Recently I had visitors from Europe, who are friends of my children. One night I took them out to dinner at a restaurant, and the elementary-school-aged visitor announced to the table, “In American restaurants, if there isn’t anything left over at the end of the meal, you haven’t been served enough food.” I am not sure when he had last eaten in an American restaurant, but I didn’t ask. And yes, I have heard Dutch people make boisterous announcements about France on ski lifts in the French Alps, and Americans opining loudly about Italy in the Uffizi. I’ll never, ever get away from this behavior, I thought.
So, I thought about war.
War ultimately stems from clichés. It begins with the jolt of a negative feeling that comes from seeing difference. The perception of difference (difference between you and me, difference between my country and yours) almost never produces indifference. Experimental studies using babies as subjects demonstrate that babies habituate to an object that they see repeatedly as indicated by the decrease in their arousal when presented with the object. After exposures to a that boring, now-familiar object, when exposed to something completely new *BAM* babies get aroused and pay a lot of attention to it. They notice the difference and difference causes heightened arousal.
What happens when the perception of difference causes a jolt of arousal? We don't know much about what babies do, but adults try to explain the reason for their experience of difference.
The question is, what knowledge do they use to build an explanation? From time immemorial Americans have been told that they are worse than Europeans in whatever way – style, culture, procedure, content. A recent article on homework around the world, published in the New Yorker, reminded me of that fact when it stated, “France ranked twenty-fifth in a new evaluation of educational systems by the Economist Intelligence Unit (part of the company that publishes The Economist). To give you an idea how bad that is, the United States, whose citizens are accustomed to being told how poorly educated they are, ranked seventeenth.”
Educated Americans are indeed used to being told that they are poorly educated and often embrace that belief as true. They explain a lot of things as due to the inferiority of their country. I am not sure what less educated Americans believe; they might bypass listening to any discussion at all, and just assert basic world superiority. But is a groundless claim of superiority any more problematic or cliché-driven than the groundless claim that Americans and all of their stuff and all of their ways are bad by comparison to somewhere else? Both beliefs are equally ignorant.
The perception of difference being explained in terms of the other person’s stuff being “so much better than chez nous” is statistically infrequent. Sometimes the improbability is revealed in the ridiculousness of the judgment: “Wow, I have to spend so much time opening and closing shutters in this old European house. It is so great; much better than in the US.” Or, “I have to kiss or shake hands with absolutely everyone in the house when I arrive at or leave a party. This is just so much better than in the US.” Better, if that is how you want to spend your time at the party and during the next week while you recover from having kissed people who just suffered the stomach flu.
No, more frequent is the conclusion that the difference is due to things being so much worse than chez nous. More often the observation is, “Why do you all eat lunch (dinner, snack) at this time of day in this country? Wow, that is so weird and stupid.” Or, “Do men seriously wear brightly colored jeans here in this country? That's just wrong.” In my post, “Judgments About the Silliest Things,” I discuss the fact that clichés are actually not about the manifest content of the cliché. The cliché that “Americans are only concerned about having fun” is not about having fun at all. No, clichés mean something deeper, most often along the lines of, “You are all stupider than we are,” or ”I’m so glad I am from my country and not yours.” That’s good, because you have to live in yours and I don’t.
Avoiding clichés, then, involves avoiding the obsessive drive to explain our arousal at the detection of every single difference. Indeed, why not just say, “I spend a lot of time opening and closing shutters in this old house.” Period. Or, “I go around and kiss or shake hands with absolutely everyone when I arrive at or leave a party.” Those are observations. They need not be connected to anyone else’s way of maintaining privacy or entering a group of people. They need not be judged as good or as bad.
You can tell me that it is not only ubiquitous but indeed fun and quite funny to notice, comment on, and judge individual and country-level differences, and you would be speaking for most people. But then I would remind you that you are not a stand-up comedian (or, if you are, then excuse me).
And that is what I told my children and their visitors last week. I told them that clichés are the basis of war.