FreakonomicsImage by jackleg via Flickr

Stephen J. Dubner [co-author of Freakonomics] had a contest: Write a six-word motto for the U.S!

The winning motto was:

Our Worst Critics Prefer to Stay (194 votes)

The runners-up were:

  • Caution! Experiment in Progress Since 1776 (134)
  • The Most Gentle Empire So Far (64) votes
  • You Should See the Other Guy (38)
  • Just Like Canada, With Better Bacon (18)

The wining motto touched a nerve for me. I often talk with Europeans who come here to see what tips they can pick up about the American way of doing business and inevitably, they point out how superficial Americans are.

For example, they comment that the typical American greeting “hi, how are you?” with the answer, “fine, how are you?” is incredibly insincere, as no one is really interested in how the other is doing.

Duh! Of course not, that is not what this greeting is about. It is a “polite formula” and preferable to the rude greetings one often gets in many countries in Western Europe when entering a store.

I remember going to buy fresh rolls in a Munich bakery. I asked for Broetchen (the normal German word for rolls) and was immediately corrected by the Bavarian baker that “in Bavaria, we say Semmeln” [which is the Bavarian way of calling rolls]. So there, I stood corrected. I would have much preferred a simple, “Hi, how are you?”

“I want to scratch away that surface friendliness of the Americans and see what is really underneath” was a comment from one of the women visitors. When I asked her what would happen if she scratched away at the surface of a street cleaner in a major European capital (yes, the streets are often still cleaned by sweeping them by hand), she thought there would be more of a thought process in that person than in a “superficial” American.

However, in an interesting insight, she continued that the street cleaner was probably angry that he had to clean the street, that the state was not paying enough of his social benefits, that the weather was lousy and that he hated his job.

She then admitted that it was nicer to have a smiling greeter at a store entrance, that she enjoyed that people on the street in SF were so willing to help give directions and that her stay in the US was very agreeable.

There lies the dichotomy. On the one hand, maybe Europeans love to criticize us here about our “superficiality”; on the other hand, they see the positive attitudes, that being friendly at work makes for a better work atmosphere and they recognize that the US way of doing business definitely has its advantages. And many not only come here, but don’t go back home anymore.

Which leads me back to the winner of the motto: Our Worst Critics Prefer to Stay – makes sense, doesn’t it?

If you think that Indians, Chinese or others also find fault with certain American characteristics, please comment on them.

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