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Travel Blog

The American Smile

Jessica Litwak

The Polish, the Czech and the Ukrainians tell me there is such thing as an "American Smile". They tell me that it is an oft used term that signifies fake happiness and forced enthusiasm. When someone grins insincerely or offers unwarranted praise, or just tries to convince you of something with a bright expression, or smiles with (as one Eastern European gentleman explained) "too many teeth", they are labeled as having an "American Smile."

Cultural competency is a requirement for International Arts work. To be a successful theatre artist-activist (teacher, writer, director, organizer) out there in the wide world, one must be acutely aware of where she is and who she is talking to. One cannot lapse into lazy, familiar assumptions on the road. I am hyper-vigilant about my behavior out in the world. So I was surprised to run into trouble recently for an insensitivity I didn't know I possessed.

In my world praise and the cheery expression of gratitude are usually always welcome. These high energy tactics can often transform resentment and resistance to acceptance and warmth. I can usually make someone like me by complimenting them with gusto. I am not lying. I always find something true and then embellish it into a gushing response. I can imagine this trait can be mildly annoying to Westerners, but it is positively infuriating to Eastern Europeans. I did not do my research about this. I took my energized American smile like a Passport, without thinking. And then, being a global citizen of conscience I spent a great deal of travel time apologizing for smiling.

I directed a show in a very small theatre space and a lighting designer with a dark look in his eyes helped me by hanging five lights and pointing them at the actors. He seemed moody and put out so I smiled and thanked him profusely. He was so furious that he complained to several people: "Why did she thank me?". I heard about his rage from various sources. He felt that I was thanking him for something small, below his pay grade, and that my grovelling happy smiley face was somehow dishonest,  insincere and very American.

You might think this is silly but it really bothered me. I have spent lots of my adult life (and much of my hippy youth) feeling guilty about being American. Being American has caused me to have terrible stomach aches, feeling the tight grip of shame in my belly. American greed has made me ashamed in Palestine, American foreign policy has made me hide my face in Iraq, I have felt shameful about the colonization of the word Americanin Mexico. But I have never felt ashamed of being nice. So I had a good hard look at what bothered me and discovered this:

1. Being kind is different from being nice. Listening to others isn't just about hearing words or music. Matching myself to the rhythm of the room is an art form far more useful than interpretive dance. I can teach and perform Viewpoints all over the stage, but if I am out of step and kinesthetically dead to the people I am dealing with in everyday life, whats the point of awakened improvisation? So I can't force my smile where it isn't wanted. I have to blend my energy with the country I'm in. Forcing my niceness isn't that much better than forcing my aggression.

2. I am tired of being so hated. If Trump wins the election I will carry even more National Shame in my suitcase. It's time to embrace my upbringing, forgive my parents for birthing me on U.S. soil, and put the battles where they belong - in the battlefield, not in my belly.

And finally

3. If I stop smiling and praising, stop finding gratitude under hard rocks and behind hard eyes, how will I survive? I don't think I have an American Smile. But I think if I do, it is better than having no smile at all...

Or is it?