by Becky De Oliveira—
I’ve lived for long stretches of time in both my native country—the U. S.—and England, so I’ve had ample opportunity to compare the cultures. One of them tends to be much more affirming than the other. In the U. S., if a stranger speaks to you in public, it is likely for one of two reasons. First, they are giving an unsolicited compliment: “I love your shoes!” Or, “I just have to tell you that your hair color is very becoming.” “Why, thanks, random stranger!” you think, and go about your day feeling just that much more puffed up and pleased with yourself for your choice of shoes or hair color. The other type of individual likely to do any kind of verbal drive-by is a street person, who will generally ask if you have any “spare change” and sometimes more specifically, “a quarter.” The creative and funny ones will add the line, “I promise to spend it on beer.”
However, in England, if a stranger deigns to speak to you, it will invariably be to offer some sort of rebuke. English people appear to be genuinely concerned that a total stranger will make a mistake without having anyone there to call him on it. If a woman eats her pudding with a fork instead of a spoon in the woods and there is no one there to comment, does it make a sound? For instance, on just one occasion from dozens of examples I could choose from, I was walking down the street from the village shops in Binfield back to Newbold College, eating from a snack-sized bag of cashew nuts. An elderly woman paused as our paths intersected to ask indignantly, “Can’t you even sit down while you eat your nuts?” There was me, having no idea I was meant to break out the good china and my ancestral silver.
Even the transients get in on the action. Never does a hobo in London ask for money. Sure, money pays for stuff. But who needs stuff when the satisfaction of correcting a total stranger beckons? A few summers ago, while I was walking in St. James’ Park early in the morning and drinking a large cup of coffee I’d purchased from a nearby Café Nero—the only coffee shop open at that hour—one such individual came at me brandishing a large tree limb in Ninja weapon style, twirling it and lunging while shouting, “How much did you pay for that coffee? Oy! OY!”
No matter what you happen to be doing, you can be assured that it will be incorrect either in general principle or in terms of execution. If you are walking on a crowded path with hundreds of other tourists and a runner coming from behind doesn’t feel he has enough space, he’ll shout, “Must you take up the whole path?” But should you happen to hear the thunderous approach of his footsteps and move off the path as a courtesy, you’ll be berated for flattening the grass and upsetting the delicate ecosystem, “You stupid Yank!”
Perhaps it is the years I spent in England, utterly starved of affirmation; or maybe it is because I am a mother, and therefore no doubt part of the problem; or maybe it’s because I’m an educator, or have been and still am from time to time, and these kids today are my kids—but the criticism of children and university-aged students as entitled and spoiled brats expecting eternal and unconditional pats on the back rankles me a little. I’m going to go ahead and push back against conventional wisdom and say that I think we give too few pats on the back, not too many. People need more genuine affirmation, not less.
This isn’t the same as generalized and non-specific praise. I used to work casually for a guy who was fond of saying, “You’re so great. And artsy. You’re just a great, wonderful, artsy, kind of smart person.” However, I did not find this even remotely complimentary, because it was clear that he didn’t really see me. Seeing people is work, and it takes effort. You can’t dial it in—but it is absolutely what we’re here for. I have a print hanging on my wall at home by Brian Andreas, who creates Story People—eccentric little stories and drawings. It reads, “There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money and it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good.”
The Bible says this “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11, ESV).
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.