Thursday 18 January 2018

The openness of americans allows for a relaxed space

Uber's logo on a smartphone. Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
Uber's logo on a smartphone. Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

Patricia Casey

Here in the US at a conference, I have travelled a lot by Uber, a type of taxi company. Uber developed an app which can be downloaded and this allows the person requiring a lift to notify the company through this.

Uber drivers in the area are promptly contacted and within minutes, you're on your way at a much lower cost than that charged by the traditional taxi companies. These drivers are not your traditional taxi drivers. They use their own cars and have no number apart from the standard car registration. They and their cars are indistinguishable from the thousands of other drivers on the roads.

Uber drivers are a motley group. Some are students trying to make money to go to college, others were topping up their day job's income, and some work full time for the company. They were friendly and without fail asked where I came from. Without fail too, all said they wanted to come to Ireland for our Guinness.

The guests at several receptions I attended were the same. They had romantic notions about Ireland and they, like the Uber drivers, were all similar in their style of communication. They were an open book and within a few minutes of polite conversation, material from their private lives began to unfold without any probing from me.

I learned that one of the drivers was a university student, recently graduated and due to start post-grad studies in a few weeks. So far, so anodyne. Then he turned to talking about the presidential election and told me how each member of his family voted in the primary.

The next person told me about her diet and confessed that she only ate meat once per week yet could not understand how she weighed 155 pounds. She told me about a friend's daughter who had a disability and about her need to continually wear nappies.

Then there was the driver who shared his dream of starting his own real estate business. Within minutes he asked me to read a booklet which he had prepared for his customers and to tell him what I thought of his proposal.

The man in the coffee shop shared his thoughts and aspirations of retiring at 40 and travelling to every country in the world while one driver told me she had falsely been accused of driving while drunk.

Another described the breakdown of her marriage to a priest. Meanwhile several colleagues at receptions said they were in therapy and told me how they felt about it while some hinted at family illnesses.

These disclosures were made, not after a long and cosy meal, but before the first sip of wine had crossed my lips. It seemed as though there were no boundaries and I feared that before further ado more intimate fantasies and behaviours might be shared. Thankfully, I did not remain long enough for such disclosures.

Why are Americans so open? The research papers I have read on this topic suggest that this is not stereotyping or conjecture although there may be some variation with, for example, the people from New England being slightly more aloof than others. These studies demonstrate that in comparison to people from Europe and Asia, Americans are freer in communicating personal information relating to many facets of life. The likely reasons can only be guessed.

Is it that in the melting pot of hundreds of nations they have a desire to form friendships and close bonds? Extrapolating from dyadic relationships, the gradual sharing of information, from general to personal and from superficial to intimate is an indicator of the deepening of trust.

Perhaps this tendency to disclose is a wider application of the same principle. The associated openness makes for a more relaxed and welcoming environment for the stranger, in contrast to the tension and distance that formality can create. The newcomer may feel that he is living in a society that is engaged and thus find it easier to put down roots.

But there is a less virtuous side to the attribute of openness and this is at its most ignoble in the tabloid, confessional, talk show hosted by Jerry Springer. The 25th season is now running. Springer has been accused of capitalising on the vulnerabilities of his guests who engage in no-holes-barred disclosures and disputes that, on occasion, have culminated in violence.

It is difficult to laud American-style openness, while the Springer show is still so much part of popular culture.

Despite that discomfort, there is little doubt that the warmth and helpfulness I experienced in the deep South was heartfelt and beautiful to experience.

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