American ScenesHelping out
Trespassing mental barriers
Trespassing physical barriers
There's no need for secrecy when you're on the move
Patience and Traffic
On the long roads
When the Danish immigrant farmers arrived in America and didn't know a word of English, they had to rely on small phrase books for conversation and help. One such book of common phrases listed the following conversation, supposedly typical of the mid-1800s:
Q: May I borrow your team tomorrow? I need it to cart my hay.
A: Yes, of course. Would you like me to give you a hand?
Half a century later the same conversation was exemplified by these phrases:
Q: Can I borrow your team tomorrow? I need it to cart my hay.
A: No, you can't. I'll need it myself for my own crops!
The barn raising of old used to be a community act, and obviously so since in turn everybody would need a helping hand to get started. But in recent years contrary statements from stand up comedians and other observers of American social life seem to indicate that this has changed:
"Americans will kill for a free space in a parking lot."
"Americans are impatient ruthless drivers," etc., etc.
The following observations and comments on some of my experiences are meant to contradict any lumping together of the 260+ million Americans who may share some cultural traits, but who also differ in so many ways that the wish to see America as a melting pot seems but a wish and not a fact.
The fact is that America is so big, and the population so different in mental outlook and standards, that there is no common denominator that covers it all. Surely, Joe Six-Pack likes to have his pork rinds in front of the TV - and there must be quite a number of Joe Six-Packs, otherwise the commercials aimed at him and his "kind" wouldn't pay off - but there are so many other Americans with other standards that it's difficult if not foolish to try to sum them up in any one definition.
Certainly, the differences between the East and the West, and between the North and the South, are so marked that what we are looking at are at least four different "countries". But while most Europeans may have at least some knowledge of what might be typical of the rural South, they tend to forget that life in most of the US doesn't all in any way resemble that of the big cities in the East, or in Miami, or L.A. The many American movies shot on those locations may actually lure foreigners into believing that they know the US quite well and forget about all the small town people. And even within local communities you may find huge differences in mental outlook due to the general high mobility of the citizens and their social and cultural preferences. Foreigners should not forget that to Americans Hollywood means "make believe" - the movies do not present facts, but wishful thinking.
The comments below all relate primarily to the American NorthWest.
Trespassing mental barriers
Americans are generally open to new ideas, not surprisingly so since the country was founded on new ways of living together, often in a wilderness where mutual help was needed. Without hesitation strangers may ask you things and expect a straight answer. But if you accost them, they may also react with surprise and almost reproach:
Due to the American overall numbering in multiples of 100 relating to the number of blocks (unlike the 1,3,5,7... or 2,4,6,8... left/right hand side numbering in Europe introduced by Napoleon) I often found myself lost when trying to find a specific address, and I would turn to somebody passing me in the street and ask for directions or advice. To my surprise they often reacted by stepping back as if I had torn them out of a reverie - it felt as if they were almost angry with me for having imposed on them. Even if I approached somebody slowly in a quiet street where there were but the two of us present and it was obvious that I was nearing to get help, people were taken aback when I accosted them.
Trespassing physical barriers
In the beginning of my stay I often pulled over to take a picture of a beautiful view of nature, and in order not to be in the way of traffic I would pull a few feet into a private road leading up to a house in the distance - i.e. not a short driveway, but a rather long dirt road. But apparently the owners did not want me roaming around on their property and set their dogs on me.
A boy in the street in my local community in Washington State was shot at from a house for standing too close to a car - "he had no business standing so close to my car," the shooter said. When I asked the police for advice on how to avoid such situations, they told me to stay away from trouble by keeping to what was mine and only mine which meant "Don't ever go near somebody else's property."
There's no need for secrecy when you're on the move
Contrary to my experiences in the streets and on the road, Americans also display a strange lack of need for privacy: Unlike Europeans, Americans are not shy when talking about personal problems. They don't lower their voices or look around to see if anybody is listening in on their conversation. In fact, two girls may discuss their most intimate sex life in front of perfect stranger sitting right next to them [me]. My guess is that they think that since I don't know them, I can't speak of them to other people. For all they know I may just be passing through - or they are passing through. We'll probably never meet again.
Another thing that really astonished me was the open public lavatories I found in some malls or department stores: there were simply no doors to the lavatory cubicles, and people were waiting in line right in front of the ones who were already "busy at it".
This is interesting because Americans tend to be much more oriented towards euphemisms than Europeans when speaking about the toilet, the loo, the john... "Wash Rooms" and "Rest Rooms" (as if anybody would go there to "rest") are often used if not the more neutral "Men's Room". But if they can't even say the word, how come they can let other people watch them? The only explanation that appeals to me is that in the US there are so many millions of people, and they don't expect to meet again. I realize, of course, that the reason to the missing doors may be that they don't want drug addicts shooting up behind closed doors, but that doesn't explain why they put up with the situation. Could they all have been newcomers, not yet integrated huddled masses?
Once my car broke down - the engine just wouldn't run any more. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of nowhere, two hours past the last town and more than two from the next. But I had hardly opened the hood to have a look at things before somebody pulled up behind me. We soon found out what was the trouble, and he offered to tow me the two hours back to a garage which I gladly accepted. When we arrived at the repair shop, all he expected was a "thank you" (what else could I have offered him?) - the point is that he knew before towing me that it would take him at least four hours to get back to where he first met me. I'm afraid that such a gesture would never be shown in Europe.
Patience and Traffic
In Denmark people are generally impatient and don't want to wait in line. And if somebody tries to jump the line, we get mad. Same thing when we are driving and need to merge: not a great many Danes will let another driver in in front of them. It is as if our well regulated society has taught us to be self-righteous: if you abide by the rules, you are in the clear, but because of the restraint you put upon yourself to abide, you feel entitled to "punish" those who either try to bully their way through traffic, or who just missed a sign and got trapped: They should have watched out - serve them right! A "four way stopping" would never work in Denmark.
In the US people show more patience and seem to accept waiting in line, perhaps because they are used to being so many. And in the American West a common attitude to merging seemed to be: "What does it matter if I arrive a couple of minutes later? I still have a long way to go." In the movies you may see Americans go crazy in a traffic jam, but I experienced the exact opposite, maybe because it took place in the West.
On the long roads
Due to the long distances in the West, Americans don't feel the same kind of rush to get there quickly as we may experience in Europe. The speed limit - 65 mph - is, in fact, lower than what is allowed in many European countries. In the American West driving feels much safer than in Europe: In a three lane road Americans may be long in overtaking each other. With cruise controls set only one or two miles apart (e.g. 60, 62, or 63 mph) three American cars may block the road for miles, but nobody coming from behind at a higher speed will signal them to move over and give way (in contrast, the impatient traffic on German superhighways without speed limits is very enervating).
The US seems to have inherited the British preference for "originals", i.e. people that don't stay in the middle of the road. To do so requires a lot of humor, and both British as well as American humor corresponds rather closely to what Danes find funny. Add to this that for long America was thought of as a place of freedom, a haven, which must have attracted a lot of misfits which in turn paved the way for an acceptance of any strange behavior. Not that Americans agree with the misfits, but they seem to accept them more than we do - there have always been village fools.
But compared to Europe things have run wild in the US. I've never heard so many people talking to themselves in a loud voice in any one country but the US - they go to extremes. Without doubt, living life in the fast lane is a trait or feature much more common to America than Europe. I saw people quarreling loudly in the streets, and their gestures (of joy, grief, or irritation) were multiplied many fold compared even to the European "hotspurs" of France or Italy.
The movie Thelma and Louise is a good case in point: As things get out of hand, the two women stubbornly stagger on toward their downfall, there's no stopping up for reflection: Are we prepared and willing to pay the ultimate price? Was it worth it? What are we trying to prove? Such desperadoes are seldom found in Europe, and although there may be a certain logic to their actions and the consequences of their actions, the story also shows that to prove oneself right (even if only to oneself) may mean more than survival. In America you walk the plank to the bitter end.
In a recent research project at Stanford University, when asked if they would take a performance enhancing drug that would mean winning the big finals even if it meant their deaths five years later, more than half the US athletes responded positively.
Maybe this is but the old myth about Faust selling his soul to the Devil to obtain worldly fame and fortune, but it seems to have a hold on many Americans.
Americans love heroes, even if they were criminals. From Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp to John Dillinger, Bonny and Clyde, and - to a certain extent - O.J. Simpson (OK, I'll withdraw that, his was a special case.)
But just like Robin Hood (if he ever lived) attracts our sympathy although he broke the law, Americans cherish their "outlaw" past. In the Robin Hood Museum in Nottingham, England, there is a poster saying, "The important thing about Robin Hood is not whether he lived or not, but the fact that even if he didn't live, we would have invented him because we need people like him."
Further, just like the "crimes" of Robin Hood were justified by the wrongs that were done to him (he wasn't a criminal at heart, but was forced into fighting the system, we say to soothe our conscience), Jesse James and Billy the Kid are said to have been wronged in a similar way and - on top of it all - eventually betrayed. The facts are that contrary to common belief Billy the Kid was a maniac, not fit to live among common people as were most of the other criminal heroes. But dime novels and the common man's need for role models to fight the system (banks, cattle barons, etc.) got the better of people's imagination (see also Arming America).
The need for heroes is also seen in the nation's emblematic representations of perseverance and strength of will power. The famous picture of a handful of soldiers raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima has long ago been proved a fake, but it is still among the most cherished symbols of American ethnic variety and stamina. Anyway, America did win the war, so what's the point? The point is that in order to be able to send out more soldiers to win future wars America needs to honor its soldier heroes, otherwise people won't go. Thus even the lowest private is dressed up in a fake honorary uniform when he has his first picture taken, almost like sticking his head into the hole in a cardboard "statue" like the ones used when families wanted their picture taken on an outing to the beach or a fair.
The most recent example of faking history is Jonathan Mostow's recent movie U-571 in which three different historic events from W.W.II are made into one. In the movie the decisive events and factors that led to the cracking of the German Enigma code are all due to American stamina and ingenuity when, in fact, the British were the ones who worked harder and more efficient years before the Americans came close to the issue. No wonder American youth think of the US as the only important place to be. (See also At School in the US - a view on American education)
The greatest faker of all is probably Hollywood. Not that we are asked to believe in the stories we are told in the movies, but "seeing is believing": if we've seen it with our own eyes, it is a fact, and our recollection doesn't distinguish very well between documentaries and fiction.
The famous Oscar award winning picture "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is fiction. This is not disturbing in itself if it weren't for the ensuing enemy images that get stuck as facts. See Hollywood for more details on the deceptive film.
Nowhere in the world is Hallowe'en celebrated as much as in the US when children (and some parents) dress up and go trick-or-treating from door to door. This is a truly American tradition involving practically the whole nation, rather like the way carnival is celebrated in many other nations. Although the characters are generally "spooky", the object is simple joy and good fun. Besides, all the trick-or- treaters are rewarded for their efforts through all the candy bars they collect, sometimes as much as a full pillowcase.
I was surprised when I heard that the children who came to my door had been instructed not to accept anything but pre wrapped factory made candy and sweets. The reason was the scaring fact that some people conceal razor blades in apples and other kinds of fruit before offering them to the children. What a sad fact!
Other than that America takes good care of its children. In many states the city ordinance demands that young people under 18 stay home after 11 p.m., at least on school nights (details may vary). If a youngster is spotted by a patrol car, he is asked why he is not at home, and if his answer doesn't satisfy the police, they give him a free ride home.
On the other hand, since young people may not feel they have the privacy they want when at home - some parents demand that the doors be open when their child has a visitor (cp. "a closed door is a locked door") - having "wheels" means the world to a youth. A driving license may be obtained from age 16, and the car soon assumes the nature of a character ID plus a haven. You are your car, the kind, the make, the size, etc. - your car is where you are yourself - and privacy is obtained when you go away in your car. Away from the monitoring eyes of parents and police life is good, but since restrictions abound where adults are in control, many young people can't control themselves when they feel "free" - often with grim results. A little less control and more focus on responsibility instead of mistrust might do the trick.
Many Americans are fond of nature and like to go hiking or backpacking. But unlike camp-going Europeans they don't haul along all the usual household commodities and appliances. They want to experience nature in a - natural - way which is, of course, the way to go.
But the many dangers that nature represents (dangers that we don't experience in Europe) also mean that Americans have retained an acute sense of being alive: after all, you don't know if you will be here tomorrow, nature may take its toll (hailstorms, twisters, fires..., not to mention rattlers and the like), so make your hay today, carpe diem, seize the day. This may also explain why many Americans will go to extremes.
In Denmark it is literally impossibly to get lost (and we're not afflicted with natural disasters) which means that we've lost sense of nature's inherent danger, an observation which should not be taken too lightly as it may have affected our life style more than we are willing to admit. The joy of rising to a new day, or having the family come for Thanksgiving, not to mention saying Grace, are not practiced in Denmark, probably because we feel entitled to live. When a gale or blizzard do hit Denmark, we're taken by surprise, but try to do our business the usual way which is, in fact, not accepting nature as a factor that should be considered.
Apart from all this, America has the most beautiful and stunning sights I've ever seen (see "In the Footsteps of Dinosaurs and Pioneers Across the US").