Friday, December 12, 2008

Stephen Fry on America

Stephen Fry on America:

If I were to run out of petrol in the middle of the night I would feel more confident about knocking on the door of an American home than one in any other country I know - including my own. The friendly welcome, the generosity, the helpfulness of Americans - especially, I ought to say, in the South and Midwest - is as good a reason to visit as the scenery. Yes, Americans are terrible drivers (endlessly weaving between lanes while on the phone, bullying their way through if they drive a big vehicle, no waves of thanks or acknowledgement, no letting other cars into traffic), yes they have no idea what cheese or bread can be and yes, strip malls, TV commercials and talk radio are gratingly dreadful. But weighing the good, the kind, the original, the enchanting, the breathtaking, the hilarious and the lovable against the bad, the cruel, the banal, the ugly, the crass, the silly and the monstrous, I see the scales coming down towards the good every time.

There is one phrase I probably heard more than any other on my travels: Only in America! If you were to hear a Briton say ‘Tch! only in Britain, eh?’ it would probably refer to something that was either predictable, miserable, oppressive, dull, bureaucratic, queuey, damp, spoil-sporty or incompetent - or a mixture of all of those. ‘Only in America!’ on the other hand, always refers to something shocking, amazing, eccentric, wild, weird or unpredictable. Americans are constantly being surprised by their own country. Britons are constantly having their worst fears confirmed about theirs. This seems to be one of the major differences between us.

I made a similar comment a while back about Americans being friendlier than most people, but it's all relative. I just had opposing counsel tell me this morning she moved from Long Island to California because New Yorkers were rough and rude (something Escape From Brooklyn mentions in her blog frequently as a reason to move to Minnesota). Personally, I liked most of the New Yorkers I met when I was in NYC.
In any case, Mr. Fry is correct--as an older white male with a British accent, most Americans will fall over themselves to help him (Americans are suckers for British accents--how else can you explain Hugh Grant's popularity here?).
I think a more accurate statement is that American culture is generally less guarded than other cultures. The question is whether Americans sacrifice modesty and humility for their greater optimism and tolerance. "Whatevah," an American might say. Seems an oddly appropriate response, no?

By the way, Mr. Fry has a delightful blog:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He had a series this autumn on the BBC, where he whipped through 50 states at an alarming speed. He interviewed an Apple designer in SF, who incidentally is British. He was asked about the differences between countries, and said ideas are delicate. In the UK, you'll get a cynical mindset and ideas get shot down. The attitude was different on the west coast, where ideas are embraced; which is why the world has the iPod, iPhone, etc. I brought the accompanying book for my sister's Christmas present, and wanted to quote this interview on but the slant was different to the series, so could not.

Despite his breakneck speed, I had to give him kudos, as it allowed me to understand the US better.