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17 cultural clashes this European had in America

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Warning: If you are angered easily, don't read this post. Although plenty of (American) commenters agree with me, I'm also getting a flood of angry comments and hatemail, but this is my (as always) frank and honest non-watered-down opinion, take it or leave it!

Read on to the conclusion to see my positive thoughts about Americans before you conclude that this is Anti-American propaganda.

With that said,  you may also enjoy reading my post about the 29 life lessons learned in travelling the world, and make sure to look around the site for some language learning tips!

Normally, after I spend considerable time in a country/city, I like to summarise my cultural experience there and tend to put a positive spin on it, as I did with Germany, Amsterdam, Brazil, and even Paris, which was actually a negative experience for me.

This time I'm not doing that.

This post is my rant about America because of all the places I've been, the people who always complain the most about the local country are travelling Americans. It's mostly for those people (which you may be far from yourself, dear reader!) that I wrote this post – so that they can read a foreigner complain about THEIR country.

Note that I've actually really enjoyed my time spent in the states, and I've since been back several times, but there have been too many things that have gotten on my nerves that I need to vent about.

I'm not interested in whining about foreign policy, economics or politics. This is entirely about my frustrations with day to day life in America. The United States is a huge country, and it's impossible to generalise all 300 million of you, but the points below are my observations after spending:

3 months in upstate New York, 4 months in La Jolla/San Diego, 1 month in Chicago, 1 month in Nevada, 6 weeks in San Francisco, 1 month in Austin, 2 weeks in New Orleans, 2 weeks in Los Angeles, as well as several days among other cities like Portland (OR), San Antonio, Houston, Durham (NC) … (and visiting sites like the Grand Canyon). Over a year in total, most of which was in trying to live as a local rather than staying in tourist accommodation.

Note: This range was greatly expanded in 2014 after visiting all 50 states on a book tour. If you ever meet me, I don't complain about America in person ever, I promise, this post was a special case for ranting ;)

While technically I've already “lived” in America [edit for clarity: when I say America in this post and in comments, I mean USA of course], each time was always a temporary visit. And when you read the conclusion, you'll see that I'll definitely be back.

Sorry if you find this post offensive, but I expect you to because…

1. Americans are way too sensitive

Sometimes I wonder if political correctness is in your constitution. I found out very quickly in my first visit that I had to bite my tongue pretty much all the time, and (more annoyingly) that nobody was ever straight with me.

It seems that speaking your mind to individuals is a major taboo. You can't tell a friend straight when he has f----- up, nobody will ever tell you that you look like you could stand to lose a few pounds, and there's way too much euphemism to avoid the hard truth.

To a certain extent, I can understand it – America generally does a great job of preventing people from singling out ethnic groups and toning down hate speech. But it waters it down far too much at the individual level.

A lot of Americans I met feel very lonely, and I feel this is a major reason. You may never find a boy/girlfriend if a friend who knows you well and supposedly cares about you, doesn't tell you the hard facts of what makes you annoying… so that you can change it! Being insulting for the sake of it is needless aggression. But constructive criticism is what friends are for.

The one time in my entire last three months that someone was straight with me was when my friend Karol Gajda gave me some tips to improve my presentation in future after I gave a TEDx talk, while everyone else was doing nothing but massaging my ego. It was really useful advice but it caught me off guard because I was used to months of…

2. Everything is “awesome”!

I really hate the word awesome. It used to mean “that which inspires awe”, but in the states it means nothing! It doesn't even mean good – it's just a word – a filler, like “um” or “y'know”.

This is the stereotypical American cheesy word, and I heard it until my ears started to bleed. Too many over-the-top positive adjectives like this get thrown around so much that they really mean nothing.

And when you ask someone “How are you?” the answer will inevitably be “great!” even if they are far from it.

When you start using excessive positivity it waters down the meaning, and those words become neutral. Then what do you do when you need to express true positivity? Of course, when someone says they are “OK, I guess” then you know things are pear shaped! I don't think “bad” is in America's vocabulary.

But nothing beats America's over-positivity more than this:

3. Smiles mean NOTHING

fake smileFlickr/Emergency Brake

When I meet Americans abroad, one of their biggest complaints are along the lines of “nobody smiles on Prague's trams!” “That waitress was so rude to me! She didn't even smile!”

America – I have the opposite complaint for you. You guys smile way too much. It's annoying! How can you tell when someone means it? And why the hell would a stranger doing a crossword puzzle on public transport want to look giddy?

When people smile in Europe it means something. For example, because Germans don't go around looking like an American toothpaste commercial when I was with them and they smiled, it lit up the room – you know it's genuine and you can't help but smile back, because you are genuinely happy. You've shared a joke, or a funny story or you are in love etc.

But all the time? When you smile all the time in public it means nothing. Apparently a smile releases endorphins, but if your face is stuck that way I'm sure your dreams of a natural high will fade soon. I'd rather focus on trying to make my life better and have reasons to smile than lie to myself and the world.

Despite how surly I sound in this post, because complaining is the theme of the article, the fact that I vent when I mean it, means that when you see me happy you know I'm truly happy. And that is indeed a lot of the time :) But not all of it!

4. Tipping

While it's a perk for most of you, for me it was terribly annoying to be in restaurants and having a waitress interrupt me every 3 minutes asking me if everything is OK. I'd have to feign a smile (it's the American way – see above!) and thumbs up to make her go away since my mouth was always full.

I really don't see the point – if you've given me the wrong order or if I suddenly realise I'm dying from an allergic reaction to your food, you'll know it long before those 3 minutes are up.

Eating out is always an annoying experience because of this. In the rest of the world we call the server over when we need something. If this was genuine interest, or if the person was trying to be friendly that would be cool, but that's not what it's about. In fact, it's all down to “subtle” reminders that this person wants you to tip them.

This drove me crazy – I really think tipping as a means of waitresses and others earning the vast majority of their living is ridiculous. If I have to pay, say 15% anyway, then include it in the bill! It's not a bloody tip if it's mandatory!!!

Once again, one huge complaint I hear in other countries is how rude waitresses are, and Americans claim it's because they aren't tipped. Instead of getting tipped they earn a wage like everyone else, and do their job and if they do it bad enough they'll get fired. But apparently not pestering you every minute and not smiling like you are in a Ms. World competition means you are “rude”.

I think the basic concept of tipping is nice – but all explanations I've heard about it as a must-do make no sense when you really talk it out.

You can paint waitresses/waiters as hard workers who earn those tips, and need a chance for a higher wage than if they got minimum wage… but what about teachers and nurses? Why not tip them? Why not tip everyone who you interact with in some way – bus drivers, or leave money on your trash can for the garbage man? It's inconsistent, and waiters, hairdressers and taxi drivers should just charge us what needs to be charged.

See more of my confusion on tipping here.

Some people ludicrously suggest that it makes it cheaper that the restaurant doesn't have to charge more, but you're paying the difference anyway. What it does contribute to is clear though:

5. False prices on everything

Tipping is just the peak of the iceberg.

It's all one big marketing scam to make people feel like they are paying less. The price you see on a menu is nothing compared to what you'll actually pay. Apart from tipping, you have to of course pay taxes.

Now taxes are things that you simply have to pay on items you purchase – it's how governments work all around the world. So why hide it from us? It boggles my mind that places refuse to include the tax in prices. The price they state is pretty much useless. It's just saying “this is how much we get from what you pay, but you'll actually pay more”.

I don't give a flying toss how much YOU get, I want to know how much I have to pay! How much money… do you want me… to hand to you? Do I really have to spell this out?

The most laughable of all of these is the “dollar store”. If you have a single dollar, you will be turned away from a “dollar” store! It's a dollar… that they earn, not that you pay. Do you follow? The only thing that matters is the business's perspective.

I've been told that this is because taxing is different in each state. I shed a tear for the poor giant corporations selling widgets in different states who can't possibly print out a label for millions of people because it inconveniences the corporation/seller ever so slightly. We have the same product sold across many European countries (in many cases in the same multilingual packaging) and somehow someone in the company found the time to punch numbers into a $1 calculator in advance to tell people how much they are actually paying.

It's nothing but a large scale marketing scam. Make the price seem cheaper, which is lying to people. One great way to get people in more debt is to make them feel like they are spending less, but add the rest when it comes time to hand over the cash. This is one big part of….

6. Cheesy in-your-face marketing

I feel like scraping out my eyes with toothpicks when I'm forced to endure advertising in America. Make it stop.

Most Americans aren't even aware of it – it's on all the time so much that it becomes nothing more than background noise. And this means that advertisers have to be even louder to get through to people. It's a vicious circle that drives any non-American not used to it bonkers.

BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE!

I decided to watch an episode of House one evening on TV. Up until then I had only really seen American shows online with advertising removed or back in Europe with European advertising inserted.

Every few minutes you get torn out of the show and bombarded with irrelevant spam, and “awesome” images of people who practically experience orgasms as soon as they buy product X, that is (of course) on special offer just right now. And if it's anything medical you get a super fast voice spur every kind of medical complaint you can imagine that his product will create as a side-effect. But at least the cheesy model is still happy, so it's probably not so important.

Some of my American blogger friends apply this to the online world and cover their site with flashing or aggressive banners, and a writing style that is psychologically very effective to make a sale, but man is it annoying. One online pet-peeve of mine is email pop-up sign-up forms, which you can justify with marketing stats, as long as you ignore how much you piss off people you don't “convert”. I'd recommend you install Randy‘s Stoppity plugin for Firefox or Chrome to turn those off.

And here's the thing: Americans are marketing geniuses. This can never be disputed. Every time I went to buy just a carton of milk, something about the supermarket that's different to what I'm used to, gravitated me towards some expensive garbage I didn't need and I almost bought it, or did buy it, feeling very stupid as I walked out.

If you are in Las Vegas you'll see how skilled they are at this manipulation by how they design the casinos. No windows, no clocks, impossible to find exits, no way to get where you want to go without walking through slot machines, the slot machines themselves have lots of shiny lights and bouncy music to entice you. You feel like you are being hypnotised. They know exactly what they are doing and have the billions of dollars to prove it.

But it's still manipulation, and to those of us not used to the loudness it's plain cheesy. Every corner of America is plastered with some kind of advertising or sponsorship, and I feel so at peace now that I've left. No more random phone calls on any landline (including hotels I was paying for) with a recorded voice to try to pitch me something and no more spam promotional brochures taking over my physical mailbox.

7. Wasteful consumerism

apple store lineCustomers wait in line outside the Apple store on 5th Avenue, for Friday's iPhone 5 models to go on sale, in New York, September 19, 2012.REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Some of the consumerism is difficult to avoid when you are flooded with advertising, but some of it really is entirely the person's own fault for being so wasteful.

The best example I can think of by far is Apple fanboyism. So many Americans waste so much cash to have the latest iteration of Apple's iPhone, iPad, or Macbook. When you buy one that's fine – I personally don't like Apple products (I find the operating system too restrictive), but there are many good arguments for why it could be better. I also like to have a good smartphone and laptop for example, and I'm as much a consumer as you if you happen to have an Apple equivalent.

The problem is when you replace your iPhone 5 with an iPhone 5S, and do it along with an army of millions of other sheep for no good reason. It's pointless and wasteful consumerism at its best.

I actually took advantage of this when I was in Austin years ago. I waited until the day the iPad 2 was announced and as I predicted there were 20 new ads per minute on Craigslist in that city alone from desperate fanboys trying to sell their iPad 1.

Since my laptop is so big (I consider it a portable desktop), it was worth my while to invest in a tablet and I convinced one guy to sell me his with a bluetooth keyboard case for a quarter of the original price, just 2 months after he bought it! He was so desperate to have the latest version that was ever so slightly thinner and faster, and with a camera that makes you look like an idiot when you point your iPad at something, but otherwise basically exactly the same.

Personally I only replace my smartphone when I break the other one from travel stress or dropping it in an ocean etc. I'm also a consumer though, and will occasionally buy stuff that I don't need, but replacing something I have for something marginally better for a large price is something I can never understand.

What makes it worse is that these people sometimes claim to not have much money and Apple products are added to their “necessities” list. The person I bought my iPad from sighed when I told him what I do, and he said that he wished he had the money to travel. I wish he had the common sense to realise that if he stopped wasting his money he'd have plenty left over.

8. American stereotypes of other countries

Many of us have seen videos online of Americans arsing up basic questions of international geography. I went out of my way to avoid people that stupid – my beef is with the supposedly educated ones.

Luckily, Americans you meet abroad tend to be much cleverer, but meeting those who haven't traveled made my head hurt with the amount of facepalms I'd have to do.

Now, I know there are 300 million of you, but I have had this exact same conversation on both the east and west coast, and in the mid-west and south:

“Hi, I'm Benny”

“Awesome! I'm X. Where are you from?”

“Ireland”

“Wow! You guys certainly know how to drink!”

“Actually, I don't drink

“Oh, you're not really Irish then, are you!”

Again, and again and again… and again. The same idiotic script – I knew it was coming every time. They demanded to see my passport, said that I'm the only Irish guy they've ever met who doesn't drink (and very stupidly then admitted that I was the ONLY Irish guy they ever met!!) or had visited Ireland and spent all their time in Temple Bar (not even leaving Dublin), confirming that all Irish people are drunkards.

This is just one of the many dumb things they would say, which of course annoyed me the most.

A few others I've gotten include:

  • How was the boat ride over here? [Surprised that we have airports in Ireland – I must have arrived in rags in New York harbour of course]
  • Too many people insisting that Ireland was part of the UK. They actually argued it with me!!
  • Did I have to check my car for IRA bombs when I was growing up? (uuuugh…., so many things wrong with this!)
  • Surprised that I knew more about technology than they did. Aren't we all potato farmers in Ireland?

Whenever someone said anything about Ireland I'd always try to change the subject immediately or they'd quickly find out how blunt I can be.

Edit: If you think this is hypocritical, I'd argue that this post is NOT filled with stereotypes because it's based on my actual experience in hanging out with thousands of you.

Americans who stereotype us Irish (and other nationalities) have generally never been there, or at best “seen” (not spent time with) a couple of tourists. Stereotyping is based on hearsay and misinformation, and almost always from total lack of contact, or only superficial contact with the people you stereotype.

I'm not talking about Americans being all loud and war mongers and only eating at McDonald's and all being stupid etc. (typical American stereotypes), because these just aren't true for many people. I'm talking about what I've actually experienced from normal people in every day situations after an entire year of living and working in America.

9. Heritage

Every American you meet is not actually American. They are a fourth Polish, 3/17 Italian, ten other random countries, and then of course half Irish. Since Ireland is more homogenous, it's hard for me to appreciate this, so honestly I don't really care if your great grandfather's dog walker's best friend's roommate was Irish. I really don't.

The amount of “Oh my gaaawwwd, me too!!” retorts I heard when I said I was Irish is quite silly. I use country adjectives more restrictively than Americans do, so this was quite the pet peeve of mine. I finally learned that “I'm from Ireland” means what I wanted to say to them better than “I'm Irish” does.

I don't want to say I don't respect people's rich heritage (a nice mixture makes a country more interesting; the melting pot of cultures and skin colours is one reason why Brazil is my favourite country for example), but when people start talking about it as if it were genetics and their Italian part makes them more passionate and their Irish part makes them good drinkers I really do have to roll my eyes.

I should add though, that it's a language difference, so “Irish” actually means “Irish American” as I'd understand it. That's fine, but I'm trying to convey that people genuinely from that country (born and raised) find this annoying. There is no right or wrong, but it's important to realise that rephrasing it or saying “I have Irish/Italian heritage” may be more appropriate if you are talking to someone from that country. This is especially true if speaking other languages.

10. ID checks & stupid drinking laws

Seriously, I promise I'm not 12. Please let me into the nightclub!

I've even seen 60 year olds get IDed. Nowhere else in the world do they ID me now that I'm clearly in my 30s. A few times I haven't had my passport (the most important document I own that I really don't want to get beer spilled over) in my jeans pocket and have simply been refused entry.

I find it incredible that drinking age is 21, but you give 16 year olds licenses to drive cars and you can buy a rifle at age 18. And you can't walk around outside with an open drink in most states (but apparently putting it in a brown bag while you drink it makes it OK). I don't even drink, and I find these laws nonsensical.

11. Religious Americans

Look – I grew up in a religious town in Ireland, went to an all boys Catholic school, and some of my friends in Europe are religious. Even if I'm not religious myself, it's up to everyone to decide what they believe in. I find religious people in Europe to be NORMAL – it's a spiritual thing, or something they tend to keep to themselves, and are very modern people with a great balance of religion and modernism.

But I can't stand certain Christian affiliations of religious Americans. It's Jesus this and Jesus that all the bloody time. You really can't have a normal conversation with them. It's in your face religion.

12. Corporations win all the time, not small businesses

While there are many arguments against everything working towards there simply being a bunch of large corporations competing with one another, my biggest problem is in terms of availability.

When you get your food from Walmart or Wholefoods, and nowhere else, these places grow and will be separated by a reasonable driving distance for greatest scope. But between them? It's a wasteland.

I was in downtown Chicago one day and wanted to simply get a bite to eat, but after walking around for an hour the only affordable option I could find was Dunkin Donuts. There are plenty of excellent cheap places to eat in Chicago, but you need to drive to them, or be in a specific part of the city with lots of restaurants (knowing it in advance). There's too much competition between the big guys for a large number of little guys to sprinkle themselves conveniently throughout cities.

If you plonk me in any major city in Europe, I'll find food in minutes. If you do the same in America, even downtown and presuming it isn't a specific restaurant district, and don't give me a cell phone or a car, I could starve to death.

And this is a major contributor to what I feel is one of the biggest issues I had in America:

13. A country designed for cars, not humans

America is a terrible place for pedestrians. It's the worst place in the entire world to live in if you don't own a car.

On previous trips to the states I've had it rough – relying on sub-par public transport (which is at least workable in certain major cities, but almost never first world standard in my opinion), or relying on a friend the entire time. You can't do anything without a car in most cases. With rare exceptions (like San Francisco / New York), all shops, affordable restaurants, supermarkets, electronics etc. are miles away.

I really like Austin, but found it laughable that it was rated as among the most “walkable” cities in the states. Living just outside the centre, but within walking distance, meant that I had a stretch of my path with no pavement. The city centre was walkable, but most people live just outside it, and must drive to get in.

What struck me as the most eerie thing of all is that I felt very much alone when walking in any American city. In many cases I'd be the only pedestrian in the entire block, even if it was in the middle of the week downtown! The country is really designed to get in your car, drive to your destination and get out there. No walk-abouts.

Going for a walk to find food serendipitously (as I would in any European city) was a terrible idea every time without checking <a href="http://Yelp.com" rel="nofollow">Yelp.com</a> in advance.

For my more recent trips, I did actually rent a car for most of my stay (I didn't even have a driving license before the age of 28, which most Americans find hard to grasp), and everything was so much more convenient, but I really did feel like I was only ever using my feet to work the gas pedal.

14. Always in a hurry

commuter hurry rush businessmanFlickr / Chris Marchant

So many things in America are rushed far too much my liking. Fast food is something we have all around the world now but even in a posh sit-down restaurant your food will usually come out in less than five minutes after ordering! What's the rush?

People don't seem to have the patience to invest time to slowly improve things, unless it involves some kind of monetary investment.

Americans are also very punctual, because of course time is money. So many of them could do with stopping to smell the roses, and arriving late because they took their time.

Despite all the false positivity, I find Americans to be generally the most stressed out and unhappiest people on the planet. Despite all the resources, and all the money they have, they are sadder than people I know who can barely make ends meet in other countries, but still know how to live in the moment.

This rush to the finish line or to have a million dollars in your bank account or to get that promotion, and to have that consume your life is something I find really sad.

15. Obsession with money

I met far too many people who were more interested in their bank balance than their quality of life. People richer than I can possibly imagine, who are depressed. More money seems to be the only way they understand of solving problems. They don't travel because they think they need tens of thousands of dollars (which is just simply not true, as you can read it in this post here), and they don't enjoy their day because they may miss out on a business opportunity.

16. Unhealthy portions

Apart from people not being frank with those who are overweight, the biggest problem is that portions in restaurants are grossly overgenerous. Any time I ordered even a small portion I'd be totally full. Small means something completely different to me than it does to Americans. If you sit down in most places and order anything but an appetiser or a salad, you will eat more than you should.

I was brought up being reminded of starving children in Africa, so I feel guilty if I don't clear my plate. This was disastrous in a few months I spent in the states a few years ago, where I put on a LOT of weight (that I've luckily since lost in other countries)! I should have asked for a “doggy bag” nearly all the time.

I've learned to stop ordering a soda entirely, because when restaurants give you free refills, I feel like I should drink more… it's free after all! Ugh.

17. Thinking America is the best

Finally, one thing I find annoying is the warped view of America's situation in the world.

Americans ask me all the time if I'm scared to be travelling in South America. I found it way scarier to walk around certain parts of downtown San Francisco or Chicago at night than I did even in downtown Recife (apparently one of the most dangerous cities in South America) – because at least there are people there. And I find it pretty scary to be in a country where pretty much anyone can legally buy a revolver.

America tends to have a skewed view of itself as “the land of the free” – it certainly was… 200 years ago, in comparison to other western countries. (You know, forgetting the problems everywhere had at the time like no freedom for certain ethnicities or genders…)

But nowadays, most of western Europe is as free or more free, with opportunities for people at all levels. America is indeed a better place with a higher standard of living than most of the world, but free speech and tolerance for all is the norm in the western world as a rule, not just in America.

There is no best country. But those who go on about how America is number one, tend to be those who have never traveled or are lightly traveled.

How about saying America is great or even… “awesome”? I think patriotism is an excellent quality to have, and we should all be proud of where we were born. But nationalism (believing other countries are inferior) is a terrible quality.

What I love about Americans

Since this post has been a bit of a downer, I will balance it out a bit by saying what I love about Americans :)

While I complained a lot here, I actually go back to visit the states very regularly! There are many reasons for this, including:

  • So well connected: social networking and apps are so well integrated into America compared to other places I've been. Meetup.com is super active, and there is free wifi and apps made for your city nearly all the time. I love how much America has embraced the Internet to so many levels, and I hope we catch up in other countries.
  • Conferences and conventions: while we do have some in Europe, we cannot dream of competing with the states in terms of sheer numbers of people with very specific niche interests gathering together. It's been fantastic for me to attend blogging and travel conferences, and even a Star Trek convention! You have such specific conversations there with large numbers of people that you can't normally do in other countries.
  • Many friends: What will always make sure that I keep coming back is that I've made some lifelong friends with so many people that I never would have been able to elsewhere in the world because of so many things that we do share in common, or things we believe in.
  • Countryside diversity and so much to do: As well as some great people, there are some incredible sites – and you can get a whole world of climates within America. To this day, the Grand Canyon remains one of the most impressive sites I've ever seen. It's also so much fun to visit any city – if you know the right people or even use websites like those I mention above, you'll always have plenty to keep you busy!
  • Open mindedness and diversity: Despite what I've said in this post, America is a very special country with so much going for it! I thoroughly enjoy my conversations with people there, and it's one of the few places that I could write a post like this and still be welcome to come back later ;) And I will!

One final thought:

Some of my best friends in the world are Americans. I will come back – but when I share my thoughts I do it VERY frankly. You have to appreciate this. The cultural issue is that if an American complains about something they presumably hate it, but I'm just sharing my thoughts. Since my style is terribly blunt, you can indeed get the wrong impression that I “hate” Americans from this if you treat it as an American style complaint letter.

The honesty issue is such a cultural difference. My German friends tell me without hesitation if I smell bad after dancing for a few hours, if I'm being too loud, tell me when something I've created is crap or that I have terrible taste in music etc. – they don't hold back. From an American perspective they are being rude, but in fact they are showing how much they love me. It's constructive criticism. This post is actually because I care about Americans enough to be straight with them ;)

I hope despite the frankness that you'll welcome me when I do come back to visit! Of course there are many many other reasons I love America, but as you can see this post is long enough as it is! I can do much better by having some of you retrospectively look at your culture from a foreign perspective than I can by inflating your egos ;)

May the sea of comments, rants, retorts and insults… commence!

Read the original article on Fluent in 3 Months. Check out Fluent in 3 Months on Facebook. Find out more about Benny's free 5-day crash course to speaking your target language and discover some of the

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Social Media Is a Denial-of-Service Attack on Your Mind

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It’s not that James Williams, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute’s Digital Ethics Lab (motto: “Every Bit as Good”), had a “God, what I have I done?” moment during his time at Google. But it did occur to him that something had gone awry.

Williams joined Google’s Seattle office when it opened in 2006 and went on to win the company’s highest honor, the Founder’s Award, for his work developing advertising products and tools. Then, in 2012, he realized that these tools were actually making things harder for him. Modern technology platforms, he explained to me, were “reimposing these pre-Internet notions of advertising, where it’s all about getting as much of people’s time and attention as you can.”

By 2011, he had followed his literary and politico-philosophical bent (he is a fan of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) to Oxford, while still working at Google’s London office. In 2014, he co-founded Time Well Spent, a “movement to stop technology platforms from hijacking our minds,” according to its website. Partnering with Moment, an app that tracks how much time you spend in other apps, Time Well Spent asked 200,000 people to rate the apps they used the most—after seeing the screen time it demanded of them. They found that, on average, the more time people spent in an app, the less happy they were with it. “Distraction wasn’t just this minor annoyance. There was something deeper going on,” he told me. “That’s why I came over here to start my Ph.D. on that stuff.”

Williams has most recently been in the media spot light for his essay, “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy,” which won the $100,000 Nine Dots Prize and scored him a book deal with Cambridge University Press.

Nautilus caught up with Williams to discuss the subversive power of the modern attention economy.

How do the Internet and social media apps threaten democracy?

Democracy assumes a set of capacities: the capacity for deliberation, understanding different ideas, reasoned discourse. This grounds government authority, the will of the people. So one way to talk about the effects of these technologies is that they are a kind of a denial-of-service (DoS) attack on the human will. Our phones are the operating system for our life. They keep us looking and clicking. I think this wears down certain capacities, like willpower, by having us make more decisions. A study showed that repeated distractions lower people’s effective IQ by up to 10 points. It was over twice the IQ drop that you get from long-term marijuana usage. There are certainly epistemic issues as well. Fake news is part of this, but it’s more about people having a totally different sense of reality, even within the same society or on the same street. It really makes it hard to achieve that common sense of what’s at stake that is necessary for an effective democracy.

How have these technologies transformed news media?

What’s happened is, really rapidly, we’ve undergone this tectonic shift, this inversion between information and attention. Most of the systems that we have in society—whether it’s news, advertising, even our legal systems—still assume an environment of information scarcity. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it doesn’t necessarily protect freedom of attention. There wasn’t really anything obstructing people’s attention at the time it was written. Back in an information-scarce environment, the role of a newspaper was to bring you information—your problem was lacking it. Now it’s the opposite. We have too much.

If you get distracted by the same thing in the same way every day, it adds up to a distracted week, distracted months.

How does that change the role of the newspaper?

The role of the newspaper now is to filter, and help you pay attention to, the things that matter. But if the business model is like advertising, and a good article is an article that gets the most clicks, you get things like click bait because those are the metrics that are aligned with the business model. When information becomes abundant, attention becomes scarce. Advertising has dragged everybody down, even the wealthiest organizations with noble missions, to competing on the terms of click bait. Every week there are these outrage cascades online. Outrage is a rewarding thing to us, because it fulfills a lot of these psychological needs we have. It could be used to help us move forward, but often, they’re used to keep us clicking and scrolling and typing. One of the first books about web usability was actually called Don’t Make Me Think. It’s this idea of appealing to our impulsive selves, the automatic part of us, and not the considerate, rational part.

Tristan Harris, with whom you co-founded Time Well Spent, said tech steers the thoughts of 2 billion people with more influence than the world’s religions or governments. Would you agree?

I think I would agree with that. I don’t know any comparable governmental or religious mechanism that’s anything comparable to the smart phone and social media, in the sense that people give so much attention to it, and it has such a frequency and duration of operation. I think it certainly intervenes at a lower level, closer to people’s attention than governmental or religious systems. I think it’s closer to being like a chemical, or a drug of some sort, than it is to being like a societal system. Snapchat has this thing called Snapstreak, for example, where it says, “Here’s how many days in a row you’ve taken a snapshot photo with someone.” You can brag to your friends how long you’ve gone. There’s a ton of these kinds of methods and non-rational biases—social comparison is a huge one. There’s a guy who wrote a book called Hooked, Nir Eyal, where he teaches designers how to pull a user into a system.

In your essay, you argue that the way these technologies indulge our impulsive selves breaks three kinds of attention necessary for democracy. What are they?

This is more a heuristic that I use. It’s not a scientific argument. First, the “spotlight” of attention is how cognitive scientists tend to talk about perceptual attention. The things that are task-salient in my environment. How I select and interact with those, basically. Second, the “starlight.” If the spotlight is about doing things, the starlight is who I want to be, not just what I want to do. It’s like those goals that are valuable for their own sake, not because they’re instrumental toward some other goal. Also, over time, how we keep moving toward those, and how we keep seeing the connections between the tasks we’re doing right now, and those higher-level or longer-term goals. Third, the “daylight.” In the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s terms, it’s wanting what you want to want—the domain of metacognition. Basically, if the “spotlight” and the “starlight” are about pursuing some goal, some end, some value, the “daylight” is about the capacities that enable us to discern and define what those goals, those ends, are to begin with.

It’s easy to see how persuasive tech disrupts our “spotlight” of attention. But what about the other two?

I think one way, in general, is by the way it can create habits for us. If you get distracted by the same thing in the same way every day, it adds up to a distracted week, distracted months. Either by just force of repetition, or whatever, it has the effect of making us forget about those stars that we want to live by, or not reflect on them as much. We start taking lower level goals as having inherent value—essentially what pettiness as a phenomenon is. It’s the idea of, if my team wins, it doesn’t matter if the entire political climate becomes more toxic.

How are these technologies affecting our politics?

What we’re seeing, at least across Western liberal democracies, is a pretty consistent move toward populist tendencies. It seems to me that the one thing that all these societies have in common is their major form of media. To me, that suggests that it’s what they all have in common that is amplifying it. It’s not new dynamics, but it’s supercharged in ways that we’ve never been able to supercharge it in the past. It’s hard for me to imagine that this sort of thing would be happening in the same way in the era of the telegraph or newspaper, even in television.

But wasn’t radio criticized by print media for supercharging our anti-democratic tendencies back in the 1930s?

Radio was a huge factor in Hitler’s rise to power. It’s why he put one in every house. I think that’s an interesting comparison. Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist, talked about this: He said, when a new technology comes out, and we still don’t know how to wrap our heads around it, there’s an initial period where our sensory ratios, our perception, is re-acclimating, a kind of a hypnosis moment. He makes the point that the hypnotic effect of Hitler’s style of oratory was amplified by the hypnotic effect of this new media, which is a type of information overload in people’s lives.

Choice is such a messy thing to dive deep into, because then you realize that nobody knows what it means to choose.

Don’t we get used to new media technologies with time?

If you think about how long we had to come to terms with the dynamics of radio, the telephone, etc., it was almost one to two human generations. As electric media has advanced more and more, the time to reach 150 million users accelerates. I think radio was like 60-something years, maybe, or 70, and television was maybe like 30 or 40. Today, for technology, like an app, to reach 150 million users, it could be a matter of days. I think what happens is that we never actually get to that place of stability and mastery of technology. We’re always in this learning curve of incompetence. We can use it well enough, but not so well that we can master it before the next thing comes along.

Isn’t it our own fault that we’re too easily distracted? Maybe we just need more self-discipline.

That kind of rhetoric implicitly grants the idea that it’s okay for technology to be adversarial against us. The whole point of technology is to help us do what we want to do better. Why else would we have it? I think part of the open door that these industries have walked through is the fact that, when we adopt a new technology, we don’t typically ask “What is it for?” If we were to ask what a smartphone is for, it would almost be a ridiculous question. It’s for whatever it can do now!

Does personal responsibility matter at all?

I don’t think personal responsibility is unimportant. I think it’s untenable as a solution to this problem. Even people who write about these issues day to day, even me—and I worked at Google for 10 years—need to remember the sheer volume and scale of resources that are going into getting us to look at one thing over another, click on one thing over another. This industry employs some of the smartest people, thousands of Ph.D. designers, statisticians, engineers. They go to work every day to get us to do this one thing, to undermine our willpower. It’s not realistic to say you need to have more willpower. That’s the very thing being undermined!

Do you think information technology is on our side?

To the extent that the goal of the design is just to capture and keep our attention, it’s predominantly not on our side. If it’s not even equipped to know what our goals are a lot of the time, I don’t see how it can be. I think that kind of information exchange would be necessary for it to move in the right direction. One standard I use is GPS. If a GPS distracted us in physical space in the ways that other technologies distract us in informational space, no one would keep using that GPS.

How do we get persuasive tech to stop indulging our impulsive selves?

I think that there are a lot of things that need to happen at the level of business model, regulation, corporate company organizational design and operation, prioritization. I think that one of the most important things we can do in the near term is come up with good ways of talking about the nature of the problem, because I think it’s harder to advocate for change without the right language. Sometimes it’s talked about in terms of distraction or attention, but we tend to associate that with more immediate types of attention, not longer-term life effects.

How long will that take?

I don’t think it will happen overnight, because a lot of it involves changing the way we talk about human nature and interaction. So much of the way we talk about it, especially in the U.S., is rooted in discussions of freedom of choice. My intuition, and this is just intuition, is the more we can get away from talking about it in terms of choice and start talking about it in terms of chance—which outcome was preferable and which actually happened—the better. Choice is such a messy thing to dive deep into, because then you realize that nobody knows what it means to choose.

What’s one concrete thing companies could do now to stop subverting our attention?

I would just like to know what is the ultimate design goal of that site or that system that’s shaping my behavior or thinking. What are they really designing my experience for? Companies will say that their goal is to make the world open and connected or whatever. These are lofty marketing claims. But if you were to actually look at the dashboards that they’re designing, the high-level metrics they’re designing for, you probably wouldn’t see those things. You’d see other things, like frequency of use, time on site, this type of thing. If there was some way for the app to say, to the user, “Here’s generally what this app wants from you, from an attentional point of view,” that would be huge. It would probably be the primary way I would decide which apps I download and use.

Are you optimistic?

In terms of individuals working at these companies, I’m still heartened and optimistic, because everybody who’s a designer or engineer is also a user at the end of the day. Nobody goes into design because they want to make life worse. The challenges, generally, are structural, whether it’s about the existing business models of companies or the way in which certain forms of corporate legal structures don’t give people the space to balance some of these more petty, immediate goals with more noble kinds of things. It’s hard to say, in terms of the longer-term of tech evolution, whether it will be optimistic or not. I’m hoping that there will be a point where, if we don’t restrain things or turn the battleship around, we realize the unsustainability of it, from a business point of view but also in our own lives.

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blogFollow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.

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kerray
20 days ago
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Meet a professional D&D dungeon master. Yes, that's his main gig.

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Timm Woods, 30, is one of New York City's most popular Dungeons & Dragons dungeon masters-for-hire. He's also working on his PhD dissertation, titled "Anything Can Be Attempted: Table-Top Role Playing Games as Learning and Pedagogy." From Brian Raftery's profile of Woods in Wired:

...While Woods is one of several DMs-for-hire out there, this isn’t his hobby or a side gig; it’s a living, and a pretty good one at that, with Woods charging anywhere from $250 to $350 for a one-off three-hour session (though he works on a sliding scale). For that price, Woods will not only research and plan out your game but also, if you become a regular, answer your occasional random text queries about wizard spells. “He’s worth the money,” says Kevin Papa, a New York City educator (and occasional DM) who’s been part of this Friday-night game for more than a year. “Being a DM requires a lot of brainshare. I don’t know how Timm absorbs it all.”

As it turns out, the very attributes that help form the core of every Dungeons & Dragons character—strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma—are the same ones needed to be a stellar Dungeon Master. Woods describes himself as “100 percent an introvert,” but the kind of introvert who doesn’t mind being the center of attention under the right circumstances. Which explains why he has been known to crack jokes in an elf’s voice or dramatically narrate castle-yard battles with cacophonous verve. When he was younger, Woods preferred to be alone, living inside his imaginary worlds; now he has a job in which, night after night, he must share those worlds with others. “Being a DM is very intimate,” he says. “In many ways, the people who watch me run a game have a more authentic sense of what's going on in my head than many other people in my life...."

When Woods runs a game, his style is part dorm-room hangout and part one-man show. “I need to be cracking jokes,” he says. “I need to be acting as though we’re just a group of friends playing D&D, because that’s the experience everybody wants.”

"IT’S A LIVING: MEET ONE OF NEW YORK’S BEST PROFESSIONAL D&D DUNGEON MASTERS" (Wired)

(photo by Chris Maggio)

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kerray
21 days ago
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Defensive Profile

3 Comments and 16 Shares
NO DRAMA ZONE -> If I've made you sad, you'd better not tell me, because I am TERRIFIED of that situation and have NO IDEA how to handle it.
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kerray
37 days ago
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3 public comments
daanzu_alt_text_bot
25 days ago
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NO DRAMA ZONE -> If I've made you sad, you'd better not tell me, because I am TERRIFIED of that situation and have NO IDEA how to handle it.
Lythimus
39 days ago
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Did Randal replace his OS default font with the xkcd font?
Covarr
39 days ago
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"Respect has to be earned." -> "I am too immature to be respectful to someone who isn't respectful to me first."
Moses Lake, WA
cosmotic
39 days ago
You can be respectful to someone and still not respect them.
Covarr
39 days ago
While that's true, I've found that people who actually use this expression tend to mean it more in the double standard way, as in specifically THEIR respect has to be earned.

Why do people fall into the trap of the narcissist?

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On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question came from J. Mill via email [equivalent to 1 special vote]: Why are so many people charmed by narcissistic people? Which I recast as: Why do so many people fall into the trap of the narcissist?  

As the son of a father who was a narcissist, I know this trap all too well. It works like this:

  1. You meet someone and are impressed.
  2. You’re not sure why, but there’s something powerful and deeply familiar you feel from them. Something you’ve always wanted.
  3. As you cross the doorway into their life, you see someone already inside on their way out. As they exit, sad and upset, they warn you not to trust the narcissist.
  4. But you smile in disbelief at what they say.
  5. How could it be true? You ask. The narcissist is so charming. They satisfy something you know you need. So you blame the person leaving for whatever went wrong.
  6. You know you are special – because the narcissist tells you so.
  7.  They promise you something you want – something important. Something no one else can offer.
  8. It feels good for a time. But then they forget their promise. You remind them, and they seem to remember.
  9. But then they forget again. Or they lie.
  10. Then you feel abused, but don’t want to believe it.
  11. Maybe they apologize, but not very well. They promise again.
  12. You wonder: have they earned your trust or are you just giving it away? But you think love is trust, so you offer it willingly.
  13. Then you are used again. And again. Each denial makes the next one easier.
  14. Another denial takes less courage than admitting to yourself who they really are and who you are for not seeing it sooner.
  15. By the time you hit bottom and can’t deny anymore, you’re ashamed, wounded and exhausted.
  16. Even when you summon the courage of confrontation, they ignore you. Or blame you for what happened.
  17. So you decide to leave.
  18. As you exit, you tell the next person coming in the door what you learned, but they smile in disbelief at what you say.

You can read The Ghost of My Father, my memoir about my family, for more thoughts on narcissists and how to overcome their influence on your life.

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kerray
38 days ago
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World getting better all the time

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However sad things are at home, the trend worldwide is looking good. [via] Then consider this; and this:

https://www.vidio.com/watch/68705-the-beatles-getting-better-lyrics

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kerray
131 days ago
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