Killing With Kindness. Are Americans Really as Nice as They Think?
It’s taken me over five years to get used to the shockingly direct commentary I’ve experienced while living in Germany, among people who, unlike Americans, do not shy away from expressing their opinions—be they positive, or negative. Though to Germans expressing criticism is considered a sign of thoughtfulness and earnestness, the directness can be off-putting when you aren’t used to it.
As an American brought up on perpetual pleasantness, how many times have I been brought to the point of physical discomfort by German directness? A passionate office argument about closing the window. A businessman getting visibly impatient with a mother and her children for blocking the aisle of the train for a few seconds. A colleague pointedly slamming the office door when I’m talking too loudly on the phone. In the mid-western region of the United States, we’d rather die than talk to each other so rudely, I often explain with slight twinges of pride.
But what if our smiles, chit-chat, and general obsession with being everybody’s ‘friend’ has put a shellacked veneer on conflict avoidance? And what happens when the emotions simmering beneath the surface force themselves out through cracks in a far less socially healthy way?
Among the myriad characteristics that coalesce into the stereotype of your average American (loves guns, eats cheeseburgers) one of the better ones is friendliness. Canadians, of course, are renowned for their mildness and the Brits have manners fit for a queen, yet somehow the United States stands out. Is it because we are notoriously big and loud? That we just generally demand a lot of attention wherever we go? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s because the general affability flies in the face of something else we are known for: shooting each other dead.
European visitors to the United States are often ambivalent about American friendliness. Compared to Europe, the U.S. can feel like a Disneyland for the soul, a place where the callousness of the European public sphere is swapped for a clubhouse where everyone is a member. The days are filled with “How are you’s” and “Pardon me’s”, the nights with small talk about next day’s weather.
Some can’t quite believe it and accuse Americans of being fake or superficial. “Everybody asks, ‘How are you?’ all the time. But they couldn’t care less how I’m doing!” said my German colleague, slamming the door of the breakroom refrigerator. I smiled politely, sipped my coffee, and tried to adjust to this new conversational style.
Others embrace it. “Life is better in America, yes?” A German stranger once questioned me as our dogs sniffed each other on the cobbled streets of the town where I study. “Americans are friendlier than people here. We say you are superficial, but who cares? It’s nice. It’s not like we have to marry each other.”
Dr. Friedrich Schwandt, a CEO and entrepreneur from Hannover, Germany, knows Americans. He is co-founder of the rapidly growing market research search engine Statista. Founded in 2007 in Hamburg, today Statista has offices in London and New York City and employs over 500 people, among them more than 100 Americans. Where better to observe the United State’s roundabout communication idiosyncrasies than within the walls of a German company dedicated to facts and clarity?
“Americans are much more enthusiastic about everything,” says Schwandt, speaking of his clients and employees. “But it can be difficult to read if the enthusiasm is sincere and if it’s a commitment to something, or if it’s just general enthusiasm without any meaning. In Germany, you might have to push them to give you two positive sentences, but you know that what they say you can probably trust.”
What for Americans might be normal professional friendliness can seem like coddling when compared to work cultures like Germany’s. “When I send an email in Germany, I wouldn’t be in any way polite. It would be very to the point. ‘Hi, can you help me with these three points? Please give me feedback within two weeks.’ Emails to American colleagues would start with two sentences about how fantastic everything is, only then asking if maybe they would have time to help. It would be much more polite, much more indirect about asking for what I want.”
Schwandt, who is married to an American, stresses that at times he prefers the American communication style to the German one, and that for him neither way is objectively better. But it is still confusing for him when an American employee tells him this is the best job he’s ever had, and then leaves a week later to go somewhere else. Germans would be more open about their dissatisfactions. “The way Germans communicate is just much more transparent. On the one hand you can say it’s rude, and that’s how Americans see it. Germans say it is clear.”
Being clear is difficult for Americans, even if they don’t know it. Prioritizing politeness over clarity can put them in a bind when conflicts arise. Having someone else do the dirty work for you can seem like an easier option.
I was a 20-year-old college student in Indiana when the neighbors called the police on me. We were having a costume party. Dressed as superheroes and hippies, my friends and I stood around a bonfire in the backyard of my rental house in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, laughing and drinking cheap beer from the can. Two men in police uniforms joined our circle. Their holsters indicated that these were not party guests. I stood there, dressed up as a bank robber, as the officers wrote me a ticket and explained that they had driven over at the request of the neighbors twenty yards across the street to tell us we were talking too loudly.
I went to apologize the next day. “Oh, it’s no big deal…,” the neighbor said standing next to his truck in his driveway. As he spoke he looked off into space and waved the problem out of existence with his hand. Then I crossed the street back home and mailed a check for the fifty-dollar noise violation off to city hall.
For years I’ve wondered: why didn’t he just come over and say something? Instead, he chose to call a governmental organization sworn to “protect and serve” the inhabitants of its city. What protection could a middle-aged man with a pickup truck and an imposing mustache need against a liberal arts student and her chatty friends? Rather, he sidestepped the awkwardness of ruining the good time, a cardinal sin among chipper Americans. With one call, not unlike ordering a pizza, a pair of cops appeared on the scene.
One disruption deserves another, one might argue, and with reason. But to involve law enforcement is also to involve the implicit threat of legal, physical brutality, available in a variety of flavors on display at the officer’s waist. To deal with minor disturbances by calling the police as a first measure is to weaponize an innocuous situation--with potentially deadly consequences.
This neighbor isn’t alone in his reaction to such “soft crimes”. The American media continues to report examples of Americans appealing to the police in the face of trivial conflicts. These cases make the news because they regularly result in wildly disproportionate consequences for the “perpetrator”, usually a person of color. Just this summer, the family of Gregory Hill Jr., a 30-year-old African American father of three, was awarded the cruel amount of four dollars in a legal settlement for his death after the police shot at him through a closed garage door. A neighbor had reported him for playing loud music. In 2017, the police shot and killed 987 people in the United States, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
Handling disputes oneself doesn’t always go much better. In 2015, three young Muslim students in Illinois were shot dead, execution-style, by a neighbor over a parking dispute. In 2015, an Indiana father shot and killed his 22-year-old son in an argument about breakfast food. Even a 17-year-old German high school exchange student from Hamburg was shot and killed in Montana in 2014 when he and his friends tried to swipe beer from a local man’s garage. The Federal Bureau of Investigations reports an estimated 17,250 victims of gun homicide in the U.S. in 2016.
The common denominator in these and many other American tragedies is the role of firearms. While countless disagreements are settled peacefully in the U.S. every day, the prevalence of those that turn lethal remains unique to the land of the free. It is the combination of being prepared to kill but unprepared to argue that make the U.S. a paradox apart.
Sometimes the hardest truths to face are the ones about ourselves. European countries seem perfectly aware of Uncle Sam’s darker side. The German foreign ministry’s travel advisory page warns its citizens of the prevalence of firearms in the US, though despite the German reputation for directness, the French government’s version is almost more to the point. “In many states carrying firearms is legal and common,” states the advisory. “Visitors must therefore maintain their calm and sang-froid in all circumstances.”
It further cautions travelers “not to joke with Customs and Border Protection officers or police officers,” advising that, “words, attitudes, and plaisanteries that might seem anodyne in some countries could in the United States lead to immediate arrest and judicial charges.”
What happened to that American good nature we heard so much about?
To some degree, Americans are starting to catch on to the consequences of their socially mandated agreeableness. The social value of politeness and friendliness has declined recently as bitter political realities become ever harder to ignore. In recent months, angry citizens have taken to confronting members of the Trump administration as they dine out in public. Defenders of the status quo, who are calling this an attack on “civility,” are now facing fierce opposition.
As the United States grapples with adopting a brand that is less than sugar sweet, Germany might have a lesson or two to learn. The negativity, the pessimism, and the willingness to argue are qualities can that weigh on the spirit of Germans and expats alike, myself included. But on the whole Germans know how solve their own problems, without emotional or bodily fear. They aren’t afraid to speak their mind to each other, and they take criticism less personally. While I’ve seen more public arguing in my few years in Germany than I’ve probably ever seen in twenty-two years spent in the United States, I’ve also never heard of a dispute escalating to the point of death—something I sadly cannot say of my childhood across the Atlantic.
Around 9 P.M. on a Tuesday in Hamburg, I was starting to think of bed when a blast of music came blaring through the windows of my apartment, obliterating the idea from my mind. Poking my head out onto the balcony, I identified the source: large speakers had been set up in the windows of ground-floor apartment across the street. As the music thumped on, I stood on the balcony and thought nervously of my treasured beauty sleep. A three-digit phone number floated tantalizingly in my mind.
Meanwhile my German husband descended from our apartment. I saw him cross the street to the free-spirited neighbor, who was dancing outside.
“It’s international music day!” he yelled to my husband as he approached.
“It’s a bit loud!” my husband yelled back.
“A bit!!?”A visibly angry man joined the conversation from behind.
After a brief exchange of shouting (over the still-loud music), the neighbor shut down his impromptu rave. Everyone went home and went to bed. Loud music. Public disturbance. No police. This conflict, at least, ended in all parties going to bed safe and sound in their own home.
The United States wouldn’t be the country it is without the sugary outer layer. It’s a quality I miss all the time living in Europe, and one I wouldn’t want to see disappear. But if the flipside of this coin means processing conflict in an unhealthy or even lethal way, America might consider looking to other notoriously polite and conflict-averse nations for alternatives.
In Japan, hospitality is a cornerstone of society and even using the word “no” can be considered rude. At less than one civilian firearm per 100 residents, their gun ownership is among the lowest in the world, according to the global Small Arms Survey 2018. Taking a European example, Brits are known for their sharp sense of humor, royal etiquette, and extreme subtlety when communicating their dissatisfaction. They also own fewer guns than most of their European counterparts, just five civilian arms per 100 residents in 2017, according to gunpolicy.org. This pales even compared to Germany, where the Small Arms Survey recorded nineteen guns per 100 residents in 2018.
Meanwhile, for every 100 U.S. residents there are 120 guns floating around the country. This mass of deadly metal is getting harder and harder for us Americans to hide behind our earnest, straight-toothed smiles. American identity is at a breaking point and it is time for the country to choose which it values more: living in peace, or carrying a piece.
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