Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Happy Americans

I can't understand what everyone in America is so happy about. Unemployment is high, the government (and many people) are in debt, and foreclosures abound. But still. The Americans smile, grin, and greet you loudly, happily. Maybe I’ve been in Europe for too long now, but I was shocked at the friendliness of my countrymen during a recent visit to Chicago. No one can be that happy to clean my teeth. Or rent me cross-country skis. Or serve me root beer with extra ice.

On one hand, the friendliness was a pleasant change from all the straight-faced Swiss. But on the other hand, it was kind of disturbing. It took 4+ years of living abroad, but I can finally understand why the Swiss thought I had mental issues when I used to exude enthusiasm over anything—even work.

Which naturally leads me to writing. This experience, learning to see things from a different perspective, is great for writers. I am now seeing the United States through the eyes of a European. That’s priceless. Unlike a new arrival or vacationer, I no longer gape at the Swiss when they ignore my smile, I go back to my country and stare at my smiling fellow citizens instead.

And then I grin. Because every writer should be so fortunate to see themselves this clearly.

Maybe that’s why research at INSEAD demonstrated that going abroad enhances creative thinking. Living in Switzerland has definitely made me a more creative person–at least I know I've become more empathetic to other cultures and ways of living. What is your experience with creativity and going abroad?


  1. We're discussing this very thing over at Pond Parleys (
    Your remarks are great and so true!

  2. Living abroad has helped me understand myself better, and now I can use those experiences, emotions, reactions and attitudes I never had to bring out when I was comfy-cozy in the States to enrich my writing.

    That, and the German language is infinitely amusing.

  3. I had so much more to write about. I blogged a ton my first year abroad because everything was so different and novel. I jotted down kids' lit. ideas and wrote poems. POEMS. Now that I'm back, it took me almost 6 months to blog again. ho hum.

  4. I also find I'm much more prolific abroad. I wonder what would happen if I moved back, if I'd be able to sustain the creativity. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  5. I wish more of my fellow Americans would spend more time abroad. It's made me both more aware of what "american-ness" is and made me quite fond of it. It's not a matter of who is right, but rather what makes each culture unique. My best friend's daughter married a Frenchman who adores coming out to rural WV while we're all clamoring for him to take us around Paris. Vive le difference! Great post!

  6. Thank you! Great post! Strangely, I am writing more now that I've repatriated than I did during my many years of living abroad, first in the UK, then in Japan...and have started up a blog, Seen the Elephant, to give myself a space for this.

    In one of my cornerstone posts, describing people who've seen the elephant (aka long-term expats), I speculated that many of us American expats were misfits in our native land, never having been one of those "bright outgoing happy shiny" people.

    So, do you think you have actually changed, or has Europe brought out what was there all along? Just curious...

  7. As always, I enjoy your posts Chantal. Question: Are you planning another Zurich Writers Workshop anytime in 2011? I couldn't make it last time, but I would really like to do it a second time around (if there is going to be one).


  8. Thanks all, for the thoughtful comments. I too wish more Americans had the opportunity or desire to go abroad. And ML, I definitely think living abroad has enhanced my creativity, but I've definitely changed a lot as a person too--I no longer think "where are you from?" is a straightforward question, for one.

    Diana yes, another workshop is in the works for 2011. When I have the details they will be announced on this blog and also if you sign up for the mailing list of the Zurich Writers Workshop, which you can find at

  9. I am a British ex-pat and author and have lived in USA for ten years - and I don't know why the Americans are so cheerful but I suppose I am greatful for it. No one whinges quite like the Brits do and it is a refreshing change!

  10. There are definitely worse things than cheerfulness. While I was visiting home I did feel happier since people smiled a lot more than I have gotten used to. My only issue is that sometimes it feels a bit fake. So much optimism can also allow for problems to go unanswered until they become catastrophic.

  11. @Emma K
    You make a very good point about American cheerfulness. No one whinges quite like the English... I found that out firsthand after a decade of living there. In that sense, I was relieved to get back to my native land, where it's not uncommon, even in NYC, to have pleasant everyday interactions with strangers. (That said, I sometimes miss having a good moan about the weather...)

    What's more disturbing to me, though, is the nature of conversations with Americans whom you allegedly know quite well. They often don't want to talk about the things Chantal mentions in her first paragraph: unemployment, foreclosures and, I would add, the ready availability of handguns... These topics are considered taboo among many people, and you get in the habit of not mentioning them.

    By contrast, my friends and associates in the UK weren't afraid to engage on the issues of the day, and I guess it might be similar in France and other European countries. Which for me is a key reason why I found, still find, life in Europe so stimulating.

  12. Chantal, I'm so glad I found your blog! Surviving and thriving in multiple realities is something I'm constantly perfecting and it's fun to know that some people are already rocking at it!
    Anna @

  13. You're completely right. I'm an American balancing between America and Denmark and for the longest time I couldn't figure out why in the hell I would smile and be friendly and people would just stare at me. It took me a long time to realize it's just the culture over here (DK). Everytime I go back to the States it takes me about a week to adjust back to the happiness and the cheery people ... I wouldn't trade either place for the world though, I love the life I live.

  14. Fascinating topic, this smiling thing! I so love these types of cultural differences and reading about them. I'm Dutch, married to a globetrotting American. We've lived in a number of countries, but the greatest happy/smiling culture shock I ever experienced was moving from Ghana to Armenia.

    Ghanaian people are as happy, friendly and cheerful as they come. Armenians? Not so much. A smile takes on a whole load of meaning there, and I was warned by a friend ;) It's a long story, so forgive me for being bloggy-incorrect and offer you my harrowing tale TO SMILE OR NOT TO SMILE:

    And as a fellow writer, I cannot agree more with you that travel makes you more creative.

  15. I thought that about Americans being so cheerful! When I tried to explain to a friend while visiting him in Texas that the bouncy waitress was CREEPING ME OUT he thought I was crazy. What's wrong with smiles and cheeriness and free drink refills? Well, nothing, but... it still creeped me out.

    Living overseas has broadened my perspective, and allowed me to see the culture I was raised in a little more objective - even to see some of the flaws that I have picked up from it.

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  17. I think people just want to be optimistic during these times of uncertainty - but deep inside - people stress about the concerns (unemployment) et, al.

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