Friday 19 January 2024

All right, this needs to be addressed: USA vs The World

(or, Assuming Everyone Is American by Default / Assuming Everything Everywhere Is Just Like in the USA / This Is an International Forum, For Crying Out Loud!)

This started out as a "Five for Friday" type of post - part of a post about my pet peeves in historical costuming discussions online that I have had in the works for about years now. The post got majorly out of hand, because I'm apparently incapable of writing short texts, especially in lockdowns. :P This part was one of those that got out of hand, and it quickly outgrew the confines of historical costuming discussions, too.

You will see soon why it got too long. It has something to do with the nature of internet discussions, where you're basically always open to arguing with the whole world (and isn't that a terrifying thought), and a lot of things I have observed over a lot of years. And I do need to get it off my chest. I am not particularly happy with this now becoming the first post of 2024, but also quite frankly I'm so fed up with so many things right now that finally getting this less consequential one out there feels somewhat vital.

* * *

It's intended to make people stop and think, I think.

It's ranty (and hopefully at least a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the rantiness can't be helped). It's not necessarily personal. It's not aimed at you, my singular, very nice American reader. Or you, one singular random American reader over there thinking every generalisation needs to be refuted as a generalisation, and every singular experience has to be interpretted as a generalisation and then refuted as a generalisation, and taken personally, or explained away and thrown back into the original commenter's court.

It's not aimed at you, Canadian or South American reader, arguing that "American" should not be used solely for USians.

(Okay, the above may be aimed at all of you. Those are all common features of this sort of discussions, so I had to get them out of the way first. If you come into my comments bringing up those discussion points, I can now freely ignore them. My point is, it's not a personal attack; not everything posted online is, and that's one of the major current frustrations with the Internet. It's intended as food for thought. It's ranty because it genuinely has accumulated for over twenty years.) 

* * *

It's just letting off lots of steam accumulated over thousands of little unintended transgressions. Lots of inoffensive but still pretty annoying stuff. I'm not the only one who clashes with this issue every now and then. But it's rarely one that's ever offending enough to roast anyone over on a case by case basis - and besides, doing it on a case by case basis won't help the next time someone else does it again, perfectly innocuously.

Thus all the accumulated steam. And everything in life including the kitchen sink* has been stressful lately, so some safe letting off of steam is sorely needed. One can't affect the big things getting on all our collective nerves, so it seems everyone's been more bity online recently, often unconsciously. I include myself in that group.

Maybe writing up all of this particular little problem like this can help someone else let off steam. Or help people who haven't stopped to think about it - to stop and think about it.

So that's all my cautions not to take this too seriously but do give it a thought out of the way, and here's a cute cat picture to ease you into it. And if that doesn't tell you something about the everyday stress of internet discussions...

(These days, the kitties are father's, and he's not entirely consistent about naming them, so I'm not sure what this one's called; father being what he's like with cats, I suspect it's "The Small One". I am fairly confident that the fragment of a black cat tail to the left is Lemur the tomcat, though.)


(* I'm not even kidding about the sink. Admittedly, this post sat unfinished for ages, so the sink is no longer recent. But there was a point when it was extremely annoying, draining veeeeeryyyyy sloooowlyyyy and getting clogged up quickly. Fortunately it turned out to be just a badly designed strainer, and was in the end easily solved by getting a new, different one. But the fact that even the kitchen sink was making my life difficult sums up the past couple of years really well.)


* * *

So, you see, on the whole Americans have many wonderful qualities. And one of them is that they're usually friendly and outgoing and pro-actively willing to help and support you with encouraging or informative comments. Sadly, a large percentage of them in online discussions (such as Facebook groups) also has the innocuous but unfortunate ability to forget about the rest of the world on a daily basis.

I live in the rest of the world. After nearly twenty years of using the internet in English (which, as you may realise from the name, is not an exclusively US-based language), it's impossible not to notice and not to be just a little bit fed up with it.

English-speaking countries of the world according to Wikipedia. I still live in the rest of the world which, you may notice on this map, is still not an insignificant portion of it.

It's not just me, either, so I think this constitutes more than just a Pet Peeve. It comes up in conversations with other costuming people outside of the USA. In fact, it comes up in all online spaces, not just the costuming circles. It gets on our collective non-US nerves just a little bit.

It's not even a case of the groups being primarily American. For example, the "1730-1830 Clothing Construction Support Group" was founded by an Australian and was originally geared towards making things for the Australian Jane Austen festival. Another group this happened to me in relatively recently (innocuously, it's always innocuous) is comprised of fans of a British YouTuber. (I have since then left it, but that had to do with different types of annoying posts.)

The Americans just come in, see everyone using English, and assume.

No one means to offend by it and they always apologise for doing it when their error is pointed out to them. And it's a low-key sort of annoyance when treated as individual cases. But, well, if you have to keep repeating the same sort of explanation ("I don't live in the same country you do, this is the Internet") over and over and over to people from one specific country out of nearly two hundred, you do eventually develop some unfavourable opinions about a certain nation's situational awareness regarding geography.

Oftentimes, in sewing and historical costuming groups, it is closely related to what was termed Pet Peeve Nr. 2 in my original list: that of not answering the question that is actually being asked and instead jumping in with your five cents and missing the fact the OP is using pennies (it was a metaphor in the original list, but in this context, it's getting close to literal!). By far the most common offenders here are:

A) "You can get XY material being discussed very cheaply if you save up your Joann's coupons."  / "You can get it at Joann's, they're having a sale on patterns right now / have a sale on patterns every now and then."
Reality outside of the USA: No Joann's anywhere outside the US of A (unless there are some in Canada?). There are next to zero fabric chain shops in the Czech Republic; most are limited to a single city anyway. Good luck getting such a sale on patterns anywhere. What coupons?!

(Seriously: What coupons are all you Americans talking about?! How does it work? After about fifteen years in internet sewing spaces, I still don't know what those actually are. In part because when I tried to actively look it up relatively recently, results were inconclusive. But largely because the moment when someone in a discussion jumped in with the automatic assumption that I must have them because obviously everyone who sews has them, usually unasked for to boot because no one was actually asking about buying anything, you just decided to answer my question about pence with giving me your five cents... well, in that situation I'm usually not in the mood to ask politely.)

B) "You can just get a free paint stirrer in a paint shop and use that as your busk."
Reality outside of the USA: The largest free paint stirrer I've ever seen here in Czechia was about 20 cm long (8 inches, for the Imperial-minded). It was also the first and the last shop with free paint stirrers I've ever seen in over 30 years of my life. Oh, and it's closed down since.

Understandably, when the prevailing costuming advice is tied to the cultural quirks of one specific country, your costuming journey can get pretty frustrating.

Although I think this one is less prevalent nowadays than it was when I started out with Regency, and I've more recently been informed that free paint stirrers suitable for busks may be a North American thing, not just limited to the USA. Still... the rest of us have to at the very least buy some paint to get a paint stirrer, and I don't know about you but I don't paint stuff all that often so that doesn't seem like a particularly advantageous manner of procuring costuming material when in the end I got my busk truly for free by digging through my father's junk. (I do not recommend that manner of procuring as a generalisation. I understand not everyone has access to a father's collection of junk. You may want to give the same level of consideration to other manners of procurring.)

The same thing does apply to all sorts of products and shops that Americans online assume you will be familiar with (one of the more recent offenders was a brand of butter, of all things). Joann's and paint stirrers are just the most common and most obvious ones in my usual circles.

A special mention goes to people asking "where can I get XY" in a geographically unspecified and therefore international group without mentioning where in the world they are. In about 95% cases (and I may be conservative with my estimate here), that person turns out to be located somewhere in the US of A. Although, in all fairness, I think it's mainly the lower 48 - Alaskans and Hawai'ians are probably far more used to needing special attention paid to location.

 This map of the world I lifted off of Wikipedia and coloured does contain the infamously often missing New Zealand, but somehow does not contain Hawai'i...

All this is, I think, aggravated by the fact the US of A are a big country so you can go for hundreds of miles and still find a Joann's. Meanwhile, Czech Republic is, size-wise, roughly comparable to South Carolina, so imagine living in South Carolina, and when you cross the border to North Carolina, everything is in Polish. Foreign countries are a basic fact of life in Europe, and here in Czechia just going hiking (or skiing) in the mountains almost automatically means that you'll be walking near (or on) a national border.

Many Americans at this point like to point out "You don't know anything about the US! We have states! The states are actually very different!" To which my answer is, picture crossing the border from South Carolina to North Carolina, and everything being in Polish.


Online, it's also aggravated by the fact that the inhabitants of the USA are a big huge mix of nationalities so it's much more difficult for Americans to look at someone's name on Facebook and go "okay, that's a foreigner". Even then, though, I think other English-speaking post-colonial nationalities with immigrant societies do this far less often.
You do see people from other countries not listing where they are from. But as I've already hinted, more often than not in that case their actual question has less to do with "where" and more with "what", and it's the Americans in the comments jumping in with "where". You want to know which type of fabric is best suited for a specific application (so that you know what exactly to look for in your part of the world)? You can probably expect some variation on Americans jumping in to tell you that Joann's currently has it on sale, or that their favourite US-based internet shop has the best and/or cheapest one, even though you never asked "where to buy" to begin with.

You never asked where to buy precisely because you know you'd just get Americans giving you answers that won't help you one bit in your part of the world. And then they do it anyway. Probably because it never even occurs to them, when they are asking, that some of the people reading their question may live thousands of miles and at least one ocean away.

* * *

And this is where this innocuous issue begins to get really, really frustrating. You begin having to think of clever and detailed ways to phrase your questions so that you can circumvent unhelpfully helpful Americans and actually get the pence you're after. And then after you've gone to all that trouble, they still don't bother reading the whole thing mindfully because now it's Too Many Words For The Internet, and they jump in with their five cents anyway.

They often don't even bother mentioning where in the States they are, even though it would often still get them better answers. You, on the other hand, start having to define yourself solely by your nationality because you have to mention your nationality Every. Single. Effing. Time. Everywhere. Even when you didn't even ask for where; even when you never even asked a question, you just shared a picture of your homemade breadrolls, and an American still came in convinced that you will eat your homemade breadrolls with their favourite American brand of butter. You have to preface everything you ever say online with your nationality just so they won't jump in with shop and product suggestions that are no use to you and that you never asked for in the first place. Because if you don't mention it right away, you will end up having to mention it later, anyway. You slowly cease to be yourself, an individual. You become a part-time volunteer (even though you never volunteered) ambassador of the rest of the world to the USA.

* * *

Still, all this is fairly innocuous. The problem is that Americans never even stop to think about it, and as with a lot of unchallenged assumptions, it can very easily get worse in less innocuous contexts.

You see, one of the offenders I noticed was a YouTube comment lecturing someone that a specific term had been struck out of an American list of mental conditions so they should not be saying they'd been diagnosed with it. In response to someone whose username was written in the Cyrillic alphabet. That one was definitely starting to cross the border into straight up "America rules the world so your lived experience and identity is invalid unless you conform to how Americans view it, and if you don't, Americans will just ignore it and force their own worldview on you."

And I'm still sure the person did not necessarily mean it like that, and yes, of course that list was compiled by leading medical professionals so they genuinely believed their correction was valid. But, dear anonymous American person who will probably never read this: Saying you were diagnosed with something is a significantly different kettle of fish from saying "I think I am..." It's not just opinion, it's not just the diagnosed condition in and of itself, it's something that happened. You're essentially saying "an American dictionary does not have a word for your experience so your experience never happened." That sort of thing - that sort of not stopping to look and think and just straight up assuming the same experiences apply to everyone else in this conversation - that genuinely is where the USA begin to be the country the rest of the world hates because they think themselves better and more important and more valid than everyone else.

And aiming that sort of carelessness at someone neurodivergent? That felt especially low. That can, in fact, completely ruin someone's day. Or week, because that sort of thing can have a knock-on effect, especially in tough times. And we all live in tough times right now.

And this, dear American readers, is why you should want to be more mindful with your careless US-centric cultural references. It's because you're putting all the responsibility for the mental effort in the conversation on the rest of us, and a lot of us straight up don't have the spoons. Most of you genuinely are perfectly decent people, and I think most of us will be only delighted if you prove yourselves to be.

* * *

So, listen, Americans. Of course people on the whole keep being polite about it to you because it's almost always a new, innocent person making the mistake.

But all put together it amounts to a pretty high degree of mental gymnastics the rest of the world has to perform for your convenience on an everyday basis, okay? A hundred times nothing did the donkey in, as the Czech saying goes. Don't be surprised if we sometimes explode in your face over something innocuous; you probably hit a spot that had been hit with something innocuous a hundred times before. Don't be surprised and offended if we say you're self-centered, and develop some unfavourable opinions about your country. We would welcome you taking up some of the slack once in a while.

There is actually a very simple way to get out of this national predicament with grace and no offense inflicted either way that many people from the rest of the world (and some very nice Americans!) utilise: Precede all your mentions of products & things with a variation on "I don't know if this is the same where you are but where I come from..."

See? Easy. By putting your suggestion in context and expressing consideration for the other side, you actually come across as even more helpful / friendly, and the person asking / posting does not have to spend such a big percentage of their free time and mental capacity volunteering as an ambassador to the USA.

Every time you go online, remind yourself that the internet is an international space where a lot of people communicate in a language not their own. That would be a good start for compensating for the way a lot of us go online every day communicating in a language not out own.