We all misinterpret social interactions once in a while. Some of us (*ahem,* exchange students) more than others.
Thursday I was at a jazz festival in the town next to Lausanne. The festival played both local and foreign artists who were overall very talented. It lasted just over a week. I was impressed. Here are a couple fuzzy pictures I took with my phone:
In the first picture, I was standing near an old man who was sitting and looking up at me, incessantly patting his lap. “Non, je préfère…” I turned to my handy French-Canadian friend. “How do you say ‘I prefer to stand?'” This was a bit uncomfortable. Old people tend to like me, but I don’t think an old person has ever asked me to sit on their lap before.
I didn’t have time to answer the old man before the guy standing behind me leaned in to help. “He’s asking you to be quiet.”
“Oh.” Oops. “I thought he was being friendly.”
“Yeah, old men here tend to be hard-asses.” This helpful young man was English (and looked a bit like Dr. Who slash Matt Smith), but had been living in Lausanne for a while. So I guess he wasn’t prone, as I am, to assume good intentions in everyone, nor to assume that anyone who talks to you either needs directions or wants to be your next best friend.
Silly me, silly American. Talking while music is playing. Conjugating her verbs incorrectly. But that’s America. Sigh. Sometimes it’s fun, or at least funny, to play the silly American, straight out of the U.S. bubble, who couldn’t confidently point out half the western-European countries on a map when she first arrived.
Sometimes it’s not fun, it’s just annoying. Sometimes it’s sucks when people act like it’s a bit of a joke that I’m from the U.S. Or when I’m told that some degrading generalization of Americans doesn’t apply to me because I’m not monolingual. You realize most of my friends and family back home are, right? Sometimes I don’t have a solid explanation for why what’s working for Europe doesn’t work for the U.S. And while not everything is awesome across the pond, I can tell you one thing that most certainly is: we are friendly.
A few months ago I never would have told you the U.S. has a friendly culture. Now, it’s what I miss most. I miss smiling at people on the street, or talking to someone because they look interesting, and having people smile at me and talk to me too. I’ve been told that the issue with American friendliness is that it’s not genuine, that we ask ‘how are you’ all the time, but we don’t really care. But we do care! Sometimes.
Have you ever been having the worst day, and then an acquaintance gave you an unexpected compliment, or the guy at the coffee shop made you laugh, or a classmate gave you a cookie? No? Have you ever made a friend just because you started chatting, or because you always recognize and smile at each other on campus? It’s my turn to over-generalize: No, Europeans, these things don’t happen to you, not if you are going to have that attitude. Friendliness is like sprinkles. Sprinkles aren’t necessary, and don’t add much depth to things. Sometimes you ignore them and focus on the cupcake. But why not throw some on anyway? They might make someone smile and think the world is kind of a nice place, isn’t it?
There’s not much I can do about this emotional distance except to remember I’m the one trying to embrace a different culture, and this is a part of it. Meanwhile, I appreciate the odd friendly Brit or Italian (or Swiss, or German, or Swede, or Portuguese, or Spaniard. Friendly people do exist). I will try to remember that strangers are people too, even if they are awkward or a jerk or cold. So I’ll smile at them, because I intend to retain every ounce of ‘Minnesota nice’ and mid-western friendliness in me.