Hey Stranger, what’s your story ?

Young Caucasian woman wearing hoody, cycling exercise bike, talking to her female sport friend in fitness center

Returning home to the States for visits after years of living abroad always makes me acutely aware of certain cultural differences. They often bring a knowing smile to my lips.

Getting to know Americans can be so easy

On a recent trip I was staying in a hotel and decided to use the hotel gym. Another hotel guest – I’ll call him Tim–was there and we negotiated the use of the stairstep machine so that we would both have a chance to work out. Once finished with my workout and while my co-exerciser was using some weights, we easily struck up a conversation. I learned that Tim lived in California, where he had grown up, that he was on the east coast with his college-bound son, participating in lacrosse try-outs in front of college recruiters looking for good potential. My new acquaintance’s daughter also played Lacrosse for Stamford University but Tim felt that Lacrosse was of a higher caliber on the East Coast.  His son hoped to attend Williams College, one of the top-ranked colleges on the East Coast. 

I allowed that I had played lacrosse for Trinity College, near where the try-outs were taking place. After a few more minutes of chatting about my fellow traveler’s life, he asked me what I was doing in Connecticut. I hesitated, and there was an awkward silence. “Oh, I’m here to visit family,” I replied, which was true enough but far from the whole story. 

What is personal in one culture may not be in another

Another example of our easy exchanges as Americans occurred while I was on a road trip in Italy. Driving through Tuscany, my companions and I stopped at a rest stop for some coffee. After consuming our expresso at the counter, in typical Italian rest stop style, we made a trip to the restroom, chatting in English as we walked. A 30-something American passing by heard us talking and quickly struck up a conversation : 

– “Hey, where are you from?” He inquired. 

–  “ We’re from America but have lived in Paris for a long time”, I replied, while taking a few more steps towards the exit. 

–  “Oh, I’m from Iowa and work in manufacturing, but I’ve decided to throw in the towel and move to Tuscany. What’s your story? What do you do in Paris?”

–  “ Oh, I’m in education”, I responded evasively, as I edged closer to the exit. I then smiled and wished this adventurer good luck.

I love the American tendency to be friendly and strike up conversations with complete strangers, especially when we travel.  In fact, when I return to the States, these exchanges often lift my spirits, as long as they don’t get too personal. I now realize that after living in France for 30 years, it’s hard for me to share personal information with strangers.

However, what is considered private or personal in one culture may not be in another. In France, your profession and why you have traveled to a given place would be considered personal information, not readily shared.