“Americans are so friendly. They talk to you, they smile at you,” Gaby said. It was her third day in New York. Like me she grew up in Moers, a small town on the lower Rhine. Geneva, Switzerland, is her adopted home. “Swiss people, like the Germans are not friendly to strangers. They always seem in a foul mood,” she added.
I’ve also noticed this difference between Europeans and Americans and still remember my astonishment upon my arrival in New York. White Americans physically resembled the Germans, but seemed a different species altogether. They did not walk with slumped shoulders; they did not drag their feet. They walked with a bounce in their step and held their heads high. They smiled at you. They were optimistic. I did not understand why they weren’t affected by history. Where was their Vergangenheitsbewältigung? How did they cope with the past? Why weren’t they burdened by guilt for what they had done to the Native Americans and the Blacks? Why weren’t they mourning their losses in the Vietnam War? Half of the world hated them, but they didn’t care. Unlike the Germans, they didn’t believe in guilt-ridden soul-searching.
Recently Dominique Moïsi’s book The Geopolitics of Emotion deepened my understanding of the differences between Americans and Europeans. Moïsi is the founder of the French Institute of International Affairs and a visiting professor at Harvard University. In his book, he examines the emotions that drive cultural differences and cause the divisions in the post-9/11 world. He shows how fear, humiliation, and hope are reshaping the world. For him both the U. S. and Europe are ruled by fears of the “other.” Both continents fear the loss of their national identity.
In contrast Muslims and Arabs are ruled by humiliation. They feel excluded from the economic benefits of globalization. Historical grievances and conflicts at home extend to the countries they emigrate to. This feeling of humiliation is evolving into a culture of hatred. In another part of the world China and India --with their economic might and focus on a prosperous future-- have created a culture of hope. Moïsi believes that “Chindia” will in the future come to dominate the world and that the U.S.A., with its huge debt and crumbling infrastructure, will no longer be a major player. According to Moïsi, Europe--stuck in the past and resembling a museum--won’t be able to move forward.
He sees more collective hope in the United States than in Europe and cites the election of Obama as an example. He observes that West Europeans experience more collective fear despite little real suffering. What my visitor from Geneva described as the foul mood of her fellow citizens, Moïsi calls the morosity of the continent.
His ideas are a thought-provoking and resonate with many of my own experiences. He is considered a leading authority on international affairs and I highly recommend his book:
Dominique Moïsi: The Geopolitics of Emotion, Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0-385-52376-9 (0-385-52376-9)