Are Americans insincere in the way we speak?

Photo by Yulia Khvorostiana on Unsplash

I recently read the new novel Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. It’s about Lucy, a woman in her 60s who accompanies her enigmatic ex-husband, William, on a roadtrip to Maine to help him solve a decades-old family mystery. After I finished the book, I wrote the following short review:

If there’s one thing I took away from this book, it’s that when we suffer from trauma and a lack of affection during our early years, we might put people on a pedestal — even if they don’t deserve it — just so we can feel wanted by someone. I believe part of this is influenced by the hyperbolic way in which Americans speak, often to gaslight ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say that they have the best, most incredible dad/mom/partner in the world, when I know for a fact the person they’re referring to is a piece of shit. Oh, trauma.

I want to dig into this topic of hyperbolic speaking or thinking further, because it’s something that jumped out repeatedly to me in the book. Here’s an example of Lucy reminiscing about Catherine, her late mother-in-law:

We loved her. Oh, we loved her; she seemed central to our marriage. She was vibrant; her face was often filled with light. (p.39)

But later in the book, Lucy also remembers this about Catherine:

But Catherine, when I first met her, would introduce me to her friends, and she would say quietly with her hand on my arm, “This is Lucy. Lucy comes from nothing.” (p.40)

The funny thing to me, I mean funny-interesting, is that the new coat she bought for me came from a store that was not where they sold especially nice things. […] A few years later she got her real estate license and she sold many houses in nice neighborhoods. So she did have money. That is all I am saying here. (p.49)

And that woman looked at me, her face was contorted with fury, and she spat–she tried to spit–and she said, “Get out of here!” She raised an arm, a bare arm through the slit of her nightgown, and she said, “Get out of here you–you horrible girl! You piece of trash!” (p.145)

I think it’s pretty clear how Lucy really feels about Catherine, even if she won’t come right out and say it.

One cultural difference I’ve noticed since moving to Switzerland is that I give a lot more compliments than the average person here, be they Swiss, European or otherwise. Big, sweeping, exaggerated compliments. In the United States, we’re used to giving them out like free candy. “Oh, I love your shoes,” a stranger might gush to me at the bus stop. “You’ve done an incredible job managing this grant proposal,” a manager might say to a report. “We’re so lucky to have you.”

Do I really mean the compliments I give? Yes and no. My compliments aren’t lies. I’m not going to tell a balding person that I love their hair. But sometimes they do feel superficial. Here are some examples of what I say versus what I actually mean.

What I say: I love your new haircut! It looks amazing on you.

What I mean: You’ve cut your hair in a noticeable way, so I’m just commenting that I’ve noticed.

What I say: You’re such a master of [skill]. I have so much to learn from you.

What I mean: You’re good at your job.

What I say: You are literally the nicest person ever. I’m so grateful for your advice.

What I mean: You’re a nice person.

What I say: [Person] is absolutely incredible, I just adore them.

What I mean: Yeah, [Person] is cool.

Some of my French and Swiss colleagues are not used to these types of compliments. They are caught off guard, surprised, even shrink into themselves a little with embarrassment. In the US, a standard response to a compliment would be, “Aw, thanks. Anyway, back to business.” Here, they are reticent to accept, often shaking their heads and mumbling, “No, not at all!”

How did I develop this admittedly saccharine habit of speaking? Cultural context is one thing. Another factor is simply the desire to be seen as a nice person, a positive presence. When I worked at an NGO in DC, there was a director — a French woman, funnily enough — who was one of the nicest people I’d ever met. Despite her seniority in the organization and the fact that she worked remotely from France, she was sweet, helpful, and extremely easy to reach.

One of my colleagues once commented on this fact, and she said, “Well, I am a nice person, that’s true, but my niceness is also strategic.”

“What do you mean?” my colleague asked.

And she explained, “When I am nice to people, I think of it as building credit with them. Every nice thing I do for them wins points for me. So in the future, if I ever need something from them, it will be easier to get them to cooperate.”

When I heard this story, it was a little light bulb moment. It was the first time I had heard someone put into words how niceness can be both sincere and strategic at the same time. And it made me realize that this had been my motivation, too, even though I had never thought to articulate it in this way.

For instance, when my boss’s best friend died, I got her a condolence card. I spontaneously bring fresh flowers to friends. I marked the intern’s birthday in my calendar and brought her a box of chocolates. I always make time to speak with younger people who want to know more about my line of work and how to get a foot in the door. What do I expect from these interactions? Nothing concrete, I suppose–just the hope that they will always remember that when they needed something, I was there for them first.

In the future, maybe I will dial it back a bit on the compliments. None of us are the most incredible people in the world, and saying that is just plain silly. Words matter, but actions matter more.

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