The most surprising thing when you live abroad is that you’re not surprised where you expect to be. Navigating North American customs when talking to strangers or new acquaintances has been more confusing than I thought.
On the whole, it seems to me that many people in North America are incredibly polite and nice to people they’ve just met. They will smile, offer help, ask a couple of polite questions. This is quite a change from France. It’s not that French people are rude, it’s just that they tend to go straight to the point, and smiling or being extra nice is not a huge requirement. Hence the somewhat random nature of interactions with new people I usually expect in France (I didn’t realise it until recently, but I do): sometimes people will be adorable, sometimes they’ll find very creative ways to make your day a little more rotten by making you understand just how much you annoy them. That’s how it works.
Now, there is a popular theory that there are two types of attitudes depending on where you are: in some places, people are outwardly friendly but most of the bonds you form tend to remain superficial, whereas in others, people are not as outgoing but form deeper bonds of friendships. For the record, I’m highly sceptical about that. For one thing, it just sounds too neatly arranged to be true. For another, I’ve yet to find a place where you don’t manage to find wonderful people you could be friends for life with if the conditions are right. But I think I’m starting to understand where that theory comes from.
When you’re used to one form of social interaction, it’s quite difficult at first to adjust to another. In France, when people ask questions about you, make a comment about the place you’re from or anything else that might possibly start a conversation, it usually is meant to be just that: a conversation starter. People who don’t really want to interact with you rarely bother. So, naturally, when people in Québec or in the US have said things to me such as ‘How are you today?’ or ‘You’re from Aix-en-Provence? How wonderful, my friend spent a year there and loved it!’, I tend to reply. This has led me to a few awkward situations, because the comment was never intended as a cue for me to start a conversation. It was just a nice way to make me understand I had been noticed. But not reading the situation properly made me feel rather awkward.
Now I understand North American politeness better, I actually think it’s rather nice. It’s also a shame in a way, because when people I’ve just met are friendly to me now, I tend to view them as socially competent rather than kind, but hey, socially competent is a good thing. Also I tend to be overly fond of starting conversations with strangers, and I’m firmly on my way to become that little old lady in the bus who starts chatting with her fellow passengers without the slightest regard for the book they’re reading or the phone they’re typing on, so what’s been initially awkward for me may not be for other people. Regardless, I understand how that sort of cultural misunderstanding may lead some to become disgruntled and to assume that in some places, friendliness is a shallow thing. Politeness and friendliness are both great and necessary for any society to function, but they are not the same thing, and depending on the place, they will encompass different norms and be used in different ways.
Just learn to navigate both and you’ll make great friends everywhere.