Walk Like an American

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Lots and lots of accounts piling up about the countless small cues that signal a person's nationality before he or she has uttered a word or shown a passport. (Previously here, with backward links included.) Here is another batch, starting with this, from a visitor to France:

>>My wife and I were flying home from Nice. My wife stayed in the rental car with the luggage while I went into the little hut to check in.  There was just one young woman behind the counter.  She was filling out the papers for a man who was checking out a car.  They were speaking French.  I stood back so as not to appear to be listening.  As they finished, she handed him the keys and said, "Bonjour" as he headed out the door.

Then, she turned to me and said, "Good morning!"<<

Many accounts involving walking style, for instance:

>>When I was opening new Peace Corps (PC) programs in the countries of the former Soviet Union (Hungary, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, + + + etc.) in the early '90's, I was often told that even though the PC Volunteers physically looked like the residents of the countries in which they were serving (versus white Volunteers serving in Africa or Asia), you could always tell which people on the streets or in the shops were the (American) PC Volunteers: they walked with their head up, shoulders back and didn't try to avoid looking people in the eye - as opposed to the locals who looked at the ground and walked with their shoulders hunched over as if trying not to be noticed. I've related this to many people over the years. It's nice to have it independently corroborated.<<

And:

>>This discussion reminds me of something I heard on NPR a few years ago, maybe on This American Life. An African-American woman who has lived in France for 15 years or so and speaks fluent French was surprised when a French acquaintance said something like, "Oh, you Americans." The woman telling the story hadn't told the French woman she was American.

"How can you tell?"

"You kick out your feet when you walk."<<

Also:

>>I second your correspondent who says Americans carry themselves differently than others. 

When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I became friends with a Beligian woman who became impatient with the, what she considered, sloppy way American men carried themselves.  She set about teaching my then-boyfriend to "walk like a European".  She said that Americans have a lot of space, and they use it.  They move freely, swing their arms, and generally take up space. 

She had Bob stand up straight, hold his arms by his sides, keep his shoulders square, take smaller steps.  The results were eerie - he suddenly seemed like one of the French guys in the dorm.  I liked the effect, but he wasn't having any, and went back to being a free-ranging American.<<

After the jump, another on American walking style, with the combined testimony of Stanley Crouch and Carl Jung.

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One more for now:

>>Somewhere, I read speculation that the American gait had changed since the early 1900's, loosening and copying an African-American style.  The story went that in turn of the century films, (white, filmed) Americans had a shorter, more stilted, ramrod-straight gait that contemporary Americans would find unfamiliar.  I enjoy the thought that the American style of walking that your readers say they can spot a block away is actually a black American trait that has become the default.<<

After doing some research, the same reader wrote back having located the quote she half-remembered. It was from a Salon interview with Stanley Crouch:

>>Q: Why do you admire Johnnie Cochran and Ron Brown so much?
You know, some imbecile who reviewed my book said I admired Johnnie Cochran and Ron Brown because they were black men who made it in a white world. But I don't know where that white world is. Carl Jung said that white Americans walk like Negroes, talk like Negroes and laugh like Negroes. Now Carl Jung was from Switzerland, where they make the real white people.<<

More ahead, including from people who reject the whole idea of visual clues to national identity. And, how this discussion relates to a previous thread on "language mismatches" -- people whose accent is at surprising variance with their appearance. Plus, I will reveal in what country, other than America, people assume I'm a local (hint: not England, Canada, etc), and where everyone in China assumed my wife was "from."

Note to the young: the picture above is of course an homage to the Bangles, obligatory in any "walk like..." reference.

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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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