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« The View from Afar: American Absurdities | Main | You Actually Can Go Home Again »

The View from Afar: In Support of the Friendly American

One thing we human beings can do in our sleep is characterize and stereotype people from other tribes and nations. In Britain there are several stereotypes of Americans that get good play. Here are a few that I encountered while living in the UK.

There is the Crazy American. The media goes out of its way to find stories of Americans do utterly crazy things, and since there are 300 million Americans it is not difficult task. Here I mean crazy in the sense of wacky or silly or off the wall, not clinically insane. You know, the kind of story about the American who lives with his pigs, in his house. Or the American who spent a zillion dollars on her pet’s funeral. Or the American who actually likes the movie Forrest Gump.

There is the Ugly American. While authors Willian J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick may have made the phrase popular through their book The Ugly American, it is not difficult to find clueless, brass, arrogant, conceded, violent Americans. The loud conceited Americans in a quiet Welsh café. The gun carrying, gun threatening person on main street America. The American who with unbridled passion declares he or she would rather see you die alone in your home then provide health care to citizens.

There is the Wonderful American. Here we find Americans at their best. The best in sports. The best in science. The best in writing. The best in open democracy. It’s the America that can do no wrong.  

All these stereotypes hold some truth while, of course, lacking complete truth. I suspect my British friends would recognize them all and will have at various times subscribed to each one with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But I would be so bold as to suggest that none of my British friends embraced the Have a Nice Day American.

I lived in Britain for almost thirty years and never stopped wishing people a nice day. I think I did it because it was a tiny part of Americana I didn’t want to give up and because I knew it probably annoyed the British. No, I didn’t go out of the way to annoy the natives of my new home. It’s just that every time I heard British people saying how shallow and insincere Americans are when the say Have a Nice Day, I protested, and my main protest came in the form of wishing them a nice day. (Actually, it’s a wonder I had any friends at all in Britain. It speaks to how good are the British people.) It’s not that the Brits are insensitive. They are not. It’s that such overt expressions of everyday emotions are not part of the cultural DNA.

Of course the salutation of Have a Nice Day can be shallow. It can be insincere. It can be spoken without any genuine concern whether or not anyone anywhere has a nice day. However, and not wanting to be too sentimental about it (sentimentality is so utterly horrible), the phrase can also be a pleasant, friendly, if not genuine, expression that helps us all get through the day.

My return to America has been punctuated by an encounter with both private and public bureaucracy. Banks, driver license department, real estate offices, telephone companies, etc. It never seems to end. Question after question.  Request after request. I’ve been chronicling my frustrations on Facebook and the other day moaned that it seemed almost impossible for me to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the bureaucracy that I am indeed a citizen of Seattle, Washington, United States of America, Earth, Solar System, Solar Interstellar Neighborhood, Milky Way, Local Galactic Group, Local Virgo Supercluster, Observable Universe.

And yet in the midst of all the demands and frustration the people who actually do the jobs, the people who cannot set policies and procedures, have been to the person friendly and nice. So add to our list of stereotypes the Friendly American, who may indeed wish you a nice day. An example.

Yesterday my wife and I went to the Department of Licensing here in Seattle because the Washington Driver Guide told us that is where we take our multiple choice test. After waiting in line we discovered that Washington had outsourced the multiple choice test and the driver test to private companies and that we would find a list of those companies on the Department of Licensing website. And there they were, private company after private company, most offering to give us both tests after we signed up and paid for driving lessons. It warmed my heart to know that my tax dollars are helping private companies make a profit doing the State's job. But here is my point. The woman sitting at the desk hour after hour, day after day, in front of a long line that never seemed to shorten, the woman who had to answer a constant flow of questions, the woman who had to negotiate people's confusion, frustration and sometimes anger, seemed always to be friendly. I watched her as I inched forward. Person after person got a pretty great smile and the advice they needed. When we got to the desk, I admit she stared at us for a moment as if we were from Planet X when we explained we had UK driver licenses and wanted a Washington driver licenses. But once it clicked what our situation was, she was great. When I thanked her and said, I hope you have a good day, I genuinely meant it.

So all hail the Friendly American and boo to the stuffy old Brit who doesn't get it.

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

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