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The Compass Point: An American view from across the pond

Published: October 3, 2008
Section: Opinions


This installment of the Point comes to you from across the pond, where I am currently spending a semester abroad at University College London.

The Hoot Editorial Staff couldn’t resist the chance to print the most incisive commentary on British/American relations since Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (and by “the most incisive” I mean “the most offensive and weird”) so we’ll be running several of these reflective travel-themed pieces, cleverly titled “The Compass Point.”

Let me start by saying there is much I find mystifying about British culture. Before I left, I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that it was more or less similar to America.

This is not true. There are the little differences of course. They play eight-and-a-half minute Velvet Underground jams in sandwich shops. The drinking age is lower, so whenever I go out I am surrounded by teens.

And, alarmingly, the notion that pedestrians have the right-of-way seems to be a uniquely American one.

Of course, there are also the big distinctions: Britain is a former superpower.

America is a current superpower.

And with fewer than seven percent of its populace attending church, Britain is concretely a post-faith society, while America is, um, clearly not.

Furthermore, what Americans call “liberal” ideals (i.e. abortion rights, gun control, abolition of the death penalty) are seen as moderate and taken for granted over here. So, for instance, the fact that The Hoot Op-Ed page seems to have turned into the National Review in my absence would really bother them.

But, generally, I think the Brits like Americans. Whenever my American “flatmates” and I go out, the locals always want to talk to us.

They’re usually friendly and just want to tell me about their vacation to Florida (they all love Florida—I can’t explain it), but sometimes it feels like being a B-list celebrity in a restaurant where a fellow patron keeps asking you to “Do the catchphrase!” and telling you he loved the episode where Iggy Pop guest-starred.

One time this really drunk, obnoxious 17-year-old was talking to us and wouldn’t shut up about “what a bad idea the NRA is” and I was like, “Ugh, I’m just trying to drink my seven dollar beer here.”

Then he said that most Americans are stupid and I said that I was stupid, but also carrying a concealed handgun. He ignored me.

Anyway, I’m sure you’re not interested in hearing my anecdotes about drinking in bars, so I’ll get to the juicy stuff. I’ve been trying to reflect on what the real difference between us and them is—that is, in this world where so much is homogenous and information so accessible, what is it (apart from imperialist guilt) that makes me so conscious of my nationhood as I walk the streets of what is supposed to be a great “international” city?

It all comes down, in a way, to the subway system.

At my orientation, they warned us not to talk loudly, or even at all, on the subway.

“It’s something Americans do that really bothers us,” they explained. “It’s not your fault—you just have louder voices.”

It’s true that the Brits are practically silent on trains and that a subway ride in New York City without at least one person screaming is rare, but I don’t attribute it to either biological “loudness” or even differing ideas about manners.

The reason that Brits are quiet and we’re loud isn’t because they’re stuffy and we’re yee-haw cowboys. It’s because the British—and, I’d venture, much of the rest of the Western world—are self-aware in a way that Americans simply are not.

Think about it this way: Let’s say you had a friend who was always convinced that people were watching her, eavesdropping on her, judging her based on what she was wearing.

What would you think about her?

I’d probably say she seemed a little paranoid and immature, but the big adjective that would spring to my mind is “narcissistic.”

In America, it’s narcissistic to think that other people are so bored they’re listening to your conversation, that they don’t have problems of their own and are instead watching you drop your change or are noticing that your scarf clashes with your jacket.

I really think that we, as a people, believe firmly in “live and let live” more than anything else and that we assume that other people feel the same way.

In our attitudes to ourselves and our actions, I think we are truly free, we are truly (dare I say it?) liberal.

But the British are painfully self-aware. I’ve never been apologized to more (walking through a crowded grocery store, I hear a chorus of “sorrys” for infractions I didn’t even realize were committed).

I have seen grown men blush because we both reached for a door handle at the same time.

They rarely talk above a murmer.

No one swears unless they’re drunk.

But their constant self-monitoring isn’t self-involvement: it’s a necessary response to the fact that they are actually always judging each other all the time.

People over here care about what you wear, about what you say, and how you say it.

They do want people to conform to lofty standards of politeness.

Americans don’t.

So then why do we—the open-minded and individualistic ones—legislate morality?

And why are we trying to take over the world?

That’s a heavy question to lay on you.

I’m going to try to make some headway in the next installment, but, until then, I’m going to look for the answer at the bottom of a glass of Guinness. Cheers!