In Becoming Globally Engaged this semester, we’ve heard several student panels about their experiences around the world. In one panel, international students from three continents told us about differences between their countries’ cultures and ours.
The comments from the students from India and France about Americans’ excessive smiling surprised me and resonated with me. In their countries, smiling at strangers isn’t a social norm — if you smiled at someone on public transportation, you’d receive strange looks. Your intentions would be misunderstood. I appreciate that here in the United States (or at least in the South) I can smile and say “Good morning!” to strangers without being thought of as strange or overly friendly. But what the French student said about surface-level social interactions really struck me and made me rethink our culture of friendliness.
In the United States, it’s common to give a stranger a compliment and strike up a conversation without intending to ever see them or speak to them again; she believes that this tendency is shallow and insincere, and once she pointed it out I immediately agreed. In her culture, people are more intentional in their friendships, and less willing to talk to people who they probably won’t see again; if they do want to become friends, they will talk to you and actually attempt to know you rather than making small talk. I think it would be refreshing to live in a culture with less superficial friendliness and more directness to approaching relationships.
I also really appreciated a perspective on Americans’ sense of entitlement from a student from South Africa. When she first came to the United States, she was surprised at the basic expectations of living — for example, everyone in the US has (and feels entitled to) a car and a smartphone, while in South Africa these things are seen as luxuries: unnecessary, but nice to have around. She commented on the differences between Christmas in the US and South Africa, which further reflect the American standards of living.
In the US, Christmas is all about buying and giving presents. In South Africa, Christmas is a time of fellowship and community, and presents are sometimes exchanged but are not essential to the celebration. I got the impression that many Americans take a lot of things for granted, and that her culture generally tends to have more of a grateful outlook. After hearing her perspective, I became aware of my own feelings of entitlement — I was encouraged to change my attitude on material things from entitlement to gratefulness.