Finally–What’s Wrong with Americans.

“This is what’s wrong with Americans,” my husband said the other day, emerging from the bathroom with a New Yorker magazine in tow. He pointed at a cartoon of two little girls in a playroom. One had moved all her toys into a pile and she stood holding as many as possible, hoarding them from the other girl. She explained, “I would share, but I’m not there developmentally.”

My husband pointed at the cartoon. ”Americans know too much,” he said.

This was the proof he’d been waiting for in a weeks-long discussion about Americans, psychobabble and self-scrutiny.

“What’s that?” he’ll say, wrinkling his nose, when a word like passive-aggressive finds its way into the conversation.

He seems to think that I’m talking about the psychological version of the Tree of Life–-something I’m not supposed to touch, let alone consume or digest.

The notion of analyzing oneself or someone else, or discussing relationship dynamics, doesn’t seem to be the order of the day here. Some Americans, on the other hand, might find pride in brandishing psychological terminology. The topic came up a few weeks ago at a dinner in which those around the table were mostly British. Many had lived in multiple countries.

“Americans seem very interested in understanding what’s happening emotionally,” one woman said. ”What’s up with that?”

Fortunately I’d wondered the same thing at one point, and had come across a theory that self-scrutiny in America goes back to Puritan doctrine and our supposed inherent shamefulness. Followers maintained a constant search for moral flaws that one might then seek to absolve by the grace of God.

Could this Holy Grail of pathology explain our relish for diagnoses and labels?

“Brits don’t know anything, and we’re cheerful as hell,” my husband claims. “Ignorance is bliss, right?”

I can’t argue with the cheerfulness. I often feel like a surly, complaining jerk and wonder if it’s too late to become a more stalwart person.

Uh-oh. Scrutiny.

So–-any thoughts? Is too much self-knowledge a bad thing? Would we be better off in the dark?

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrew
    Oct 23, 2010 @ 09:48:37

    I think there is a definite tendency for Brits to button up when it comes to expressing emotion. If you like, the shorthand for that is the stereotypical “stiff upper lip”. Somewhere along the line we have been told that both expressing emotion and looking inside ourselves are bad things. It can be quite fascinating (and amusing) sometimes to ask a Brit .. “So, how do you feel about that?” … try it, and see what response you get …

    I think things are changing, thankfully. I have always tended to wear my heart on my sleeve, which can make some people feel quite uncomfortable. Some have said that I have a very strong feminine side, whatever that really means… Regardless of what it means, if it helps me to unlock the safe in which people have secreted their emotional side, then all well and good..

    Finally, I don’t think you need to become a more stalwart person… maybe it’s more a question of embracing the diversity of humanity and getting alongside people where they are, not where we would like them to be..

    Reply

    • taramoyle
      Oct 23, 2010 @ 20:00:07

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment, Andrew. Um, I might be just a little bit familiar with that whole asking a Brit how he feels about something game, although my Brit has spent almost ten summers living/working in the US, so he at least knows how to hum a few bars of the feelings song. 😉

      Glad to hear that you sense things are changing, and that’s an interesting way to put it–that we should just accept the diversity of humanity. Certainly there’s room for the entire range and not just one “good” way to be. A very beloved poem (by American poet Mary Oliver) begins, “You don’t have to be good.” I must have read that line a million times, and still I think, “Really?”

      Reply

  2. mariellen anderson
    Oct 25, 2010 @ 01:10:46

    Yes, in America we start by encouraging the very young to express their feelings. As a kindergarten teacher of 40 years, I quite often heard a youngster say, “I feel sad today”. This ranged from sadness over the death of a pet to the divorce of parents. This opened a window of understanding for me to allow sharing and empathy which often led to mutual trust between adult and child.

    However, I have seen many cases where parents have allowed young children to be too candid and even disrespectful. Case in point: a precocious but pouty kindergartener who accused me of “getting out on the wrong side of the bed” because I refused to let her break a rule during playtime.
    That’s when I wished she would learn to “button up.” Mariellen

    Reply

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