Why Americans are shallow

For all you Americans out there: there are a lot of Northern Europeans out there who think you are shallow. Just so you know.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who lived in the US for a while, and the one observation they all seem to have is that Americans are shallow and can’t be trusted to mean what they say. They usually tell the following story: they had a great chat with an American, the American invites them for dinner but then they never follow up, and the dinner doesn’t happen. Even though they kept saying everything we told them was “soooo interesting!” They act nice enough, these Americans, but they don’t mean it at all!

I’ve always found this a funny thing, this idea that when people are nice, they’re supposed to mean it. This is a very Northern European attitude, and has a lot to do with the preference for direct and open communication. Northern Europeans like to know where they stand with someone, and if someone does not intend to have dinner with you, they will never mention anything relating to dinner. When you invite people for dinner, you immediately check your diary to set a date. When you’re friendly, you’re supposed to mean it. Otherwise you’re being a fake, and this is a bad thing.

Now compare this to the general attitude in the US, where being friendly is almost a religion. Most notable when, for example, you go out for dinner and you are greeted by a chirpy waiter. But also in regular, day-to-day life, Americans tend to be a lot friendlier. Why? It’s the polite and right thing to do. I think in general Americans believe that being friendly is more important than being truthful, as opposed to Northern Europeans, who believe being truthful is more important. An American will not see Inviting someone for dinner as an actual invite, ’cause it’s not. It’s just small talk.

So while the phrase “let’s have dinner” is the same on both continents, the actual message that is being transmitted is very different. When an American says “let’s have dinner”, they’re really saying “this was a nice conversation, maybe we should do it again in the future, maybe not. Or I’m just being friendly, ’cause that’s the correct thing to do and I’m just making small talk”. When a Northern European says “let’s have dinner”, they mean “let’s have dinner, when are you available?”.

People who are used to direct communication usually perceive people being overly friendly as untrustworthy and fake, whereas people used to the friendly-no-matter-what attitude perceive direct communication as rude. So it’s easy for people to get their wires crossed and get the wrong idea of the other person’s intentions!

The first step of successful intercultural communication is recognising that while the content of a message is the same, the meaning and interpretation of it can vary wildly across cultures. It’s always worth considering that people might not be saying what you think they are saying, double-check it if necessary!


2 replies
  1. shallow
    shallow says:

    Why on earth would you ask someone for a dinner if you don’t want to go to a dinner with them? Don’t you have anything better to do than talk bullshit? Why would you be nice to a person you don’t like, are you planning to do something evil when they have lowered their guard?
    You talk about being polite, why do you think it’s more polite to put on a friendly face and treat other like vulnerable children whose feelings must be protected? Isn’t it more disrespectful to act as if you liked someone when you really don’t care about their company, and they can see through your fake face?

    • Maaike
      Maaike says:

      Thanks for your comment! You pose a lot of interesting questions that I would like to reflect on a bit. So, why would you ask someone for dinner if you don’t want to go for dinner? That’s the thing though, it’s not really an invite, it’s just a general phrase people use. It’s chit chat, small talk. It doesn’t necessarily mean you DON’T want to go for dinner with someone, I doubt anyone would use this phrase if they really don’t like someone. It’s just that it’s not an actual invite. Whereas in most North European cultures, it would be considered an actual invite and a time and location will need to be set to follow up, otherwise it would be considered “fake politeness”. In an American context, this follow up is not immediately necessary. It is not considered fake politeness, just general friendliness and perhaps a clue that in the future one might hang out more.

      So it’s not about “bullshit” or “evil” or “protecting someone’s feelings” or putting up a “fake face”, it’s about a difference in perception about what it means to ask someone for dinner. In Northern Europe, it’s usually not until you’ve known someone for a while, probably have talked to them several times, before someone would ask you to have dinner together. Because they phrase “let’s have dinner together”, is considered a serious invite, one that you do not throw around without abandon. In an American context however, the phrase does not carry this meaning. So it’s used much more often and much more generally.

      I’m curious, what makes you say things like being polite is bullshit and people being fake? Could you explain this in more detail? I’m very interested to know where this interpretation comes from. Is it disrespectful to be nice to someone, even you don’t like them? Are you supposed to go around being an asshole to all the people you don’t like? I’m interested to hear where you think politeness should end.


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