Another reason the world thinks Americans are crazy
The top 3 questions the Irish ask about us
I was happily in the passenger seat as we zipped up, down and all around the narrow country lanes of County Kerry. I had begun our holiday week in Ireland as the primary driver, but after I bonked the left side mirror on our rental car into yet another Irish light pole, the family had voted (3–0) for my wife to become our primary driver. She had far better spatial coordination than me.
In the end, my only positive contribution to our rental car experience was signing up for the unlimited collision insurance. We can only hope the light pole had insurance too.
Motoring along these bucolic roads, we inevitably wondered aloud why it was that the Irish drive on the “wrong” side of the road. We all seemed to have a different recollection of the backstory, so to break the tie, I went to my phone and to Google.
First, recognizing that search engines adjust their algorithms based on the location of the person doing the searching, I thought it most expeditious to ask the question from the perspective of an Irish person.
Not “Why do the Irish drive on the left?” but rather “Why do Americans drive on the right?” I figured either question would lead to the same place.
As I started typing, Irish Google attempted to guess what I was trying to ask. I stopped after typing “Why do Americans…” in the Search bar. I was curious to see the most common questions the Irish had about my people.
Irish Google provided me the three most common questions to finish the phrase “Why do Americans.”
#1 was a very fair and sober question: “Why do Americans…love guns.”
#3 was the opposite: “Why do Americans…refrigerate eggs” (??)
I avoided the Google rabbit holes of #1 and #3, but answer #2 got me…
“Why do Americans…smile?”
It stopped me up short. Doesn’t everyone smile? Since when do Americans have a corner on the smile market? And yet, in Ireland, it was the second most common “Why do Americans” question. It was something of great interest here.
So I started reading articles. Turns out that people in other countries, not just Ireland, find the American smile a defining and confounding feature. Here is an article in the Atlantic quoting someone from Finland:
When a stranger on the street smiles at you:
a. you assume he is drunk
b. he is insane
c. he’s an American
Pull the eggs out of the fridge. This was the most confusing thing I had heard all week. And so I started looking for it. Walking along the streets of Ireland, I would make eye contact and smile at someone, as I often do.
I’ll be darned.
Most didn’t return the smile. I would just get a flat stare, as they trudged past me carrying a bag of groceries or walking their dog. How had I never noticed this? I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Irish are incredibly friendly people! And yet they don’t smile at strangers on the street. Hmph.
So next, I tried to blend in. Keep making eye contact, stop smiling. It was harder than I thought. It turned out that for me, after 47 years as an American, smiling at people was unconscious. Caroline would periodically say “you’re doing it, Dad. Stop smiling!” And so I did, and I learned. They flat stared, I flat stared. I guess I was fitting in.
But I didn’t like it.
And just like that I had a small burst of patriotic pride. It is actually a lovely trait that Americans smile at strangers. As a country we get beat up for any number of reasons, some warranted, some not (abundance of guns, refrigerated eggs, etc). But I’m hardly going to be ashamed of the toothy grins of myself and my fellow country-people.
A smile is an opportunity to make a friend. A face of hope. The start of a conversation.
A smile is a beginning.
And I think that when we are at our best, Americans aspire to make friends, spread hope and start conversations. A smile is at the core of what makes Americans American.
So I ended my moratorium on smiling right then and there.
Let the Finnish think we are tipsy lunatics if they want. Or make fun of the wide grins of our people. It bothers me none.
And I’ll continue to smile at strangers on the streets of Ireland with wild abandon.
Just don’t let me drive there.