Monday, November 28, 2011

Understatement and overstatement (British and American differences)

One area that is a particular source for cultural misunderstandings in relation to British and American differences, that I’ve noticed as an expat living in Florida, is in regard to understatement and overstatement.  Most countries of the world tend to say things pretty much as they are, but people in the UK and USA tend to distort reality in different directions by the way that they express themselves.

In the UK the tendency is to understate, with the implicit understanding being that the real importance or gravity of what is said is implied by what you’re saying, rather than it being explicitly stated.  For example: “I’m feeling a little under the weather” can actually mean: “I am totally suicidal” in the UK, and “We had a very nice day” can mean “That was the most amazing and wonderful experience of my entire life”.

Americans, on the other hand, go the complete opposite way, using large amounts of superlatives and hyperbole, even in what can seem to a Brit like very trivial and mundane situations. 

There are differences in body language and gestures too.  I remember watching Bill Bryson on British TV talking about the difficulties he had as an American moving to Yorkshire, England.  How at first he thought people were being offish with him and he felt like an outsider, until he realized that, as an American, he was looking for much more showy and demonstrative signals, whereas British communication is more reserved and subtle.  An enthusiastic American wave, for instance, translates as a few fingers of a hand being tilted up slightly from the steering wheel of a passing neighbour in their car, or a slight nod of the head.

My problems are entirely the opposite, of course.  Americans often don’t appreciate when I am complimenting them, because I do it in an understated way – in fact, they can wrongly get the impression that I am being lukewarm or averse, when the opposite is true and I’m actually enthusiastic.   On the other hand, when an American comes out with lots of superlatives and hyperbole, I suspect them of being sarcastic, when it is actually a genuine expression of their thoughts and emotions (even if a little exaggerated to my British ear).

It’s a matter of conjecture, of course, but I suspect that most human beings are actually pretty similar beneath their cultural dressing and the negative stereotypes that the British are “cold and aloof” and that Americans are “false” are largely based on misread signals.  It can be difficult to tell if a British person likes you because they don’t tend to be demonstrative.  On the other hand, an American can appear very warm and friendly, but it really doesn’t mean anything serious.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Religion in America

I normally try to avoid religion and politics in my blog, but from time to time, I enjoy the challenge of trying to sail it through choppier, more unpredictable waters.

The power and influence of religion in America was certainly a jolt to the system when I arrived here from the UK.  I already knew that the US was a much more religious place than the UK of course, but even so, it is still quite a culture shock.  I am not sure how much the shock is compounded by the fact that I am not at all religious myself (I would generally describe myself as an atheist).  It was certainly fascinating to read (British expat) Iota’s blog on the subject of encountering US religion, and it made me appreciate that aspects of the experience of coming here may well be quite different for those who are Christian, as she is.

Religion generally plays a very quiet and low key role in the UK, but here in the USA, religion is big and brassy and most American people are very up front about telling you all about their religion and beliefs.  I know that Iota found this approach refreshing, but for me, I must confess that I can find it awkward and I can easily end up smiling and nodding vaguely, as people tell me at length about Jesus and their experience of being saved, or whatever.

The language here is different too - in the USA, if someone is having problems, say they are sick or something, people will talk about praying for them, or ask people to pray for them.  It some circumstances, it can just be a turn of phrase, of course, but even so, it is one example of how the American language contains more religious overtones.

Another difference for me is that religion in the USA nearly always means Christianity, certainly down here in the South, anyway.  Back in Britain, where I was working and living in the inner cities most of my adult life, Christianity was just one of many belief systems: Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism etc.  But here in the US, there is a general sense that Christianity is the big one, certainly down here in the Deep South (although there are multiple different Christian denominations and sects, of course).   

As a non-believer, I often get the sense that being Christian is perceived as the “norm” here and that many Americans generally see atheism (and to some extent some of the other religions aswell, such as Islam) as being more than a little bit suspect.

There is a social respectability that is accorded to those who attend church and pronounce their faith  and values here too, which hasn’t really existed in England for a long time.  What I mean is that you are perceived as being more upstanding and moral by some if you publicly subscribe to being a Christian.  I guess that is why politicians and public figures here pretty much always have to play up their Christian credentials, which is almost the opposite to the UK, where Tony Blair was constantly trying to play down his Catholicism.

One of the peculiar paradoxes about religion and politics in the USA is that essentially it is a secular country (enshrined in the constitution) with a very religious population, whereas Britain (also paradoxically) is officially a Christian country (The Queen is head of state and head of the Church of England) but the population aren’t particularly religious.

I guess I should point out in conclusion that despite me not generally being a big fan of religion, I do strongly believe that people have the right to believe whatever they want.  I am generally a live and live kind of person.  Some of the more conservative Christians here in the US seem less tolerant than me, however.  I have developed a lot of compassion for the plight of gay Americans since I’ve been here, especially those who live outside of the big coastal cities, who can have a particularly difficult time, it seems.