I can tell you what I noticed first about Americans: super-size storytelling. I expected the super-size food and I expected the super-size buildings but their narrative turn took me by surprise. Whenever you meet someone in America you experience two things. First, a dramatic monologue. Everyone has a stylised story of their life which is laced with references to their triumphs over adversity and inflated achievements. (This might seem quite cynical but I can’t bring myself to believe that everyone I have met is that talented. If you look close enough you can see a kind of status inflation wherever you look; every administrator at the University or supermarket attendant is a Director or Vice-President of something or other). The second thing, when you meet someone or witness a conversation, is the experience of what I can only describe as a kind of emotional arms race. Who can be the most honest about their values? Who can be the most open about their feelings? Who can express their identity in the shortest possible time? I was cornered by one person at an event early on and his monologue resembled a potted history of America: Leaving a difficult home (declaration of independence) early marriage and the dangers of early divorce (Gettysburg Address) financial woes and unemployment (nothing to fear but fear itself). This provokes a very British reaction in me. I tend to stare at my shoes and try to direct the conversation toward the Philadelphian weather. But my attempts to move away from emotional Mutually Assured Destruction always seems to make them move their finger closer toward the big red button. It gives me a little empathy for Jeremy Corbyn’s current predicament, not to make more of the analogy than that.
This kind of emotional explosiveness creates an environment which is very welcoming and warm. (I think the British accent helps too; I’m showered with free things and offers for help). They’re also extremely enthusiastic. And that enthusiasm extends to everything. Literally everything. I look after first year undergraduates and as part of that there was some bizarre bureaucratic requirement which meant I had to attend a lecture on pest control. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I don’t think Martin “Marty” Overline — Governor of the Pennsylvania Pest Management Association for South East Pennsylvania (see what I mean?) — had a strong grasp of the empirics. (My favorite claim was that world poverty could be eradicated by more effective pest control — apparently mice eliminate 1/3 of the food supply) But, bloody hell, you couldn’t fault him for enthusiasm. His lecture veered off on these pretty bizarre tangents, including a rather convoluted story about his time in Europe as a Marine in an apparently bedbug-ridden dorm in Germany. He concluded the story with the unforgettable quote “I arrived on American soil in 1982, kissed the ground and shouted I am free of bedbugs”. He acted it out and everything. It was like something from a Tom Wolfe novel. What a man.
This difference in storytelling is a true transatlantic divide. The Brit is a kind of cautious observer. Showing different parts of himself to different people and different situations. But not too much. And not right away. And never everything to everyone. There’s a strength to this — it’s adaptable and it’s subtle. But there’s a sort of dishonesty about it too; it is living a life which lies by omission. The American way is more like shock and awe. You declare everything to everyone every hour of every day. The deception comes through fabrication. This has its advantages. The enthusiasm does generate enthusiasm. But the momentum can get out of control and sometimes it feels as if you’re talking to a projection. To stick with the cinematic theme: to enjoy the American blockbuster requires a suspension of disbelief, whereas to understand the British satire requires close attention what has been left on the cutting room floor.