Early this year, I moved back to the US. It’s the first time I’ve lived here full-time in almost seven years.
Looking back on all of my travels, I can now see that I went through various phases in my relationship with US culture.
- In the beginning, everywhere I went felt so new and so bewildering. It was almost exhausting being confronted with so many new beliefs and cultural ideas all the time. I remember the first year feeling a sense of respite and relaxation every time I returned to the US. I think this is what most vacationers and travelers feel. In the beginning, at least.
- Then, after a year or so outside of the US, the flaws of American culture became much clearer and harder to ignore. I entered a kind of honeymoon phase with many of the countries I visited where my perception was dominated by all of the amazing things a foreign country had that my country lacked. I became very negative towards the US around this time, and for a while, believed that it was likely I would never move back.
- But after another few years, the novelty of some of these foreign cultures began to wear off, and I was able to see their flaws more clearly. Suddenly, living in places was no longer a binary decision of, “US lacks this, X country has it,” but rather, every country has its own strengths and weaknesses, you just have to pick the ones that most accommodate your values.
I eventually settled on what is perhaps the biggest lesson I took from traveling the world for seven years: “The best part of a country/culture is also the worst.”
This applies to the party-go-lucky attitude of Brazil as much as it does with the elitist snobbery of French culture as much as it does with the chronic politeness and orderliness of Japanese culture as much as it does with the industrious and go-get-em attitude of American culture.
And it’s the latter that I want to talk about, since it’s become so relevant in my life again.
The best thing about American culture is how industrious it is. If you are particularly smart, have a good idea, or want to work hard, there are opportunities and positive social pressures here that you likely won’t find in most other places. People here are largely judged on how professionally successful they are, for better or worse.
Because the worst thing about American culture is also how industrious it is. Corporations have free reign to meddle with, well, just about everything. The health, welfare and happiness of its citizens are deprioritized in favor of greater efficiency and profitability. People struggle to develop genuine trust and intimacy with one another because everything is seen as another opportunity to achieve greater status.
Put simply, the cost of all of the economic success in the US is a level of status anxiety in its people that I have never seen anywhere else in the world.
The side effect of this status anxiety is that much of American social life revolves around how people can benefit one another — i.e., it’s quite transactional… and fake.
As a society, the US has fostered a culture where people are encouraged to constantly be proving themselves — to show how successful they are, how nice they are, how smart they are. And while this may provide the society as a whole the benefit of the world’s greatest innovations and most powerful economy, it guts the country’s social life of much of its intimacy and unconditional relationships.
Because a person’s ability to engage in a genuine connection is inversely proportional to their need to prove themselves.
What I mean by that is that people who suck at connecting with others are more often than not the very same people who are the most desperate to impress in some way, to live up to some imaginary standard in their mind. Yet, it’s this same constant itch to prove themselves that also prevents them from actually generating the good relationships that would give them that love and admiration.
In my book Models, I refer to this concept as ‘neediness’ — the desire to control other people’s perception of you — and note that it underlies almost all unattractive behavior in dating.
But what I’ve learned over the years is that neediness doesn’t just begin with the desire to make everyone else like you — it begins with a desperate desire to like yourself.
That guy who rambles on to me about how awesome his business ideas are and as soon as I begin to respond, pulls out his phone and looks visibly irritated that I’m talking—it’s not that he wants me to admire how brilliant he is (although that’s part of it), he principally wants to uphold his own fragile belief in his own brilliance.
And in a culture where everyone is taught that they must strive to be brilliant all the time, you end up with an insecurity that’s endemic to much of the population.
The way to undo this self-sabotaging behavior, of course, is to let go of the idea and desire to be brilliant and liked, and accept that you’re likely wrong and will fail, and become OK with it — in fact, to love and admire yourself despite those facts.
That will then allow you to engage with others without a constant desire to uphold some false superiority, it will allow you to empathize with them and hear them truly.
As usual, the key to relationships starts with your relationship with yourself.
Coming back to the US, this has been the most difficult part of adjusting — the “reverse culture shock.” A large percentage of the people I meet seem to always have some sort of agenda in the interaction, whether they realize it or not.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some amazing friends since moving back here. And I’ve reconnected with old ones.
But put another way, I’ve noticed that how much I like somebody is inversely proportional to how seriously they take themselves and their ideas. And in the US, more than other places I’ve been, everyone seems to be taking themselves pretty damn seriously.