Tag Archives: cultural differences

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.