Seven Surprising Things About America
Being back in my home-country after six years away, many things have surprised me.
My father died recently, which has brought Michael and me back to America for a time. And after six years away, I now see my home country with very different eyes.
I also think America has changed a lot lately, and the changes are happening especially fast. It’s partly about Covid, but it’s also due to technological advancements, generational conflict, and political polarization, which I keep thinking can’t get any worse — and then it does.
Basically, America has surprised me more than I expected — and it’s been more than just the usual observations people from other countries always have about America: how its health care system is insane, how there are so many cars, and how overweight everyone is.
Indeed, my surprises are not even all criticisms! Here they are:
1) Everyone is in therapy, and therapy-speak infuses everything.
Years ago, I trained as a therapist. After completing the coursework for my masters degree, I decided it wasn’t the career for me, mostly because the different therapies often seemed so amorphous and open-ended. I became convinced that a lot of what I was seeing wasn’t making much of a difference — and was sometimes doing more harm than good.
Then, over the next few decades, I watched as therapy and therapy-speak ate America. Being in therapy went from something stigmatized to something that gives status, at least in certain circles.
American speech is now riddled with terms like “gaslighting,” “toxic,” “in crisis,” and “self-care.”
Now, as then, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, many of my friends are therapists, and I think they do great, noble work. The more specific the problem, the better I think therapy works.
I also think it’s fantastic that the stigma around mental illness is so much less than before, and I heartily applaud people for dealing with their shit.
On the other hand, I’m not convinced most Americans are dealing with their shit. Weirdly, it seems like Americans are more messed up than ever — hyper-focused on themselves and obsessed with strange notions of “happiness.”
Most of the rest of the world isn’t like this. Which is ironic because it often seems like they have more reasons to be distraught.
And social media is, uh, not helping.
Interestingly, most of my therapist-friends agree with a lot of this.
But regardless of what I personally think about it, this “therapy” mind-set is a real phenomenon, and Americans have embraced it in a way that the rest of the world simply hasn’t — at least not yet.
2) People dress very, very casually.
I drove by a high school a few months ago, and it seemed like half the kids were wearing pajama bottoms. I recently met with a lawyer in her office, and she showed up in jeans and a peasant blouse. Last week, I tried to buy a pair of dress shoes, and it was a real struggle even finding any for sale.
I know, I know: “Americans now dress like slobs!” is apparently a big Boomer complaint. But I say this as an expat, not a Boomer (which I’m not, by the way). The way America dresses is now in striking contrast to much of the rest of the world, even poor countries, where people dress far more formally. In many countries, kids still wear school uniforms.
Obviously, the U.S. has been in a long-term trend toward “dress-casual,” but Covid seems to have sent this into hyperdrive.
But lest you think that this is an entire article of America-bashing, I’ve also been surprised to realize…
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