In the first of a series of articles weighing up the differences between the U.S. and the U.K., and looking at the special relationship between the two, Maria del Mar begins by focusing on national character.
It could be said that the difference between English and American culture is minimal in superficial terms: we speak the same language, we share similar political principles and many cultural phenomena are exported and imported across the merry Atlantic.
It’s a strange feeling to experience culture shock at the expense of a society that is fluent in your mother tongue, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I spent the summer of 2013 working in New York. So what is it about Brits and Americans that is so different?
Well, the character of the people, for one thing. Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a cynical Brit. People being overly friendly or even happy make me suspicious. I’d been in the US before and had some cringe-worthy moments, making bitchy comments to friends on my return about overenthusiastic, robotic waitresses. The fake smiles and constantly echoing pleasantries seemed alien to me, hailing from a nation where grumpiness, irony and sarcasm form a more staple part of our social diet than enthusiastic small talk and friendliness towards strangers.
However, this summer in New York exposed me to a different side of the American psyche that I found much more palatable. I found New Yorkers to have a confidence, energy and enthusiasm that was far from fake; the place felt more invigorating, more alive than I often found social situations and working environments in my home city.
I was speaking to a fellow Brit abroad who has been living in Brooklyn for the past 5 years about the whole conundrum on a late summer afternoon walk through Prospect Park. “How can they be like this, so enthusiastic, so fresh, so un-cynical?” I mused. My friend paused, and then offered up this little conversational gem. “Well, in the grand scheme of things, I guess they’re kind of the teenagers of the world really, aren’t they? They’re so much younger than us. England is bogged down in centuries of history, war, invasions, new democracies, not to mention the rise and fall of empire. A lot of shit has gone down on our little island for a long time, you know? I guess it just makes sense that history has some tangible effect on the national character of the people.
“If your country is younger and you’ve been through less, it follows that you’re more optimistic, more eager to progress. And if like us your nation is old, it’s been through a lot, you have less of that, because you’re weighed down by the past.”
I think my friend was onto something. There seemed to be a real can-do attitude amongst the people I came across in New York, and the American dream seemed to be alive and well, whether in a Korean nail salon in Brooklyn, a Mexican restaurant in Queens, or a hipster bar downtown. Although I’m a massive fan of the sarcasm, irony and self-deprecation that is so characteristic of us Brits, dare I say it, maybe we could learn a little from our stateside companion’s energy and enthusiasm.