The American literary critic and scholar, R.P. Blackmur, famously wrote of “Language as Gesture.” What I would suggest (and what I see borne out not only in extended conversations with French natives online in forums for precisely that purpose, but in my experience in general—among the general American public, and even in more selective environments, such as American academic centers) is that our European brethren, the French exhibiting a particular aptitude and finesse, are far more serious and analytical about gesture as language. There is, no doubt, meaning in actions, bodily postures, and yes, gestures, that sometimes belie even the words that issue from the lips of those making such motions.
In the United States, the study of these things take on the quality of parlor game or, at its most serious, perhaps the phenomenon of armchair psychiatry, wherein anyone can bestow upon himself the bona fides of accurate renditions of the meaning of “body language,” “sub-text,” and “non-verbal cues…” in short the entire apparatus of wholly ignorant speculation of the “hidden meaning” of what are mainly empty and unconscious actions. Americans, being the largely mindless, unthinking, spontaneous and effusive louts we are in the usual stereotype give no heed to the cultural norms of other collective civilized entities, be they other countries, other religions (than Protestantism), or merely other formalized and highly codified systems of behavior and communication, such as, in this case, diplomacy.
My exaggerated characterization of Americans aside, we generally are tone deaf, not only to the possibility that stepping to the right may mean something entirely different than stepping to the left, or that royalty calls for a curtsy and no direct modes of address. This doesn’t excuse our rudeness, cloddishness, or the kinds of mayhem we cause by our general ignorance of what others, in other parts of the world, take very seriously indeed. However, it also doesn’t negate our sincerity or our good will. We may fuck it up, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have good intentions or heart-felt feelings of empathy and distress over the misfortune of others. We seem to be much better at suffering misfortune ourselves and accepting the world’s sympathy, than we are at conveying similar feelings when the situations are reversed.
Our long tradition of lending aid, in many forms, both material, and spiritual, but as well in the time and compassion we direct towards the direct support of other peoples in the world who are under duress goes at least some way towards neutralizing what can sometimes be our ham-handed manner of visiting ourselves upon other soil. We’re still a young country, relatively speaking. We certainly have a lot to learn. We have some straightening out internally, in terms of getting everybody within our borders on board to the notion that we may be an exceptional entity in the community of nations, for the richness of our resources, for the depth of our resourcefulness, for our might, and for the sheer size of our country in its unique position of insulation from other areas of the world. Some of us think this reflects a kind of exceptional privilege as well, as if our destiny as humans is somehow on a higher plane than any other humans, purely by virtue of being American. This is, of course, not true. For all of our great attributes as a people and a nation, we still have far too many faults. But we’re getting there. France will survive John Kerry… It’s survived far far worse.