Wooooo!: an American cultural institution

posted 27 February 2008

It's been a while since I talked about cultural differences between the US and the UK, probably because I've been so deeply assimilated so quickly. But I recently had a visitor from the UK whom I took to see the Chinese New Year parade who pointed something out: the American ability to exclaim "woo!" sincerely, and without hesitation or embarrassment.

This may strike you as a little thing but I think it's a pretty fundamental difference between the USA and the rest of the world. I remember when I was in my mid-teens I used to watch MTV, and there would be these bizarre, screaming crowds of excited girls, shrieking with enthusiasm on demand. I used to wonder where they found these girls, and how much they paid them. Because nobody really acts like that. Like Tom Sawyer and Paul Bunyan, excited shrieking girls, cheerleaders and frat boys are cultural icons that don't really exist in the real world. Right?

Wrong. Frat boys, with their insane hazing rituals and cries of "bro!" really do exist, despite being parodies of themselves. There really are women -- and men -- whose biggest ambition in life is to wear tight clothing and yell excitedly at people engaged in athletic competition. And finally, there really are people -- in fact, a whole nation of people -- who will yell "woo!" unabashedly and at the slightest provocation, just because they're excited and they want to share it with the world. (They also still do high-fives. Unironic high-fives.)

It seems that Americans do not, in general, understand quite how bizarre these things appear to outsiders, especially Europeans. A Briton would die of embarrassment before high-fiving somebody. Try to imagine a German cheerleader. A French girl saying "woooo!". Or an Italian, or a Greek or a Spaniard. Obviously in every nation there are some people who will do these things (cheerleading in particular is a vice that seems to be spreading) but they are the exception, and I like to think they are regarded with embarrassment.

The existence of a nation that can be unabashedly enthusiastic about things is part of the reason that Americans are culturally stereotyped as being unable to understand sarcasm and irony. Surely, the world thinks, you can't understand both of those things at the same time? Sarcasm requires self-consciousness, and that precludes public displays on enthusiasm.

But unselfconscious enthusiasm -- especially for America itself -- is a central part of what makes Americans the nation they are. A gung-ho, enthusiastic nation ready to start a business and go broke, or invade a country, or become a famous actor, or do whatever the hell they want, because they live in the best country in the world. They're sure of it. It's an assumption that runs so deep into them that they don't even understand the question. Of course it's the best country in the world, that's what we are. That's why -- they believe -- everyone is always clamouring to get in. That's why they believe they have the moral authority to tell other nations how to run their affairs.

Americans deeply believe that they are on the top of the pile, and the rest of the world is looking up to them for help and guidance on how to be as cool as America is. And in fact, many other nations have bought into this, and really do see America that way. That's why European attitudes confuse and infuriate Americans: you really think France is better than America? My god, the French, so arrogant! Only a nation 100% confident in its own supremacy would fail to notice the irony there.

And, truly, it's hard to say whether I approve or disapprove of this attitude. A child who is raised to be self-confident always does better than a child of similar ability who doesn't put themselves forward, and the same is true of nations. America has achieved great things, and part of the reason for that must be the way Americans are unafraid to take risks. Sometimes they fail, sometimes spectacularly; sometimes they don't think things through. But on balance you have to say that it's working for them. There's no such thing as a "best" nation, but as long as you live somewhere, it's good to be happy about it. Even if it does make the rest of the world roll their eyes.

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