America: land of the free and home of the affirmed

I’ve returned to the UK for a new academic year with a new resolution: I’m going to make like an American and make conversation.

We Brits regularly mock what we perceive to be America’s overtly extrovertedness, especially those of us who are particularly introverted. We think it’s weird, unnecessary and – at times – downright embarrassing. It’s with pleasure we roll our eyes at enthusiastic tourists on the tube, oblivious of the ‘stay quiet and don’t make eye contact’ etiquette. But I now have to admit that it’s beginning to grow on me.

We’re always taught to be cautious going through US Immigration, but my attitude now is that being relaxed and ready to chat to whoever’s telling me to place my fingers on a scanner is the best way forward. Plus, my recent decision to answer “I’m in seminary” to the question “what do you do?” has resulted in great chats both in Atlanta and San Francisco. In Britain, we seem to assume that no one would possibly be interested in what we do, how nice a day we’ve been having or whether we’ve found every item we’d hoped for on a shopping trip – in America, they actually are interested. (Or, are at least paid to act like they are.) Thus, when stateside, I work very hard to eliminate my usual British cynicism and embrace the friendliness.

Johnny's Doughnuts The fabulous Johnny’s Doughnuts in San Rafael. I was eased into making conversation here, thanks to the company of an effervescent American. 

The first hurdle is accepting compliments. I worked in retail for two years and I think the number of compliments I paid to customers could be counted on my fingers – not because I’m mean, but because we just don’t do that sort of thing here. For the duration of my trip, I wore the same (rather nice, sparkly and dangly) earrings every day. [I had others, I just never got round to finding them.] In the space of 36 hours, they had received compliments from sales assistants and baristas – in fact, in one cafe, baristas fought over who could pay me more compliments, focusing on my earrings and dress. Yes, they probably wanted my tip, but still…

[Spot the person with self-confidence issues.]

Then there’s the random conversations begun simply because it’s deemed acceptable. I mentioned the other day the responses I got to my accent – was I Australian? (Fitting room attendant in Cupertino’s Target.) What did I think about Peter Capaldi being the new Doctor? (Lovely girl on the till at Millbrae’s Trader Joe’s.) It wasn’t long before I got in on the act myself – see, I can be an extrovert when I choose to be!

Chocolate Chip PancakesA taste of childhood – chocolate chip pancakes in a family-run diner in Cupertino where the staff could not stop bringing you coffee…

An essential element of any trip to the States is a session at a nail bar – partly because it’s an intensely cultural experience and partly because it’s so cheap compared to manis and pedis here. (My manicure cost $12, seriously, bargain.) It’s where the community – or at least the female members of it – gather and real conversations take place. We headed to one while in Pacifica and, thanks to our group being split up across the bar, I was left to my own devices. In such circumstances, I become a socially awkward Brit. Am I meant to talk to the manicurist? Am I doing the right thing (this was only my 3rd ever manicure)? On this occasion, I did what comes naturally – I sat and watched my surroundings, taking it all in.

The biggest impact upon the surroundings was a group of older women who were abuzz with excitement. Two of the group were leaving that afternoon for London, then on to Scotland, and they were telling everyone about it. During the course of my manicure, women came and went, giving them greetings and sharing in the anticipation – it was genuinely lovely. As they chatted, concernedly, about the difference between Scottish and English currency, I couldn’t help but butt in. The moment they heard my voice and realised I was a genuine Londoner (well, as genuine as they were likely to get in their town) there were screeches of joy. Immediately, I was called upon to explain everything – the money, the transport, the royal family (they were excited to see the new Diana movie in London – poor them, I hear it’s dreadful), and, bizarrely, how far away Paris was. I was in my element and nearly offered them a Liz walking tour special! It was a lovely moment, and wouldn’t have happened, had I kept my mouth shut.

Gorgeous GelatoIncredible gelato in Berkeley. (Manicure 3 days later…) 

Then there’s the customer service that goes beyond the call of duty – Charlotte, fitting room supervisor at Market Street GAP, I’m looking at you! I appreciate that GAP generally does have an emphasis on customer service, but this was the first time I’d been asked my name in a fitting room and felt genuinely un-judged when returning items that didn’t work. I left feeling warm and fuzzy, purchasing a pair of ‘sexy boyfriend’ jeans. [As I quipped on Twitter & Facebook last week, the ‘sexy boyfriend’ has yet to materialise…] Four hours later, I returned with my friends in tow. They spent quite a while in the fitting rooms and invited me in to give judgement on items – at which point Charlotte spotted me and greeted me with an enthusiastic “hello Liz!” Impressive. She proceeded to give excellent outfit advice to all of us and was particularly good at locating sizes missing from the shelves. It’s got to be said, we were sad to leave – I felt like I’d made a friend for life.

This long, rambling, telling of stories is simply my way of saying “Come on Brits! We can do this too!” Not in a fake way, but in a genuine, interactions can improve someone’s day kind of way. It’s not hard!

Oh, and just for a sense of balance, we did have one example of bad customer service too. Peet’s (in Berkeley) – a chain that’s almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks in California – provided us with service so shocking that we didn’t go to another branch all trip.

[The food photos may seem unconnected to the post, but I felt they needed to be shared somewhere! The full set of Californian photos is now on Flickr.]