Words by c.z.robertson

Americans don't smile

2007-05-14 21:26:40 GMT/BST

There are protocols to greeting. In the UK, when you greet someone, you smile at them first. There's a fast negotiation and escalation of friendliness. It goes something like this: a slightly prolonged eye contact, smile, say "hi", then move on to other pleasantries before getting into a real conversation. If either party fails to escalate then the greeting is aborted. All this happens too quickly to notice for the most part, but if you look for it then you'll see it.

(This process of escalation can happen more slowly too. For the last two or three years I've been taking the same route to work. It's taken me and a fellow commuter all this time to work through all these stages, but we had our first conversation a few weeks ago.)

In the US, though, it doesn't happen like that. I've spent the last week and a half in California, first in Silicon Valley, then walking around Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. Here you can get a friendly "how are you doing?" (which doesn't, I have learnt, require an actual answer) after only the briefest of eye contact. It comes with no warning. There doesn't need to be any smiling at all. People will even launch into real conversations like this. It's all very disconcerting to a Londoner like me. Having said that though, it hasn't taken me long to get into the habit of not smiling. I'll have to relearn the UK protocol now I'm back in London.