Attitude adjustment

Parental discretion is advised. This guy contains explicit lyrics.
Parental discretion is advised. This guy contains explicit lyrics. (photo credit: Jess Marks Photography)

I dunno if this is some “writer” thing or if it’s just dumb luck, but most everything I bang out for this blog and the newspaper column tends to be inspired by some innocuous happening or off-hand comment that gets me thinking. You can tell when I’m thinking because there’s the faint smell of burning wood. Anyway, this time around there were three catalysts:

1. The other day I woke up to a text from my mother, which is always nice.

It was very motherly, admonishing but well-meaning as mothers tend to be. (And yes I know you’re reading this Mum – hi.) I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, but the gist was that I should consider not cursing in my blog posts because people may be offended by it.

To be fair, this site is littered with pictures of my face, which is arguably more upsetting to people’s sensibilities than the odd four-letter word or two. But nevertheless I scurried out of bed and edited the two F-bombs out of the post to which she was referring. Always listen to your mother.

2. As it happened, after I’d thrown open the floor to see what my readers wanted to know about life, the universe and everything over here as an immigrant, one of my good mates from home asked (and I’m paraphrasing here) how my new countrymen tolerate my traditionally foul, stereotypically Aussie truck-driver vocabulary, or whether I’ve toned it down to accommodate my new surroundings.

3. My buddy Molly forwarded me a blog post written by a coworker’s husband, an American who had spent some time Down Under. The subject was Australian slang that he’d picked up over the course of his stint in Australia, and half of the word count was spent apologizing for the “blue” language contained within.

To those not in the know, those reading from countries other than my birth nation or those who’ve just never met the average Aussie, we’re often a little more…loose of tongue. It’s not necessarily a point of pride, and I know a lot of people who would argue that swearing isn’t “an Australian thing” but a filthy habit of lesser minds, and they’re probably right too.

For context, I’m no stranger to cursing. If you’ve read a single one of my blog posts, or ever met me for more than 11 seconds, you’ll probably know this. But by the same token, I was raised with excellent manners (under pain of death) and I’m well-educated, articulate and generally situationally socially appropriate. In other words, I pick my spots: Friday night at the bar with guys my age? Swear away, guv’ner. Speaking with a colleague in her 50s who I’ve known for three months and had four conversations with in that time period? I’ll watch my tongue very closely.

Foul language isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I sat down to write this post though. The bigger picture is something I became acutely aware of back in August last year when I first arrived in Denver after quitting my job and packing up my whole life. I was out walking a walk with the friend I was staying with, trying to get acclimatized to the altitude and shake off some jetlag. We were strolling through a beautifully manicured suburban street in a pretty affluent suburb of Denver when we passed a middle-aged guy doing the same thing. He and my friend were total strangers, but exchanged pleasantries in the street like they were old friends. I could barely manage an awkward half-smile and a nod before we set off again.

I immediately knew that I’d have to quickly undergo the attitude adjustment I referred to in the title. I’m not unfriendly by any means – I’ve got my old man’s gift for the gab and socially I’m pretty confident, even with strangers – but in the vast majority of American manners and politeness is a cut above the rest. Brisbane isn’t some huge cold metropolis, but I’d argue that most people wouldn’t go out of their way to make small talk with a stranger in the street in the course of their average day. I know I certainly didn’t make a habit of it, unless I was shooting the shit with a shop attendant or bartender or someone else who was generally a captive audience.

I’ve said it a million times since I’ve been here in Maine, but the people are just stunningly friendly for the most part. I’ve also said that I’m sure the novelty of being from away helps a lot, because people are naturally curious about what brought me 10,000 miles around the world to this rural state in the far north-east corner of the US. It’s not just Maine though – the Americans I’ve interacted with over the past six years far and wide have consistently blown me away with hospitality, kind gestures and good old-fashioned neighborly behavior.

As someone coming from a big-city environment where a lot of people just put their heads down and go about their business, it was kinda like being thrown in the deep end. I had to turn down my natural cynicism immediately and embrace the fact that people are just being…NICE. It’s easy to be aloof or think you’re somehow above the people who you interact with casually on a daily basis, and sure – you can get in and out with the minimum of personal contact. But not only do you get a far better response from people when you’re friendly, but it feels good. I’m not writing this as if it’s a new revelation, or something I’m only just discovering, but because it’s a pleasant yet challenging aspect of relocating here.

And I’m not saying for a second that Australians aren’t friendly too. Every single American I’ve met here who’s been Down Under says without fail that “the people are so friendly and helpful”, and it’s absolutely true. In my experience I think Australian friendliness is less forward – need a favor? Just ask! – where here it’s more out in the open.

Another interesting perspective that I hadn’t really had an insight into came from my pal Bonnie, who came with me to Baxter Brewing last weekend. She told me once that there’s a socially awkward element to all Americans that make them uncomfortable in silences, so they’re really well-practiced at making small talk. Whether this is true or just an observation, it does go hand-in-hand with something else I’ve always found – that Americans are exceptionally good conversationalists, even with random foreign strangers who’ve inexplicably moved into their frozen tundra state in the midst of the toughest winter in five years. I could sit and watch people talk to strangers at a bar all damn day – they’re just that good at it.

That would make me a bit creepy though, I guess. No matter where you’re from or how friendly you are, no one wants to talk to the creepy guy.

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5 thoughts on “Attitude adjustment

  1. great article. I find the conversational differences between Australians and Americans very interesting and is probably something that you can only get to the bottom off over half a dozen pints at the bar. That said, the point you raised on the difference between an American saying howdy to a stranger on a walk (and how that made you a little awkward) versus you being happy to chat away with a shopkepper / bar tender is the line in the sand / snow!

    my partner (american, in Australia) finds it incredibly awkward when the checkout guy/girl at woolies asks question after question to keep the conversation going whilst the beeps of the register sign out. She knows they are being polite and doesn’t her darnedest to keep up, but it doesn’t come natural. Meanwhile, I quite enjoy it and it is almost a challenge to get a chuckle out of them via a one-liner or two.

    And finally, I agree that Americans are terrific conversationalists and I plan on actively embracing this trait when I move to the US, particularly in the workplace!!

    keep it up, cowboy.

  2. This has given me a chuckle…token 50 year old woman here!! Listen to your mum was great advice LOL I am fascinated by Americans and their ‘gift of the gab’….I watch one regularly that webcasts on a subject I am interested in and she talks nonstop for 90 minutes, is interesting and entertaining..but but as a mother of teenagers, sometimes silence is precious!
    Enjoy your writing and reading about your experiences!

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