Today a Ukrainian friend of mine had her first English class with an American Peace Corps volunteer.
“He has very American eyes,” she told me. I let out a little chuckle, not quite sure what very American eyes are. “They are very big,” she explained, “and they are always staring at you. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Now I was laughing. I knew what she was talking about. Lots of cultures are ok with eye contact, but Americans are the only ones I know who so actively seek it out.
Perhaps encouraged by my laughter she went on: “He has a very American smile as well.”
“An American smile, huh? And what is that?”
“It is a smile that is always ready to smile. And it is always the same smile.”
Again, I was laughing. Most stereotypes I hear about Americans (and I hear a lot) ring hollow. The archetypical blonde bimbo with constant high rising terminal does surely exist, but (s)he is much more likely to be on a TV sitcom than in an international hostel. These two descriptions, though – the trigger-happy smile and the wide-eyed stare – I can picture perfectly. I don’t think that they are just WASP characteristics either. White, brown, or black … just about every American I know who has traveled for long enough comes to the same realization: that we’re actually much more American than we had ever expected.
Update: Via Lauren I came across this most sensible question from Olivia Judson: “do some languages contain an intrinsic bias towards pulling happy faces?” Does American English pre-dispose us to smiling faces? (And, one might wonder, does the New York accent produce facial expressions of constant irritation?)