Jun 192009

Americans have a reputation for openness about their personal life in their interactions with strangers. In my experience it’s well deserved. It doesn’t seem to be a simple matter because there also seems to be a social requirement to be guarded vis-a-vis things that could be face threatening for the interlocutor. But for example, it’s often quite possible to learn some pretty juicy gossip (in British terms) about the person standing next to you in a supermarket queue in say, just three minutes.

This custom comes with some interesting consequences.  Here’s one that made me chuckle.

speakingMy dentist works in a tall building at 15th and Market. He got in the elevator the other day and there was another passenger already inside. They didn’t know one another, but they made eye contact and acknowledged each other.

As he hit his floor button she said ‘I can’t believe it’s still raining’.

‘Yes, it’s terrible’, he said. ‘Really bad’.

‘When’s it going to stop?’ she said.

‘Well, the forecast’s not looking too good’

‘So, is it going to affect your plans?’

‘Yeah,  we were thinking of going to the shore this weekend, but I don’t expect we will now.’

After a few more turns he arrived at his floor and stepped out. As he left, he noticed his fellow passenger was wearing a cell phone earpiece. She had been talking to someone else but he had been answering all her questions.

I wonder. Have any  foreign vistors to these shores been disarmed by American openness? Please share if you have.

Image by Ilco

 Posted by at 9:12 am

  11 Responses to “Openness”

  1. Hi Vicky

    What a fantastic premise for a blog! Nice idea, and really nice layout. I’m glad I came across this when you left a comment on my blog, I’ll link to yours now!

  2. Thank you so much Lindsay. Well, I am actually a huge fan of your six things blog. No matter what TEFL topic I’m searching for, I often make my way to you. It’s so varied and entertaining – but illuminating too of course. Can’t think why I hadn’t linked before, but I will immediately!

  3. Great story 🙂 It works both ways. When I was 16 I travelled to France on my own to volunteer at an international summer camp rebuilding a Romanesque church. On route on a local bus I was confused by the village names and asked the friendly busdriver about a nearby camp where a lot of people from many different countries would be congregating. He smiled, showed me the stop and I got off. I was totally blown away: Truckloads of friendly young people welomed me to a tent camp full of music and happy faces. I was immediately led to a circle where we were asked, “What have you here come for?” The others held back, so I happily piped up, à l’américaine, “To meet people, help out, improve my French.” The other people’s subsequent responses threw me off a bit. “Spiritual growth.” “To find Jesus.” “To renew my faith.” I had landed in Taisé, just 10 km down the road from my destination.

    I had a delightful night there before continuing on to my (also delightful) true destination.

  4. Ha! Oh Anne, thank you so much for this story.

    Something I should explain in case it’s not clear to anyone – my dentist and hygienist both took delight in telling me that story. The social comedy of manners amused them greatly, as it did me – as they guessed it would.

    But what you’ve illustrated beautifully with your Fench example Anne is a social group with a wholy different frame set that operates in many other places too – heck – most probably scattered all over the world.

    In some ways I feel I’m cheating when I blog about ‘merican from the middle of Philly. Of course I’m hearing ‘merican, but it’s just a variety and where I live is urban and cosmopolitan. I get glimpses of how the discourse changes in say African American Philly or Italian Philly or whatever, but when it comes to middle America, for example, I don’t think I have a clue.

  5. I was about 20 years old the first time i went to America. I arrived in San Francisco from London and i had the address of a friend’s sister who lived in the city and where i might be able to sleep on the floor.
    I arrived at the apartment and her boyfriend opened the door;”Hi i’m Rob, this is Mary and Jan and that’s Bob. we’re off to the hot tub come on.
    Two hours after stepping off , jet lagged from the Heathrow plane, i was naked in a tub full of Americans feeling VERY English.

  6. Thanks so much for stopping by with such a lovely anecdote Chris. Love it.
    Now that was San Francisco -I doubt you’d have had the hot tub if you’d come to Philly, more like a water ice perhaps.
    You know, you’ve reminded me of one of the funniest baths I’ve ever had. I was in the Sahara desert in Algeria – no English or French spoken and I didn’t speak Arabic. I wandered into the local hamman without the necessary bathing equipment and utensils and not a clue what to do. The locals very kindly took it upon themselve to scrub and shampoo me. Now that was hospitality!

  7. That is such a great story, Vicki. I have got to find a way of using that in a lesson on not generalising too much and prejudging when moving or visiting abroad (meaning by lying a little and making your dentist British), i.e. an anti national stereotypes lesson

  8. Yeah, I wondered about whether something similar could have happened in the UK and I thought it could.
    It’s just more likely here because of the social rules and rituals surrounding openness.
    The other thing that interested me Alex was all the hygeinists were teasing him about it and it was joked about as an ‘it could only happen to you’ event. But actually, for the joke to work, there had to be a shared understanding of the social forces at work.

  9. Talking of baths and other cultures……..
    I was in Japan and i really wanted to go to a hot spring (the San Francisco hot tub incident had sparked an interest in hot water).
    I read up in all the guide books to make sure i understood the correct way to behave.
    The biggest thing was “wash BEFORE you get in”
    Must remember, must remember.
    I arrived, undressed, entered – it was sex segregated – and all the conversation stopped, i was the first Gaijin probably ever to have arrived.
    “Must wash, must wash” went my brain.
    I saw some soap on the side and went over to start washing and suddenly there was a rush of activity in the pool and a local splashed out and angrily grabbed the soap out of my hand.
    I was using HIS soap, i was so used to public soap i had never
    No one said a word or looked at me as long as i remained.

  10. Ha! Well, I have to say that guy with the soap doesn’t sound too sensible to me. How were you to accomplish the ‘wash BEFORE you get in’ without any soap?
    I lived on the top floor of a family home when I lived in Japan and the family kindly knocked on our door to tell us when they were heating up the bath. They had the tub first and we followed later. Very sensible I always thought, just in case we didn’t wash first.

  11. There’s a great video here where a guy deliberately responds in other people’s telephone conversations : http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_932242&feature=iv&src_vid=ec0WdO2ybqQ&v=rSQxtrKz35k

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