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Imagine you have a friend who's lived abroad. Call him… Ted. He's an OK guy and he's got a couple fun stories from the experience, but he can't seem to go 10 minutes without pausing and reflecting on something long enough for everyone to ask him what’s wrong, just so he can say, “Well, it's just that, in Spain, we would all be taking the bus home right now...instead of our over-sized, individual cars where we all feel 'safe' but where we're really just insulated from one another, not to mention the effects on the environment. See, I've lived abroad, and ...”
And every time, you all listen, and convey comprehension of the ways other countries are implicitly better than ours, because you're absolutely used to cultural insight being exclusively imported, and that exporting so much as a syllable qualifies as extreme arrogance. You're used to people from outside your country taking shots at us, as due informative punishment, while never once uttering a thing along the lines of “Why can't France be more American?!” If you ever did travel abroad, you would relentlessly be striving to prove to whomever you encountered that you were, at least, nice, and hopefully not as stupid as expected. And yet Ted over here acts like he's the first person to ever bring it up.
This is how I feel about this recent article called “10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America” by Mark Manson, which is currently everywhere, and was so well visited that the page apparently shut down for a while. Manson is not purely smug; he understands how this list will come off, he explains, and that every culture can be ignorant of themselves, but, well, there are just a few things its time we heard. The tone of the introduction feigns “tough love”, which is condescending enough, but comes off more like someone issuing the line, “Uhhh ... no offense, but...” implying for one thing, that the listener is ignorant, and that the speaker is about to enlighten him, not for fun, but out of humane responsibility. After all, “I mean, did I tell you I've lived abroad?” Please, sir, enlighten away.
(Note: Before kicking off the article, the author writes a note in parenthesis saying he knows these are generalizations and that there are exceptions, so spare him a bunch of comments about it (this is a great way to undermine the reader’s personal experience incase it disagrees with what follows). If you get that offended by “some guy's blog post you should double-check your life priorities.” Well, frankly, if you get that offended but some guys' comments, maybe you shouldn't write an argumentatively persuasive article. I love this trick people try to pull where being informed by them is expected, but voicing disagreement registers as an immense lapse in priorities. One side comes with the other.)
I have included excerpts from most of the listed 10 that depict what I felt was either most problematic or most essential to their message. I have in any case made no attempt to shroud or distort the actual arguments.
1: Few People Are Impressed By Us
Unless you’re speaking with a real estate agent or a prostitute, chances are they’re not going to be excited that you’re American. It’s not some badge of honor we get to parade around. Yes, we had Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, but unless you actually are Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison (which is unlikely) then most people around the world are simply not going to care.
Either you’re trying really hard to show off your profound appreciation for Steve Jobs by listing only him and Thomas Edison as rhetorical qualifiers for American ego, or you actually think the profound American inventor/developer who functionalized several essential elements of technology is about the same as the guy who made .mp3 players super cute, and got people to identify to a cultish degree with consumer electronics (“Consumer culture” being another bane of U.S. culture you highlight below). Personally, I take more pride in KC and The Sunshine Band than I do in Steve Jobs.
To begin with, I have never personally felt, nor have I ever even sensed from anyone else I've ever met in this country, that we're automatically impressive to outsiders. We're excited to represent America when we do encounter anyone outside our nation, and hope to make a good impression, but I have genuinely – GENUINELY – never so much as sniffed this kind of arrogance on anyone that lives in this country. And as a country, rather than individual citizens, this is likewise not the case. We hope they think New York City and the Grand Canyon are cool, just like we sure think Paris, European geography and the Kremlin are pretty awesome.
2. Few People Hate Us
Despite the occasional eye-rolling, and complete inability to understand why anyone would vote for George W. Bush (yeah, didn't see that one coming...), people from other countries don’t hate us either. In fact — and I know this is a really sobering realization for us — most people in the world don’t really think about us or care about us.
Had you grown up thinking otherwise? I sure haven't. I've fostered a sense of the dissent and disapproval we garner, but don't paint it across the entire globe. And isn't this more or less the opposite of believing everyone is impressed by us?
Remember that immature girl in high school, who every little thing that happened to her meant that someone either hated her or was obsessed with her; who thought every teacher who ever gave her a bad grade was being totally unfair and everything good that happened to her was because of how amazing she was? Yeah, we’re that immature high school girl.
No, we're not. You're the self appreciative pseudo-intellectual who prescribes that girl a cliché identity based on her rare worst behavior and ignores the general kindness, rationality and humanity she displays otherwise because you're that into being intellectually advanced.
3. We Know Nothing About The Rest Of The World
(Other Countries) often have completely different takes on history than we do. Here were some brain-stumpers for me: the Vietnamese believe the Vietnam War was about China (not us), Hitler was primarily defeated by Russia (not us), Native Americans were wiped out largely disease and plague (not us), and the American Revolution was “won” because the British cared more about beating France (not us). Notice a running theme here?
Yeah, I certainly do: that each nation on earth approximates history primarily by how they've been involved with it. It makes sense; there's a lot of history, and at some point it strains relevance to keep track of everything from everyone’s point of view. We were never taught in school that WE beat Hitler; we were taught what WE did in the fight against him, which can be relevant when you have earlier generations of family who took part in that fight. You seem to be confusing looking at history through your own eyes with appointing yourself the hero in every instance of it.
In a recent survey of young Americans, 63% could not find Iraq on a map (despite being at war with them), and 54% did not know Sudan was a country in Africa. Yet, somehow we’re positive that everyone else looks up to us.
And how many people from the Sudan know that Wyoming is a state in America (more to the point, how many people in Wyoming expect that people anywhere abroad know the location or existence of their state)? That's the hypocrisy of so much of this article. We apparently shouldn't expect anyone else to know anything about us, but when we fail to know anything about anyone else, it's ego-maniacal ignorance.
4. We Are Poor At Expressing Gratitude And Affection
There’s a saying about English-speakers. We say “Go fuck yourself,” when we really mean “I like you,” and we say “I like you,” when we really mean “Go fuck yourself.”
Sometimes, yes. Familiarity is fair grounds for less mannered transparency. Being polite is a good way to avoid unnecessary confrontation with people you simply do not get along with. That’s not the same as masking hatred or ignoring suitable confrontation with deceptive politeness, or being consistently mean to the people you care about.
Latin and some European cultures describe us as “cold” and “passionless” and for good reason.
Yes, the reason is always that we’re doing something deficiently, not that another culture is merely different, right? Check around, and see how many Americans you can find with according descriptions of Latin and European cultures as “indulgent” and “uninhibited”.
But then if we did have these opinions, it would be because we’re cultural imperialists, and if we don’t have opinions, it’s because we don’t believe anyone else exists. So much of what annoyed me about this article is not its criticism of America, but its preempting every insight with the rhetoric that we have only to learn and nothing to share – that every difference is based on our inferiority.
In our social lives we don’t say what we mean and we don’t mean what we say. In our culture, appreciation and affection are implied rather than spoken outright.
I think this is partially a fair insight, but I doubt we’re the most pent up (it’s only an assailable trait when it’s us, of course), and the people who are more so than us have my instinctive respect, rather than the criticism apparently afforded us at every nuance. I would also defend that moderation, rather than exclusion of outward honesty is a hallmark of functional society. When the right time and place affords itself, believe me, we say exactly what we mean.
Consumer culture has cheapened our language of gratitude. Something like, “It’s so good to see you” is empty now because it’s expected and heard from everybody. In dating, when I find a woman attractive, I almost always walk right up to her and tell her that a) I wanted to meet her, and b) she’s beautiful. In America, women usually get incredibly nervous and confused when I do this.
Really? Maybe because that’s very reasonably considered as “Coming on Way Too Strong” and the reason we tend to ease off on the throttle more, is because, for one thing, the other person might not feel the same. Charging in telling someone they’re beautiful is inconsiderate of the discomfort they’ll experience in having to outwardly express disinterest (that’s how I would feel). And the fact that you see American women responding this way as purely a folly of their culture – that’s it’s all they’re fault, rather than anything potentially wrong with how you’ve approached- shows a real lack of humility, and more of the preemptive comprehension that its always something America is doing wrong.
Whereas, in almost every other culture approaching women this way is met with a confident smile and a “Thank you.”
That’s perfectly fine. That’s really nice. It’s also just a difference, which, again, we don’t condemn, so why do you? Our way does not project dysfunction; believe me, men and women discover rich, exhilarating relationships here, too. It’s fun to slowly discover – to wonder – if someone likes you and to determine the right moment to tell them you like them. Romantic emotions are more delicate and precious than ordering a coffee, that’s why we approach them differently.
5. The Quality of Life For The Average American Is Not That Great
I think on the whole we feel in step with the quality of life experienced by the rest of the world. We certainly don’t think nations of similar economic well being are plainly worse off. Again, I fail to see how this should be enlightening to us.
6. The Rest Of The World Is Not A Slum-Ridden Shithole Compared To Us
If there’s one constant in my travels over the past three years, it has been that almost every place I’ve visited (especially in Asia and South America) is much nicer and safer than I expected it to be. Singapore is pristine. Hong Kong makes Manhattan look like a suburb
Hong Kong is incredible. And it absolutely does not make Manhattan look like a suburb.
My neighborhood in Colombia is nicer than the one I lived in in Boston (and cheaper). As Americans, we have this naïve assumption that people all over the world are struggling and way behind us.
Really? My conception of struggling cultures of the world represents a tiny portion of my world view, honestly. I think of patches of despair, not a “Slum-Ridden Shithole” everywhere beyond our borders. We’re constantly importing favorable impressions of outside countries. So much of the world has always struck me as incredibly beautiful. I in no way feel like I’m embodying any kind of exception there.
Sweden and South Korea have more advanced high speed internet networks. Japan has the most advanced trains and transportation systems. Norwegians make more money. The biggest and most advanced plane in the world is flown out of Singapore. The tallest buildings in the world are now in Dubai and Shanghai.
Not a single thing you listed came as a remote shock or surprise, and yet again, I doubt this is any kind of personal exception. We actually all went to see Tom Cruise climb around the outside of the Burj Khalifa in the last Mission Impossible flick, now that you mention it. I recall few people were aghast that a building that tall existed outside the U.S.
Meanwhile, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Wait, wait, whoa, so you’re just going to pick one thing to show our capacity for coming up short? That’s like saying The Yankees think they’re so good, but their short stop has a TERRIBLE batting average. Yeah but, buddy, they’re still The Yankees. And anyway, how does this relate to our conception of the outside world being a slum?
7. We’re Paranoid
I’ve probably been to 10 countries now that friends and family back home told me explicitly not to go because someone was going to kill me, kidnap me, stab me, rob me, rape me, sell me into sex trade, give me HIV, or whatever else. None of that has happened. I’ve never been robbed and I’ve walked through some of the shittiest parts of Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
OK, but you do realize that the rate at which people are robbed and generally assaulted, in the shittiest parts of any country, are high enough to warrant apprehension, right? And that at some point an aimless jaunt through a bad area will very likely mean at least being mugged. While exposure of violent crime through our media is overblown (again, as it’s well known) it doesn’t undermine the fact that violent crime does happen, and not rarely. In my opinion it’s entirely fair to be apprehensive about traveling through lots of different countries in a short period of time; it shows respect for the fact that you probably can’t preconceive exactly what to expect of them.
But I’m speaking as a definite exception here. I am, by a wide margin, more paranoid than anyone else I know. I’ve never met anyone like me, in that regard, to be honest. Everyone I’ve ever known, pretty much, wanted to travel through Europe at some point. Few here see the outside world as any scarier than the one at home.
8. We’re Status-Obsessed And Seek Attention
It’s the unconscious drive we share for importance and significance, this unmentioned belief, socially beaten into us since birth that if we’re not the best at something, then we don’t matter. We’re status-obsessed. Our culture is built around achievement, production and being exceptional.
Again, a lot of this reads not as revelation, but redundancy, and only leaves me with the question of what’s wrong with a country inspiring each of its citizens to achieve profound things? We’re not obsessed with being the best; we’re inspired to be successful at what we most love to do.
Therefore comparing ourselves and attempting to out-do one another has infiltrated our social relationships as well. Who can slam the most beers first? Who can get reservations at the best restaurant? Who knows the promoter to the club? Who dated a girl on the cheerleading squad? Socializing becomes objectified and turned into a competition.
No it absolutely does not, and if your American friendships were defined by peripheral competition then you’re in a sad and microscopic minority. We enjoy competing with each other – if anything, when it does come up, it’s often how we bond and push ourselves for better. People here sap and undermine quality relationships in a myriad of ways, just as people in any country do, and almost none of the injuries done to friendships, in all the friendships I’ve been a part of and been privy to, have had to do with a consuming need to one up the other person. The desire to succeed does not drown out all of our innate compassion and interest in our fellow man.
And if you’re not winning, the implication is that you are not important and no one will like you.
No it’s not. The implication is that when you are winning, at something important to you that is worth winning at, you will like yourself.
9. We Are Very Unhealthy
Alright so you start by attacking our health care, which I believe is debatable up down and sideways, but I’m sure not apposed to the idea that our system is not perfect. But I come back to what I’ve said, over and over here: this isn’t news. This isn’t a subject America at large is ignorant of. It’s one of our most hotly discussed subjects. And is there another culture on earth as obsessed with carbs, calories, fats, sugars and gyms as us? We’re immensely health conscious; it’s just that without our effort, exercise and organic whole food falls out of the picture. We don’t exercise or eat well as a de facto situation of our society, but don’t mistake that for ignorance or indifference.
(And as a foot note: You mention we’re all obese. Just to be clear, obesity is defined by an individual’s body mass index, not, essentially, their degree of body fat; plenty of healthy, athletic people have a BMI that qualifies them as obese. If there’s something most outsiders don’t know, it’s that few people in America are strikingly fat. It’s funny you don’t pick up on or debunk any of the misconceptions that insult us.)
10. We Mistake Comfort For Happiness
Americans believe it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and make something of yourself, not the state’s, not your community’s, not even your friend’s or family’s in some instances.
Yes, exactly. Exactly right. I am my own “responsibility” and it’s not the state’s place to make something out of me, because I want the freedom to determine my own situation as well as the satisfaction of personal accomplishment. I am in other peoples’ “concern” however, and they are likewise in my concern, and in times of need, we support each other. It’s a great way to retain your self respect while respecting the independence of those you care about. Not only have you reminded me of something so many of us are fully aware of, but I’m having a hard time seeing the down side. Not being responsible for others doesn’t mean being baron of compassion or charity.
Comfort sells easier than happiness. Comfort is easy. It requires no effort and no work.
Yes, when you’re someone else’s responsibility, it takes no work. When you’re taking responsibility for yourself, comfort becomes one of life’s great achievements. To be comfortable at your own devices is to have managed to thrive in the live, challenging world. Comfort is the natural reward for subsisting. It’s very much earned.
Happiness takes effort. It requires being proactive, confronting fears, facing difficult situations, and having unpleasant conversations. Comfort equals sales. We’ve been sold comfort for generations and for generations we bought: bigger houses, separated further and further out into the suburbs; bigger TV’s, more movies, and take-out. The American public is becoming docile and complacent. We’re obese and entitled.
Man did I think these kinds of insights were incredible, 13 years ago, when I first saw Fight Club. Yes, yes, yes, yes. I know. I know. And we have absolutely commoditized comfort, but that’s merely allowed us a terrifically personalized control over our comfort. It does not automatically brainwash your innate ideas of happiness just because it’s available. It’s the same kind of people who want someone to be responsible for them who will interpret the overwhelming presence of consumer goods as the bait of false happiness. If you’re expecting your society to determine your identity, rather than the other way around, then I’m sure ours could pose some pitfalls. Luckily, most of us like it the other way around.
Our inability to confront anything unpleasant around us has not only created a national sense of entitlement, but it’s disconnected us from what actually drives happiness: relationships, unique experiences, feeling self-validated, achieving personal goals.
What inability? We’re a country built on confronting the unpleasant and it’s because we’re not entitled to anyone’s doing it for us. Everyone I’ve ever known, just about, has sought great relationships above all else, without sacrificing their personal goals to every social or familial whim. We do seek unique experiences, while we at once realize they’re best discovered in moderation; that maturing means a degree of routine and that this isn’t soul deadening if we remain engaged in our own lives and the masters of our own trajectory. In fact, a balance of the routine and the new is something we’re great at. And who could feel more self validated, who could achieve a personal goal more purely than the individual responsible for themselves?
It’s easier to watch a NASCAR race on television and tweet about it than to actually get out and try something new with a friend. Unfortunately, a by-product of our massive commercial success is that we’re able to avoid the necessary emotional struggles of life in lieu of easy superficial pleasures.
That’s just it: we’re able to; not forced to. We’re also able to face every single thing we choose, on our own terms, and determine the life we want, which we do – in absolute masses, every single day. …And since when do NASCAR fans tweet?
Conclusion: There are things I love about my country.
You seem remarkably good at not naming any. The thing about an article like this, what makes it annoying, is not that it challenges elements of our culture; we do that ourselves quite a lot, even as we exist (quite comfortably and with pride) within it. What’s obnoxious is that you’ve taken what is plainly a preference for cultural fundamentals different than our own, and determined that, rather than merely seeing things differently, you see them correctly. Because we partake in a culture you generally disapprove of, it must be due to our ignorance of that culture. You’re offering the same opinions of American culture that have been kicked around and spouted off by every college hippy for decades, but you act like you’re the first to lay it out, for the betterment of a country that just doesn’t know any better. Getting away from our national home is a great way to get perspective on it, but when 100% of that perspective is negative, it doesn’t seem like objective realization, as much as realized subjective preference. These are not 10 things we don’t know; this is a general, and at this point rhetorical, indictment of what some people will always perceive and dislike about America – it’s an argument, like all of them, leaning against the counter argument. Stop implying it’s a gesture of finally revealing the truth; it’s cutting yourself way too much credit and your opposition way, way too little respect.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some funny cat pictures to create.