Persnickety Americans

As readers of this blog know, I spent much of my adult life abroad. Because of my work as a linguist (seven languages) and a spy, I was constantly called upon to assist on the battlefield in a variety of countries, many of which I can’t name because my work there is still classified. My work in Vietnam, where I spent the most time, is now declassified. But I can’t speak of where I went or what I did after Saigon fell in April, 1975.

I have lived, in other words, in many different cultures around the world. So I’ve had ample opportunities to compare my own American culture to that of other nations. Many things stand out about Americans, but the one that caught my attention most often was our unwillingness to discuss specific universal human bodily functions. We consider them subjects to be avoided, unmentionable, embarrassing. They are defecation, urination, and especially sex.

Virtually every other culture I’ve encountered is less squeamish than Americans. The French, for example, use the word merde (shit) in everyday speech without flinching. I found similar usages all over Asia and Europe. All the societies I became familiar with during my career accepted the operations of the human body and the products thereof as commonplace and unremarkable and certainly mentionable. The only nation that approached the U.S. in finickiness was the U.K. But even the British have trouble concealing their amusement at our verbal decorum.

My sense is that young people these days are more down-to-earth than us old geezers. They accept the human condition as normal, unremarkable, and certainly mentionable. My guess is that they’ll move us as a society toward more levelheaded approaches to our language.

2 thoughts on “Persnickety Americans”

  1. Tom, Interesting observation. You are right that Americans are more prudish in talking about certain body functions. This is ironic given our cowboy blunt reputations. Raising my children I’ve tried to talk honestly (and age appropriately) about body functions and call body parts by their proper names. It was a challenge as I wasn’t raise that way. But I also bristle at pop culture that pokes fun at bodies, women’s sexual parts in particular, and has no problem with boob jokes, etc. There’s a difference between honesty and fodder for cheap laughs, and this contributes to body image issues. I know you aren’t referring to this at all, just sharing. Write on and be well.


  2. Thanks so much, Rose. To me, coarse body jokes are no more acceptable than prudish avoidance of any reference. We are all worthy of respect, and so are our bodies.


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