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Saturday, January 23, 2010

American optimism vs. Spanish pessimism or why the smiling American makes life more difficult for me here.

“Spaniards often think that Americans are ignorant fools because they are outgoing and smiling all the time.” That’s what I was told by an American who has lived in Spain for the last 20+ years. It may seem like a strange statement but it’s entirely true. It just needs to be explained to be understood. Americans smile all the time when approaching and talking to strangers or when being introduced to someone for the first time. Smiling and using body language that appears welcoming with strangers is the normal American default behavior. If you meet someone in America for the first time and don’t smile, at best they’ll think you were having a bad day that had nothing to do with them and at worst (more likely) they’ll think you didn’t like them and/or that you’re rude. In America a smile is a basic courtesy that is used to recognize another’s presence. You smile whether you’re having the best day of your life or whether you’re seriously considering throwing yourself off a bridge (metaphorically speaking). It’s as natural as putting one foot in front of the other.

In Spain people just don’t do this. People passing on the street don’t smile but rather half grunt half yell “hola” or “what’s up” without even waiting for a response. Smiling in response just brings out a confused nervous look in the other person. And if you say “thank you” to someone ringing you up or a bus driver they’ll look at you like you’re crazy and say “what for?” In America this would be considered very rude and the person would be considered “off” (“that guy’s trouble, I mean look, he never smiles”). In America such a person might well be “off” but in Spain they’d be totally normal and you’d be the one who’s “off”. And just as Americans would (and do) misread Spaniards who come to the United States, Spaniards make lots of false assumptions about Americans based on their body language and the fact that they seem overly friendly. In Spain smiling all the time, thanking people at every turn and seeming enthusiastic about things (like every tourist should) is interpreted as a sign that the person is overly confident, stuck up, and ignorant of other people’s troubles and feelings. Spaniards assume that if Americans seem happy than they must have something to be happy about. And while an American would feel it is their duty to spread joy, solve problems and cheer people up, Spaniards feel that they shouldn’t share their happiness with others in case the other person is unhappy. Americans think “I don’t know what this person’s day is like so I don’t want to treat them badly in case they’re already having a bad day.” Spaniards think “this person might be having a bad day so I’m not going to brag by showing my own happiness or being too positive.” So while Americans put on a mask of cheeriness, Spaniards put on a mask of constant sorrow and worry (to them it looks neutral). And since Spaniards think that Americans are always happy, enthusiastic and cheerful because that’s how we present ourselves, they assume that we’re ignorant of everything going on in the world. After all, how could we be smiling to a random store-clerk if we knew 100,000 plus people just died in an earthquake in Haiti or that people are dying every day all over the world from a lack of clean water? Or that Spain had a terrible civil war in the 1930s and the street we’re walking down right now was bombed 72 years ago today by Italian planes (as we were reminded several times throughout the day). Because we smile they assume we don’t know the reasons why (they feel) we shouldn’t be smiling. Or they think that we’re too selfish to care or both. Spain had a much rougher 20th century than the USA did. It began with a humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American War and the end of the Spanish empire (yes that was 1898) and included a brutal civil war and forty years of fascist dictatorship which the country is still coming to terms with. America on the other hand had arguably a better twentieth century than any other country, becoming the most prominent country on the planet, and enjoying (and abusing) a sphere of influence greater than anything the world’s ever seen. While there hasn’t been a ground war on US soil since 1865, everyone over 75 in Spain can remember the bombings of the Civil War years. These varied experiences have created a Spain which is openly cynical and reserved and an America which is outgoing, and privately cynical.

This one cultural misunderstanding has done a lot to make life difficult for Americans here than anything else. Tourists don’t particularly need to make a good impression because they’re here for just a short amount of time and they mostly interact with people in the tourist industry who are used to their “over-friendliness and enthusiasm.”
But for me living here for six months, the reputation that the tourists have left behind for me (albeit inadvertently) makes life notably difficult. Nobody wants to talk about politics here. Mentioning Franco is like running into Hogwarts and screaming “Voldemort.” Mentioning Iraq yields the statement “could any American other than your army even find it on a map?” They assume I know nothing because other Americans are friendly and therefore are ignorant. From my whole experience so far, I just get the impression that most of them are so apathetic to politics that they’re unaware of their own apathy.

3 comments:

  1. O_O My experience here is totally different. I don't see spaniards in the way you do

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  2. Great analysis! I never thought about it this way but it makes perfect sense.

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  3. Fascinating. I went through Spain smiling my head off because I was so happy to be there. I found that the natives would smile back and were quite friendly. I like how you point out the different perspectives.

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