Before moving to America, I always wondered why poker is such a popular game over here. I mean, we used to play it back in Europe, and of all the card games, it seemed the singularly stupidest. You look at your cards, you try your luck, then you see who’s got the best deal. End of story. Yes, there is a negotiation component, but the only thing it really does is measure your willingness to pretend you are better off – or worse off – than you really are.
The other card games I was used to were more intelligent and less dependent on sheer luck. Even Scopa, our favorite in Italy, was entirely dependent on your intellect: namely your ability to remember which cards had been played, and to guess by looking at the sequence of plays who still had which card.
Bridge is very similar to scopa in game play, but has an extensive negotiation component ahead of it, before game play starts. In that, it’s very similar to poker, where the negotiation is really the only thing that matters, and game play is held to a minimum (show or fold). Even in bridge, though, the logic is about information. There is no information passed on in poker.
When I then moved to America, I realized that poker trained and displayed an incredibly important trait in American culture: the ability to hide your emotions. The term, “poker face,” which designates the ability to show an impassive front no matter what the turmoil inside, has much broader application than the game, as the video (and song) above show.
In the song Hey, Jude, the Beatles say:
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
That pretty much sums up the European point of view: pretending has the consequence of making the world a meaner, colder place. Open expression of emotional states is bad, because with the bad states, the good ones are also hidden, and we need those to connect with each other.
Pretending, on the other hand, is incredibly important in America. Keeping your cool means that you seem unperturbed no matter the circumstances and is a sign of emotional superiority. Conversely, losing your cool and the corresponding loss of emotional control of the circumstances, indicates that you – plain and simple – lost it.
For you as an outsider coming in, American pretending has the unfortunate consequence of confusing you. You never know what people really think and feel – about you or about anything in general – because they’ll keep it to themselves. That’s true everywhere: when you shop, when you work, and when you date and make friends.
As with many other American idiosyncrasies, Americans are not aware that this is exceptional or remarkable. In general, Americans don’t think at all about it, or think it the normal way of society. That showing your emotions might be something positive and hiding them something dangerous, why, they would consider that notion odd.
(I should mention that they do have a term for that, which is “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve.” Unlike you’d think after reading this article, that can be said in a positive or neutral way.)
You want examples? Here are examples: that Starbucks barista that is always so nice and friendly to you is not flirting, he’s just making sure he keeps his job; the couple you met on your trip to the Grand Canyon doesn’t really want you to show up unannounced at their house, even when they gave you their phone number and address and told you to show up unannounced any time; the lady with whom you went out on a date mighty be charming, interested, and engaged the entire time – but she may well have decided she’s not going to see you ever again after a couple of minutes, and after you did something minor, but deathly offensive to her.
The weirdness of it all is not lost on Americans, and it’s a frequent trope of comedy shows. There is an episode of Will&Grace in which Grace dates a man who’s perfect for her. But when she tells him she was afraid of being seen with a new scar on her lips, he tells her that he would never be so shallow as to not date Grace because of an injury; and he’s not perfect, either: he’s got an extra toe.
Which is enough to freak out Grace, who subsequently dumps him.
The genius of the show (which has consistently amazing writing for the first three seasons) is in presenting Grace’s inner turmoil. She starts by presenting her own (minor) flaw as a reason she doesn’t want to be seen, and asks the guy to overlook it. But when she’s presented with a minor flaw to overlook, she writhes in emotional pain because she can’t, and she can’t admit to it.
The second part of the episode, that is, is about Grace’s futile attempts to keep her cool. Those attempts, of course, are not futile because the goal is not worth it, but because Grace is in general somewhat klutzy, dorky, and uncool.
Now, you cannot understand why poker face is so important without understanding the difference between social interactions in America and in Europe. Here (in America) you frequently move. You need to change your social circles rapidly, which means you have to be able to make new friends quickly, and you don’t have to worry about losing friends (since you are losing them when you move again, anyway).
Poker face allows you to be pleasant at all times, making it easy for people to like you in the moment. You control what you say, how you say it, and how you interact, streamlining your persona. What goes inside will matter only much later, and by the time people figure it out, you can be out of reach again.
When enough people start presenting a pleasant but largely fake persona, the expectation of the culture changes. Suddenly, when presented with someone that doesn’t conform to the norm, that person gets shunned. That creates a vicious cycle (virtuous if you think poker face is good): the non-conforming ones are held up as examples of bad behavior, which creates an incentive to conform, which makes non-conforming even harder.
As with all vicious/virtuous cycles, this one gains a life of its own. Once engrained, it becomes second nature, and people become unaware of its virtues and vices. The virtue, of course, is that casual social interaction is incredibly pleasant: the barista at Starbucks is always pleasant (unlike the coffee shop waiter in Germany, who told me to get out of the place if I didn’t like the whole milk they had when I asked for low fat); going to a party always means you can make new friends (unlike the German parties I attended where people clumped in groups of friends who wouldn’t talk to anyone they didn’t know beforehand); a business meeting is generally very professional (unlike the meeting I attended in Italy where the manager berated his employees in front of me).
The vicious part of poker face is social and emotional uncertainty. You never really know what people are feeling about you, and they generally won’t tell you. This emotional uncertainty doesn’t just affect those of us that moved into this culture later, but affects those that are immersed in it, too. It generates a general doubt about your place in the world that is particularly strong with the young.