I went to the US for the first time in the mid 1990s not to visit but to live there. I had been accepted in a Master Program and granted a Teaching Assistanship in a University in Pensylvania. Back then, what I knew of American culture, I had learned through movies, TV series and fiction. When I got there, the first thing that struck me, and deeply touched me, in Americans was their kindness and their generosity.
I was offered help at any time, for free, without expecting anything in return. The University had a service to welcome and accompany foreigners in their installation. It also hosted an event where you could pick up dishes, furnitures, bed linens, home furnishing free of charge. Neighbors, whom I had just met, offered me many objects for my move.
At the department, knowing that I didn’t have a car, several people were concerned about whether I needed a ride to stores. I must admit that I was totally blown away by this outpouring of attention, as I didn’t know anyone in this country!
This generosity seemed to have no limits! Everywhere I went, on the way to campus, on the street, on the bus, people smiled at me, said hello and asked me how I was doing with a kindness that I had never experienced in France or in England. The Americans were really amazing! They knew how to welcome people and make them feel comfortable!
This wonderment lasted a month
At that moment, I unconsciously felt that something was wrong. The Americans were certainly very warm, but to the point of saying hello to everyone everywhere and all the time…I was beginning to doubt it. I asked an American colleague who had lived in France for two years, “Is it normal for everyone to greet me everywhere I go? She gave me a question-like answer: “No, it’s not normal. Do you make eye contact with people?
I didn’t know how to answer her question. So I began to observe myself, and then to observe the Americans I met, and to experiment. After a week, I concluded that it was the eye contact I was making with people that was generating this friendly interaction.
At first, it was clear that the eye contact I made on the street with strangers was more frequent and also more insistent than the eye contact Americans, in general, gave me. Americans were clearly looking at each other less directly than the French in public spaces.
“Why is she looking at me like that?”
After a while, I realized that when Americans looked at each other, they automatically smiled at each other, something which I did not do. For them, smiling meant, “You’re here, I’m here, it’s okay, let’s move on”. Their behavior was the opposite of mine. Indeed, when I met the eyes of strangers in the street, my face was impassive. I realized that this French gaze, perceived as insistent by Americans, combined with this coldness, made Americans uncomfortable, and could even be perceived as aggressive: “Why is she looking at me like that? What does she want from me?
It was my typically French non-verbal behavior that led the Americans to defuse a situation they perceived as strange! All those smiles, hellos, and how-do-you-do’s were a way for them to tell me, “You want to start a conversation? Do you want to tell me something? Is there a problem? And by doing so, I was removing the ambiguity of the situation and replacing the cold interaction context I was creating with something more positive, more friendly, that matched their communication style.
When I adapted my non-verbal communication, I stopped getting smiles and hellos at every corner. But most importantly, I stopped making Americans feel uncomfortable !