Taking control

Possibly because this is supposed to be the land of opportunity, most people living in America take some kind of ‘you only live once’ approach to life in general. Working on the principle that if you don’t ask you don’t get, the population of New York (and in my experience, most other places in America) makes sure that it always asks. And generally ends up more than a little upset if it doesn’t get.

As a result, most people in this country tend to speak their mind. Given that I come from a country where the majority of people say what is expected of them (and then silently seethe for at least fourteen years afterwards), that comes as a bit of a shock to the system to say the least.

For instance, when asked by a waiter how a (particularly poor) meal was, most Britons would inevitably say “it was great thanks”, “wonderful” or “really good”. In America, such a question might result in a five minute diatribe invoking at least two of the constitutional amendments, and a suggestion that the parentage of the waiter might be in doubt.

Nothing wrong with speaking your mind and not swallowing your pride, though. Such forthrightness and willingness to stand up for what you believe in is why there’s a Stars & Stripes flying over Florida today rather than a Union Jack, after all.

But being deprived of your social norms is difficult to come to terms with, to say the least.

Today I wandered the streets of Brooklyn in search of orange oil. I’ve no idea what orange oil is either (although if pushed I might guess that it was oil derived from an orange). But our new cleaner insists it’s the only thing she will use to clean our floors, so I had little choice in the matter. Only in America can you get bossed around by your cleaner.

But that’s just a disconcerting aside. The fact is that I went into about twelve shops in search of this elusive orange oil, only to be denied every time. Eventually I walked into what looked like an alternative health foods/products store, only to find that it was actually a swanky organic cosmetics and potions place.

Now, placed in the same circumstances, most Americans would turn on their heels and walk out. But given that I was born in Britain, I had to head all the way into the store, pretend to have a look round, and then frame my features in such a way as to say “you know, this is exactly the kind of thing that I was looking for, but I’ve just remembered that an electrician is coming to my house in five minutes, so I’d better hurry back in case I miss him.”

As tends to be the case in these circumstances, the woman behind the counter asked if I needed any help. And, giving a textbook answer, I responded with “No thank you, I’m just looking.”

Now, in any other country, such a response would lead to a polite smile from the assistant, or maybe even a “Well if you need any help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Not in New York. Barely had the words left my mouth before she countered with “Well you shouldn’t walk so fast if you’re looking, should you?”

Obviously I shot her a look of disgust, told her in no uncertain terms that I would never frequent her store again, and marched out with my head held high.

Oh who am I kidding? I slowed down, started picking things up and reading the ingredients, and almost ended up buying some ridiculously over-expensive white tea.

That showed her who was boss, I can tell you.

13 thoughts on “Taking control

  1. gail

    I’ve been enjoying reading about your experiences in the USA for some time now. Today’s post, in particular hit home with me. In spite of being born and bred in the States, I would have acted exactly the same as you did in that shop. You see, I was raised by parents with Scottish roots, and have adopted their values. I often feel like a yank out of water in my own country.

  2. Karen

    Yup I would do exactly that 😉 I’ve done that in that really expensive shop L’Occitane, I would have bought something, only the sales assistant got sidetracked by another customer, so I legged it hehe

  3. Expat Mum

    A bit like me when my kids insist it’s okay to use the loos in MacDonalds. I usually end up at least pretending to look at the menu on the wall, although I’m not standing in that line, or eating that rubbish just ’cause I was raised properly!

  4. Brooklyn

    Dylan, Karen, Expat Mum:

    The solution to all of these situations is to walk in and/or out of the shop behaving as if you own the place. Combine the haughtiness of a royal, the contempt for the working class of Leona Helmsly, and the indifference to persons nest to you of a Secret Service agent guarding the President. Works every time.

    Salespersons are like dogs in that they’ll attack if you act submissive, but shy away if you act dominant.

  5. SG

    If the NYC/USA-ers here think that our Britishness is odd, it used to be the practice that shops in France that did NOT expect you to buy if you entered would actually post a notice in the window explaining their liberated view (“Entre Libre”).

    Liberated indeed…

    On the floor-cleaning front, BTW, there is also only one item I will allow to clean my wooden and tiled areas: the wife.

    SG

  6. India J

    Hi,
    just happened upon your blog – what a great read !
    I can really relate to so much of what you say.

    Despite not having been born or brought up in Britain I can be so British (or so say my French family and all my American friends) when it comes to manners and being polite.

    I’ve been several times and I do love the States for holidays but I must say I prefer living this side of the Atlantic..:)

  7. emiglia

    I’m really bad at commenting as often as I should, but I actually cracked up when reading your description of an American telling a waiter about a poor meal, so I decided to take this opportunity to say hi, I’m still reading, and I still love your blog!

  8. Simon

    For SG

    There was an old series in the 50’s here called the Honeymooners, and the wife was complaining to the husband that he didn’t ‘treat her like a woman’.

    His reply was..”Sure I do, I let you do all the cleaning, cooking and laundry”..

    Knowing that Mrs SG will be wiping the floor with SG after that comment seems…well, “appropriate” under the circumstances. 🙂

  9. Dylan

    Alasdair – I once tried calling The Special One “She Who Must Be Obeyed” but she didn’t like it very much. I’m now experimenting with calling her the CEO, and there’s begrudging acceptance there it has to be said…

  10. Alasdair

    Silly Dylan – you should have called her Sw’mbo instead … then, if she asks, it’s a little-known Swahili term of endearment meaning “Beautiful and radiant” or some such …

    You’re safe until PBS replays any of the Rumpole series …

    (grin)

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