I have to admit something to you: I am an American.

I have spent so many years traveling and living in other countries that I’d almost convinced myself I was some half-breed, falling somewhere between Europe and America. On a good day, I might have even have imagined that I embodied all the positive aspects of each culture without any of the negatives: I’m friendly without being loud, but also reserved without being snobbish. Etcetera.

However, after being back in the States for a month, I have to admit — somewhat sheepishly — that I am far more American than I would have admitted before our year abroad. Why? Not because I eat only hamburgers — I don’t — or drive a big car. But rather because I have that most basic of American tells, the fundamental difference in temperament that sets us apart from just about every other country in the world: I strike up personal conversations with random strangers.

I hadn’t given any of this much thought til I read the endpiece in this month’s Smithsonian magazine, “So Where Are You From?” Initially, I sympathized with the fish out of water scrutiny she describes, which can only come from living in a foreign country, where just opening your mouth immediately sets you apart. But as I read on, I realized that I am not the foreigner in this piece. No, I am one of those Americans.

For us, it’s normal to make personal conversation, to ask questions of total strangers that might conceivably make them uncomfortable. Living here, it’s easy to forget that what we take as mere curiosity and friendliness can be misconstrued by people who didn’t grow up in a culture of idle small talk. My dad, for one, never did get used to it, despite having lived in the States for more than forty years. He always used to make fun of the people at stores or restaurants who would give a cheesy grin and say “CanIhelpyou?” He’d always pronounce it all as one word, said with an exaggerated American accent (or his version of one.)

Reading this piece brought something home to me that had been dancing around the edges of my consciousness all weekend. When we’re in Santa Cruz, I assume that I will talk to people, because I’m comfortable there and recognize a lot of people, even if I don’t know them personally. But even while traveling outside of my comfort zone into the strange reality that is LA (see my last post), I still managed to strike up a conversation with just about everyone I came into contact with. The Aussie couple walking the cliffs outside our hotel, our waitress at dinner, the weird long-haired hippie dude who came in to get breakfast in his bathrobe, the woman selling jewelry at a street fair, the crew members of the ship we were on, the people behind us in line to board said ship. I spoke with every single one of them, not just a polite “hello how are you,” but long enough to actually learn something about each one of them, to make them laugh or at least smile.

I continued to notice this disturbing habit of mine yesterday, when I came away from the grocery store having made two new friends. First was the grocery guy, who by the end of my shop was running back and forth to hand-select my fruit and veg for me. And next, the cashier, who told me all about the tulip and daffodil bulbs she got at Costco last year, and how pretty they were in the spring. As I left, I told her how different an experience it was from grocery shopping in Europe. After going to our local grocery store in Lisbon every week for nearly a year, I finally managed to get a faint smile of recognition out of a couple of the cashiers. Sometimes. After 45 minutes in Safeway, I knew more about these two people than just about any of the Portuguese I met in Lisbon.

Throughout all this, it’s been dawning on me: I actually enjoy talking to people. I’ve said it before, but I’ve always considered myself an introvert, a quiet wallflower who would rather sit back and watch a party than be the life of it. This self-concept of mine prevailed until we moved to Portugal, when the language and cultural barriers meant that I literally couldn’t make small talk any more.

Even if I had spoken Portuguese fluently, I don’t think it would’ve been the same as it is here. Their communities are much more tightly-knit than ours, so their intimacies are patterned differently. They know fewer people much more deeply, down to what they had for lunch and where they go for holiday every August. That’s all very well and good of course, but only if you’ve had years to become a part of the community. As a foreigner, well, a year just doesn’t cut it.

Bottom line is, as strange as it may seem to people from other countries, I enjoy our culture of small talk. I like making connections with people, no matter how brief or superficial they may be. In Portugal, the little old men sit around in cafes every afternoon, year after year, and the women chatter to each other as they clean and cook and raise their children. Here, we exchange pleasantries with strangers, be it “CanIhelpyou?” or “Where are you from?” To others, those questions might seem invasive or artificially friendly. But to me, they are the basis of our life here, and something we take entirely for granted until we can’t do it any more.

So today, be an American and go out and strike up a conversation with someone random. Just because you can. Seriously. It feels better than you might think.

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