I'm currently travelling from Seattle to New York by bus and experiencing the best and the worst of American culture. It is surprising what you miss when you are away from home and it isn't always the comforts you expect it to be. What hit me this week is that being in the USA makes me miss passive aggression: I've come to realise what a core fundamental it is in British culture.
Take swimming pools, for example. I swim most days so I've experienced lane swimming etiquette in a range of countries. Generally in the UK swimmers communicate with each other to negotiate lanes by kicking forcefully, spluttering 'wanker' about someone once they are out of earshot and an occasional polite but resentful nod to overtake when they finally accept that someone is faster than them. Several times now since being in the US I have been involved in meetings about how to make the lane work best for everyone. "Okay so let's all get together and chat about this. There are four of us sharing the lane. How do we want to work this?" They then agree a system; rotation, speed, overtaking etiquette, tell each other their names and swim happily on. In these situations, despite being someone who generally likes a structured chat on expectations, I find myself rolling my eyes and defensively muttering 'just tell me where to swim' under my breath so no one can quite hear me. I find something about the straightforwardness of the conversation unnerving.
Then there are bus drivers. They are incredibly nice, they say hello to everyone. Ask how is their day. Wish them a good afternoon when they leave the bus. They remain chirpy throughout the job. But when something bad happens - someone tries to go through the wrong door or is rude to them - they just shout at them. They target their frustration at its rational causes, vent their emotions in a healthy way. And then they continue to be nice. There is no pent up anger bubbling under the surface from being worn down by minor customer irritations, no muttered criticisms of other passengers to whoever is standing nearby. Neither are there random outbursts at one individual who happens to be in the wrong place when the driver finally explodes (this used to be an almost daily occurrence on the K43 from Crewe.)
Clearly there is a strength to this straightforward way of being. You know exactly where you stand. And generally it leads to more positive interactions between members of the public.
I am someone who is pretty good about being direct about my needs and confident to communicate them. I spent my late teenage years proofing early drafts of my mum's book on assertiveness. And yet I find myself missing the surly asides associated with being British.
Right now I'm sitting on a Greyhound bus having just boarded for Denver, Colorado. A couple of my fellow passengers aren't happy with their seats and instead of a sarcastic remark to their neighbour they declare clearly that they have other requirements. This instigates a measured group discussion going on around me, about how best to resolve the issue. I shrug to myself, mutter something witty but inaudible about the passengers in question, put down the shared armrest to silently claim more elbow space and look down at my phone, hoping that my window seat won't be implicated in the reshuffle.
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