Why you should care
Because chances are you’re an American, or you’re going to deal with one at some point.
Old movies and TV shows. They can be charming, riveting, even sophisticated. But we’ve all had that cringeworthy moment — listening to a corny or cloyingly optimistic line from an utterly sincere character — that makes it hard for our modern sensibilities to stomach Leave It to Beaver or It’s a Wonderful Life (on any day other than Christmas).
Now imagine that you’ve just stepped off the plane and into a land filled with Jimmy Stewarts, Shirley Temples and Andy Griffiths aw-shucking their way through life with the heartfelt enthusiasm and wholesome self-righteousness of an infomercial star or a public-radio host. For many non-Americans, this is precisely the sort of impression one gets after spending any significant amount of time around a critical mass of us Yanks. Indeed, one might argue that if there is one thing that would allow you to pick out an American in a global lineup (besides the white socks and running shoes), it is the nearly indefatigable earnestness. So I decided to investigate and try to answer the question I’ve heard from so many non-American friends: “Why do Americans take themselves so seriously?”
There’s a persistent, almost clichéd view of Americans, particularly in Great Britain, that we just don’t get irony. American author — and longtime resident of England — Bill Bryson has been one of the most playful proponents of the theory that there is an Irony Curtain separating the two nations. “[Americans’] approach to everyday encounters is trusting, straightforward, almost touchingly literal,” Bryson observes in Notes From a Big Country. Still, as Bryson admits, Americans do not lack irony altogether: From Mark Twain to M*A*S*H to The Simpsons to The Daily Show, American comedy has long been steeped in it.
What makes Americans more prone to such humorless behavior?
Even if by a difference of degree and not of kind, Americans are by and large straight shooters, especially when compared with British culture, where playful, self-deprecating humor is much more a way of life. We are seriously earnest, and earnestly serious, and always have been. Even as early as the 1830s, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville noted the “reciprocal indulgence” and “virile confidence” that Americans exhibit in everyday conversation. Or, as the British actor and comedian Simon Pegg put it in The Guardian, “Americans are not embarrassed by their emotions. They clap louder, cheer harder and empathize more unconditionally.”
Such earnest enthusiasm can be a good thing: I’ve had several non-Americans tell me that what they find most refreshing about America is that optimism and openness toward others. But in a world of reality television, blogs and social media, striving for authenticity can often spark an arms race of sincere self-expression. Such raw purposefulness can make it hard for outsiders to integrate smoothly into American life. “When I would meet another Brit,” says OZY’s James Watkins, a Brit now living in the U.S., “we might make fun of each other’s T-shirt or haircut and then we’d be friends. But I discovered that in the U.S., that’s a way to lose friends fast.”
So what makes Americans more prone to such humorless behavior? I think our earnestness both fuels and is fueled by a constellation of other traits, including our unusually high levels of patriotism, workaholism and consumerism, not to mention an empire built on a Protestant work ethic and united, as President Obama often puts it, by shared ideas and values. “It’s that shared ideology that gets transmitted into the U.S. corporate workplace as well,” says Richard Claydon, an Aussie management expert and co-founder of The Ironic Manager. “If you’re not serious, it’s very risky.”
And when your shared identity is based on values and a belief in the American Dream of prosperity and meritocracy, then you become far more vulnerable to taking yourself too seriously. “History, economics and geopolitics have schooled them in self-importance,” Italian-British journalist Cristina Odone once observed, also in The Guardian. “Conscious of their global role, Yanks uphold this earnest ethos.”
To be sure, you can’t place a nation of 300 million into a single cultural bucket. And we shouldn’t discount the importance of being earnest, including its symbiotic relationship with top-notch comedy. If you don’t have Jimmy Stewart and loads of Americans taking themselves too seriously, Claydon points out, you also don’t get comedians like Jon Stewart.
Anyway, thank you for considering this humble American’s view on the matter. I believe that it’s only by airing our varied perspectives on identity and culture that we can come to understand each other. If you are so moved, I sincerely hope you will post a comment below expressing how this story might have affected your own personal journey. Only please don’t make fun of my haircut.