Culture Shock: Americans...

The reason it's so easy to pick Americans out of a crowd in Slovakia is simple: They look as if they were all born of one American mother, and as if they were raised by a single American father. The paradox is, of course, that the American gene pool has been fed from all corners of the earth.
Still, the similarities are striking. Americans, more than anyone else, shout at each other - on buses and trams, in restaurants and pubs, their conversations are carried out at top volume (maybe this is what distinguishes 'American English' from other varieties). Whatever the case, US citizens outshout Brits, Canadians and all other English-speaking visitors to Slovakia. Indeed, the only foreigners who manage the same decibels as the Americans are the Austrians.

The reason it's so easy to pick Americans out of a crowd in Slovakia is simple: They look as if they were all born of one American mother, and as if they were raised by a single American father. The paradox is, of course, that the American gene pool has been fed from all corners of the earth.

Still, the similarities are striking. Americans, more than anyone else, shout at each other - on buses and trams, in restaurants and pubs, their conversations are carried out at top volume (maybe this is what distinguishes 'American English' from other varieties). Whatever the case, US citizens outshout Brits, Canadians and all other English-speaking visitors to Slovakia. Indeed, the only foreigners who manage the same decibels as the Americans are the Austrians.

But you don't have to hear Americans speak to identify them - their physical appearance offers further telltale clues. American men in Slovakia, by and large, are not very tall, but tend to be stocky, especially around the waist. American women also tend to be somewhat plump, and free of any evidence of involvement in sport. At the same time, both sexes show an avid interest in hygiene - so avid, in fact, that even their sweat smells like soap.

One can also tell an American by his or her teeth - flawlessly white and bared in a meaningless but well-meant greeting. And the cheeks - they tend to be red, as befitting the world's most tireless missionaries of peace, friendship, love and American dreams. It's just a pity, though, that these messages, as well as their wide smiles, are in this country being communicated to a people who will never be able to understand their import.

I've often seen groups of Americans seated around a table in one of Bratislava's pubs. With expressions of intense concentration and interest they are discussing Slovakia - what they like and don't like, what this country needs. I rarely recognise my country in their description of it, but all the same, like most Slovaks, I hold my tongue because it seems almost cruel to deprive these young, young people of their illusions.

Perhaps, though, it is in their innocence that lie many American charms. After all, which nationality is less confrontational in Slovakia than the Americans? When a Slovak drinks, his aggression rises with every sip of beer or shot of borovička; with an American, however, each drink seems only to make his smile wider and his friendly tongue looser.

Alcohol is, in fact, a good note on which to end when describing how to identify Americans in a Bratislava crowd. Americans simply don't know how to drink, at least compared to Slovaks, but you have to admire their perseverance. If you once down the last shot of an evening with an American, he will ever thereafter down all his shots in Slovakia, and will tell his friends that this is the Slovak way (the same goes for clinking beer glasses several times before drinking each round). The result, of course, is that Americans tend to get drunk rather quickly - but if it saves them money and gives Slovaks something to smile at, who can say that it is a poor cultural exchange?

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