Are Americans Really as Simple as Chinese Think?

Many Chinese feel surprising affection toward Forest Gump.  Chinese are drawn not only to the sappy melodrama of Gump and his sweetheart “fated” to be together, but to the “simplicity” of the dim, but infinitely “wise” Forrest Gump, whose life seems to prove the merits of the Taoist concept of wuwei (i.e. not acting in the world).  Gump always means what he says.  Gump does not weigh the effects of his words.  Gump has no “theory of other minds,” on the basis of which he might calculate the effect of his words on others, with a view to currying their favor.  Unlike the Chinese, Gump is not conscious of the ubiquity of politics in everyday life, nor of the masks, personae, and posturing that help determine the distribution of resources in any group of people – or in any political regime.  Gump seems to hold out hope that success is possible without politics, and that cynicism can be defeated, just as long as we are stupid enough not to know that there is anything to be defeated.  Chinese see Americans just as they see Forrest Gump.  Are they right that Americans are a naïve and simple people?  Or are they the simple ones?

“How can the Americans be so stupid, yet so rich and powerful?”  The Chinese, and a great many other people, have found this question puzzling and frustrating.  If we extend our scope of ridicule and incredulity to include the “Anglo-Americans,” this has been a live question for several hundred years.  The French could never understand how the British could defeat them time and time again, while lacking any semblance of “high culture.”  The Germans could not understand how this “nation of shopkeepers” could prevent their rise at the turn of the 20th century, nor how the Americans, this nation of movie stars and jazz musicians, could muster the determination to help defeat them in World War Two.  The Chinese have an answer rooted in their experience of weakness.  Unlike Chinese, Americans don’t waste their energies on counterproductive political rivalries and interpersonal infighting, whether in high politics or everyday organizational life.  On the level of high politics, the Chinese are painfully aware of the energies wasted in the political paralysis of the late Qing, the warlordism of the 1920s and 1930s, and the rivalry between the KMT and CCP that prevented united resistance against the Japanese.  On the level of everyday life, they are painfully aware of the egos that must be flattered and the special perks obtained to rise up in any organization – games of interpersonal politics that taint any “success” with the likelihood of unfairness.  The Americans aren’t smart enough to waste their energies in this way, according to the Chinese.  Instead, they focus their energies on the task at hand, whether that is building enduring political institutions or creating economic value for society.  Why not?  Like Forrest Gump, the Americans are so dumb that their naïve faith in human nature and the purity of human intentions actually produces the reality hypothesized by this faith, through sheer force of numbers (i.e. all the other dumb Americans).  Stupidity therefore greases the wheels of American society.  The many transaction costs of Chinese society are not incurred by American society.  Individually, this means that Americans need not worry about the many bribes needed to get anything done in Chinese society, whether outright bribes or those emotional bribes spent on personal flattery and everyday political infighting.  Societally, this means that institutions can approach meritocracy, thus unlocking the full talents of the American people (e.g. the way meritocratic educational admissions or workplace advancement maximize the use of human capital).   Ironically, the Americans therefore attain strength through stupidity.

Especially in business situations, Chinese find Americans refreshing and easy to deal with.  Unlike the sly Japanese who never say what’s on their minds, the Americans can be counted on to say exactly what they think.  How could it be otherwise?  Picture the American businessman with his Chinese counterpart after negotiating a deal.  You are that Chinese counterpart.  The American laughs very hard.  He slaps your back.  He talks about himself constantly.  Maybe he’s getting divorced.  He’ll talk about all of his personal frustrations, the kids, the house, etc.  Maybe he has back problems.  He’ll tell you about the old days on the football team, and all of his antics in college.  You’ll think that these Americans are silly and childish to talk about themselves so much.  Why, what a coup, to learn so much more about this American, right after having negotiated such a big deal!  All of this is useful intelligence, and if he’s so careless about his personal life, and so unaware of how he projects himself and all the details he reveals, then he will certainly be equally careless in our future business dealings!  You’ll think that this American is immature, since according to a Confucian or East Asian idea of “maturity,” grown-ups don’t show all their cards so easily.  Grown-ups keep their emotions inside in the presence of strangers, mindful of how others could use personal details to their advantage, and cognizant of an idea of “manliness” according to which a “real man” exhibits grace and self-control over his emotions, and is thus better able to “game” those who could potentially harm his family or loved ones.

No people can be so simple, however, and have dominated world markets for 100 years.  How do the Americans do it?  Is it really that they are so stupid that luck comes their way, like Forrest Gump, or is it rather that they are equally shrewd, but in a way that Chinese and others don’t understand?  Here’s how the American businessman does it.  He tells you lots of things about himself.  He gets you to sympathize with him.  Expressions of weakness (bad divorce, bad back) put you and the American on equal footing, in sharing problems common to all people and cultures.  The more the American talks and seems increasingly unaware of what he says, the more you let your guard down and become less conscious of what you say.  You feel at ease and comfortable with this American.  He’s not thinking too much.  So, why should you?  Beware, because it’s a trap.  The American is certainly conscious of what he’s revealing and not revealing to you, and in setting the parameters of what will and won’t be revealed, he controls the rules of the game.  He will notice when you have finally said something about yourself that could potentially be useful, even if what you say is only 1/10th of what he says.  Keep in mind that the American is conscious of his limits, whereas by catching you off guard and endearing you to him with all of his jokes and self-mockery, you are not.  He will use this information against you later.  He will keep a precise mental file of who you are, that 1/10th being much more useful than all of his own blather, repeated to dozens or hundreds of other people already.  In the elevator, after you part, his smile will disappear immediately, and he will share with his countrymen what he has learned about you.

It is no accident that the world’s largest multinationals have been American for the last 100 years, or that American businessmen have exploited world markets and navigated alien business cultures with great success in that time.  Americans are not as dumb as they seem.  They play at being Forrest Gump, and in so doing fool the Chinese and a great many others, using the above methods to great advantage in getting others to trust them, open up, and ultimately do their bidding.  Beware, then, the simple American!  He’ll take you for all you’ve got.  Capitalists of the world, unite!  Small businessmen and petty traders of every nation, unite against the simple American!  All you have to lose is your faith in the corrupted, yet inherent simplicity of man, whose confirmation you find not in your own infinitely more “complex” and “sophisticated” cultures, but in the myth of the simple American — whose stupidity you so lovingly recount, a guffaw at his expense with your countrymen, while he’s stabbing you in the back.

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