Paul C. McCoy: The price of greatness

My wife and I went to Mexico City, and we rented a small apartment. Mexico City is huge, bigger than any city we have in the United States. It might sound daunting to pick an apartment and plop down in the middle of a huge foreign city, but it was easy. We speak a little Spanish and many people there speak a little English, and often the combination of our limited Spanish and their limited English was more than enough to communicate.

Mexicans are incredibly polite and friendly. All over the city, everywhere we went, people living their daily life in the grind of a megalopolis bigger than New York City were polite and friendly. It was incredible. I realized while there that my fellow citizens in the United States were rarely as polite and friendly to me as Mexicans were, and I was the foreigner.

I began to wonder: Why? Why are Mexicans more polite and friendly than Americans? Why are Americans more apt to be rude?

Perhaps Americans are rude because they are angry, and they are angry because of the great political clashes and mistrust in recent years. But Mexico is notorious for its political corruption. If any group of people should be angry as a result of politics, it should be Mexicans more so than Americans. Politics cannot be the source of the difference.

Perhaps Americans are rude because they are struggling financially. Obviously, that’s laughable compared to the economic hardships of Mexicans. If financial hardships are supposed to make people rude, Mexicans didn’t get the memo.

Perhaps Mexicans have an ancient history of being polite and friendly. Mexicans are predominately a mix of Aztecs and Spanish. Aztec is kind of a catch-all word for the multitude of indigenous peoples under the rule of Montezuma. Well, Spaniards were not polite and friendly when conquering the Aztecs. And the Aztecs, for their part, included many warring groups, including the most violent and ruthless: the Mexica (mesh-ee-kah). Sacrificing humans and brutal rituals of dominance were embedded realities of the time. So much for a deep historical explanation of Mexican politeness and friendliness.

If it isn’t Mexican history that makes Mexicans polite and friendly, maybe it’s American history that makes Americans rude. Maybe it has something to do with the American philosophy of self-reliance. Maybe generations of staking one’s claim and fighting anyone else who tries to trespass on that claim is at the core of the American psyche.

Take, for example, entrepreneurialism. It is arguably the ultimate form of self-reliance. Pure entrepreneurialism requires freedoms, including the ability to choose what one wants to do for money, where one wants to do it and when one wants to do it; all without the interference of governments, guilds or bureaucracies of any kind.

Is it possible that the same aspects of our culture that make our country great — self-reliance, entrepreneurialism, freedoms — are causing us to be rude, whereas countries without those attributes have people who are polite and friendly?

But wait. Mexico is a democracy with a constitution that guarantees certain freedoms. It’s pretty much the same as here, right? Well, um, no. It’s complicated, but the short answer is that there was no period in Mexican history during which self-reliance, entrepreneurialism and freedom were genuinely fostered.

Mexican history prior to the year 2000 can be crudely summarized as ruled by great empires, then ruled by a nascent Mexican empire, then ruled by a one-party pseudo-democracy as the United Mexican States.

In the face of imperial rule followed by quasi-dictatorial rule, there did not seem to be fertile soil for the seed of self-reliance to grow into the robust capitalism cherished in the United States of America. Rather, to survive under various harsh regimes, people in Mexico needed to work together, help each other out, give and take, all for one and one for all — none of which are very capitalist mindsets.

If Americans are more likely to treat strangers rudely than Mexicans due to the relative degree of political and economic freedoms in each country, does it mean that rudeness is a kind of byproduct of democracy and capitalism? Furthermore, does that mean the more successful we are as capitalists, the ruder we will be as a culture; the more successful we are as a nation of free enterprise, the more cultural waste is produced as a byproduct?

I think the answer is yes, but in my view it’s a small price to pay to be a citizen in a great country.

Knowing the source of our national rudeness is powerful. The next time one of my fellow Americans is rude to me, I’ll think to myself: “A rude American is cultural waste resulting from the political and economic freedoms of our profoundly successful nation; such abject rudeness is evidence of our success!”

Is it possible that this knowledge will even make me grateful when I am treated rudely by my fellow Americans here in my own country? Um, probably not.

Paul C. McCoy lives in Truckee

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