Thursday, October 22, 2009

America: Home for the Brave – and the Unfeeling?

I had a small dinner party last night at my house, gathering old and new friends. At one point during the evening, we touched upon a subject that came up often in my interactions with non-American friends: why (white) Americans (in their view) do not seem to valorize human relationships. One of my guests mentioned that Mexican restaurants and supermarkets are so much friendlier than the white American establishments. When she visited the Mexican deli shop in her neighborhood the second time, the people immediately recognized her and asked if she had enjoyed the guacamole that she bought the last time (her first visit). Any white American establishment, however, would never betray their recognition even if they did remember you from the fifty times that you had bought coffee there. Another of my guests used a stronger term: she said that the Americans seem de-eroticized (ent-erotisiert), since they almost never express sympathies (distinct from the friendliness) with strangers. She also told me that I am thus far her only social contact in Eugene whom she feels comfortable calling and inviting; the colleagues in her department kept saying that they ought to “do lunch” – but only in two weeks, because they are too busy now. Her comment reminded me of an Israeli friend who once said that Americans pencil friendship into their work schedule. “What do you mean you have to look at your calendar? If I am your friend, I’m calling you and knocking on your door all the time, and you’d do the same to me,” he said, completely baffled by what he perceived as the lack of spontaneity in American social mores.

As someone who has several great (white) American friends, I am slightly defensive of this perception of Americans as unfeeling, professional-minded robots, but this perception has been put to me so often that I feel like there has got to be some reason behind it all. It is true that friends in Paris handled social relationships in a different way, and people in the same neighborhood solidarized much more than in the United States. In Paris, the butcher flirts, the boutique owner tells the trouble with her business, the professional cook invites me to lunch in his workshop, and the bookseller stays until 1 o’clock in the morning in the shop because we spent three hours talking about religion and politics. This bookseller in particular, who owns Tschann Libraire in Montparnasse, remembered me from 2001 when I first spent four months in Paris; I was 22 then, and when I came back to Paris again I was 27. I told him that his hair had turned gray during those five years. Once, I got locked out of my apartment, and instead of paying 200 euros to get a locksmith, I had the owner of the brasserie across the street come up to save me: His trick involved a radiogram and 15 minutes of nonstop banging on the door.

These memories are now particularly poignant to me because I find that the “friendly Oregonians” can sometimes be so cold to strangers. This morning, the bus driver turned away a whole station full of students, carrying heavy backpacks in the chilly fog, on the basis that the bus was full. It was not true at all: by the standards of Chicago or Paris, we could have easily fit 15 passengers more into the bus. (In India, perhaps another 50.) But that would require strangers to stand shoulder to shoulder, which is perhaps too much contact for them. Later, on the same bus, an old lady struggles to get up from her seat in order to get off the bus, and the student standing in front of her did not have bother to lend her a hand. Instead, she simply moved her body slightly to be out of the old lady’s way. Everything is so calculated and utterly absent of spontaneity.

I don’t know why civic life in Oregon here seems cold, but I do think that professional life in America forces people to turn off a large part of their affective needs in order to be perceived as self-sufficient and invulnerable. I noticed that almost all of my American friends were made during college, with one or two exceptions. College was the romantic time of our lives: we stayed up all night listening to jazz records and had useless intellectual debates about literature, existentialism and other such things. I am not nostalgic about college, but I do wonder what happened to that spontaneity after we became professionals. I strongly suspect that American professionals are often circumspect in their approach to friendship because the risk of exposing one’s humanity (that is, weaknesses and imperfections) in a professional context is too great. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that anyone would not want friends. Wasn’t there a theory that TV shows such as “Friends” and “Sex in the City” owe their success to the yuppies’ unfulfilled longing for close friendships, which were out of reach for them in real lives?

What disturbs me about the foreigner’s perception of American social relationships is its oblique but real link to our attitude toward social welfare and above all healthcare. David Brooks has long pointed out that the Republican party is especially successful in reinforcing a false version of American optimism, which has little tolerance for discourses about failure and needs. But what about the liberals? I don’t find them personally warmer than the selfish, unfeeling Republicans who deprive us of healthcare. Is it because they also don’t like weakness, and the need for human contact is considered a weakness in professional America?


Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Have you read "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"? Junot Diaz? I'm in the middle of it, a disturbing view of what it means to be an American. I am sure "white Americans" are shocked by the premise that what went on in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s and '60s has anything to do with what it means to be an American, just like a revolution I never even heard of in Portugal has had a transformative experience in the city where we now live.

gale said...

As for who counts as an American: I just graded 40-something papers about white Connecticut missionaries and Cherokee Indians, and a good third of the papers used "we" and "us" to talk about the white missionaries, and "them" to talk about the Cherokees. Even though my East Texas students are probably more culturally distinct from New England Congregationalists than southeastern Cherokees.

But it's clear who counts as an American and what counts as American history.

Also - Joyce - I think region has a lot to do with the way people interact socially. My parents' motor home trips are testimony to this point. They went to Ryan's Lubbock church a few years ago, and a couple there took them out to lunch, and now they go and stay with them in Lubbock, and this couple has come to stay in Houston.

I think a major difference between Europe and the US is also marriage age - there are many more unmarried young people in Europe than in the US, and this makes a difference for friendships in the workplace. If you're married and have children at home, you have less time for friendships - the kind that you have in college. This was certainly my experience in grad school. When the baby goes to bed at 8:30, there's not a lot of time for socializing.

Joyce Cheng said...

Gale - I agree, maybe Americans are simply overworked? I don't know. I went out last night with an American colleague who's 2 years younger than me, and I get this impression that people get sucked into their work and don't raise their heads. They also get physically separated from their friends (like myself) and then have to rely on Facebook and blogs for connection.