Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Forgetting How to be Friendly

Every time I go to the United States for a visit I feel like I've come home (because I have, but it's more than that).  Even just boarding a plane full of Americans makes me happy.  They are loud.  They are happy.  They are friendly.  I love them.  (Even if they're sometimes a tiny bit obnoxious when you've been living in Europe for a while.)

When we first moved to Poland I was surprised and a little shocked when I passed people on the streets and said, "Hello." or smiled a little and they quickly looked away and sometimes gave me dirty looks.  It made me feel as though I was in a different world, one where nobody knew me, and everyone disliked me already, before they could have any reason to.  

While visiting in America someone stopped me in the middle of the aisle at the grocery store because they just had to tell me that my son  has the cutest glasses they've ever seen in their life and that he is just such a darling boy.  At the shark petting area of the aquarium someone comes up to me and asks if my sister's little boy is my son (she pointed.  She didn't ask, "Is your sister's little boy your son?" that would have been so weird.).  I tell her no, he's my nephew and she says, "Wow.  You guys have the exact same color of hair.  It's a really neat color.  It has just a little bit of red in it."  I love that these perfect strangers understand that I might care about something that they observed and so they share.  As if they know I'm a person too, and think I might be a nice one.  This is how it should be.

In Poland I come to a point where I realize that saying hello to someone you don't know just confuses them terribly.  "Do I know you from somewhere?" they're thinking, frantically searching their brains.  When people are searching their brains it sometimes causes them to knit their brow.  When people knit their brows, it sometimes looks like they're giving dirty looks.  Even if they're not.  I think I'm starting to get these Poles.  A slight upturn of the corners of the mouth is okay, though it's almost never returned.  Smile!  It makes people wonder what you've been up to.  Maybe I'm just making people wonder about me. . .

In the States I observe my sister laughing with other women who are also shopping for children's clothing.  I sort of wonder if their kids go to school together or something.  The next day while at the checkout stand in the grocery store the woman behind us in line says, "Your little girl lost a sock, it looks like."  I glance up and see that Su's little girl's right foot is socked, but the left is bare.  I turn my head slightly back to the woman and say, "Oh, yes.  Thank you."  without looking at her face.  I let Su know and she thanks the woman and starts talking about what might have happened to that sock and how it's terrible to get in the car and realize you're missing something etc. etc.  

I stand there, in between the two of them, while they chatter on as if they enjoy nothing better than talking about Beth's socks.  And I wonder what has happened to me?  Why didn't I at least look the woman in the face while I thanked her?  Have I completely lost my ability to engage a stranger in conversation or even to make eye contact?  Would I soon just start ignoring people that talked to me if I didn't know them.  Maybe I'd start punching them in the face?

Sheesh.  

All of that happened a few years ago.  I'm hoping that I've learned a little since then.  Still, it takes a bit of effort for me.  And I can't do it in Poland, although Greg sometimes starts up conversations and is nearly always conversed with (I think it's because he's handsome.  And smart.  And funny.  Oh, and his Polish might be better than mine.)

So, people, enjoy your fellow Americans.  And if you ever see a woman with once-blond hair with a hint of red in it in the store, don't be offended if she doesn't strike up a conversation.  And if you smile at her and she gives you a dirty look, forgive her.  She's probably just wondering where she knows you from.  

28 comments:

Jen said...

I always hear this about people in Europe, but it's just so hard to imagine. How can they not feel the urge to talk to the person in line behind them? And does this mean they wouldn't have mentioned a missing sock, or just that they wouldn't have continued the conversation?

Barbaloot said...

Sounds like I could fit in in Europe. I've never had the whole eye-contact-be-friendly talent...

Pancake said...

I think I would be in huge trouble in Europe!

I hope you enjoy your time in the states, dont worry what others think, just enjoy!

Thank you for reminding me of what we have here!

Moody said...

Very interesting...I'm glad we're a friendly bunch over here, it makes me appreciate the good ol' USA. But I won't take it so hard if someone doesn't want to chit-chat with me now!

CaJoh said...

I used to pride myself on being able to talk to anyone. I would probably get frustrated in Europe and turn into the shy person I usually am around strangers more often than not.

Melanie J said...

Wow. I guess I really take for granted how friendly Americans are. I'm definitely one to gab with strangers. And I love it when they do the same. I did notice when travelling in Europe that whenever we ran into Australian tourists, they're very friendly, too.

Annette Lyon said...

I had this same experience coming home from Finland at age 13. Totally freaked me out to be able to hear grocery store conversations and the like. My dad waved at someone and said hello, and I immediately asked who it was. I was stunned to hear that he didn't even know the guy--he was just being friendly. What?!

I adapted back to U.S. culture pretty quickly, but it was a trippy time.

That Girl in Brazil said...

I want to translate this into Portuguese and give it to the entire country of Brazil - who all think Americans are close-hearted hermits.

Hrumph.

Steph @ Diapers and Divinity said...

Just the other day at a fast-food restaurant some random very large man complimented me on my glasses and how cool it is that they have blue on the inside of the frames. And it was nice. A tiny bit awkward, but nice. I don't want to wax too philosophical here, but we're all connected more than we know and we have more in common that we recognize. Brushing up against humanity and allowing ourselves to interact with one another is a good thing. I'm always the closed-mouth mom at preschool drop-off and such, and I should do better at this.

Rebecca said...

Great post. Very interesting!

Melissa said...

Maybe I should live in Europe because I have a problem with looking people in the eye when I talk to them. Or conversing with strangers at all. One guy at the airport in Vegas tried to talk to me about Jesus and I totally give him fake smiles and tried to get away. (Isn't that ironic when I used to be a missionary?)

Kazzy said...

The European privacy thing is kind of nice sometimes too though, don't you think? Or maybe I have just lived here in Happy Valley for so long that I fantasize about NOT knowing so much about all of my neighbors. :)

Jenn said...

thank you for your kind email

Heather of the EO said...

I like the friendly chatter, but I also notice it can be quite awkward at times. It takes me awhile to warm up to people at first so I'm thrown off sometimes when they're overly friendly. And other times I appreciate it. Just depends on the day I guess :)

What the Hecklinger?! said...

Funny and so, so sad. I have been trying to be a little better at being the one to acknowledge the other person first, to avoid the awkwardness, say, of being at the park with a random mother and her children and then not talking right off and then you're there for a loooong time together, avoiding eye contact the whole time, because now it's just too late, except maybe the occasional awkward smile, and then one of you leaves, and it's even weirder not to acknowledge the leaving...

Alison Wonderland said...

I'm with Barb. I don't talk to people I don't know.

(It's not that I'm completely unwilling to, it's just that... I don't know how I guess.)

Marlo said...

Great post. Although I'm not really one to converse with strangers, I'm definitely a "waver" when I run. From The Waver's Dilemma by Robert Sullivan, "waving includes nodding, smiling, grinning, shrugging, or the utterance or near utterance of many other words or word-like words, including all variations on hello, such as hi, hiya, uh, huh, and mhm. Hence a wave is any and all acknowledgments of the presence of the other runner. A wave says, I greet you, casually, in the midst of your journey, a journey that is not unlike mine, as I am running, too."

Melissa Bastow said...

Being the reclusive parent of small children who never has adult conversations that I am, I have also lost my ability to engage a stranger in conversation or make eye contact. I also get that face punching urge. I blame it on my four year old, or maybe Polish people.

charrette said...

I can't imagine you ever being cold to anyone, ever! You have such a friendly, easy-going nature, and your blog (and the way you comment on others) has this magical ability to shrink the Atlantic Ocean and make you feel like a back-fence neighbor.

I'm not big on small-talk, but I can't stop smiling, most of the time. I don't think I'd fit in too well in Poland.

Heidi Ashworth said...

This is so stinkin' cute! Also, it makes me homesick for America. Now that's good writing!

Erin said...

I think the friendliness of Americans definitely varies by region. When I moved to the Midwest from Las Vegas, I was very surprised how strangers would say hi and were friendly. Then when I married a someone from the South where people are even more friendly to strangers and especially neighbors. I really like it. I am not outgoing by nature, but I am trying to overcome it and be friendly.

Just Looking said...

A friend of mine visited here from France. A totally joyful happy woman -- online. But our grocery stores totally bewildered her. Everytime the checker asked "How are you?" she totally thought she knew them from somewhere and spent the whole time in line exactly as you said: brow furrowed, scowling, trying to remember WhereOhWhereDoIKnowYouFrom?! At first it was funny, but then a bit sad to realize the How Are You's? in Europe may be rare, but at least their heartfelt - not white noise like here :/

Just Looking said...

Can't edit my comment but I *do* know the difference between their and they're when not in a hurry.... :)

Heidi said...

I remember after I lived in England for a year (on my mission), I got a new companion, a greenie. I couldn't believe how loud she talked. On the bus. I was sitting right next to her.

I think I'm now that loud talker. But I AM friendly.

Mrs4444 said...

Living in a different land gives you such an interesting perspective, doesn't it? I felt that when we lived for a while in central Illinois, heehee. I enjoyed this post. (And I would go INSANE in Poland; I am way to social to be able to keep to myself. How long will you be living there?

Susan said...

Funny, I'm so oblivious, I didn't even notice you noticing. I think having kids makes me much less sociable since I'll just end up needing to interrupt the conversation to tell my kids to stop doing something, or to run off to get them as they wander away, etc. But when on my own I love to observe others and interact when it seems okay. Every person is a different story just walking around. I'm all into memoirs lately.

Marivic_Little GrumpyAngel said...

Maybe I'm part European :-) I'm not a natural chatterer. I'm friendly and nice after I've warmed up to someone, but I don't talk much to strangers at grocery lines, etc. If I run into you while you're here don't worry. I'll probably be too busy zoning and being pre-occupied to notice you are totally ignoring me :-)

Melinda said...

Oh Lisa I love this post. I can so relate. It was so hard when we first came to Ukraine. Not only could I not speak the verbal language I was accustomed to but even a simple non-verbal cue like smiling, nodding, or cooing at someones baby was not exactly welcomed here. I got the strange looks from people, like "why did you just say hello to me", or "why are you smiling and cooing at my baby," or "are you nuts or something", along with the furrowed brow. I have so missed striking up a conversation with a stranger on the bus, or in the line at the grocery store. I have missed the small talk we share just to pass the time. I like that people have stopped me in America to ask who cuts my hair, or how old my grandchildren are, or to ask me where you find the canned peaches in the grocery store. We are going home in 33 days and you just reminded me of something I can hardly wait to experience again. Thanks, I have enjoyed reading your blog and will continue to read when i am back in the States. Just keep being the great example of a wonderful American Woman that you are.