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Americans and Those Around Them

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The United States is often seen as having a highly self-reliant culture, not only in the eyes of outsiders but also by Americans themselves. American heroes are men like Davy Crockett, Charles Lindbergh and Donald Trump, rugged individualists using their own will and wits to conquer the wilderness, the skies, or the cutthroat world of real estate. Such people embody the American Dream, the idea of a society set up in such a way that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, has the opportunity to use innate talent to achieve any legitimate ambition. It is a dream molded by the world that confronted the early European settlers: a pristine continent vast in size and abundant in enough natural resources to accommodate millions without conflict.

This reality of space seems to be reflected in many of the social conventions we see today. In contrast to the intimate culture of neighboring Mexico, Americans like to keep one another at a distance. Personal space is in most circumstances at least arm’s length: only lovers, close friends or children unlock those boundaries. An American will not sit next to a stranger on a bus or train unless there are no vacant pairs of seats available. In such unfortunate circumstances, awkwardness hangs like a pall over the reluctant neighbors, who sit stiffly facing forward, minds occupied with the fervent unspoken wish that the stranger will get off at the next stop. In a crowded elevator the situation is even more tense, as passengers forced into unwilling proximity either giggle nervously or, more often, scrupulously ignore one another.

Personal space does diminish with closer acquaintance, but it is still closely guarded. Although lovers and close friends may hug and even kiss, the duration of contact must be kept to a minimum, especially when other people are around. While it is common in some societies for members of the same sex to link arms in public, to do so in America, unless it is obvious that the pair are sisters or drunk, encourages speculation about their sexual orientation.

The situation is similar with eye contact, which is often touted as important. Job interview coaches and relationship counselors stress the importance of looking at the person you are talking to, and warn that breaking eye contact during a conversation implies that you are either not listening or not trustworthy. Yet Americans seem to struggle with this idea. It requires an effort of will to keep looking directly at someone for more than a few moments at a time; in fact, if you do, you are likely to make them feel uncomfortable. Eye contact is a sign of honesty, but only to a certain ill-defined extent: beyond that, it is aggressive.

American males are even more reserved. Hugs are rare. A handshake is usually the extent of physical contact (quick and firm, to reassure the other man that you are not gay). Male friends will not sit next to one another on that bus if they can help it, but instead will each sprawl across a double seat, with one friend craning round to continue the conversation with his buddy behind him. Eye contact, when maintained at all, is focused steadfastly on a point somewhere beyond the other man’s left ear.

Observing all this, an innocent outsider might well conclude that Americans do not want to have much to do with one another. This is strange when even a cursory look at American history shows that individualism would not have gotten anybody very far. To build the United States required cooperation at every stage. The Puritan communes of New England, the Constitutional Congress, the ranches and towns of the “Wild” West, and the founding of a Mormon society in Utah are all models of collective achievement. The lone adventurer forging into the unknown frontier turns out to have been, in most cases, a family man given credit for both his own labor and that of his whole household – wife, servants and children.

So if the rugged individual is a myth, the social distance we see in America must have other roots. For an obvious culprit, we must look to the nineteenth century. This was the Victorian era with its rigid formality and draconian moral code. A prurient obsession with sex, disguised as morality, directed everything. Every social situation had precise rules of etiquette which must be followed. At a time when the United States was recovering from its post-independence hangover and finding its feet in the world, the Victorians offered a cohesive social structure which Americans eagerly adopted. Successive waves of permissiveness, beginning in the 1920s, have eroded the façade but the basic Victorian values, deep in heart of every American, remain and shape their outlook on the world and their interactions with others.

Perversely, individualism may have a greater role in shaping America’s future than its past. Technology offers abundant opportunities for avoiding social contact. Television and the internet enable us to bring the doings of the world into our homes, rather than having to go out and find out about them. Video games and iPods offer personalized, one-on-one entertainment. Even activities that are still communal are often arranged in such a way as to prohibit social contact. We go to the movies but sit in darkness, every seat facing in one direction. We work in cubicles, partitions screening us from our neighbors. Drive-through restaurants, drugstores and banks allow us to conduct our daily business without the tediousness of having to leave our own personal space. Even education, with the burgeoning popularity of home schooling and web-based college courses, is becoming insular.

Whether this bodes well for the future of social reserve is hard to say. Americans may become even shyer when meeting people, or avoid doing so altogether. Or this increasing isolation may tip the scales in the other direction, so that the need for human companionship pushes individuals to seek closer contact. With social conventions the way they currently are, to reach out like this may require more ruggedness than Americans have heretofore shown.

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About Dr Dreadful

  • Dr Dreadful

    Taking on Bakersfield, huh? Does the name Buck Owens mean anything to you?

    Only as the name of an exit off Highway 99 when driving – as fast as possible – through Bakersfield…

  • duane

    Taking on Bakersfield, huh? Does the name Buck Owens mean anything to you? You’ve got a tough row to hoe. But then, those undergound gardens are impressive.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Take some consolation in the fact that you can still make fun of Modesto.

    Actually, duane, it’s Bakersfield (the armpit of California) we like to make fun of. (Modesto would be like kicking a girl. 🙂 ) I know they do the same to us – my brother-in-law is from Bakersfield.

    It’s a very unhealthy rivalry, as you can take it from me that both places are shitholes!

  • bliffle

    I think this is a fascinating subject with so many facets that it’s difficult to know what to address.

    For example, the typical american father/husband is a sort of Designated Warrior of the family, destined to go out in an unfriendly world and wrest sustenance from that world and defend the home against the criminals that would loot the home. He can have no friends because that would be weakness. He must rely on contracts enforced by dispassionate courts and judges.

    After WW2 the Japanese rebuilt their culture with the Samurai Businessman, a synthesis of the traditional Samurai Warrior and their perception of the modern american businessman. This lonely warrior became the overworked overstressed Salaryman of modern Japan, worn out, betrayed by his employer and finally despised by his own family. No hero, after all.

    We should learn from the examples before us.

  • STM

    Australians are a bit stand-offish too. Some country people will fix you with a very steely glare, and then answer after about 10 seconds. I reckon it comes from hearing what has to be said, thinking about it carefully, and not opening your gob until you’re absolutely certain that you only say whatever needs to be said.

    And, ah, even if you’re really pissed (pom/aussie/kiwi meaning: drunk) don’t try to hug an Aussie bloke in the pub 🙂

  • duane

    Fresno. Hehe. I think the city’s motto is something like, “Hey, it’s not that bad. …. No, really.”

    Is that true?

    Well, it’s not that bad. Did you know that a full 65% of the adult residents of Fresno have graduated high school? There’s something to be proud of right there.

    Take some consolation in the fact that you can still make fun of Modesto.

    Always enjoy yer contributions, Dr. D. Carry on, but please maintain a respectful distance.

    Also, possibly apropos of your article, that members of the canine family interpret a direct look in the eye as a sign of aggression or as a display of dominance.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Thanks gonz – dead-on apt video, as usual. Interesting theory about the arms… but Brits are standoffish too. As I hinted in the article when I mentioned the Victorians, perhaps you got it from us.

    I used to work with David Bowie’s cousin. Cool, huh?

  • Dr Dreadful

    Pretty good. All she needs to do is win more sets than she loses.

    Nice change of subject… 😀

  • troll

    so…what do you think of Sharapova’s chances next week at the open

  • gonzo marx

    heyas Doc..glad ta see ya shot thi son eup for all to peruse…


    now, my thought as to why many Americans are a bit stand offish in many ways with each other (especially us blokes) has a bit to do with our armed history…

    back in the day, most men were armed..this forced the “distance” and what passes for good manners among us…becoming engrained in our culture to the point that most have no clue where it came from …

    kind of like those kid games that every child knows, but no one remembers ever learning…

    just a Thought, and welcome to BC!


  • Dr Dreadful

    STM is correct. I didn’t set out to make an individual character assessment of every American: just some general observations of what American culture is like.

    As for its accuracy, Sarge, well, do you go around holding your buddies’ hands in public? Kissing them? How close do you stand to someone when you’re talking to them?

    Thought so!

  • STM

    I dunno, SFC SKI, it seems to mirror my non-American impressions of America and Americans. Nowhere, though, does he say he doesn’t like them, which is probably telling. He’s married to one as well.


    This article should be titled “satire” shouldn’t it? I don’t have any idea of the writer’s background, but it seems to me that he has impressions of Americans, but doesn’t actually know Americans very well.
    I could make snapshot assessments of Brits, Arabs, Germans, and Frenchmen simlar to these based on my travels as well as residence abroad, and they’d be just as general and incorrect as those offered in the article above.
    Anyway, welcome to Blogcritics.

  • Welcome aboard, Doc. Wanna hug?

  • Silver Surfer

    Of course, all these social issues could be solved by the simple expedient of putting a Union Jack in the corner of the flag instead of those stars, and then we go from there.

    That at least would make them feel they belong somewhere (where, though, well that’s a matter of conjecture isn’t it. I mean, where do Aussies belong, and Kiwis, all the way down the bottom of the planet?).

    Good stuff, Doc … glad you put virtual pen to virtual paper.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Thanks, Glen, for your kind words.

    I should perhaps mention that I haven’t found the bus-sprawling to be a uniquely American phenomenon. I saw it a lot when I lived in England, largely because I rode the bus a lot more then.

    You’re right that it is something you see young people do more. Probably because they tend to be more uninhibited in their public behavior, and therefore more conspicuous on buses.

  • Welcome to Blogcritics Doc’. By the way, Can I call you Doc? I’ve followed your comments mostly in the politics section for awhile, and i’m quite pleased to see you’ve joined us in an official capacity.

    This was an excellent article. Reading it, kind of reminded of how a lot of us guys may have acted as teenagers more than as adults though. Particularly the part about who guys would sprawl themselves across an entire bus seat, rather than sit next to each other. That was more the MO of a kid than an adult I would think.

    Anyway, congrats on a good first effort and welcome aboard.