Bad Habits I Picked Up in the USA
Certain cultures are known for being outgoing, communal, and open. Others are more reserved, independent, and straightforward. Despite having two Haitian parents and a decidedly Haitian upbringing, after more than two decades of living in the U.S., I've acquired cultural traits that are decidedly American. The longer I live abroad, the more I realize just how American I can be. Here are just a few examples:
1. I Prefer Directness
When my Panamanian friends text me, we have to go through a series of greetings and pleasantries before they get to the actual point of the message:
Hola France (Hi France)
Como estas? (How are you?)
Qué tal? (What's up?)
Y qué estás haciendo? (Whatcha dooooin?)
Y qué hiciste hoy? (And what did you do before that?)
Como fue tu dia? (And before that? Seriously, tell me everything...)
Meanwhile, I’m reading these texts and wondering when the person is going to get to the point. I’ve even tried to be direct, skip the small talk, and send a text like this for example:
“Tu quieres ir a Casco conmigo hoy?” (Do you want to go to Casco with me today)
The reply, without fail, will always be a slightly admonishing: “Hola France. Buenos dias…” I always imagine the person receiving the text on the other end just a tad bit scandalized by my abruptness. Thus, we have to go through all the customary greetings before the person tells me that, actually, they'll be working late today and can't go to Casco with me.
For Americans, texting is the equivalent of sending a brief memo. When Americans text, we immediately tell you the reason for the text: “Hey, can I use your Netflix password to watch telenovelas?”
"NP. Here it is:_____"
2. I Don’t Talk to Strangers
Panamanians take greetings just as seriously in person as they do in texts. It never ceases to amaze me that Panamanians greet everyone when they get on the elevator or the train, and then say goodbye when they get off. Can you imagine saying good morning when you get on the NYC subway without having a shoe thrown at your head?! Here, everyone actually greets the person back accordingly.
The newspaper man on my street will stop what he's doing to greet me every morning, even when I try to put on my shades and pretend I don't see him when I'm in a hurry. In the U.S., people largely avoid making eye contact with strangers at all costs in public. In fact, most people will try to close the elevator doors quickly rather than endure a few awkward minutes of silence with a stranger.
I can clearly remember all the public service announcements that ran when I was a child discouraging us from talking to people we didn’t know. Skepticism bordering on outright mistrust of strangers is the American way.
In contrast, every time I meet someone in Panama, they asks me 50-11 questions about myself- no topic ever seems to be off limits. It's as if they never saw the Stranger Danger videos! After years of being conditioned to avoid people I don't know, I have to make a conscious effort to engage in small talk with people for no other reason than to be polite.
3. I Mind My Own Business
When my cousins were here a few months ago, we got into an argument in front of my apartment building. We weren’t particularly loud or aggressive, but it was an obviously tense discussion to anyone paying attention. I do not exaggerate when I say that, despite that fact that we were speaking in English, the entire neighborhood participated in this argument. The door man left his perch to come stand by my side and provide his version of events in Spanish (despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the initial cause of the argument), the retirees in my apartment building came downstairs to narrate the scene to each other (some even brought snacks for their fellow onlookers), traffic stalled as people poked their heads out the window to offer advice or ask if we needed help. The fact that not a single person could understand us was inconsequential, everyone wanted to be involved in resolving the issue!
In the smallest ways, this sense of community has come to my aid many times in Panama. If I’m struggling home with groceries, often someone will give me a hand. If I’m lost, someone will stop what they’re doing to guide me in the right direction. In that sense, it is not too much unlike Haitian culture to be considered part of the larger whole. In contrast, American exceptionalism is more focused on the individual (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country…”) so that we celebrate when an individual excels yet never question why many never reach their full potential. Part of this means being hesitant to get involved in other people's lives and assuming that someone struggling will be able to overcome that hurdle on their own.
4. I Never Learned How to Stroll
Walking purposefully and quickly is part of being an American. Second only to a firm handshake, your stride shows that you are confident and ambitious. In fact, just hanging around in public with your friends in many cities in America is considered "loitering" and can be penalized with a fine or jail time. Thus, when a friend of mine texted me one Saturday evening and asked if I wanted to go out to “caminar y comer helados”, I was initially confused. “You want to go out and just walk around? Why,” I asked. I can strut. I can stride. But stroll?...nah.
Finally, he convinced me to come out with him and his cousins. Once we parked, I hopped out of the car and walked purposefully to the paletta shop a few blocks away. “Slow down, France,” he yelled after me, “we’re supposed to be strolling. Look around, you’re way ahead of everyone!” It was true, everyone else was laughing and taking in the warm night air while I looked liked I was marching into battle. I had to stop and make myself walk at a leisurely pace.
5. I Ignore the Rules of Etiquette
When we arrived at the paletta shop, I still managed to be a few steps ahead of everyone else. I casually reached for the door handle without thinking. Two of the guys I was with almost leaped passed me to grab the door handle first. In the U.S., it’s not necessarily a given that men will hold the door for me so I'd rather not stand outside for who knows how long, awaiting the arrival of an actual gentlemen to hold the door for me. In Panama, however, I’ve often get stares of confusion from men when I instinctively reach for the door rather than wait for them to hold it open.
Once we were in the paletta shop, I took a few minutes to decide which flavor of the gourmet popsicles I wanted before I placed my order. When everyone else had ordered, the friend who’d invited me out reached for his wallet to pay to bill. “France already paid for hers,” his cousin murmured to him conspiratorially (snitches, man). He gave me the same look of amused exasperation that he’d been giving me all evening as I blushed in embarrassment. In the back of my mind, I know that the one who invites you out should pay the bill. Technically, they're the host for the evening. Not wanting to stand around expectantly and make assumptions while everyone else ordered, however, I’d quietly paid for my paletta and tried to go unnoticed.
6. I Don't Talk About Money
I dated an ex for almost 2 years before I found out how much he made only because I was negotiating my own salary. He kept pushing me to go back and ask for more money until my salary matched his, given that we had the same educational background and expertise. In contrast, on my very first date with a Panamanian guy, he told he what his monthly salary was and how much his rent was. I was taken aback at how casually he shared financial information that, up to that point, I would have considered confidential. From his point of view, though, he was trying to convey that he was stable and he could take care of me.
Money is still a taboo topic amongst Americans. It’s uncommon for people to openly admit how much they make or share salary information. One of my friends posted on Facebook about how annoyed she was that her uber driver asked her how much her rent was whereas here, people ask me how much I pay for rent or other things without hesitation: "Oh, you live in El Cangrejo... how much is your rent over there?" "How much did you pay for that bag?"
I think the only Americans who are truly comfortable talking about money seem to be rappers. In that case, letting everyone know how much you money you have is a prerequisite. When you reach a certain level as a rapper, it is then required that you make an entire album filled with references to luxury items, art, designers, and 1%ers that you weren't previously aware of, but have now acquired. Picasso, baby.
It's the American way.
The lack of openness about money, wages, credit, etc making it easy for wage discrepancies to continue in America. It can also hinder people from making better informed decisions about important financial milestones such as taking out a home loan.
As I continue to adjust to life abroad, I know that there are certain things about me that will never change. For example, I will likely always prefer directness to small talk; I prefer to choose my words carefully and am notoriously impatient. However, I am still learning to enjoy a carefree stroll with my friends, stopping to chat with my neighbors every now and then, and saying hello to strangers, amongst other things.