October 13, 2007

The dark side of optimism

Living abroad gives us a bit of distance from which to view our own culture while also giving us that odd sensation of reverse culture shock when back "home". One important American cultural value that always hits me as "different" is that overwhelming and ever present optimistic spirit which often leads to amazing self-confidence and self-regard. In other words, we toot our horn without embarrassment. We have been taught to do so, to stand out, win first prize, go for it in the face adversity, be optimistic, set outrageous dreams and then make them come true. This all takes an enormous amount of optimism, self-confidence and regard.

The NPR (National Public Radio) recently reported on a study that documents the particularly American tendency to be over-confident in the area of personal skills and competence that often leads to unrealistic optimism and self-regard -- NPR, Americans Flunk Self-Assessment.

By celebrating and exalting the good that is in us, we easily overlook the "dark side of optimism."

Europeans and Asians (and really the rest of the world) understand this intuitively. On the other side, they can be so engrossed in the dark side of optimism that they forget to celebrate and exalt the wonderful possibilities inside each of us.

Thanks Gillian for this great link!

a domani,


jenathar said...

What you're writing about American optimism is so true. Being German myself, I was quite astonished by this phenomenon when I first arrived in the US. Germans often have a tendency to paint things blacker than they really are.
My American high school had classrooms decorated with posters saying "You can do it" and a girl from my Spanish class who had just started learning her first foreign language happily told me that she was planning to become bilingual in English and Spanish within the next two years, while I myself after seven years of learning English in school was worried about my accent. I've always liked the American optimism, although I sometimes couldn't stop shaking my head thinking "these people are so naive". Maybe they are, sometimes. But a little more optimism would probably make Germany a brighter place to...

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for this thoughtful comment. It is so true what you say too. Americans tend to think that optimism is a universal value, whereas lots of other cultures look at extreme optimism as "naive".
Stop by again.

Roam2Rome said...

You're definitely right! Teachers, parents and media begin to engrave this in us from an early age.

Yet, I have seen "optimism" do wonders for so many people!

Likewise, I have also see pessimistic people fall victim to "self fulfilling prophecies".

There is a line somewhere between "yes, you can do it" and "are you kidding?"...

Optimism with both feet firm in the ground works best :)

peewee said...

And yet... Most of the films and television programs I have seen from America of late are very gloomy indeed! I would say that we Americans try our best to see the brighter side, in part because we have difficulty handling the darker, but it's getting harder and harder to be so optimistic when we cannot but realize we too are partly responsible for the global gloom surrounding us.

Iota said...

You describe this very succinctly. The "you can if you believe you can" approach is attractive in its energy and optimism, but it does seem a little dangerous (lots of people believe they can and still can't) and yes, a little naive. I enjoyed this post and I'm enjoying your blog.

Elizabeth said...

optimism and pessism are not good or bad, but they do have a cultural (not only personal) base. Americans can get frustrated when working with people from other countries who do not hold the value of "optimism" is such high esteem.

I hope you all listed to the NPR piece. It only takes about 5 minutes.

Kataroma said...

Yes, optimism and a belief in re-inventing yourself are things which really struck me when I moved back to the US age 28 from Australia. Australians are maybe a bit too realistic sometimes (ie pessimistic) and tend to be very self-deprecating. Being "up yourself" is really culturally frowned upon and if you do thing you're "pretty special" at school you'll be ostracised.

Generally I like the American tolerance for self-confidence (and lack of the Australian "tall poppy syndrome) but I definitely had some culture shock as far as things like job interviews and working in the US - people seemed to be constantly big noting themselves and that was considered ok. In Australia they would have been considered extremely arrogant but in the US people say "don't hide your light under a bushel" and it's fine to go on and on abotu your "acheivements".