Ask any non-American for one word to describe us. You’ll get a lot of different answers, for sure, but there is one that stands out for me. I’ve asked this of a lot of people from many different nations and there is one word which came up more often than most.
Americans, as a people, have few limits. We honestly believe that if you put your mind to it you can achieve anything at all. More importantly, we don’t have any problems talking about those dreams – or many other details about our lives. This doesn’t happen in a lot of other cultures, and it is one of our greatest strengths.
Like all great strengths, as we play to it very hard it can also become a terrible weakness.
Learning another language is often the first step to opening a lot of doors, but with it comes an understanding about the culture which created and is served by that language. Just about every other language other than American English, even standard British, has some concept of formality built very deeply into it.
There are always formal addresses and correct forms of “you”, certainly. Often it goes even further.
We don’t have that. Our culture, generally, is very quick to use given (first) names and presume that everyone can or should be our friends. Formal titles are used only in an appropriate work setting, if then. There is only one form of “you” for us, and it is inherently familiar. In the Midwest, in particular, everything is on a first-name basis and language is particularly soft and passive.
This can be seen without getting into what people routinely share on facebook or other social media.
Far too many Americans go abroad without the slightest understanding of formality or its importance. It seems stuffy and unnecessary to us, an unwanted barrier to getting down to business. We are a people without any walls between personal and social and usually expect the rest of the world to be the same way.
It’s completely ridiculous at best and insulting at worst. If we’re lucky it comes off as charming, but usually it comes off as rude.
In practice, in our world, the lack of any barriers between self and social causes its own problems which we, as a people, absolutely never talk about. Consider, for a moment, the simple fact that mass killings are a phenomenon almost unique to our particular culture. The perpetrator is always someone who “kept to himself” or was “angry” about something. They had a hidden secret that they couldn’t talk about and eventually felt compelled to act out.
They set up barriers between themselves and the world. In the process, they wind up alone. They also wind up with no language to express themselves in anything like a constructive manner.
This isn’t the only pathology that leads to horrible behavior, of course, but it shows how a culture without any barriers doesn’t suit everyone well. Some of us need barriers and make a point of not telling everyone everything about ourselves. It seems terribly self-centered and rude. But it’s very healthy and actually helps define the lines where happiness can blossom in an otherwise cruel world.
Many people who have natural boundaries do have some kind of international experience and frankly came to like it. Where this culture doesn’t teach about boundaries others do, and the lesson can be exhilarating. It still means that we have to suffer through other people droning on about themselves or injecting their opinion some place it really doesn’t belong, but that’s the price we pay.
This isn’t the only place that blathering on about one’s self is annoying at best, destructive at best.
We have a politics which is inherently personal. Social change is some kind of personal threat in a world without any logical boundaries because it seems to imply that everyone has to change. The concept of “tolerance,” or putting up with things that you don’t necessarily agree with, is utterly lost. Indeed, those advocating for change often insist that people have to change their minds rather than simply accept that the world isn’t the same as them. The goal is no longer tolerance, in the truest sense, but mind control.
Without the boundaries of formality everything is personal.
There is little doubt in my mind that we have to learn the value of boundaries. Formality is nothing more than the language of respect, the acceptance that everyone has their own personal pain and their own perspective on the world. Recognizing each other as different starts with the smallest gestures which demonstrate that there is space to be different.
Do we have to change and become more formal as we become more integrated with the rest of the world? The short answer is that, like the metric system, it’s something we are almost certainly going to have to adopt. It’s also going to be a good thing for many of us as we move forward as a society which is more deeply pluralistic yet still united, living closer together every day.