November 03, 2005

Go West!

A brief exchange of emails with Lex on the differences between the Weltanschauungs of Britain and the United States prompted these thoughts.

Americans make new friends easily and, often to the horror of any Brit they are talking to, will give you intimate details about their lives and medical conditions on 10 minutes' acquaintance. Lex thought perhaps the Brits are more reserved because "Britain is a country of clubs, groups, regiments, schools, Inns of Court and other private associations." He thinks this tends to make Britons clannish, but this argument doesn't address the fact that this segment of the population is very small. Most people don't belong to clubs in St James's and don't maintain chambers at the Inns of Court.

I would propose that Americans make friendships quickly because this was necessary for survival when they landed in a new, virgin country which they all had to conquer together. They needed one another. At the same time, those people who had left their homes and families thousands of miles away as they turned their faces toward the sun and went West, would also find the will to leave their new friends and neighbours when new opportunities opened up even further West. They were all in it together and cooperation and friendly social interaction was critical.

The British have lived in their cities and villages for generations since the Roman occupation. They have no need to open up to strangers because their entire clan is usually close by on the next street or the next village or the next town. Admittedly, this may demonstrate a lamentable lack of curiosity, but they had little motivation to look beyond their own surroundings. Save an occasional war, which they could handle, life was settled and secure.

But new Americans had left their families and old friends behind. It is two radically different points of view. Even when the British were sent overseas, to the East India Company, let us say, they had the ready-made acquaintance of the "family" of other East India Company employees and their families. New Americans had to work at making new friends wherever they chose to settle.

But there's another difference, just as important, and that is that America is an optimistic nation. This is because so many optimists were confident enough to bet their futures that they could make a better life for themselves in the new country of America, and they steeled themselves to leave their homes and families, knowing they would probably never see them again. As America became a success, based on the efforts of these first pioneers, other optimists in other countries also turned their faces to the sun the Italians, the Germans, the Poles, the Jews optimists every one determined to take their fate into their own hands, confident they could prosper. And, by and large, they did.

That is why America is such an affirmative, optimistic nation. It's where all the optimists went.

Posted by Verity at November 3, 2005 11:19 AM

"...since the Roman occupation..." Actually, James Campbell, in The Anglo-Saxon State makes a pretty convincing case that many English villages and fields had been laid out in essentially the same place since the pre-Roman Iron Age, maybe even back to the neolithicum. Amazing, but quite possibly true. So, the rootedness of England and English life is as profound at it is possible to be. Which strengthens your point.

Posted by: Lex at November 3, 2005 11:26 AM

Thank you, Lex. I think I remember something about this (not in such sophisticated detail) when I was at school. It does indeed strengthen my point. And makes it all the more magnificent that so many of them found the courage to leave such safety and continuity behind for a new life in a country they had never seen. The first settlers were unimaginably brave. And what is so astounding is, they made a go of it.

Posted by: Verity at November 3, 2005 11:38 AM

But of course the British did go West. They settled the toughest part of North America, which perhaps is one reason why Canadians adopted a culture of caution versus the unbridled optimism of the Americans. But its also because we kept our Britishness well into the 20th century. Indeed, even to this day, I feel more British than American in my sentimental attachment to the foundations and history of my country. You need look no further than Canada to appreciate the difference between the American and British experience in settling a continent.

Posted by: Michael J. Smith at November 3, 2005 01:26 PM

But the British did settle America! That's the point!

Posted by: Verity at November 3, 2005 01:33 PM

That is why America is such an affirmative, optimistic nation. It's where all the optimists went.

Not only was there a selection process in those who chose to leave to come here, but in those who, having left, arrived and survived. One could also say it's where those who survived getting there had good reason to be optomistic. And what was the alternaitive?

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at November 3, 2005 02:13 PM

You did not have British redcoats policing your westward expansion, Verity. The British who emigrated to America very quickly became Americans. The British who emigrated to Canada stayed British. While the individual experience is comparable (Canadians are essentially Americans who wear warmer clothes), the national experience is remarkably different. Canada is a less optimistic place than America for the very argument you make: we were British.

Posted by: Michael J. Smith at November 3, 2005 03:29 PM

Interestingly, psychological research has shown that optimism is often strongly correlated with delusion. Those who have a more realistic grasp of reality tend not to be as optimistic. Perhaps Americans in general are more optimistic but also less realistic. Not that realism necessarily leads to great deeds or even, on the frontier, to survival. This might help explain some of the differences between Americans and their cousins throughout the Anglosphere. I don't know of any serious (more than anecdotal) studies of these cultural differences, though.

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at November 4, 2005 01:19 PM

"Perhaps Americans in general are more optimistic but also less realistic."

With respect, I don't agree with this statement. Americans are the most pragmatic people on earth.

Posted by: Verity at November 4, 2005 01:46 PM

I have to disagree Americans arn't realistic. We are, but the optimism of the upside is the difference. For example, I was raised in an American family. I want to go do real estate, I know the risks. I know the economic system protects me from huge risk. I know I can do it.

When I brought up my plans to my girlfriend, raised by Asian parents in America, the first thing she says is something along the lines of thats dangerous. To me, its obvious to be careful, but I am not going to dwell on being careful. I will dwell on how to do it right.

Oh by the way, my parents response was, can we get in on it also?

Posted by: jGeee at November 4, 2005 03:06 PM

While working in London in the 90s, I told one of my English friends how odd I found it that no one speaks on the street. I explained that I'd been raised to look strangers in the eye, smile, and say, "Good morning."

To which she replied, her eyes wide open in amazement, "Oh, how awful."

Posted by: Craig at November 4, 2005 05:39 PM

I think our revolution and its idealism, audacity and ultimate success set the stage for a certain swaggering confidence that most of the world is unfamiliar with and so sees as arrogance. But it is simply the attitude of humans freed from the tribal and class limitations. So while Canada did experience the frontier they never had that same kind of revolutionary experience. Canada is the Buffalo Bills; the US is the Patriots.

Posted by: phil at November 4, 2005 05:59 PM

The fact that America was built on immigration has alot to with it. Although we have had our share of racial problems here, on a whole we seem to get along. Except for the indians, we all came from around the globe. We still do.

Posted by: Christine at November 5, 2005 07:16 PM

"Except for the indians, we all came from around the globe."

Even they came from Asia originally.

Posted by: mariana at November 6, 2005 02:22 PM

Americans make new friends easily and, often to the horror of any Brit they are talking to, will give you intimate details about their lives

I would expand this to "...the horror of any western European..." Several of us were discussing this very thing here at work last week.

I work for a globally connected business with a European division and a product that is sold around the world. We have a constant stream of vistors from Europe, South America and Asia here for training seminars that last 1-2 weeks at a stretch. We also have a small number of Europeans on staff.

The Europeans (and I include Brits in that group) seems to exist within a veil of impermeability. They make no effort at conversation at all. It's almost impossible to draw them into a conversation. If you try, they will listen, usually with body language that indicates you've distracted them from something important (their thoughts, I suppose), make a small non-commital remark, then peer back down at their shoes or off into the distance effectively ending the attempted discourse.

Out consensus was that this seems to be distinct cultural attribute of that group. Eastern Europeans don't display it. Asians don't, although they can be very quiet they will converse if you speak to them. South Americans always seems interested in talking. The Russians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians all seem to love to talk.

But Brits? - forget it. French? - non. Germans? - nein. The exception to the Brit group seems to be the Irish, who are generally friendly and conversational. The Scots are worse even than the English. They seem to take pride in how little they can say. I think it's a mark of honor among them.

Posted by: Michael Hiteshew at November 7, 2005 12:16 PM
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