence and discovered that the other side didn’t offer him a way to climb back, and there he’d be, a very small kitten on the wrong side of a tall wall.

So Wild Thing went to our over-the-tallest-fence neighbors. They don’t live on our street and to get to them you more or less have to run up to London, then Hamburg, and then come back to Cornwall to our village to a different street and go through their front gate, which sometimes sticks so badly that you need a chisel and a hammer to get through, and all of that is necessary because, unlike Minneapolis, the neighborhoods here don’t have alleys and the yards here don’t have back gates. In fact, they’re not yards at all, they’re called gardens, and if they’re close together they have barricade-like fences or hedges meant to screen you and your thoughts from any awareness that you have neighbors. It gives back yards (sorry—they’ll always be yards to me) a sense of privacy and quiet, but it could strike someone used to American yards as unfriendly. (I’m not one of them. I like that sense of quiet.)

So Wild Thing was gone for a while, hiking to London and Hamburg and Cornwall and then through the neighbors’ gate, which didn’t happen to stick that day, and I couldn’t think of anything useful to do with myself so I worked on the bread I was making, which was ready to shape into loaves. And at some point something almost weightless brushed against my ankles and I looked down and found Eddie, who hadn’t a clue in the world that he’d just caused an uproar and wouldn’t have minded much if he had known.

So I did what any dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker would do: I went out back and bellowed for Wild Thing. When I was a kid, that’s how the mothers in our neighborhood called us—they leaned out the windows and bellowed our names. (What the ones whose apartments didn’t have windows on the street did I never stopped to wonder. Chose not to reproduce? Lost their kids forever? Waited till they got hungry enough to wander home? I just don’t know.) That was also how we called our mothers: We stood on the sidewalk, tipped our heads back, and bellowed up. To this day, my voice–well, no one who hears me is left with the impression that I’m shy. If you want to bring down the walls of Jericho, leave the trumpets at home and convince me that they need to come down.

Back in New York, every mother somehow knew her own kids’ voices well enough that they didn’t all pop their heads out in unison when one of us bellowed, even though we all yelled the same word, “Mom.”

Oh, damn, I’m getting teary. Thanks for being able to pick my voice out of the maelstrom, Mom. I miss you.

Minnesotans never seemed to bellow for their kids. I don’t know how they got them home. Compared to New Yorkers, Minnesotans are indirect. Or repressed, if you prefer. Or well behaved. It’s all in how you see it. Maybe the intensity of their frustration sends out a vibe that the kids pick up.

But however long I’ve been away from Manhattan, I’m still a New Yorker, so I bellowed. And Wild Thing, who’d just gotten into the neighbors’ yard, answered in true New York fashion (she lived there for ten years and picked up the important skills).

She started the long trek home, and our neighbor, G., who’d somehow managed to hear all this (damn, that man has good ears) popped up on his side of a different fence (we have three immediate neighbors), which is about shoulder height, even on me, and said he’d heard the bird alarming, then seen Eddie running along the top of the fences. The fences make a fine highway if you’re a cat.

Then, G. said, he heard us calling Eddie.

And no doubt laughed his ass off at the volume and sheer uselessness of it all, but he was far too kind–or maybe that’s well behaved–to say so.