[Words from author]
A self-acclaimed culture-geek, I intend to start a series of blog articles discussing various aspects of the American culture. My aim is to help promote cultural awareness and appreciation, as well as facilitate cross-cultural interactions. I also hope to better inform prospective international students of Lycoming College, sharing the humble knowledge that I have gained.
I also acknowledge that it is possible for me to over-generalize, thus I commit to do research with the most I can afford. These articles still remain blog articles, not academic writings, thus any statement by the author, me, should be taken as personal opinions and not objective facts. Ultimately, I hope we can create thoughtful dialogues on the topic of culture.
If you have any questions, or a certain topic you would like to hear about, please feel free to contact me at [email protected], or leave comments below.
Thank you for your support,
Part 1: The “big-talk” America
You should be all-too-familiar with the American small talk, but has anyone ever told you that Americans talked “big?” If not, now you have heard it - yes, Americans do big-talk. Not in the same sense as how one would define small talks. Not in the boastful way, either, but pretty close.
To be precise, I would say that Americans are relatively expressive speakers.
As a student from Vietnam, a rather reserved culture, I find it intriguing that Americans can use big and even "extreme" words with ease. Examples include "fantastic," "outstanding," and --especially-- "awesome." The most recent buzzword, in case you missed it: Magnificent.
Bombarded with such big words on a regular basis, I sometimes wonder if my American friends really mean what they say, or if it is just exaggerations. Were that the case, why would they exaggerate? Unable to give myself a satisfactory explanation, I decided to look into what others say about the topic.
Example of an American man and an English woman
I soon found out that not many people have addressed this on the Internet. I looked for various related terms such as: exaggerated speech, overstatement, pompous speech, hyperbole, etc. Strangely enough, the further I looked, the less likely there seemed to be an exact term for it. That being said, I particularly like how American author Douglas Amrine refers to this characteristic as "[the language's] temperature" (source). To make his point, Amrine gives this example:
An American guy (AG) and an English woman (EW) went to watch a movie together. They both enjoyed it and completely agreed with each other on how good the movie was. When you met them later on the street, you asked what they thought about the movie. Here is what each of them said:
AG: That movie was awesome. It was fabulous. It was incredible!!
EW: I thought it was rather good.
As Amrine suggests, even though the two characters thought equally of the movie, their remarks differed in tone due to their different cultural backgrounds. Here we see a clear sense of enthusiasm in the American's words, and --meanwhile-- a more composed manner in the English. Based on this example, it is rather easy to assume that typical Americans might seem a bit overstimulated from an English perspective. Conversely, the English manner might come across as cold to an American. Presenting a similar issue, an English writer working in the U.S., Paul Goodman shares these thoughts in his personal blog:
“Americans often don’t appreciate when I am complimenting them, because I do it in an understated way – in fact, they can wrongly get the impression that I am being lukewarm or averse, when the opposite is true and I’m actually enthusiastic.“
“On the other hand, when an American comes out with lots of superlatives and hyperbole, I suspect them of being sarcastic, when it is actually a genuine expression of their thoughts and emotions.”
Think about the assumption I offered above. If it holds true, Goodman’s perception seems absolutely understandable. The American and the English manners of speech are simply incompatible. The ignorance of such cultural differences, nevertheless, might lead to unnecessary miscommunication and even conflicts. It is thus essential to (at least) be aware of the culture dimensions in each and every individual.
A reflection of overstimulation
As a matter of fact, the above difference can be seen not only between the American and the English cultures. Rather, this “temperature” is potentially a distinctive trait of the American English language, as we may find other people from different cultures holding similar opinions. In The Yin and Yang of American Culture: A Paradox, Eun Y. Kim, a Korean-American author and managing director of CEO International, argues that the use of superlative words such as “superb, phenomenal, great, fantastic, and excellent” reflects “overstimulation and over-dramatization.” She goes on to explain that as modest words hardly leave any impression, Americans tend to exaggerate in order to attract someone’s attention. Meanwhile, her culture (and so do many other Asian cultures) values modesty in expression. This leads to the common (yet possibly false) impression that Americans are “insincere or naive.” At the end, Kim suggests that Americans should honor the “hierarchy of language” better.
“I love …”
Kim also mentions the “abused” use of the word “love.” Personally, I agree that Americans use this expression very often, at least more than any other people I know. “Love” is used for literally anything that one is fond of: from people, countries, to weather, and food. Sometimes one can even love a fact (e.g. I love the fact that some Americans are still reading this post). Love is all over the places. Sometimes I enjoy this, and sometimes I do not. I like it because the word is of utmost beauty, and that people express it so casually in America makes the world seem so much better a place. The same goes for other big words (wonderful, awesome…) that are used in daily contexts: I like how Americans can be so positively dramatic. At times, yet, I cannot help but feeling empty. These jubilant words are so readily at one’s disposal that they lose power, and that, in worse cases, the sincerity behind them comes into question.
Assimilation into the culture
To assure the topic’s relevance, I asked some friends for personal opinions on top of what I have found on the Internet. Americans themselves are apparently aware of their tendency for overstatements, suggested an American friend of mine, but he was not sure if other people did the same or if it was just an American thing. In addition, this tendency seems so deeply-ingrained that Americans do it naturally, and perhaps even unconsciously. My fellow blog author Bryan Manoo, an international student from Mauritius, holds the same opinion. Nonetheless, it is neither good nor bad at the end of the day. After all, it is a cultural trait, which means it cannot be judged but only learned. The single most important question is then: How do different cultures co-exist in spite of their differences?
Some people accept and attribute these “big talks” to good will (e.g. Americans people use overly-positive remarks to make others feel good). Some choose to see it as showing enthusiasm and optimism, like American author Douglas Amrine suggests. Others assume that Americans are inherently dramatic. Whatever one may think, it seems to fall into place naturally in the long run. A French student told me that within a semester she had adopted the American manner, which she would not have when speaking with French people. Similarly, a senior student from Vietnam jokingly told me, when asked about exaggeration in the American conversational language, that she was an example of the phenomenon. Looking back, I found that I also had a rather smooth transition in terms of language. In fact, I now sometimes use atypical big words like “splendid” or “lovely,” just to make the response anything but ordinary.
As I have said before, multicultural awareness is crucial – especially in this age of increased globalization. Today we are informed, or reminded, that Americans tends to overstate in conversations. In turn, this will prepare non-Americans better for communication within an American environment, and, vice versa, Americans for communication within a foreign environment. Both Amrine and Kim used the example of job interviews. Accordingly, a job candidate should be outspoken in an American-oriented context, while more humble in a non-American one. The failure to do so would result in the candidate being seen as either unenthusiastic and even incompetent, or overconfident and arrogant, respectively.
The earlier example of Goodman also suggests the lesson of compliments. Consider French people who are known for being good at NOT giving compliments. They are likely to appear somewhat indifferent to Americans who, based on my experience, really enjoy giving praises. Conversely, Americans’ praises might at times sound over-the-top to some Korean ears. So how do we praise each other - you may be thinking that this has become unnecessarily complicated. Regarding compliments, I totally agree with a friend of mine: “it's always pleasant [...] if they are sincere.”
How do we use our knowledge of culture to inform decisions? For future reference, you can use this as a rule of thumb: In America, we do it the ‘Murican way.
Many thanks to Bryan, My Anh, Zachary, and Anne-Laure. I would not have been able to complete this without your contributions. Hope this finds you well.
Lycoming College takes seriously the need to help international students transition into the American culture. Find out more by contacting Admissions