Teaching abroad, you hear a lot of stereotypes about Americans. We have lots of fat people. Everyone likes fast food. There are American flags outside of every house. Everyone has an American smile.
An American smile? I asked, the first time I heard it. What do you mean, an American smile?
I got different answers. Everyone has straight, white teeth. That’s an American smile. An American smile is very big. Americans are always smiling, even when they’re not happy, so an American smile isn’t always genuine.
Think about that one for a minute – it’s true. Americans always put on a nice face. If you’re at a restaurant and you’ve just gotten in a car crash and you’re going to have to pay $3000 and wait two weeks to have your car back and you were at fault so it’ll raise your insurance payments and be on your record forever and the waiter asks you how you are, what will you say? I’m good, you’ll say. I’m fine, maybe. I’m okay, if you’re feeling especially beat up about it. Under no circumstances would an American ever say you know, I’m not so good. I’m having a terrible day.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, that not all places are like that. Czechs are notoriously not that way, as evidenced by the thousands of tourists who return home talking about how rude the Czechs are. They’re not rude, they just don’t bother to have American smiles.
But those smiles, where do they come from? Some would say it’s a lack of genuineness, and it is, sometimes. Let’s say the waiter who asked you how you were has a table sitting next to you who has sent their food back three times and spent the whole time complaining about the noise, the choices on the menu, and how they’d prefer to have a waiter who was a little more careful with their orders, the waiter still has to smile. He’ll be smiling even as he thanks the customers for leaving him a nonexistent tip and a nasty table to clean up. There’s un-genuine for you.
There are other reasons, though. It sucks to have to learn them, but sometimes we do.
I just found out that my dog is dying. This is not something that I’m in any position to deal with. This is my dog, the one who I picked out at the animal shelter and named after my hockey hero and whose pictures are everywhere, on my phone, my walls, my Facebook, my desktop background, etc. This is the dog who I guiltily single out as my favorite while trying not to let the other one catch on. This is the dog who wakes me up panting in the middle of the night when there are thunderstorms because he knows that I won’t kick him off the bed or be annoyed to lose sleep because of him. This is a dog who now has a prognosis of about 60 days, while I’m not supposed to go home until the middle of July.
So what can I do? I never planned that the last time I said goodbye to him would be the last time I saw him. It may still not be, for any of a couple reasons, a possible medical miracle among them. My last four months here will now have a dark shadow lurking behind them that I never expected to have (he’s only seven!), and I can’t just spend the entire time crying.
I found out on a Sunday, which of course meant that I had to go to school on Monday. How do you get through the day? There’s only one way that I see – the American smile.
This is how it’s not just a lack of genuineness. First of all, it’s an energy saver. It’s like city vs. highway driving – once you get up to 65, it’s easier on the gas mileage to just keep it at 65 than to be stopping and starting. Once you get that smile plastered on your face, it’s a lot easier just to maintain it than to lose it and have to compose yourself all over again.
It’s also protection. I would imagine that most of us are comfortable breaking down in front of a few people, but certainly not in front of everyone you run into in any given day. At home, yes. With my friends, probably. In the English office at school? I’d rather not, thanks. If I’m smiling, no one thinks that anything is wrong. If I’m smiling, when people ask me how I am I can say good. If I’m smiling, I don’t have to fully face that shadow when I don’t want to.
Maybe it’s cowardly, to have that smile. Maybe healing comes faster if you have to face things more often, something like that. But as it is, I’m going to let my culture take the fall for this one, and maybe, because it’s so well-practiced, no one will know that this American smile is different from the one I usually wear.