I’ve been living outside of the USA since 2009, and I’m pretty certain I’ve changed a lot since I got on the plane to move to Germany. Of course, I would have changed just as much had I just stayed where I was, or even if I’d moved to Chicago, as I’d originally planned. But I didn’t do those things, and moved to Germany. After that I went on a world tour for about 9 months, and then I moved to Japan.
So there’s been a whole lot of changing happening.
One thing that hasn’t changed is my love of people-watching. Not the ‘going to Harajuku and looking at all the kids all dressed up’, which is also totally interesting, but more the ‘go out with coworkers and sit back and observe how they act, how they talk, and what they say’. That’s always been something I’ve enjoyed, and it’s served me well living in different countries, when trying to figure out how to function ‘normally’ and not look like a tourist.
I’ve been in the company of many Americans since I moved out: I met some in Germany who were in my German language course, met some coworkers when I started teaching, met some more living in Japan. When you take us out of America, one thing becomes abundantly and annoyingly clear: they are guaranteed to be the loudest person in the room, train, park, museum, etc.
I guess living in the land of quiet trains has really taught me how to use my inside voice, or my ‘I’m telling a secret and don’t want anyone to hear me’ voice, which is about the level that I speak here most days, unless I have a loud teacher in the next booth.
And I guess being a teacher has really taught me to actively listen to people, as it’s my job and I LIVE to correct people (as an aside, I thoroughly enjoy the ‘being right most of the time’ that comes with this profession). But what it’s also done to me and most of the people I associate with is this: it’s made me a better listener, and possibly a better friend (even though I will be the first to say that I am total shit when it comes to keeping in touch). However, it’s also made me really good at sniffing out bullshit that gets said and it’s a lot easier to understand why people act in certain ways in different situations.
Something I’ve seen a lot of lately, in new coworkers or just tourists I meet on the street is this: when it comes to Americans (and Canadians, as far as I’ve seen), they are really good at waiting to talk, talking about themselves, and not really listening to whatever the hell it is you’re saying. Because they’re just waiting for the pause to start talking again.
I know it’s not all Americans, I know it’s probably just a small amount of them, most likely, that I’ve been lucky enough to meet. I understand I’m an American, too, and I imagine that when I first left the states, I may have acted similarly. But the issue is this: I don’t hear the vast majority of people I meet from other countries doing it. I’ve met a lot of Germans (of course), a lot of Swedes, a lot of Brits. They don’t do it. It seems to be a thing that characterizes us. And I’m not sure it’s a good thing.
A guy I met from Malaysia said it was one of the things he liked most about Americans when I lamented to him about it. So maybe the rest of the world doesn’t care so much. But it bothers me to the point of almost NOT bothering with most Americans.
The first time I met one of my coworkers (from Pennsylvania), she felt the need to tell me about all of her accomplishments in High School. She was 27 at the time.
Sitting in a training at my office, I got to hear all about a woman’s thoughts on living overseas. She’s 26, from California, and really, really thinks the Japanese work too much. She was in the next room and not a part of my training. I shouldn’t know that information about her.
One of my coworkers makes sure to remind me, every time I see him, about all of the amazing freelance work he’s doing here and how much money he makes. He’s from Chicago.
I could go on about it, and I have enough examples of it happening, just in the past month, to fill a book.
But I’m not writing about it to complain necessarily, but to note that after lots of time spent observing, it seems like all of these cases seem to be some kind of push to prove to people that we matter, or that we’re interesting, or that we deserve to be here. It’s almost as if none of us feel good enough about ourselves just as normal people, so we have to talk about how amazing we and our lives are.
I’ve never learned anything from listening to myself talk. Granted, I HAVE to talk for most of the day, but not about myself, most of the time. Thank goodness. I have learned a lot about life, the universe and everything from listening to OTHER people talking. I’ve also learned a lot about people.
Don’t be an Elvis man. Listen to other people.