When you live in America, there are two national stereotypes that pop up frequently and are as pervasive as they are puzzling: Brits have bad teeth, and Canadians are too nice.
The stereotypes are not only pervasive, they are thought of perfectly harmless and worthy of making fun. If you have watched American comedies, you will have seen the buck-toothed, yellow-stained Brit smile. Also common, the Canadian brute that turns all polite.
In fact, sometimes the Canadian stereotype is geared towards the brute that is too polite. The best example I can come up with is Robin Scherbatsky, the beautiful tomboy that is the central character of How I Met Your Mother. She is depicted as someone that was trained to be a man by her domineering father, who lives up to the expectation, but who also is unfailingly hyperpolite.
Oddly, in both cases, the stereotype says more about the people holding it than about the people stereotyped. You see, Brits and Canadians are close enough to Americans to be able to routinely pass as such. They are of the same genetic makeup, they dress largely similarly (although I am pretty sure my British friends would object to that), and they have largely compatible social interaction structure.
Brits, let’s face it, don’t have bad teeth. I know enough Brits to know they have perfectly normal teeth, if a little yellower than most because of their propensity to drink tea and smoke. So, why do Americans think Brits have bad teeth? Well, the answer is that Americans are absolutely obsessed with teeth.
Have you seen those TV shows and movies where teenagers are subjected to the torture of having to walk around with dental braces? As a child I always wondered what’s wrong with American’s teeth that they need correction so frequently. Turns out they don’t. Americans just want to have perfect teeth.
Did you ever wonder why actors in movies have such preternaturally unnaturally white teeth? They look less like teeth and more like bones left to dry out in the sun for centuries. Same thing: Americans are obsessed with what they consider the perfect smile. So they force themselves through years of braces and constant visits to the dentist for tooth whitening. All so they can dazzle each other with their perfect smiles.
The same is true for Canadians. They are not particularly polite, in a way that would make you make fun of them. For sure, they are really nice people, and they are a real joy to be around. But the truth is, Americans can be incredibly rude.
The thing is, and that’s what’s so strange about the Canadian stereotype, American rudeness is not a matter of selfishness and self-centeredness, but a cultural problem. Rudeness is considered, in certain circumstances, a way to assert oneself. It is an appropriation of strength, and for males, of masculinity.
Just like American teeth look fake to anyone outside the States, because we know that teeth like that don’t grow in nature, we easily detect there is something artificial about American rudeness.
You’ve probably seen it in movies. Some character does something incredibly annoying. When confronted, he or she will make a strange move (typically moving the arms outward with the palms facing the audience) and say, “Oh, yeah? What are you gonna do about it?”
That’s the core of American rudeness. This assertion of strength by displaying the weakness of the other. I’ve seen it in the water sometimes: a surfer will do something atrociously obnoxious and when confronted will dismiss the wronged with precisely that phrase.
The thing is, it would be just as easy to apologize, and much more effective. Some people do it, and they know how effective it is to do wrong and just apologize for it, washing away from themselves all stain of confrontation. Instead, Americans prefer confrontation for no purpose other than showing they are strong. Even when, and especially if, they really are weak.