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If We Don't Kill You . . .

Florentines smile about as often as Frenchmen. Which is seldom. They don’t hand out smiles the way Americans do, for free, for nothing, just because. I have a low smile delivery quotient for an American. A smirk, sure. A droll look. Big, toothy, friendly grin? No.

But being surrounded by people who are baffled and a bit put off by smiles brings out the latent Southerner in me. I smile more. I get a certain sadistic pleasure out of it. A smile here in Italy can be an act of aggression. Don’t piss me off or I swear to God I will grin at you.

You smile at someone and you get that double-take. They glance my way, I smile, they shoot back a look of consternation, clearly thinking, “What the hell is the matter with that guy? What’s he up to? What’s he want?”

Americans are friendly people. It’s a cliche but it’s true. We’re friendlier than Europeans, and paradoxically, more dangerous. It’s smiling Americans who spend billions of dollars a year figuring out how to get a robot plane to fly a missile straight through your bedroom window. It’s Americans who are armed, and maintain that they have a sacred Constitutional right to pack heat. A Marine will smile at you.

Friendly and dangerous. Friends to one and all unless you piss us off, in which case there’s a pretty fair chance we’ll take action more dramatic than passing a non-binding resolution. But, if we don’t kill you, you’re invited to the barbecue.

It’s no wonder we irritate people around the world, we Americans. Some demonize us. Some condescend to us. We’re either the manipulative masterminds behind every crime, profiting from every war. Or we’re big, sweet-but-stupid goofs with fat asses and loud voices. The America of Hiroshima or the America of Hollywood. The America of neo-colonialism and predatory capitalism, or the America of self-indulgence, naivete and genial ignorance.

Those who are fundamentally well-disposed to us make a distinction between us as a people, and our government. They absolve us of the sins of our government, imagining that we are manipulated by Washington. Nonsense, of course. No people on earth has a tighter grip on its government. No government is more solicitous of the opinions of its people.

We confuse Europeans because we are all the things they think we are. All. Yes, we are the ruthless capitalists. Also the smiling, glad-handing, Bible-thumpers. And yes, we can drop a bomb when needed, and we can drop sacks of rice. (Sometimes on the very same people.) And we can ignore the world and embrace the world, and be compulsively open and secretive, and law-abiding and lawless, and creative and ignorant, and generous and violent. To quote Eminem, “I am whatever you say I am; if I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?”

We smile because we can afford to. We don’t have to act tough because we are tough, and everyone knows it. We don’t have to affect hauteur because we are so thoroughly convinced of our own superiority that no such semaphore is necessary. We smile and we laugh and we tell you everything in the first hour you know us because we aren’t scared. We have nothing to hide because we have nothing to fear.

Yes, we are genuinely friendly. Genuinely open. But the American smile is also an expression of confidence. Want to call it naivete? Fine. Want to call it arrogance? That’s fine, too. We’ll smile either way.

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“If We Don't Kill You . . .”