Footnotes from a road trip (part ii)

It was in South Dakota and Grinnell when it sank in: Americans really are nice to each other practically all of the time. And they mostly seem to really mean it. This comes as complete culture shock to any Brit, I suspect, but particularly to Londoners. Our lives as social animals revolve around restraint, concealing or counterfeiting emotion, exuding disinterest or engaging in combative exchanges of chiselled sarcasm. Nothing is so terrible that you can’t make a joke about it, and snide comments are just another way in which we protect ourselves from baring our souls. London takes everything and nothing seriously, so oscillates between gaiety and aggression in a whirlwind of sniggering, shouting and rude remarks.

Listening to the lady in the petrol station converse with a charming older gentleman in a cowboy hat, wondering if I’d somehow slipped onto the set of Fargo when I wasn’t looking, it was obvious that they both meant what they were saying. It was a delightful exchange about a local raffle in aid of a local charity, in which you could win a barbecued cow*, and oh how excited they were about it. It’s a different world (I’ve spent plenty of time in deepest, darkest rural England, and this conversation simply wouldn’t happen in Shropshire or Somerset).

Listening to the speeches at the wedding underlined this a little further. They were delightful. One after another, friends and family stood to bear witness to the characters of my two good friends, calling out their best traits and adding lovely little stories to illustrate them. It was most of the way through when I finally twigged to what was bothering me: at a British wedding, one or both of the principals would have been humiliated by now (, I will never forget the stories your Dad chose to share), but even the best man was unrestrained in his praise and chose to air no dark secrets. Those of us visiting from London upheld tradition by drunkenly regaling one another with some prize examples when the locals weren’t listening.

This general attitude of polite warmth is part of the American service mentality from start to close. Every encounter in a shop or restaurant includes a chat (if you’re a foreigner, the length and depth of this encounter seems to depend mostly on whether you have a compatible accent), and a 4-way stop sign (in Iowa, at least) is an opportunity for an exercise in competition-grade politesse: no, no, after you. Technically the right of way goes to whoever arrived first (although all vehicles must stop), but in the cornfields, having right of way is no reason not to let the other chap go first. If he’s impolite enough. We Brits and our so-called manners could learn a lot. Or possibly I was projecting, and the local thought processes were more along the lines of ‘let the crazy foreigners get the hell out of my way before they do something mad and damage my vehicle’.

In Rifle, the waitress was devastated not to be able to get me a beer, because I had no ID on me. My mistake – as a virus-ridden foreigner it hadn’t occurred to me to pick up my passport (or even my wallet with my driver’s licence, as my boy had offered to buy me dinner 😉 – but she overcompensated with regret. My British sensibilities were confused: I honestly wasn’t that bothered about the beer and her fulsome response triggered my social embarrassment filters. Even by British apologising-for-bumping-into-someone standards, she had outdone me before I could even get started.

As I commented to when I got home, all this positive social interaction is quite exhausting for an introverted Brit. My kingdom for a flippant remark! Thankfully we had a weekend with our friend P and his family, well-versed in arid quips and raised eyebrows.

Disclaimer: I’m not claiming all of the US conforms to the experiences I had on this trip: we stuck to the backcountry in some of the least populated states (and the least populated parts of those states) – other rules will apply on the coasts and in the cities. That said, the positive/polite service interaction seems to hold true more or less every trip I’ve made; I think this trip is just the first time I’ve finally stopped thinking it was a grimly-held mask hiding a desire to poke you in the eye.

* or a side of beef. Something along those lines, anyway.