For the week of July 4th, we asked writers to describe a person, object, or experience that they think captures a distinctly American spirit.
“How’s it going?” I ask the barista. “How’s your day been?”
“Ah, not too busy. What are you up to?”
“Not much. Just reading.”
This, I have learned, is one of the key rituals of American life. It has taken me only a decade to master.
More from our series on American people, history, and traditions.
I immigrated to the United States in 2001, for college. I brought only my Indian experience in dealing with shopkeepers and tea sellers. In Delhi, where I grew up, commerce is brusque. You don’t ask each other how your day has been. You might not even smile. I’m not saying this is ideal—it’s how it is. You’re tied together by a transaction. The customer doesn’t tremble before complaining about how cold his food is. Each side believes the other will cheat him, and each remains alert. Tips are not required.
“God, Mahajan, you’re so rude to waiters!” Tom, an American friend, said, laughing, after he watched me ordering food at a restaurant, in the West Village, years ago. Considering myself a mild and friendly person, I was surprised. “You’re ingratiating!” I countered. Tom always asked servers how they were doing or complimented their shirts or cracked jokes about the menu. At the time, this seemed intellectually dishonest to me. Did he really care what they were wearing? Wasn’t he just expressing his discomfort about being richer than the person serving him? If you did this little number with everyone, was it genuine?
American life is based on a reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate one another’s privacies. This makes it a land of small talk. Two people greet each other happily, with friendliness, but might know each other for years before venturing basic questions about each other’s backgrounds. The opposite is true of Indians. At least three people I’ve sat next to on planes to and from India have asked me, within minutes, how much I earn as a writer (only to turn away in disappointment when I tell them). In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.
So, for years in America, I would shudder when reporting to the front lines to order coffee. It felt like a performance. I had a thick accent and people didn’t understand me and I was ashamed and I fumbled. I radiated an uncertain energy; sometimes baristas sensed this and wouldn’t try to talk to me, and then an insecure voice in my head would cry, “He’s racist!”
During these years in the small-talk wilderness, I also wondered why Americans valued friendliness with commerce so much. Was handing over cash the sacred rite of American capitalism—and of American life? On a day that I don’t spend money in America, I feel oddly depressed. It’s my main form of social interaction—as it is for millions of Americans who live alone or away from their families.
Everything is subject to analysis until it becomes second nature to you. Living in Brooklyn and then in Austin, Texas, I made coffee shops the loci of my movements. Meeting the same baristas day after day bred context, and I got practice. People no longer heard my name as “Kevin” or “Carmen,” though they still misheard “to go” as “to stay” and vice versa. I was beginning to assimilate. It felt good and didn’t seem fake anymore.
Still, sometimes, when I make small talk at cash registers, I am reminded of a passage from a novel called “The Inscrutable Americans,” which was popular in India in the nineteen-nineties. In the opening of the book, the scion of a hair-oil empire, Gopal, comes to the U.S. for college. When an immigration agent at J.F.K. asks, “How is it going?” Gopal replies the only way he knows:
I am telling him fully and frankly about all problems and hopes, even though you may feel that as American he may be too selfish to bother about decline in price of hair oil in Jajau town. But, brother, he is listening very quietly with eyes on me for ten minutes and then we are having friendly talk about nuts and he is wanting me to go.