Walk Like an American: The Most Frightening Tale of All

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A reader in Michigan reports:

>>I am a white American and have lived here for almost my entire life. I have never lived in the New York area. But whenever I visit Manhattan, I am very frequently mistaken for being French. I am not of French background, and I've never lived in France. The phenomenon is consistent, limited strictly to Manhattan, and totally baffling to me.

My best guess is that I must have some sort of inadvertent French tell, and that Manhattan is the only place in the US with a large-ish enough concentration of French-born people for anyone to recognize it. I don't really mind - I've visited France and I like it. But what's the tell? When did I pick it up? What fateful day in junior high gym class did my shoulders lift with a slight but unmistakable Gallic shrug?<<

After the jump, two other Americans in a similar bind.

>>Back in the 70s I spent a couple of years in Paris. A French friend was doing the lighting for a dance troupe and I went with him to a small party for the dancers. After I'd been there a while I finally said something and one of the male dancers turned to me and said "You're an American?!" I asked him why he was surprised and he said I didn't walk like an American. How do Americans walk? He replied with an exaggerated bow-legged gait.

I was back in Paris last summer after an 18 year hiatus and my family and I walked up to Parc de la Villette, which was close by, as soon as we got in. I was flattered when some Parisians walked up to me and asked for directions which I couldn't help them with. They'd assumed I was French.

Having spent lots of time in Paris, I've found it's always seemed easy to look around and spot the Americans. We tend to be fatter, louder and dress badly. Maybe I just didn't spot the Americans who aren't fat, loud and badly dressed...<<

And:

>>Like one of your other correspondents, I too am a tall American of English and Scottish descent with light brown hair, and have often been mistaken as a native all over Germany (though rarely in the UK itself). The German exception was in Berlin, where every single person I met spoke to me first in English.

This felt similar to how New Yorkers can always spot tourists, and can usually tell where they're from, much quicker I believe than in some other parts of the US. It's easy to practice this there, first of all, but I also think some longtime urbanites can fit into certain other large cities with little effort.

This urban connection was reinforced in Paris with my wife, who is Irish-Italian by way of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Parisians always spoke first to her in French. Finding out she was American, they would look genuinely confused. Then she would say "New York," and be met with sighs of relief and nods of understanding, as if that reference somehow set their view of the world back in order.<<

FWIW, in China most shopkeepers, passers-by, and other Chinese laobaixing similarly assumed that my wife, rather than being American, was "French." At least they could explain why they thought this, which for tact I'll leave in Chinese: "你不胖!"

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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