Walk Like an American: The Finale (Part 2)

Last week I posted an assortment of reports on the "Walk Like an American" question -- whether you could tell peoples' nationality by their clothes, stride,  head shape, etc. It all started with the "Chinese Professor" ad. After the jump, another big assortment. As before, if you're not interested in this theme, read no further! But if you're interested in various Chinese, South American, Indian, etc angles, you'll find more there.


To kick it off, a suggestion from a Yank that maybe people are just being polite:

>>I've been following the Walk Like an American series with some interest, but there's one aspect I don't think has been brought up enough. Given Americans', ahem, reputation, it might be common that when not exactly sure where someone is from, tell them you thought they were from somewhere else. Americans won't mind, but other nationalities might be offended to be mistaken for us. I've had a friend tell me that when I think an accent is Argentinean, ask them if they are from Uruguay because an Argentinean will think this is amusing and well intentioned while a Uruguayan wouldn't be as happy about being mistaken from an Argentinean.

Now, in my experience people wouldn't really care that much either way, but I can see the logic about going out of your way to avoid assuming someone is an "undesirable" nationality.<<

More below.

A harder question:

>>I was going to let this go, as you've had a lot of discussion here, but let me just post the contra question: if it is so easy to identify Americans, why is it myself (and countless other Americans of Asian decent) have to constantly explain that we are actually born and raised in the United States?<<

Even the birds know:

>>About six or seven years ago, I was walking through one of the back-streets -- now demolished -- around Dazhalan in Beijing with my girlfriend when we passed a mynah bird whose owner had set it out in a cage. When she walked past, it said ni hao -- and when I walked past a second later, it said hello. I think this was the point at which I decided that it was utterly pointless to get upset by standing out as alaowai in China and all of the things that come with it.<<

Clothes don't matter:

>>I have the conceit that I am very good at recognizing people by how the move, a skill made necessary by working in a "clean room" where everyone was dressed head-to-toe in white.

I grew up in the US and have been living in Canada for five years. I would agree that the US mainstream culture has been profoundly influenced by African-American culture. (It is one of the things that I, a white woman, miss most.)

I thus feel like a reasonably good authority when I say that I do not think that Canadians walk differently than Americans, despite being significantly less influenced by African-American culture. I believe that the way North Americans walk is much more likely to be from having a very low population density for a significant fraction of our countries' history.

(Example of how well you learn to "read" bodies: I came around a cornering the cleanroom and saw someone seated, of course dressed all in white (including a hood) hunched over a microscope, back towards me, and my immediate -IMMEDIATE - thought was, "Funny, what's Chung doing in the fab? I've never seen him in here before." And I didn't even know Chung that well!

How did I know it was Chung? Dammed if I know. It's a right-brain phenomenon and that damn right brain is resolutely non-lingual.)<<

Fitting in, in India:

>>I lived in New Delhi, India for six months, where I worked and began learning Hindi and Urdu. I am a white American with fair skin and light brown hair (thus, I do not look Indian in the absolute slightest). For the first few months, people approached me only in English. Even people that had no ability to speak the language (other than perhaps saying the word "photo" and holding out a camera), approached me only with whatever English skills they had. However, after a few months (around the time my Hindi became sharp enough to actually communicate with people on the streets), people suddenly began approaching me in Hindi. It became night and day. People came up and asked for directions in Hindi, autorickshaw drivers started quoting fares in Hindi, and people stopped acting totally shocked when I spoke to them in Hindi. This happened throughout the city, so I'm certain that these weren't all cases of being recognized locally. What's really, really strange is that once I left Delhi to travel (thus, switching into tourist mode), the Hindi/English approach began to skew much more to English again (in the South, where Hindi is hardly spoken, I was never approached in anything but English).

I'm not entirely sure what was going on, though I suspect part of it has to do with a visible comfort level within the city that would probably be very difficult without some basic language skills. Once I left that comfortable environment (and once I entered places that tended to be a little more touristy), that visible affectation disappeared. I do want to emphasize, though, that this happened quite suddenly. It went from only-English to mostly-Hindi over the course of a single week that happened to coincide with a major "A-HA!" leap forward in my language listening and speaking skills<<

Looking as if you fit in:

>>I lived in Germany for three years as an Army officer and became fairly conversant in German and generally comfortable there (to the extent I had a period of culture shock when I returned to the US). Although I don't look stereotypically German (despite some German ancestry), I was very frequently approached on the street by both Germans and Americans and addressed in German. This despite a fairly regulation Army haircut and clothes purchased at the PX. I don't know why people often assumed I was German, but to your thesis, there is something that tells you that a person "belongs" in a particular environment. In Washington, NYC, or any other big city, you can spot tourists a block away. There must be some cue that gives you away.

To your main point, I agree that Asians (and other ethnic groups) who grow up in the States have a different "look" than their parents. I always assumed that better nutrition, dentistry, etc. was the reason for that. But as you suggest, it may be in part the result of some intangible American quality.<<

From an Aussie:

>>My observation is that while overseas, I've noticed that foreign touts (particularly in Asia) are able to pick me as an Australian (rather than an American or a Pom) without even needing to speak to me. For instance, when I was in Beijing earlier this year, three separate 'Art tour' touts in Tiananmen Square approached me smiling and asking 'Australian'? I've had a similar experience in India too. On the flip side, I generally feel that I can spot another Australian in a hostel (there are always a few) from across the room. Until your posts I'd never really thought hard about why that is though.

Given the relative economic equality of Australians and Americans/Europeans, physical/health related cues aren't helpful - teeth and weight won't separate Australians from Americans and Englishmen. However, the cultural cues are clear to anyone with experience observing them (as the touts have in spades). For instance, Australian travellers are much more likely to wear shorts and thongs (ie flip-flops) and to be generally more casually dressed and groomed (ironing while travelling seems bizarre to me). I'm sure there are more obvious differentiators that I'm not consciously aware of.

These are also traits that are shared by the Vietnamese-Australian and Chinese-Australians that I've travelled with. It takes ten seconds for the Hong Kong locals to pick my wife as an Australian even though she spent the first ten years of her life in HK.

I guess my general point is a pretty obvious one - when trying to distinguish people from different countries, culture matters. I got the same feeling that you did from the Chinese Professor video, but I think that was cued by cultural cues more than physical ones (eg the way the students and the prof interacted).<<

OK, you had to mention the weight issue:

>>I studied abroad in the Prague in 2004 and when I first got there, I didn't understand how the Czechs always knew to speak English to me and my friends. After I was there about two months, I realized the two biggest differences between the Americans and natives.

1. Americans were fatter and wore much more baggy clothing.

2. Americans were louder and noticed the world less around them. We didn't see people getting on and off the tram as quickly and move out of their way. We didn't see pile of dog crap on the sidewalk that everyone else knew to avoid.

Now, at first, I didn't get this. I was blown away. But I was there for five months, so after about 3 months, it became really obvious. I could easily spot an American even if I couldn't hear what language they were speaking. One of the things I was most proud about my time in Prague was that in the last month, when numerous Czechs who didn't live in the city were visiting for Holidays, they needed to ask strangers for directions. They would ask me in Czech, and I would reply as best I could in Czech. And then afterward, they would say, in english "wait, where are you from?" It felt very good to have learned how to blend in. All it took was forgetting to shave occasionally and buying some tighter jeans (And walking miles and miles to the metro everyday to lose some weight).

My weirdest story was being on the metro, and I stood up to get off the train. An older lady stands up just after me and starts talking in Czech to me and pointing to her bags and then at me and I just stare blandly because I have no clue. I didn't speak Czech very well, and she was talking very fast. Then everyone else in that side of the car starts pointing at me and talking as well, all in Czech. I get that I'm supposed to carry her bags from the grocery store. So, I pickup as many as I could, and follow her to her apartment building. I'm really confused and don't have a clue what I'm doing, so while she's fiddling in her purse for her key, I set them down and walk off. She turns from opening the door and starts yelling at me. I say "I don't speak Czech" in czech. and she quits yelling and just kind of stares awkwardly at me.

One other thing is that you can notice differences in walking gait and dress styles between Brits, Germans, Spaniards, and Eastern Europeans (my time in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, all the non business people dressed the same, or I didn't notice a distinction within those cultures). I'm mainly talking about the non-suit wearing crowd. If they were business people, anyone could be from anywhere.

I also lived in Southern India. Some generalizations
Men in suits had spent a lot of time in Europe/America.
Engineers who wore slacks/pants had spent time in the Middle East
Engineers who wore the Mundu had probably never left Kerala & Tamil Nadu.
Women in Sari's could be engineers or could be housewives who were scared to death of talking to white people.<<

Not fitting in, in India:

>>I'm an American of Indian descent. I walked into a Himalaya bath products store in Bangalore this past August and started looking for stuff for my lady. Now, keep in mind, I think I looked very authentic. I was wearing my half-sleeve guayabera pocketed shirt and chapals/sandals. Tom Friedman would've enthusiastically approached me for an interview and a set of tennis.

I immediately got a sales pitch from the lady at the counter - in English. When I gently rebuffed her in Kannada, she replied, with a surprised smile: 'You are one of us?' My walk, of course. I walked in like an American. I walked in like I owned the joint.<<

Or in China:

>>A few years ago, we took our America-born teenagers to visit China. Invisibly hidden in the crowd at Tienanmen Square, our youngest son relished the moment by saying: "Finally, I look exactly like everybody else here." I told him not so fast. "People can tell right away you are not from here." I said. He was mad with me for poking a hole in his "homecoming" reverie. "People know right away you are not from here by the way you move your body." I added. "No way they can tell." he looked around with self satisfaction, "there is no way they can tell." He walked on, mincing his steps a bit now, until a woman came to him and asked with pretty broken English: "Want lady massage?" Right then and there, he was totally crushed.<<

The language factor:

>>I am a born-and-raised United States citizen, and Caucasian of mostly European descent. A comment -

On the flipside of it all, I've lived and worked in Latin America a lot. While I am of course aware that native Latin Americans can spot us (Norteamericanos) from a mile away, I was surprised when I discovered that I was very good myself at distinguishing Caucasian North Americans from Caucasian Europeans. From a mile away.

Especially the young "backpacker" set. Obvious things like the brand-names of backpacking gear, shoes and clothing. But more subtle things help too - little style differences like placement of colors or stripes. And Europeans are much, much tidier and dress slightly more formally.

And, of course, if you walk into a social gathering at a hostel, if someone is speaking more than two languages it is most likely NOT a Norteamericano (except if s/he is speaking French, it might be a Quebecois who speaks French, English and Spanish).

I speak Spanish well enough, but I was always jealous of the Europeans. They could speak to virtually anyone.<<

So butch!:

>>Many years ago, in a conversation with a Canadian girlfriend about differences, she laughed and said, "Oh, come on, you can always spot an American woman. Even just the way they walk - they're always so butch!" That really stuck with me....<<

The brown corduroy suit didn't do the job:

>>When I was in the USSR as a young man (1985), I thought I had cleverly disguised myself. In a storefront shop on the lower east side, I found a Romanian (!) brown (!!) corduroy (!!!) three-piece suit. Since I was going to be in Moscow in January, I thought it a good, warm choice, even though it was the ugliest thing I've ever owned.

My Russian contacts all told me that they could identify me as an American from a kilometer off. "How?" I asked. "Everything I'm wearing I've seen other people wear on the street."

"It's the way you walk," they said. "You walk as if you had the right to go wherever you wish. A Russian walks as if someone will, at any moment, tell him 'It is forbidden to walk here.'"

Perhaps this has something to do with the negative rights enshrined in our Constitution versus the positive rights in nearly everyone else's. The concept "Congress shall make no law" simply doesn't travel well.<<

The obnoxious idiot factor:

>>Having extensively traveled traveled across Europe and Latin America for the last twenty years, I can't help myself from reacting to your readers' comments about "Identifying Americans" in a crowd, because they sound like a pile of worn out clichés that have much more to do with what we, as a people, want others to think of us (the ambitious, fearless and self-confident doers) rather than the truth (we are no better at all these things than most people in the world).

Some differences may be immediately apparent in Asia where restraint is part of the culture. But in Europe and Latin America you wouldn't recognize an American if it wasn't for his or her attire. For example anyone who has ever been to Italy will tell you Italians have plenty of self-confidence in their attitude.

As for the "looking in the eye" thing, not all Americans (and by far) do it and I haven't noticed any major difference between New Yorkers and Parisians in that respect for example. There is more diversity in behavior within the US and within other countries than between them.

A cliché that is sadly true is that if you see and hear some obnoxious idiot in tasteless attire making a nuisance of himself anywhere in the world, there is a large probability he or she is an American. Which doesn't mean we all do of course.<<

All is vanity, from a reader in Sweden:

>>Your blog series on identifying nationality by body language has been a very good read, but there's one thing I feel some commenters appear to be missing -- namely awareness of their own cultural context.

One writes, of his experience in Eastern Europe, that visiting Americans ...

... 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.

Another, that ...

... most of it is how you carry yourself. Frankly it's confidence--upright posture, and a confident walk. Additionally, Americans are one of the only people in the world who look strangers in the eye when passing them in the streets (perhaps that is also part of the confidence thing).

The implicit assumption here is that walking head up and looking people in the eyes is a universally accepted way of displaying "confidence". But, of course, it is not, since what signals confidence varies according to the cultural context.

Imagine you could switch sides for a second. Where "normal" is to not look people in the eye and to physically act in a self-effacing manner, how will the visiting American who breaks these rules appear to locals? Probably, s/he will be met with the reverse assumption. As the locals see it, this American insists on impolitely staring people in the eyes, s/he acts as if trying to be noticed, and s/he signalsover-confidence and intrusiveness rather than the more positive trait of "normal" confidence (which would locally be displayed in another way). It's no less a faulty assumption, of course. But one should realize that a cultural trait cannot have any intrinsic meaning valid for all cultures -- the first rule of communication is that the message sent isn't always the message received. Even though the act itself is exactly the same, one person's "friendly eye-contact" will inevitably be a "rude stare" to some others.

Now, compare all this to the common stereotype of the "ugly American": loud, arrogant, superficial, self-centered, and so on. This is obviously not a true picture, yet it's an amazingly common prejudice. The idea here is that this unkind global gut reaction to Americans may be rooted, at least to some extent, in differing body language in the USA vs. most of the rest of the world. Obviously other things matter more (politics, history, economic ties), but if for most people in the world the "American walk" is by their own cultural standard an arrogant swagger, then small wonder that this is how Americans are often unfairly characterized. It's the flip side of how the American commenter quoted above perceived those Eastern Europeans as shy, evasive and "trying not to be noticed" -- when for them, it was just walking home from work.

That is it .... almost.