Americans never ‘break character’ at work. Maybe we should start.

I was watching Borat 2 (no spoilers!) and it made me reflect on a strange cultural quirk about the US. Essentially, we hold on to the veneer of professionalism well beyond any reasonable limits and into the absurd, for better or for worse.

I wouldn’t’ve noticed this if I hadn’t moved away so long ago. It’s been 8 years now, and every time I go back to the US this phenomenon feels weirder and weirder. For context, I’ve been working mostly in Denmark ever since I left. Danes (and other Europeans) certainly have and maintain professionalism, but only to a point. If there’s a way to ease the interaction (positive or negative) by dropping the professional veneer, they’ll do it.

This goes for everyone from waitstaff to government officials and everyone in between. I don’t mean that if you walk in and talk all chummy to a government official that they’ll suddenly waive the rules or anything, but if you walk in wanting to talk to a human, they’ll gladly enforce the rules in a truthful and human way. If the person is genuinely a nice person or genuinely a jerk, you’ll feel it. You don’t leave feeling like you interacted with a shell of a person acting as “the government”, but a full person.

Same with waitstaff — if they’re having a long night or are tired and you approach them with some semblance of personability, they’ll gladly share their actual humanity with you, for better or worse. You get to meet a tired person bringing you your food, as opposed to “the restaurant”.

This isn’t impossible in the US, but it takes an inordinate amount of effort to make contact with the human behind the role. I was back in the US a few years ago and was at a grocery store. There wasn’t anyone behind me in line, but the worker looked so fatigued that I was concerned. I asked if they were ok and if they wanted to take their time with my groceries since I’m not in a rush. They responded in a way that felt like I hit a pre-recorded message: “Oh, it’s been a great day at work! You have a wonderful day!” Not sarcastic, but not sincere… just empty. It made me sad and a little scared — there was a human back there, but there was no way for me to ever reach them. I’ve had similar experiences dozens of times since, and it doesn’t ever get any less unsettling.

Of course, this quirk can be exploited for comedy. Borat (and Borat 2) is basically a collection of times where Sacha Baron Cohen meets Americans who refuse to break the character of their professional roles, even in the most absurd of circumstances. Cohen has mentioned how filming such a movie would’ve been difficult in the UK because people in the UK wouldn’t buy that Borat’s quirks are explainable by his nationality, but I think it’s something else.

I think that, in the UK (or any other country), more people would reach the threshold of saying “ok, what the fuck is going on?” faster than they would in the US. Which can lead to comedy, but can also lead to a much greater capacity for the “banality of evil”.

Think about the deportation trials of children. We’ve read about it, but they actually happened. A judge got dressed up in a robe, a pair of attorneys in suits and formalwear, a bailiff, the whole 9 yards. They brought in children, sometimes only 3 years old, and held a formal immigration hearing for them. Every single one of those people so enamored with their own professionalism that they carried through with the charade dozens of times rather than stopping and saying “ok, what the fuck is going on?”

I think about how such a trial, if allowed to happen, would go down in Europe right now. I can’t imagine every single member of that court seeing the absurdity and not having a few of them sharply snap out of it and react with humanity. Some of them would take care of the child in a nurturing, human way. Those who felt it “must be done” would still take time to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation and engage their humanity to try and approach the situation differently. They wouldn’t just turn off their human responses for the sake of staying in professional character. Others would probably resign in disgust.

I understand that, in a society without a guaranteed safety net, not everyone has the luxury of resignation. I understand that this whole phenomenon is, by and large, a survival mechanism in a country that demands perky professionalism in the face of bleak economics. The only way to play that impossible role is to leave the human at home, and sometimes forget they even exist.

But maybe we can change that. Maybe we can normalize being human in the face of the absurd and reconnect with our consciences… or at least be in on the joke.