This is actually the bit I don’t like about America

Immigrants were asked what they like about America and there’s some great responses. But this one is actually what I don’t like about the place:

What surprised me was the social circles that existed in schools and in life. Back in Italy, schools didn’t have the nerds, the jocks, the skater kids, emos, or what else have you. People were all basically the same, with minor differences in interests. Most everyone played soccer, was a casual gamer, and hung out in the town square at night. That’s it. It may sound like an exaggeration, but 95% of my friends there were exactly like this. So when I came to school here, I was amazed by how the jocks would hang out at gyms and play 4 different sports after school, while the skaters headed off to find a park. It was so different. And I loved it. Because while I could fit it back in Italy, I was always much more introverted and interested in nerd stuff, and in the US I finally found people who were really like me. It was really unexpected, and you only notice it after spending a lot of time in America.

In one sense the US is distinctly nonconformist. You can indeed be anything you want to be, a jock, a nerd, a goth, absolutely anything.

But in another sense it’s hugely conformist. Because you’re going to be a goth, a jock, a nerd. And whichever subgroup you belong to you’ll be expected (and the social enforcement is harsh) to really be a jock, a nerd, a goth.

A jock starts dating a goth just because she’s a bit of alright and it gets treated like a Montague just eloped with a Capulet. The retelling of that tale, West Side Story (and the re-retelling of it, Grease, The Breakfast Club has a bit of it too) aren’t joking about the tribalism of American society.

Yes, obviously, I’m exaggerating, but it is something that’s always struck me as being really very different about American as opposed to say English society. You can be as tribally nonconformist as you like in the US and there’s tribes, groups, that do just about anything. But it’s not a place where people tend to be personally nonconformist. There’s a much greater sense (and to be fair, it is a sense, not an insistence) that you need to be collectively nonconformist over there in a manner that we really don’t.

34 thoughts on “This is actually the bit I don’t like about America”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    I don’t want to come over all Arnald, but I expect that this is mostly because you went to a private school. I went to a Comprehensive. One difference is that private schools tend to be small. Everyone needs to be friends with everyone else. Especially if they live at the school.

    American schools are often enormous – thousands of students. That means that cliques can form. You can hang with your 12 good friends and your 120 close associates and still be hanging out with fellow jocks the whole time.

    Ampleforth has some 600 students. That means you know every one in your year really well. Stuyvesant High School, to pick a good American school at random, has over 3,200 students. That means each year is as big as Ampleforth.

  2. The worst thing about American high schools is how easily teenagers can throw a sickie, impersonate the Sausage King of Chicago, and get their best friend to crash his dad’s prized Ferrari.

  3. Are you sure you’re not seeing this as an outsider looking in, rather than an insider, looking out?
    With a big population base, you may have lot of Goths. So it can look like uniform gothness. To a weekend Goth, it’s a scene they dip in & out of, whenever they feel like it. Fuzzy edge.

  4. Regarding Goths: nothing says ‘non-conformist’ quite like everyone dressing identically in black clothes, with dyed black hair and black eye makeup.

  5. So Much For Subtlety

    Well as long as you also get to date Mia Sara I don’t see the downside.

    Comprehensives have to have large student numbers to stream.

  6. @rob
    Memories of leaving Paris in warm, summer frocks, September & returning mid Oct to find every individual Parisienne had decided to make a procative, rebellious fashion statement in the shape of a black leather biker jacket. Place looked like a Crew Slut convention.

  7. On the subject of cliques, I suspect that they are every bit as present and as hide bound in UK schools as US. A younger friend of mine told me how there was a huge social divide between kids with iPhone and those with Blackberries at her school. The interesting bit for me was that divide was not derived from the assumed social status gifted by a mobile, but because BBM was the IM service for one lot and iMessage for the others. One group just didn’t have a free mechanism to stay in touch with the other group, thus no social bonding, thus a big gap formed above the usual Goth/skater/geek/squirrel fancier/etc cliques.

  8. “On the subject of cliques, I suspect that they are every bit as present and as hide bound in UK schools as US. A younger friend of mine told me how there was a huge social divide between kids with iPhone and those with Blackberries at her school.”
    Why not use Whatsapp?

  9. Yes these tribes exist in the UK, but only really at school. Once you’re 18 it’s over and forgotten. A 25 year old goth just looks pathetic.

    In America it’s not just a school thing. In the US, a city the size of Liverpool will have five or six comic book stores, frequented by adults; whereas there’s probably only one such store in the entire northwest of England, and I expect it’s mainly frequented by minors (driven there by their mothers).

    Then there are the bikers, the gym-fiends, the civil war reenactment guys, and so on. Actually a lot of that is slowly disappearing (c.f. Bowling Alone); or commercialising (selling Harley Davidsons to mid-life crisis males); but it’s still very much there.

    It’s largely a product of that nation’s vast wealth. People have the spare time and money to devote to these passions; and thanks to wide roads, cheap petrol, and free parking, everyone can meet up with likeminded individuals, even over wide areas. (Again, all these are changing: US roads are more congested, parking is less free, fewer teenagers are learning to drive; so expect more declines in such social groupings.)

  10. Is this for real, or just about dramatic conventions in movies?

    The thing that’s strange to me about the USA is how much resources schools pour into sport and particularly armoured wankball. My school was large and pretty good at rugby, but we didn’t have a stadium. You wanted to watch? You stood at the touchline. And when I went to support my brother, we’d go to private schools and it was the same thing. And you’d have a couple of hundred people, generally parents of the kids. But in the USA, thousands of people turn out to see a bunch of kids, they have marching bands and all.

  11. Umm, to be a pendant, Pretty in Pink is the Hughes re-telling. The Breakfast Club is about exposing and confronting those stereotypes.

  12. Actually BiS, this is my favourite time of year because the wankball playoffs are seamlessly replaced by the 6 oaf nations as my weekend pastime…

  13. I’m afraid you’re waaaaaaaay off-base there about inter-circle mixing.

    What you describe sounds more like how *Hollywood* portrays high school than real life.

    Yes we do tend to stratify into these groups early but only a small percentage get so caught up in their group identity that the completely exclude others. Its just that the mixing takes place in different social environments rather than as a constant thing happening all the time.

  14. I have actually lived and worked in the US for a number of years. And I don’t pretend for a moment that it’s as strong as the movies make out. But it is stronger than it is in hte UK.

  15. In the US, a city the size of Liverpool will have five or six comic book stores, frequented by adults; whereas there’s probably only one such store in the entire northwest of England, and I expect it’s mainly frequented by minors (driven there by their mothers).

    Well, dunno about the northwest of England but in Central Scotland there are three I know of (and my comic books now tend to be the hardcopies of the internet cartoons, although I do read my adult sons) plus there are all of the “Games Workshop” stores – 8 of theirs and 10 independents.

    Even a small Waterstones will carry the comic book collection paperbacks as well, if I really needed a fix.

  16. The semi-finals for the national rugby unions schools’ cup are played at Premiership grounds and the finals at Twickers. I’m hoping my cousin’s lad may help get my alma mater back there this year or next.

    In rugby league (I have become muddied and bloodied in both codes) most of the schools’ finals are held at RAF Uxbridge; stewarding at this event has got me free tickets to the Challenge Cup final the following day at both Twickenham and Wembley.

  17. Get the armoured wankball players to take their armour off and pit them against a team of Proper Football players (ie Rugger) and see how far they get.

    Actually, I vaguely remember a Friends episode with this premise (god, I’m old), and I think the wankball players got stomped into the dirt.

  18. I’d check the speed of running backs & receivers over 50 yds before you get too carried away jgh. And what sre you proposing? Gridiron rules but without protection? It’d probably end with most of the teams in surgery but st least the Yanks would hve a chance of walking again, Eventually. Have you seen the size of American football players? It’ s hard to believe humans come that big.

  19. The high school I attended had 800-1000 students at the time. While I knew everyone in my year I rarely hung out with those with different interests. At the end of my senior year English class one assignment was a what I will do with my life presentation during which I learned more about 27 of the 29 other kids than I had in the 4+ years that I had known them.

  20. My biggest problem with armoured wankball is that they don’t put 1 team on the pitch. Each team has 3 teams: offence, defence, and kicking. I like that in sports like football, cricket, rugby and baseball that you have to put 11 or 15 men out and they have to do everything, to be a team.

  21. Oh, he’s very popular Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads–they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.

  22. BiS: No, I’m proposing getting a team of American Football players play a game of rugby against a team of rugby players dressed only in exactly what rugby players dress in, none of that namby pamby body protection.

  23. No, I’m proposing getting a team of American Football players play a game of rugby against a team of rugby players dressed only in exactly what rugby players dress in, none of that namby pamby body protection.

    That’s the USA rugby team then, most of them are guys who couldn’t make the cut playing college football and foreign students. But I knew a guy who played rugby against some Americans once, who were all football players as well. Said they were fucking psychos who had no concept of personal safety and would tackle with their heads. The rugby players are tough as hell but they make sure they get their heads out the way in the tackle. The Yanks just stick a helmet on and get their heads in the way. This might make them stupid, but it doesn’t make them soft. We need to pray the Yanks keep playing football and don’t switch to rugby, everyone else would get slaughtered.

  24. I’ve done this myself: played B team rugby in the US. And yes, the football players who came to play rugby were very fit, very fast and incredibly dangerous. Usually took them 6 months an a couple of bone breaks to work out the differences in the games.

  25. @ Tim Newman
    I still remember, from when I was at school, a house match where the guys were trying to charge down an attempted conversion (stupid, in theory, because the ball must go far over their heads but, in practice, does reduce the conversion rate) and it hit one of them on the forehead – KO. The San let him out the next day. Modern day rules he’d be detained in hospital for a week

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