After a long and tumultuous relationship followed by an even longer and more tumultuous breakup, my best friend of ten years decided the best way to heal was to get as far away from the guy as possible. So, she went to France.
I was excited for her. She had never really traveled outside of the United States and what better way to mend the heart and soul than to get a new perspective on life in a new place? So, when i was able to catch her on Instagram during her travels, I was excited to find out how it was going. I fully expected a breathless and detailed description of how awesome the food was, how hot the guys were, and how amazing the architecture was. I even anticipated a joke about how she wasn’t coming back.
Instead, her response was tepid and reeking of defeat. “Honestly, I just want to go home. I feel so out of place here. The people aren’t friendly. They’re rude and i feel like I’m just a bother to everyone. I miss the United States.”
Now, a little background about my friend. She’s this bubbly blonde from Salt Lake City who wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s ultra sweet, ultra polite, and ultra kind. She’s also charmingly naive in many ways and sees the world through rose-colored glasses. So, while my spirit sunk at her candid response, I wasn’t exactly surprised. After all, the French are kind of known to be dicks, right?
Here’s the thing though – they aren’t. Europeans in general have this collective reputation of being arrogant, cold, and rude (at least when compared to the vivacious and friendly persona most Americans are taught to put on). But most of those stereotypes have more to do with America’s impulse to be fake than Europe’s need to be friendly.
I remember a few years back reading an article by an Irishman who spent 12 years of his life literally just traveling the world. That means he spent 4,380 days immersed in various cultures – studying native mannerisms, habits, and interactions. At the completion of his “world tour” he had concluded that – while he loved and appreciated America – we surpassed every other country in terms of insincerity. The problem wasn’t that other countries were rude; the problem was that we were fake.
And if you really think about it, that makes sense. We as Americans are taught at a very young age to always smile, always say hi, always ask how someone is doing, and always respond back “i’m well, thank you.” We are taught to always hug our relatives and to hide any adverse emotion like frustration, anger, sadness, or fear. Should we go off-script, our parents reprimand us for not being polite.
But Americans are almost the only country that instills these idiosyncrasies as measures of kindness and friendliness. If the cashier or the server or the store clerk doesn’t immediately have a shit-eating grin on their face and ask us how we are, we immediately ride them off as rude. And believe me – I get it. I do, too. i was in customer service in one form or the other throughout my twenties and you’re damn right I want a big ol’ smile and “howdy do” with my order. Thank you very much.
And that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see people smile and acknowledge your presence, but just understand that not all cultures think these social norms are necessary or sincere. This is particularly true with people like the French who are notoriously known for being cold. That’s largely a culture misunderstanding, not a character defect.
It’s simple really. If you’re having a rough day, you aren’t obligated to smile. If someone asks you how you are and you aren’t good, don’t say you’re great. If you don’t feel like hugging someone, you have the right to self-autonomy. If you don’t know someone, there is absolutely no reason to act like they are your best friend. While the French and other European cultures may initially come across as aloof, once they get to know you, they are some of the kindess people you will meet.
As Americans, we have a tendency to think that when we visit other countries, the people of that region should mirror our social norms. It probably subconsciously comes from the “American is #1” soundbite we’ve been fed for decades. But it’s important to remember that it is not the job of indigenous people to cater their lifestyle or interactions to the standards we set forth for our own culture. It’s perfectly fine to not agree with the ways of another country. What’s not okay to expect them to change in order to make YOU feel comfortable.
Once I explained all of this to my friend, she ended up really enjoying her trip. Once she realized that she was projecting her own insecurities and expectations onto the people of a country she had chosen to visit, she learned to accept that not everyone has a giant, cheesy smile plastered on their face at any given moment.
But when they do, you know it’s real and authentic. And that’s the difference.