You may have already seen Tim Walker’s Atlantic article, “The Bad American Habits I Kicked in Finland.” I initially came across the article–a brief riff on the cultural differences between Americans and Finns–some time this winter. While I hadn’t encountered the article too long ago, I read it again yesterday, six months to the day I moved to Atlanta, with a critical eye towards my own habits and transition.
My transition to Atlanta has not been difficult. Having been born and raised in Kentucky, in addition to five plus years spent exiled on the other side of the country, I am overjoyed to be back in the South. Things make sense to me here in the same way that, after prolonged exposure to Finland’s sauna culture, getting naked and sweating with strangers makes sense to Tim Walker, but not to his friend visiting from New York.
Walker, it seems, had a more difficult time modulating his American propensity towards overt friendliness. According to Finnish colleagues unused to being greeted several times a day, Walker was “too generous with [his] hellos.” “I threw my hands up and snapped,” Walker writes, “‘You’re accusing me of being too friendly? Is that really such a bad thing?'” Well, Tim Walker, it’s complicated… here and in Eastern Europe.
For me, hello has never just been hello. As a southerner, greeting people has always made sense to me, even when I was too shy to engage myself. My childhood and adolescence would have been much easier if I’d felt free to offer a friendly greeting, or to at least articulate something of the paralyzing social anxiety that made it difficult for me to do so. My release from social anxiety was slow, but by the time I was twenty-two and had moved to Chicago for graduate school, and it felt right and–finally–good to smile at people on the street and offer the occasional greeting. My hellos, however, were often interpreted as an invitation to follow me down the street and harass me for money. I should have been more circumspect.
When I landed in Pullman, Washington, in 2009, knowing no one but my husband, I had to get over my anxiety–fast. And I did. But unlike Chicago, Pullman wasn’t interested in my hellos. My smiles to those I passed on the street were ignored, and on more than one occasion, overt friendliness was met with downright suspicion. I made a few acquaintances, even friends, but those relationships did not compensate for what I perceived as unfriendliness. Should I have been more circumspect in Washington, too? My feelings might not have been hurt so much, but for an introvert like myself, it was important to keep exercising the muscle that allowed me to look strangers in the face and offer a warm greeting.
Having ended up in Atlanta, and transitioned so smoothly, I know that it was worth it. You might even mistake me for a native.