Monday, June 23, 2008

Let's Hear it for Enthusiasm

I feel the need to clarify something in my last post. I know it is not particularly edifying to know that many French people seem to feel that the American tendency to smile a lot is a sign of their limited intellectual capacities, but try not to take it too personally. I mean, look at it this way: if you were visiting an isolated tribe in Borneo, and your guide told you that smiling a lot was considered a sign of lunacy, you wouldn’t be offended, you would just do your best to be culturally aware when visiting their village. And of course, this perception is not universal, there are plenty of French people out there who appreciate the American willingness to be upbeat, even when presented with strong evidence that the situation is anything but. Which brings me to a thought that has occurred to me recently.

It’s funny the things you miss about your home country when you’ve been living away from it for several years. There are some things I do not miss at all. I don’t, for example, at all miss the kind of enforced cheeriness that runs rampant in Southern California, e.g., the inanely jolly waitress who hovers over your table crooning “Hi, I’m Gloria, and how can I help you today?” Nor the phony exuberance of sales people and gym teachers. But I do miss something that I never really appreciated until I moved overseas and saw my country from a distance: the very American sense of curiosity, of wonder, and enthusiasm. Americans aren’t afraid to ask questions, and don’t feel constrained by appearances the way many French people are. If they are interested in something, they’ll try to find out about it, and if they like (or don’t like) what they find, they’ll show it. I hate to sound like a pom pom girl, but I truly believe that this quality is part of what makes the US great, in the best sense of the word. If this kind of enthusiasm results in some people on this side of the pond thinking we’re idiots, so be it. I, for one, get a kick out of being taken for an optimist, something that would have never occurred to me in my previous life.

I think it is possible to detect a hint of jealousy behind those who look down their noses at Americans and pronounce them hopelessly childish and ignorant. It’s very hard for French people to break through the cultural and social boundaries that keep them from aspiring to the same kind of crazy fantasies that Americans seem to. So let’s hear it for goofy grins and wild ideas. They certainly could use a good dose over here.


David said...

While I totally agree with the curiosity that Americans have in general when they're confronted with something it must be balanced with the general apathy they have towards things they're not confronted with.

While a French person won't ask questions about unknown things they're confronted with, there are some good chances they will try to learn about it afterwards if they deem the thing interesting, and may even learn a lot more about similar topics in the process...

It's a question of education really.
American education is based on the Socratic method. Kids are pushed to ask questions and talk in class, and then they do it in life afterwards.
French education is based on listening to the teacher and reading books. Kids are pushed to shut up in class from an early age, and this has consequences too. rarely asking question being one. Learning about the topic afterwards, sometimes in depth, is another one.

Yeah Americans are curious and enthusiast about things, but their interest is very often quite shallow.
In France outwardly enthusiasm is not always socially acceptable and makes you appear as childish, but when someone wants to know more about a topic, shallow interest is not an option...

Which one is best?
I guess, like many things when dealing with these two cultures, a balanced mix of both would be the best.

Starman said...

If the French really think Americans are hopelessly childish and ignorant, one wonders why they adore everything American. With the possible exception of G. W. Bush.