This country is so wildly diverse, with so many subcultures, values, backgrounds and personal styles, that sometimes you just shake your head. Or at least I do. Rarely do I feel more foreign in my own land than during my chance encounters with a particular type of fellow American: the casual conversational divulger. I’m talking about the person you’ve just met, who for some unaccountable reason tells you everything – that solitary sailor, as Tom Waits sings, who spends the facts of his life like small change on a stranger.
Recently I took my family to visit the Virginia fishing hamlet where my sister lives. We stayed at a motel, and in the morning I ducked into the office for a cuppa. At the coffee machine I met another guest, a huge tattooed guy in a baseball cap. The motel manager was there, and she asked politely whether our rooms were OK and whether we’d slept all right.
“Well,” the guy said, “I got the apnea, so I wear a mask.” He smiled at me. “Giving my wife a break, you know?”
I nodded, obligingly.
“My wife and I, we’re here for our fifth anniversary,” he added.
“Congratulations,” I offered.
“Actually we were together twenty-two years before we got married.”
“Aha,” I said. “She finally popped you the question.”
Actually, he explained, they’d waited so long because she’d been collecting alimony from her ex. But finally they decided that they weren’t getting any younger, it was time to get hooked. “I got this obesity thing going on, and my doc tells me I gotta give up the cigarettes and cut down on the food. I got a lot of heart disease in my family. And my wife’s got issues too.”
I nodded again. All this while, he was continuing to dump a stupefying amount of sugar and creamer into two enormous coffee cups.
“Actually, he shot her. My wife’s ex.”
“He shot her?”
“Yep. Put her in a wheelchair.”
“My God,” I sputtered. “That’s awful.”
“Yep. Well, you have a nice one now!” He took his two giant coffees and left.
This same disorienting encounter, in which someone I don’t know pours out intimacies while I stand there bemused, seems to happen to me over and over. In my thirties I lived in Germany for five years, and one night in the spa town of Bad Kreuznach I found myself on a train platform with a young American soldier. Waiting for the train, we chatted. He'd been in the army two years, he said, and off he went, telling me about it -- from the failures in high school that had driven him to the recruiting office, to the shaky state of his marriage and the treacheries of his wife, whom he had married eighteen months earlier, and who since coming to Germany had been hanging out in clubs, partying all night, flirting with other men, ducking housework, and making him miserable. The kid had a peculiar narrative tic: he kept spitting on the platform, puh-twee!, a kind of emphatic punctuation to his tale. "So a few months ago we have a little baby, right, a girl, and not four nights later there goes my wife--" --puh-twee!-- "straight out to the frickin’ disco, and I'm saying, 'What about the baby?', and she's calling back, 'The diapers are over the sink!'”
On and on his story rambled, the woes piling up, the platform at his feet by now dotted with tiny glistening dabs. Why was he dishing his life out to me, a total stranger, on a train platform? The thought occurred to me that he was demented. And also that something was askew with me – that I was becoming a good German Bürger, guarded, sensible, overly private and hemmed in by propriety. And if I didn’t get back to America soon, I’d be an alien in my own country forever.
Well, I did get back. But I still can’t get used to fielding casual personal disclosures from strangers. If this guy is willing to unload intimate marital details on me, what was left for his friends? If this is his casual, social self, what is his private self like? Does it even exist? Such thoughts can spur a mild paranoia. In comparison I feel like a monster of privacy.
What is it about Americans? Ours is a culture of mobility and salesmanship, facilitated by glad-handing and friendly extroversion. Two centuries ago Tocqueville wondered at our conversational style, observing wryly that ”an American does not know how to converse... He does not talk, but holds forth.” Tocqueville pegged our predilection for preaching and for argument. But there’s also our casually confessional style – amplified, perhaps, by the therapeutic tilt of contemporary culture.
It’s great for fiction writers. You don’t have to dig to get people’s intimate secrets; they hand them to you gladly, over coffee. But it can be rough on us privacy-minded New Englanders -- the good Bürger of America, I guess.