When we're not arguing or laughing, we spend a lot of time talking about our respective cultures, in an effort to come to an understanding of each other, sort of, anyhow. As much as two people who are dead opposite in all ways can do such things.
I made a profound (for me, anyhow) discovery about one of our essential cultural differences, and one that also goes a long way to explain the resentment and inferiority complex that many foreigners seem to carry into encounters with Americans. I certainly got my fair share while in Brazil. The wonderful outpouring of warmth and friendly welcoming attitude was predominant, but among strangers, I was pretty much the devil.
Pictured: Evil American
To be fair, I really was a walking stereotype in that picture, 75lbs ago. Fat, very possibly drunk, and accompanied by the most attractive woman on the beach.
Brazilians are incredibly social people- much more so than even the most social American can appreciate or truly understand. Their culture is full of social contracts and idiosyncrasies, just as our American culture is. The differences aren't always polar opposite, and aren't always subtle, either.
I get pissed off when my wife's friends call at 1am just to say hi. This is my time to sleep, most of the time. A 1am phone call is NEVER, EVER positive in our culture. In theirs, it probably just means someone is drunk and wants to do the 'I love you, man' speech. And that leads nicely into the idea of politeness.
Brazilians have excellent table manners. You'll never see one of them clearing their nose on the street, or belching anywhere, even at home. They have no middle class, either. You're either in the super-small minority of 'haves' or you're a 'have not.' There's a working class, and an upper middle class, but no middle middle class.
If you're a higher-class Brazilian in line at a bank, on a Friday, and believe me, you will be in lines everywhere (Brazilians are horrible at customer service, and have little interest in changing that), you will expect the bank to send someone to bring you out of the line and into their office to handle your banking needs, while the peons in line can go take a flying fuck at rolling doughnuts.
Now, lets say that it's now Friday night. The people who live the next street over (rich and poor live without buffer zones, unlike the US, who got thrown under the bus when you were in line, are now partying their ass off at midnight- music blaring, bottles clinking, etc. You are NOT going to call the police about this in Brazil. This is the social contract- people might bitch amongst peers, but will give and take exceptional liberties before asking for special attention. It's sort of an equalization in a culture with stunning inequality.
What Brazilians take from this is a sense that Americans are cold, entitled and demanding. We expect everyone to shut the hell up when we want to sleep, we expect that no one is going to cut us in line, and we'll expect that you will try not to interfere with our day-to-day living without an invitation. We want everyone to conform to our wishes. That certainly sounds arrogant... of course, the flip side of that coin is the behavioral code of conduct that comes with it- we expect to be treated, for the most part, according to the golden rule; therefore, our natural reserve which keeps us on polite terms with our neighbors also makes us seem cold, as you probably won't see us drunk, swinging from a telephone pole, either. "Americans don't know how to have a good time," is a sentiment that a few people said to me casually. They have a point, though truth be told my wife knows full well that as a rule I don't act up too much in public, while in private I have no problem acting like a dumbass for entertainment purposes.
My wife learned early in our marriage that Americans focus on the nuclear family, (I met 60, that is SIXTY third cousins), and that our social contract calls for keeping strangers at arms' length until by mutual assent things change. She was very pleasantly surprised by how loyal and warm my friends and immediate family was, and, in comparison, the difference in how we interact when our cultural reservations don't apply.
Our culture has unspoken rules (non-friends or non-family can expect a phone call then a call to the police if there's a noise complaint). Calling the cops makes it much more likely that a crime will be committed in Brazil, as opposed to stopping one, here. There, the police are to be avoided, as they will expect to be bribed or paid regardless of why you're dealing with them. Their culture has unspoken rules, too: don't interrupt anyone's good time, and for fuck's sake, do not mess with the status quo.
With this contrast, it's no surprise that Brazilians find Americans to be cold and arrogant. We expect equal consideration regardless of class, we expect no stranger to impinge on our good time, and we demand that our desires be met, even if it has consequences.
When put in a Pepsi Challenge situation, I wasn't surprised to find that Brazilians find most of us soggy and hard to light, in general. What I really loved was some of the one-on-one conversations I had where I could see someone's realization that I wasn't being reserved with them, that I was focused completely on the person- at that moment I ceased being an Ugly American for them, and became a person.
One of the best examples of this was with Bras (I think I spelled that right), a street vendor in Salvador who was selling iced ground-up sugarcane with lemon. It being a slow day for him, I tried out my horrible Portuguese and managed to order a drink. I then proceeded to dump a little scotch in it from my hip flask (you travel with me, you travel with class and style, baby!). His English was slightly better than my Portuguese, so we chatted in the two languages, with my stepson translating here and there. I ended up pouring out some of my flask in a cup for the guy, as Scotch is 5x more expensive than it is in the US, and they only import shit like Ballentines', which tastes like it was made in the toilet tank of a prison bathroom. So Bras and I shared some Lagavulin, my own brand of choice (which is R$300 a bottle in Brazil, about $200 US. and he showed me pictures of his kids, and I introduced him to my wife and son. All in the course of 10 minutes, and then we went on our way.
Those moments like that come when our cultures collide in an open way. When cultures collide in a clash, it's not so nice. My wife will flip out if I complain about the neighbors making noise. She lives in fear that I will walk over and interrupt their good time at some point. I'd be breaking the social contract.