There’s nothing I enjoy more than comparing different countries and cultures. I live for it. And there’s nothing more interesting than comparing other countries to one of the most polarizing countries in the world: America.
After all, a person in Rio de Janeiro, Copenhagen or Bangkok may not care (or know) what’s happening in Kenya, Cambodia or Bolivia, but even if they haven’t met Americans, you can still be sure he or she has formed a certain opinion about the country as a whole. They know American movie stars. They follow American presidential elections.
While the rest of the world is vastly different, one thing the rest of the world has in common is how similar they’re to each other—when compared to America.
Here’s what makes America special:
1. Inauthentic human communication
On my first week in Brazil, I met a beautiful girl at a checkout line in a local supermarket. Later that evening, about thirty minutes into our date, she smiled and told me that she likes me and that she’s enjoying my company. I was flattered—and shocked. Her words hit me like a tractor trailer at full speed. I couldn’t remember the last time someone was so open and honest. In fact, her honesty and openness made me feel downright uncomfortable.
This brutal honesty wasn’t limited to just Brazil. It also wasn’t limited to romantic relationships. In Eastern Europe, where I’ve been living for the past several years, human relationships are less about talking random words and more about “feeling out” each other. Not in a literal sense, but via non-verbal communication. For instance, one of the first things that I noticed about Eastern Europeans was how they would just shut up during a conversion while pondering a thought or a response to a question. Initially, these silences made me uncomfortable. But then I realized that these silences are an import part of communication, sometimes even more important than what comes before or after.
Human communication in America is woefully indirect and confusing. After all, we’re talking about a place where men have no choice but to pay $5,000 to some “guru” for a weekend workshop where they can learn how to talk to women. This may sound crazy, but, in the rest of the world, a man can just approach and talk to a woman directly.
Since people can’t communicate honestly and authentically, a common way of projecting this indirectness is sarcasm. Sarcasm is used to diffuse and deflect a question or statement. If you’re asked a personal question that makes you uncomfortable, you can ignore it or respond with a sarcastic remark. In this way, any attempt at authentic communication is immediately rejected and deflected.
Sarcasm has its purpose. It lightens up the mood and even demonstrates that you’re not threatened by an overly inquisitive person. But, like with anything, the problem with sarcasm is when it’s employed extensively instead of sparingly. That’s when it loses its potency and coats all conversations with a thick layer of inauthenticity and insincerity. The end result is superficiality.
The overuse of sarcasm is a mark of weakness. Communication is authentic when you’re putting yourself on the line in the face of possible rejection. It means being vulnerable. Not the type of vulnerability where you spill your guts to someone like an offended puppy, but as a way of saying that you don’t really care about the outcome and just want to say what’s on your mind.
It takes guts to tell another person that you enjoy spending time with them, find them interesting and want to develop a quality relationship. Conversely, it’s a lot harder to put yourself on the line and be honest with that person and risk possible rejection; it’s a lot easier to respond with some “witty” sarcastic remark that presents your point while simultaneously absolving yourself of taking responsibility for being open in the first place.
Before I extensively lived abroad, I used to think constant sarcasm and ball-busting was normal and even viewed it as a sign of strength, but after living abroad for many years, I now find endless sarcasm and ball-busting tiresome and immature.
2. The constant “us vs. them” mentality
I was once sitting in a coffee shop in some small town in New Jersey. I looked to my right and noticed a small and unassuming girl. I assumed she was super shy and probably doesn’t have a strong opinion on anything except the font she was using to design the website.
I was wrong. Soon, the conversation among us at the table shifted into politics and some upcoming election. As soon as someone mentioned that some democratic candidate might win, she got up and told everyone how much she hated Republicans. As she said it, she was filled with such zeal and hate that her face turned beet red.
Her abrupt reaction shocked me. I would’ve never in my life expected such a petite girl to react so vehemently. But that wasn’t even it. The real reason I was taken aback was because I had just witnessed a person react so strongly to something that wasn’t affecting her in any direct, personal way. She had a stronger reaction to some political candidate in an ivory tower than if some ghetto kid ran through the coffee shop and stole her expensive MacBook Pro laptop.
It’s been very amusing to return to the US after spending most of the year in Eastern Europe and then discuss the pros and cons of the current Ukrainian government with a random 50-something guy who happened to join my table at a packed Starbucks. He hated Ukrainian government with a passion. He also hated Putin and loved Merkel. The most interesting thing is that he’s never even been abroad.
America is a country where people seem to care about everything—with the overwhelming majority of these things not affecting their personal well-being in any way. The fact that everyone thought we were bombing Iraq (or insert another country here) because we wanted to bring them freedom is also amusing. I still don’t know how deposing Syria’s Assad could ever interfere with my ability to put words on the Internet or make YouTube videos.
You can be walking on the street anywhere from a huge city like New York to a smallish village in the middle of Oklahoma, stop a random person, and they’ll readily have an opinion on most things that are happening in the world. They’ll tell why they love (or hate) the Democratic Party, why Vladimir Putin is a great leader (or a vicious dictator), why the government should (or shouldn’t) deal with guns, why abortion should be legal (or illegal) and a ton of other issues.
The rest of the world doesn’t care as much. People rarely even care what’s happening in the neighboring countries. Brazilians might be pissed off that Argentina won more soccer matches than them, but a guy in Rio de Janeiro isn’t going to let his beautiful beach day be ruined by political news from the capital. Ukrainians might be pissed off at Poroshenko, but I’m not going to make any lifelong enemies if I supported him.
In the rest of the world, strong political opinions are mostly a luxury.
That’s a very good thing. It means that people are concerned with things they control instead of projecting their helplessness and frustration at the world via politics, cultural wars or anything else that enables the toxic “us vs. them” mentality. And if that means that that beautiful Colombian girl sitting next to me at a coffee shop won’t suddenly treat me like the lowest of the low because I said something about a local election, I’ll take that too.
3. Everyone has a narrative
On the night of October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers in Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured.
Over the ensuing days and weeks, people stayed glued to the TV sets while the media did their best to explain the reasons behind such a heinous act.
As it turns out, explaining something so complex such as a mass shooting to the public was deceptively simple. The known players resorted to its proven technique that uses to explain anything and everything: a narrative.
The beautiful thing about narratives is that you never have to look hard to find one. Whenever there’s some mass killing in America, the same old pattern repeats. The feminists are eager to tell you the massacre occurred because of “toxic masculinity.” The gun control advocates are eager to tell you the massacre occurred because of lax gun control. If the shooter is white, the left-wing media is eager to label the massacre as “white nationalist.” If the killer is a minority but non-black, the right-wing media will frame the massacre as an immigration issue. If the killer is black, it will be framed as a racial issue. Then there’s the government which is always eager to label the massacre as a “terrorist act.”
All narratives have a single purpose: they take something very complex and simplify in a way that the public can understand. Narratives help people make sense of the world and their place in it.
However, what absolutely no one discussed at all were the personal motivations of the perpetrator. Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe he broke up with his girlfriend whom he loved. Maybe he was fired from a job. Maybe there was something else that happened completely unrelated to any of the explanations. Maybe he lost his entire life savings after playing in the casino.
(Obviously, if there were strong terrorist links, that would be different, but this was ruled out early on.)
Using simple narratives to explain a complex event is a symptom of a society that no longer views people as individuals with their own unique issues and problems, but as collective masses that all think and act the same.
Nobody can know for sure what the killer’s motivations were, but it’s easy to sit on your soapbox and rant how what happened is somehow related to the society as a whole. In this way, they’re using the killer’s actions to promote their own agenda.
It’s like riding a Q line in New York City and getting a weird look from another passenger sitting directly across from you. Although you have no way of knowing why that person gave you a weird look (maybe it wasn’t weird after all), different people will interpret it differently. The problem is regardless what they think, they won’t ever know for sure.
In the rest of the world, such things are perceived very differently. If a man goes on a killing rampage in Russia, people would think there’s something wrong with him—not launch into a tirade about gun control. If a gang of kids robbed a beach in Rio de Janeiro, people will think they did it for the money—not launch into a tirade about “toxic masculinity.” If a Chinese guy stabs a bunch of people in Shenzhen, the explanation is mental illness—not the fact that he just happened to be of some “different” ethnicity.
4. Everything is filtered through gender, race, ethnicity, and/or religion
In 1994, a former football player was arrested for killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Even though the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to a guilty verdict, one of his lawyers, Johnny Cochran, successfully convinced the jury to frame the case as a race issue, in terms of “whites vs. blacks.” The defendant was acquitted a year later.
When viewed from this racist perspective, the overwhelmingly black jury ultimately acquitted the black defendant. (It also didn’t help that prosecution completely fumbled the case, although even if their case was airtight, it was still far from certain that they’d win).
When society’s actions are filtered by race, everything that happens can be explained away by race. It’s the classic “us vs. them” construct.
OJ Simpson is arrested on suspicion of killing his white ex-wife and her white lover? It doesn’t matter that there were no other suspects and he probably did it. He was arrested because he was black.
Obama elected as the President of United States of America? It doesn’t matter that he was elected on his own merit. He was obviously elected because he was black.
This affects each one of us in ways far beyond race. It means that whatever you do or say, there will always be people who’ll view your actions and accomplishments through racial and/or ethnical biases. For instance, I’m a white guy. As I recently found out, apparently that means I’m somehow “privileged.” That could be used against me in the form of reverse discrimination.
Or, maybe not. Because I’m also an immigrant from a poor Eastern European country. Fortunately, that gives me points and leverage, something I wasn’t aware of before. That means that a non-white person (ie, who’s not “privileged”) can’t easily accuse me of racism because I can accuse them of some kind of discrimination against poor and pesky Eastern European immigrants.
Unless you were living under a rock for the past few decades or so, you know there’s a gender war in the US. It’s gotten so bad that, now, the mere fact that you’re a man can be used against you and obliterate all your arguments.
This is an extreme example of a logical fallacy known as character assassination. As a man, you could have the most logical argument in the world. You could be absolutely correct that even Einstein, Nelson Mandela, and Jesus Christ would nod their heads in agreement. But the fact that you were born with a penis means that everything that you say can be discounted as nonsense.
Of course, all of this is one enormous clusterfuck. It’s beyond ridiculous. I’m not “privileged” because I happened to be born white. I wasn’t born with a golden spoon in my mouth and have to hustle like the rest of the world. If you tell me that I’m privileged means that you’re admitting to be disfranchised in some way. This leads to a race to the bottom mentality as everyone is busy searching for ways to “out victimize” each other.
Unfortunately, getting rid of this divide and uniting people isn’t easy. There are people who built up their entire careers on making sure this division gets stronger over time. Entire institutions have sprung up who owe their entire existences to these cultural divisions and work hard on entrenching them further.
As you might’ve already guessed, this isn’t really a case overseas. The ridiculous “mansplaining” thing is mostly limited to England and her former colonies. No one in Colombia, Brazil, Russia or 150+ other countries is going to accuse you of something simply because you’re a man who’s trying to explain something to a woman. Or a woman who’s trying to explain something to a man. Or a woman who’s trying to explain something to a woman. Or a man who’s trying to explain something to a man.
5. Always needing to prove yourself to others
Last month, I went out to a nice bar with a good friend. My friend was with his girlfriend who invited one of her female friends. Her friend and I immediately hit it off. She was witty and intelligent, the two qualities I like in women.
Over the following weeks, we saw each other few times. While I enjoyed spending time with her, I immediately sensed something was off. Most of her conversations revolved around work; she loved to talk about her clients, especially those who are richer and more successful than to her. She also liked to talk about her friends or relatives who ran profitable businesses and did very well for themselves.
I found this perplexing. She was a very successful young woman and yet she seemed so insecure that she needed to constantly remind me (albeit, so subtly) that she was surrounded by people who made more money that both of us would probably see in our lifetimes.
One day, it finally hit me: she was trying to impress me by linking herself to people who’re more successful. The fact that she’s connected to so many successful people is her way of elevating her own status in my eyes.
This is also something I noticed mostly specific to America. It’s ingrained in the culture for people to outdo each other by comparing not only their own success but also the success of people they know, whether they’re close relatives, friends or even clients.
To be sure, I have met people like this overseas. This was prevalent in big cities like Moscow and São Paolo where people are slaving away long hours and their lives revolve around work with little time to play. But even in these super capitalistic metropolises, I’ve met people who had a certain zest for life and derived their self-worth internally instead of externally.
Now, you’re probably thinking that I hate America. I don’t. It has its problems just like any other country. Since it’s inhabited by people of such diverse backgrounds, different viewpoints and beliefs are to be expected.
It’s just it’s nice to be able to connect with a stranger, whether in a coffee shop, a bar or while riding the subway. It’s even better to do that by being authentic and be able to say what you think and feel instead of carefully monitoring your words and actions because you fear your mere thoughts may inadvertently turn your newfound friend into a sworn enemy.
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James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.