How Strange America Looks

 

I was with my family today in the office of the kind of American company that makes you say, “My God, even if we’re going broke–what an astonishing, disciplined, unparalleled society. Look what people are trying to do. Look how innovative they are. Look how committed they are to science, to technology, to finding solutions to incredibly complex problems, to achieving things no society has ever succeeded in doing before.”

The receptionist’s desk had a sign that faced out. The sign explained the company’s customer service policy–one in which every employee had been trained. Employees pledged to make eye contact with every customer, because “this says that you are important to me.” (I am recreating this pledge from memory–I didn’t take notes. I can’t guarantee the phrasing, but it was to that effect.) Employees also pledged to smile at every customer, and the distance at which they were to begin smiling–15 feet–was precisely specified.

hillary-clinton-turkey-tour.preview.jpgMaybe that doesn’t seem strange to you yet, though to me that already seems plenty strange, in an only-in-America way.

But tell me if this part doesn’t seem strange to you, when you think about it. The company was the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and this was a cancer ward.

In other words, many of the people who walked up to that reception desk were waiting to hear if a judge they did not know had arbitrarily pronounced upon them a death sentence they could not understand for a crime they never committed. Very rarely do these circumstances make people feel–genuinely–like smiling.

Now, of course people smile, genuinely, in cancer wards–sometimes. But the only culture I’ve ever known in which a smile would be considered the most appropriate response to this situation, no less the obligatory one, is American culture.

In most other places I’ve lived, the culturally appropriate facial expression would be something Americans would understand as warm, concerned and caring–certainly. Eye contact–for sure, I think almost universally that means “I notice you.” But you’d try to look serious, because this is serious–there could be nothing more serious–and it would be considered bizarre, completely divorced from reality, to fail to acknowledge that. You’d wait to smile until the customer, also known as the patient, took the lead. If the customer’s expression suggested terror, grief, pain or fury, you would not smile: That would not be understood as an empathic response. In fact, it would be seen as a reaction somewhere between inappropriate and insane.

The photos I’ve posted are of our Secretary of State, who two days ago was in Turkey to discuss, among other things, strategic cooperation on terrorism. This was in the wake of a devastating attack that claimed the lives of 13 Turkish conscripts.

I’m looking at those photos and I know that what our highest public ambassador thinks she’s conveying is, “friendship, unwavering solidarity, support, strength and optimism.”

And I also know that many Turks, looking at this, will feel, even if they can’t quite say why, “Americans are phony and they don’t care about us. I don’t trust them.” They’ll feel this no matter what she actually says, because the facial expression will look so odd to them.

I don’t have a solution or even a recommendation. I’m just noticing.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RobertLux

    The American smile and friendliness — our legacy of the basic friendliness of English culture (or at least of what it used to be).

    Perhaps my favorite story about Leo Strauss: when he arrived in England from Nazi Germany, the English customs official had to blow his nose and said “excuse me.” Strauss knew then and there he had come to remarkably different civilization (as no German official would ever do such a thing), one he soon fell in love with — English breakfasts, Jane Austen, and Churchill, most prominently.

    Seth Benardete relates the story in Encounters and Reflections, top of p. 35.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @outstripp

    This may be related to American dislike of ceremony, solemnity, and rituals. Americans take smiling and casualness as signals (in a high-trust society) that You and I are members of the same group and can be trusted.

    People from low-trust societies rely on rituals and ceremonies to regulate human interactions and are not put at ease by casualness. Quite the contrary they are taken aback and may interpret it as a deliberate insult.

    My advice to Hillary is the apocryphyl advice given to young teachers by old teachers: “Don’t smile until December.”

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  3. Profile Photo Member
    @

    If only we’d stop smiling so damn much, then maybe the rest of the world would start to like us better.

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    @DavidWilliamson

    Yeah, it’s a cultural thing.

    Robert’s comment reminds me that whenever I enter the UK I am greeted with a smile by the immigration officer, as though I were a long-lost friend, whereas when I enter the US the immigration officer greets me with questions about how long I have been out – if I am lucky, they will say “welcome home”.

    It creates a terrible first impression of the US, in spite of the smiling face of Mr Obama on the wall (ugh).

    It’s an example of that strange dichotomy in the US between private companies, where the friendliness is over the top, and government workers, where it is under the bottom.

    One thing I noticed in the recent Murdoch kangaroo court in the UK was how polite were the members of parliament as they asked their questions – what a civilized country! Even the shouting at Mr Cameron in Parliament the day after has an underlying politeness…

    Anyway, Mrs Clinton is probably just glad to be away from Bill and Barack for a while, so give her a break.

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    @rayconandlindacon

    A camera, a politician, a smile and hand wave. This is the most absolutely normal scene anywhere. As for cancer wards, if there is a politician there, then the smile is naturally phoney.

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    @MelFoil

    “Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” –Mother Teresa, Missionaries of Charity.

    I think the charm of many Americans is that they still take what they hear in Sunday (or Saturday) religious services to heart. In some cases it’s only remembered from childhood, but it’s still in the back of the mind.

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    @ScottAbel

    Yeah, my first Estonian girlfriend told my parents that Americans come off as vapid and superficial, because they smile a lot, and ask “how are you,” but don’t really care.

    But then again, public interaction is something that Europeans, especially Eastern ones, don’t do very well, from my experience.

    Just for the LULZ, I like to smile and ask “how are you?” to random people on the street. It scares the hell of out them.

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    @CaptAubrey

    My first reaction to the Cancer ward is that this is the only example I can think of where a health care organization of any sort makes any appearance, however akward, of caring about their “customers” and I wonder why since there is little or no competition in health care. Perhaps it is out of some feeling of guilt because the course of treatment that these people are about to enter upon is so difficult. A surgeon friend of mine once said, “oncologists get happy because they killed the cancer even though the patient is a little grease spot in the bed.” That was over a decade ago and cancer is now being treated as more of a chronic condition where the psychological health of the patient is more involved in the healing process. There is a neighborliness in the smile but a phoniness as well. Whistle while you work to build that wall.

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    @MrDart

    Turks should see that smile as phony. It is.

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  10. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RobertLux
    David Williamson: Yeah, it’s a cultural thing.

    Robert’s comment reminds me that whenever I enter the UK I am greeted with a smile by the immigration officer, as though I were a long-lost friend, whereas when I enter the US the immigration officer greets me with questions about how long I have been out – if I am lucky, they will say “welcome home”.

    It creates a terrible first impression of the US, in spite of the smiling face of Mr Obama on the wall (ugh).

    Anyway, Mrs Clinton is probably just glad to be away from Bill and Barack for a while, so give her a break. · Jul 22 at 3:53am

    Edited on Jul 22 at 04:00 am

    Agreed- I think U.S. customs and border officials are some of the worst in the developed world. And I spent two wonderful months in London last year — I was pleased to see how much charm there still is in England — at least more among the older generation.

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    @Schwaibold

    The hospital smile is probably meant to put the potential cancer patient at ease, to avoid ratcheting up the apprehension. I know if I was going to get the cancer verdict, I would be nervous and frightened. Having to deal with a receptionist who acted like a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles would make things decidedly worse.

    Personally, I prefer the forced smile and enthusiastic greeting to the dour, morose customer service I often get. At the latter, I often feel like an intruder, where the employee wished I hadn’t shown up, and was happy that I finally left. At the former, a phenomenon occurs that I’m not sure has ever been confirmed by any study, but that I am convinced exists – forced friendliness usually leads to actual friendliness.

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    @DavidFoster

    A while back, David Berlinski suggested that Goedel’s Theorem may imply some severe limitations on the effectiveness of command economies. I think the same principle applies to the scripting and micromanagement of human interactions. It is useful to give employees some suggestions on how to act to put customers/patients at ease; I do not think it is useful to give them precise orders like “begin smiling at 15 feet.” Indeed, a truly nasty DMV clerk would be able to project hostility to customers while following all regulations to the letter of the law.

    See my post Mindless Verbal Taylorism for related thoughts.

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  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MelFoil
    Terry: Turks should see that smile as phony. It is. · Jul 22 at 5:11am

    Speak for yourself <he said smiling.>

    • #13
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    @ScottR

    There are different types of smiles. Clinton’s smile in the pic isn’t the appropriate one for the circumstance.

    As in a cancer ward, a warm, I’m-your-friend smile is the way to go — and also deeply American, I’d like to think — but Clintin’s smile there is the smiling equivalent to her cackle.

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  15. Profile Photo Member
    @ScottR
    jhimmi: … a phenomenon occurs that I’m not sure has ever been confirmed by any study, but that I am convinced exists – forced friendliness usually leads to actual friendliness. · Jul 22 at 5:19am

    Yes. Feeling follows behavior in many cases, especially in marriage. Hug your wife even when you don’t much feel like hugging your wife, and, almost without fail, the feeling soon enough catches up with the act.

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    @Britanicus
    jhimmi:

    At the former, a phenomenon occurs that I’m not sure has ever been confirmed by any study, but that I am convinced exists – forced friendliness usually leads to actual friendliness. · Jul 22 at 5:19am

    I’m with you here. Having worked since I was 16 in various customer focused roles–sales, waiting tables, in a kitchen, at a camp for kids–I’ve been in situations where although at first my kindness was forced, after a moment or two, my conduct became genuine.

    This is especially true of sales. Few customers will buy anything from a jerk, so you have to be polite and kind at all times. Even if you’re having a bad day.

    At first, you may just be putting on a show, but eventually the forced politeness and sincerity becomes, well, sincere. I also noticed that just being nice to my customers made me feel better about my job and my self.

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  17. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Claire, are you and your family all OK? I am just wondering what prompted the visit to the cancer ward…

    I have been to many countries, and there are other countries that not only serve with a smile, they make it their pride (even/especially in government agencies!?!) to serve you with the utmost effort, promptness and helpfulness. It’s usually at least partly cultural– and these are the countries whose economies are industrious and prospering. But it’s also due to rigorous training, just like that employee policy on the sign.

    I wish our own government agencies would take that to heart. We have some of the surliest people in government “services.” They make you feel like they’re doing you a favor by even deigning to be there at the office that day. You must come and bow at their feet and humbly request they bestow their services upon you. (Hyperbole– sorry.)

    Part of it is the culture of entitlement that is encouraged by the fact that almost no one ever gets fired. Part of it is that we have lost some of our optimism, cheerfulness and character as a society– and that is very hard to restore.

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  18. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Michael Horn

    jhimmi: At the former, a phenomenon occurs that I’m not sure has ever been confirmed by any study, but that I am convinced exists – forced friendliness usually leads to actual friendliness.

    I’m with you here. Having worked since I was 16 in various customer focused roles–sales, waiting tables, in a kitchen, at a camp for kids–I’ve been in situations where although at first my kindness was forced, after a moment or two, my conduct became genuine.

    This principle is very true. Libertines say to “follow your feelings” and “express yourself” and “don’t bottle it up.” Yes, you need to have a healthy expression of many feelings, but sometimes you just need to “bottle it up” and simply pretend.

    The interesting thing is that when you put a genuine effort into the pretense, it becomes real.

    Some leadership training tells us to act as if you were a bold, confident leader even if you really feel scared inside. Guess what? You will grow into a bold, confident leader.

    Christian marriage counseling often says that “love is a decision, not a feeling.” Decide to act in love toward your spouse, even during the spells when the feeling is not there– and eventually the feeling of being in love will return.

    That advice alone– to pretend, as phony as it sounds– could save at least half of the marriages that end in divorce.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @UndergroundConservative

    Russians are notoriously stolid, so smiling in public is strange to them. They frequently remark about American smiling, especially when they visit the U.S. They’re shocked when people say hi to them in the street. They consider it a bit demented, frankly.

    However, I like it. I’ve grown to appreciate it more since I returned home. It’s a special American spirit that I love. No, maybe not everyone cares about the answer when they say, “How are you?”, but the very idea of it being normal to us to say that tells me that we’re pretty darn nice people in reality. I don’t mind Hillary smiling, honestly, it’s the American spirit, and I’m proud of it.

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  20. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Dave Molinari:

    I don’t mind Hillary smiling, honestly, it’s the American spirit, and I’m proud of it. · Jul 22 at 8:41am

    I don’t mind it at all–I agree with you–but in this context, it’s confusing, at best, and won’t convey what I reckon she thinks it does. Look at the faces of the people around her. What are they feeling? They’re really feeling it, too: This attack absolutely devastated the country; the mood when I left was so tense and grim that no one was smiling. I am quite sure they were looking at her and thinking, “Don;t you realize what just happened here?”

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  21. Profile Photo Contributor
    @DianeEllis
    Capt. Aubrey: My first reaction to the Cancer ward is that this is the only example I can think of where a health care organization of any sort makes any appearance, however akward, of caring about their “customers”…

    Actually, I just had an appointment with a new doctor to establish care this week (I hadn’t seen a doctor of any sort in several years because I’d had a string of really bad experiences), and the experience absolutely blew me away. For one, there was no waiting time whatsoever. The doctor patiently waited for me to finish my paperwork, then brought me back to his office to speak for 40 minutes before conducting a physical examination for the next 40 minutes. I was never left alone for more than the time it took to slip on a gown, and the doctor was so warm and friendly and caring. He was creating a chart for me from scratch and he even asked questions about my pets and what I studied in college, which he included in the chart because he said it showed me as multi-dimensional human patient, instead of just another faceless being with a handful of stats. As I left, he told me I could call him or e-mail him at any time for any reason.

    Now granted, this isn’t your typical physician. His office gives you the price of the visit before you come, and you’re expected to pay upon services rendered. He doesn’t accept Medicare, Medicaid, or many forms of insurance, so this certainly limits the clientele that’s able to see him. But man oh man, best medical experience of my life. Docs like him aren’t common in America, but I’m near certain they simply do not exist in any other country in the world.

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Contributor
    @DianeEllis
    Dave Molinari: Russians are notoriously stolid, so smiling in public is strange to them. They frequently remark about American smiling, especially when they visit the U.S. They’re shocked when people say hi to them in the street. They consider it a bit demented, frankly.

    However, I like it. I’ve grown to appreciate it more since I returned home. It’s a special American spirit that I love. No, maybe not everyone cares about the answer when they say, “How are you?”, but the very idea of it being normal to us to say that tells me that we’re pretty darn nice people in reality. I don’t mind Hillary smiling, honestly, it’s the American spirit, and I’m proud of it. · Jul 22 at 8:41am

    When I returned home to the States after living in Russia for a few months, and on my very first morning back a stranger greeted me with a cheerful “Good mornin’!” out on the street, I broke down in tears. I didn’t realize until that moment how much I had missed the warmth and friendliness, even if it’s just superficial, that Americans afford each other.

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    @civilwestman

    Having worked for several large health systems as a physician, I have seen such signs – clearly the work of the same high-priced management consultants – several years ago, with the exact same metrics. As the government does not trust its subjects to be citizens, so the hospital does not trust its caregivers to be normally responsive humans with discretion. This is merely another execrable symptom of the the utopian attempt to coerce a perfect community into existence from the top. As goes the government, so go large organizations; tyranny writ not-so-small.

    When those signs appeared at work, at first, we didn’t just smile, we laughed out loud. Upon reflection we were pretty insulted, realizing that our non-clinician betters in management – who never responded effectively to requests for organizational help from the front lines – believed years of professional training only served to make physicians malleable ventriloquists’ dummies. They fancied themselves the generals; we were the grunts.

    The Department of State used the same management consultants! SecState aced the sensitivity session. Ventriloquist’s dummy.Q.E.D.

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  24. Profile Photo Inactive
    @StuInTokyo

    That would be great!

    My gmail is my username (no spaces) @gmail.

    I’m right downtown in Shinjuku.

    Domo!

    outstripp

    Stu In Tokyo: …I live in Japan, and the culture here is different from Canada where I’m from, and it is not all down to language, I speak Japanese fairly well after 20+ years….Domo · Jul 22 at 7:26pm

    Edited on Jul 22 at 07:27 pm

    Stu I’m going to be down in Tokyo in mid september for a conference. If you’re available let’s get together for a Ricochet 会議. My gmail address is the same as my screen-name. · Jul 22 at 8:42pm
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  25. Profile Photo Inactive
    @StuInTokyo

    I am a cancer survivor, and I will tell you that the kind care I got at the hospital, the ability of the staff to always smile and greet me when I had to go in for daily treatments that left me wiped out for the rest of the day, mean a lot. There were no signs, the staff were just simply good at their jobs and they helped me and my family a lot to get through this.

    I live in Japan, and the culture here is different from Canada where I’m from, and it is not all down to language, I speak Japanese fairly well after 20+ years. Often the kindness is very superficial, but, that being said, the number of times that I have experienced honest kindness at the hands of total strangers are many, while the number of times I’ve been treated badly are few.

    I too love the happy openness of the North American culture, but it certainly comes off as fake when done by someone like Mrs. Clinton. You can bet that Bill would have been all somber and would put on the right face….. Hilary needs some lessons.

    Domo

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  26. Profile Photo Inactive
    @outstripp
    Stu In Tokyo: …I live in Japan, and the culture here is different from Canada where I’m from, and it is not all down to language, I speak Japanese fairly well after 20+ years….Domo · Jul 22 at 7:26pm

    Edited on Jul 22 at 07:27 pm

    Stu I’m going to be down in Tokyo in mid september for a conference. If you’re available let’s get together for a Ricochet 会議. My gmail address is the same as my screen-name.

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Diane Ellis, Ed

    … Docs like him aren’t common in America, but I’m near certain they simply do not exist in any other country in the world.

    Actually, they do, and I’ve been to at least one of them, in a country with a government-paid health care system. Again, it was the country where government employees are very friendly and helpful, a total contradiction to what you would expect here. And it does come down to culture, I’m convinced.

    Does this mean government-paid health care systems are the way to go? No, there are exceptions to the rules because there are so many factors including culture. As a general rule, government services, especially where performance is not measured and payment or employment is practically guaranteed, are much worse than their private sector equivalents.

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