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On British Reservedness and American Boisterousness

The British are known be to reserved, and Americans boisterous, but I don’t think Americans communicate more in their higher volume of noises and gesticulations. If one could somehow measure the information content of interpersonal micro-gestures — all the nods, grunts, spoken comments people use to lubricate interactions with others in public spaces, I think on average British people would be found to communicate more. What is called their reservedness refers primarily to a lower volume of noise, but because of this a greater proportion of their emissions are received as signals. In an American cafe, if you accidentally cut someone in line, say, you might apologize with a hammed-up smile, to signal that it was a genuine mistake and you mean well toward the other; seeing your smile the other might wonder if that means you’re playing some kind of joke, and their uncertainty and insecurity triggers in them perhaps a vaguely cold glare before they correct it, with an equally vague smile at the end. You, in turn, are left wondering whether they got your signal, or if they nonetheless take you for an inconsiderate aggressor. Both parties leave the situation less clear about who exactly they just interacted with, and what exactly just happened. A British person making this kind of faux pas might mumble an awkward “sorry” while nervously looking at their shoes, and the other British person might say nothing at all, or grunt inaudibly so as to dismiss the situation as a non-event. The British situation might look like poorer or weaker communication, but really it’s more effective communication, and more proportional to the situation: with an expenditure of nearly zero effort, both parties walk away quite confident this meaningless misunderstanding meant nothing at all and that the other thinks nothing of it. The Americans did not generate more light, but much more heat.

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