Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the girl behind the counter in Taco Bell actually gives a shit about how you are.
She doesn’t. No one does. It’s just a thing American people say, quickly and without looking up from what they’re doing – presumably to make sure you know they really, really don’t give a shit. ‘Hihowareyou? Great howareyou? Awesome do you have loyalty card? Sure. Great thanks so much that’s $10. No problem here you go. Great all set, have an awesome day guys.’ is the way it’s supposed to go. All with a big white-toothed smile and as little eye contact as possible.
While we were in San Diego Zoo one of the workers said ‘Hihowareyou?’ as we approached an exhibit. My boyfriend and I responded with a weary ‘hi’ and the worker, unperturbed, replied: ‘awesome guys, welcome to the Panda Trek’. It’s like it doesn’t matter what you say back. They’re reeling off a script. You could say ‘fuck you’ and they’d still say ‘awesome guys, welcome to the Panda Trek.’
At the airport in Las Vegas I walked into a shop and this chirpy voice piped up out of nowhere: ‘hihowareyou welcome to our store if you need anything be sure to let me know.’ I looked around but the only other person in there was a girl busily hanging clothes up on a rail. I can only assume it was her. She didn’t even look at me.
I don’t wish to insult Americans personally by slamming this style of communication. After all, it is a style – not necessarily indicative of character. Two weeks travelling in California (and Las Vegas) has convinced me that it is a cultural thing. It’s how people are taught to be: ultra polite, familiar and welcoming. Even if they don’t give a shit, which most of the time they don’t.
In England if the person serving you doesn’t give a shit, you’ll know it. They might be outright rude, or they might just be uncommunicative. But that’s okay. At least you don’t have to tell them how you are.
We did meet a few people on our travels who seemed a bit more down to earth. There was a lady who volunteered at the elephant seal beach in San Simeon. She asked us what we thought about the election over there (ridiculous, a media pantomime, worrying) and she nodded and said she was embarrassed for America. She also asked who we were, and what we did. She listened to our answers and joked with us and it was really nice to talk to someone who seemed to care.
Another thing I noticed about Americans is that they are really, really strict. Laws and rules and restrictions are prolific and scrupulously enforced. It began at border control where the woman in the glass box was so mean to me (a mistake to do with my immigration form) I wanted to hold my hands up, walk back over the line and say ‘fine, fine, I don’t want to spend my hard-earned money in your stuck-up country. I’m going home.’
Luckily I didn’t. I just gave her my icy ‘I am a much better person than you and you know it’ stare and tried not to cry.
In Las Vegas we tried to bring pots of frozen yoghurt into the pool area of our hotel. Not allowed. The coffee was allowed, but not the yoghurt. Of course. Instead, we went round to the front of the hotel to eat it in the sunshine. A man in hi vis cycled up to us and said: ‘What are you doing guys?’ I thought it was just another insincere greeting. With a mouthful of frozen yoghurt I said: “we’re eating yoghurt.”
It turned out we weren’t allowed to eat yoghurt in that particular spot. We stood by the bin to finish them. Las Vegas was a particularly strange place – but that deserves its own post (which hopefully I’ll get round to soon).
My final observation is that while Britain is saturated in American culture, many Americans know very little about Britain. One (very friendly) Uber driver asked us if we have cement or if it’s just dirt roads over here. He said he can imagine what it’s like because he’s seen the Braveheart movie. We assured him we have some concrete nowadays.
There’s something pleasing in the idea that Americans think we live in Medieval Scotland.
I don’t know why my first post about our American road-trip is so negative. We had such a good time and I feel so lucky to have been. I suppose it was just the biggest thing I picked up on – how different Americans are. It disappointed me, to meet so many people with that glazed dead-pan look in their eyes. But we did meet a few interesting, curious people too. And I know I shouldn’t judge a nation of people by a few superficial interactions. Bill Bryson, one of the most interesting, intelligent and funny writers I’ve ever read (and met), is from Iowa. But then again, he couldn’t wait to get out of the States.