American Strangers


Can I make a confession? When I encounter American strangers, I avoid them. I’m not talking about people I’ve been introduced to in a professional or social setting. I mean random people I cross paths with while out in public, who are clearly from the United States. You can always tell an American from a distance because they’re loud and chatty. I’m not saying that they’re the only culture that speaks at a greater volume than the average Finn, or that people from other places can’t be talkative. There’s a unique combination, though.

Since you can hear them so well their dialects of English give them away. Moreso than the language are the topics of conversation. Not a lot of Finns, or anyone else for that matter, spend as much time talking just to fill the silence. When you’re away from Americans for a long period of time, you start to recognize when people are having an actual conversation, and when they’re just trying to fill the void.

A Tale of Two Americans

There are two reasons I avoid American strangers, but let me give you an example first. I was checking out at the grocery store. In Finland you bring your own bags and pack up your own groceries. I tend to bag things quickly to get out of everyone else’s way, then move to an empty lane to repack. Some people aren’t as quick. Older people take longer. It can slow things down, but everyone is mellow about it. There’s no reason to lose your mind because something takes a few extra minutes.

Behind me in line is an American exchange student. He’s by himself, and looks to be around 19 or 20. He is bitching about how slow the line is moving. There’s reason number one why I avoid American strangers. The sense of entitlement, coupled with a pervasive cultural impatience, is so painfully out of place here. You can’t escape or excuse how blatantly rude it is in context.

I’m finishing packing my groceries as he’s paying. He’s still complaining the entire time. He’s hitting my last nerve so I speak up.

“You know all of these people understand English, right? They’re just too polite to tell you to shut up.”

Now, in the United States I would expect this guy to respond in kind. Tell me to shut the bleep up, step up on me with his chested puffed out, whatever. No, he hears me, his eyes light up, a smile takes over his face, and he excitedly yells “You’re an American!”.

My Fear of American Strangers

Reason number two I don’t like running into American strangers: a lot of them think you’re their new best friend. Just because we’re both an a foreign country doesn’t mean we have a special bond. No. If this were taking place in a Kroger anywhere in the United States, he would not be reacting this way.
“You’re a guest in this country,” I said, “and you’re being extremely rude. Even if you’re only going to be here for a semester, learn some manners. Then I take my groceries and leave.

No, not all Americans behave that way. I have enough anecdotes, though, that I want to feel people out first. Katie laughs because when I spot an American I instinctively switch to speaking Finnish. I don’t want to hear me. She jokes that if I were around Americans all the time, I’d be fluent by now. I’m embarrassed by a lot of Americans, though. It pains me to say it, but it’s true.

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