So here I finally am, in the Free World, the Land of Dreams, the country where anyone can become whatever they want if they just work hard enough. So much have I heard, so many movies seen, and even though I come from a Western culture myself, it’s all different. And new. And strange.
This was three weeks ago. By now, it’s even more strange, though I slowly get used to it – but that’s material for another blog entry. For now, let me stick to the initial impression I had when setting foot on the southern grounds of the US of A. The first thing I noticed was everyone being extremely friendly. Waiting for the cover to blow to reveal the commonly known myth of American friendliness as totally superficial, I might be overly excited too early. But three weeks in, it still feels very much as if the friendliness is genuine. If it’s not, well, then the people I’ve met so far are damn good at faking it. And, to be honest, I actually don’t care much whether it’s real or not, cause it still feels nice, for now. Really.
Especially when you come from such a long period of living in Finland. Somehow I kind of got used to the fact that my friendly greetings and head-nods and smiles are mostly ignored, equally by neighbors, colleagues, and superiors at work. That it is no rare event to be run over by a shopping cart and receiving merely a half-heartedly grunted “Oho!”, if anything, while your lifeless body is lying in pain on the ground and the offender is already far away in the next aisle. That a stranger rather slams the supermarket door in your face and quickly gets out of the same one, rather than waiting, holding the door, and thus eventually risking any sort of contact with you – even if it’s just eye contact. Beware! Contact to others, an underdeveloped concept of human interaction (inter- what?) in the cold north, where a minimum of private space is defined as at least one hectare of forest around an isolated cottage, is pure evil!
OK, yes, I sort of got used to that. But sometimes, just occasionally, a little bit of compassion would perhaps be nice, just a little bit of empathy… Well, little did I know what kind of huge culture shock I should have prepared myself for, changing environment so drastically: Here in the States, people are apologizing to you even if it was you who bumped into them (I always thought that was kind of a Canadian concept)! They already excuse themselves for taking up your space when still away at least two metres, and constantly everyone wants to know how you are doing! So even if you’re from a country with less contact-avoiding and introvert people, you might be up for a positive surprise when you enter the United States.
Because here, everyone seems to be content, on a general level. Grasping and believing this concept proves in difficult especially for me with my German complain-background – after all, there’s always something to improve, being content just stops evolution, right? But here, if nothing happens, the base-mood is a positive one. Passing strangers smile at you. The world is a happy place. If anything happens, and it’s bad, the rage about it doesn’t last very long. Strangers greet you, and complement you on random things while they are passing by. They ask you how you are, and yes, they expect you to give an answer (and ask them back). People constantly try to be supportive and considerate of one another. Cars wait till you cross the road, or stop to let you go first if they see you’re torturing yourself up a hill on your self-fixed seventy-years old kid’s bike. In Finland, even if you’re ON the zebra crossing, a place that should be safe for pedestrians, you better run when a car is approaching. Not only would they not stop, rumors have it they would also make you pay for the accident that might subsequently result. Because what the heck are you doing in the middle of the road? Everyone has to watch out for themselves! It’s a tough world out there!
Exaggeration aside, I admit that not all is bad in Finland, and not all is good in the States. But I’m not here to count you the numerous examples of advantages and disadvantages of each and every country. Let me instead point out the good things in one, and suggest to transfer and adopt them a little bit in the other one. It is indeed a fact that one of the things that bothered me the most in the past years in Finland was the focus on oneself and the reluctance to acknowledge those around you. I do enjoy the fact that in Finland, I can mind my own business in a supermarket, head down, not having to talk to anyone if I don’t want to. And it might be that after a while in the States, not being able to do that here will start bothering me. But as relaxing as this solitude can be, as frustrating it is when you enter the coffee kitchen at your office, and greet those that are already there, and they simply ignore your existence. It admittedly does get a bit better for a while if you’re the one who bribes them with cookies; but people forget, and not everyone likes cookies. Especially in the land of the glutenfree people.
I would wish for a Finland with a more American attitude when it comes to acknowledging the people around you. Give them a smile. Hold the door if you notice they are just two steps behind you. Oh yes, try to at least be friendly and kind when a customer asks you something, if you happen to work in the service industry (this one goes out to the flight attendants of my favourite airline – you know it’s you! Yes, I am literally scared of you!). If you don’t wanna greet strangers, at least greet back those people that greet you. Oh, and you might wanna redefine the term strangers – not everyone who has not exactly breast-fed you might be one.
This is my American Dream: When I come back to Finland, I want people to be nicer to each other. I know no one is deliberately evil and ignorant there, and I don’t expect the Finnish language to create an equivalent for the word “please” just yet. But the times of seclusion in the woods are over for most of you/us during 11 months of the year, so if you happen to live in a city, try to acknowledge the fact that there’s other humans living in the city, too. If everyone just watched out a little bit for each other, all should be taken care of easily, right?