Lessons in Politeness

Since I was little, it has always been my dream to live in the USA. Probably influenced by too many Hollywood movies and American books, I wanted to experience studying at an American university and just living the American way of life. Honestly, I still cannot believe this is what I am actually doing. I left Switzerland on the 12th of January and flew to Laramie with a stopover in Denver. Laramie is the third biggest town in the state of Wyoming, the state with the second lowest population density after Alaska and the lowest number of citizens. Due to its small population and the vast natural landscape, the residents go through life more slowly and are very friendly, because in a town like this the residents know each other.  

Before my departure I already expected the culture and behavior of Americans to be different. However, I experienced this firsthand before I had even entered the US. As soon as I took my seat in the airplane from Frankfurt to Denver, the young man sitting next to me asked me how I was doing. This simple question led to a two-hour long conversation, in which he told me everything I needed to know about the US, as a European who had never been there before. It was unfamiliar for me to have such a long conversation with a stranger. Normally, when I travel within Europe, I do not talk with my seatmates, but rather mind my own business. However, it made the time go by quickly and it was also interesting to get to know more about the life of someone with a completely different background.

This interaction was just the first lesson, which was to be followed by many more in what politeness means, and how small acts of kindness can embellish your day. If I walk across the campus, a lot of the passing students are smiling at me, which I gladly return. Sometimes they even ask how I am doing, just as a way of greeting. Although I do not think I walk around with a sour face back at home, I definitely smile less than I do here. But it is also a lot easier to smile at others, if they smile at you first.

Another unspoken rule at the University of Wyoming is to hold open the door for the person behind you. It doesn’t matter if you have to wait ten seconds longer, you just make sure that the other person can enter or leave the building without having to open the door herself. This cultural practice seemed very strange to me at the beginning. I do not normally wait at a door in Switzerland, just to hold it open for the person walking behind me. Because as I mentioned before, I usually mind my own business.  

Another behavior that was striking to me at the beginning were the random compliments Americans tend to give. It can be anywhere at any time and about almost everything. Maybe someone tells you in class that they like your sweater, or they compliment your hairstyle before they leave the elevator.  It is also possible that you have the employee at Walmart tell you that she likes your accent. Americans are not shy about voicing their opinion or initiating brief small talk.

Although I have only been in Wyoming for six weeks, I have already learned a lot. Not only in the sense of academic knowledge, but also for myself. The many small acts of politeness and random small talk with strangers have made me aware that I do not pay a lot of attention to my environment in Switzerland. More specifically, I am not referring to my friends or family, but rather the strangers I pass during my everyday life. I would not describe myself as unpolite, because I grew up in a small village where we greet each other on the street. However, the past weeks have shown me that politeness is about so much more than just saying “Grüezi”.

It’s about smiling at strangers and asking them how they are doing, just to show that someone cares. It is about treating others with respect and being aware of the people surrounding you. It is about showing kindness to others without expecting anything in return.

I really hope that I will be able to maintain part of this cultural practice at home. It does not cost me anything to pay more attention to the people around me or to even lighten the day of someone else with a friendly smile or small act of kindness, such as by holding the door open for them.

Sophia Obi

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