I had the most fascinating talk with my coworkers (British and French) the other day around the influence of American TV and movies. It started as we talked about Halloween. That’s not a holiday that’s historically been celebrated in Europe, but it is more and more (we got trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood last year), and in my coworkers’ estimation, it’s because of the influence of US TV shows. So many TV shows have Halloween episodes, and people here have started mimicking it since US TV is so popular.

It’s not just Halloween; there are a bunch of events that are big in the US that aren’t here, but are becoming big again because of how they’re depicted in American shows and movies. These include wedding proposals (not a big deal here), weddings (not nearly as formal, ceremonial, or elaborate), bridal showers, bachelor parties, baby showers, high school proms. All of those things are not a deal here, but they’re growing in popularity here as they mimic what they see on TV. Even something as small as getting on one’s knee to propose – that’s a formality that isn’t done here, but people are starting to. That’s fascinating.

So the interesting part of the conversation was that they assumed that what Europeans mimic isn’t accurate US culture. It’s what they see on TV, and they assumed that it’s skewed and stereotypical, not real. But as we talked, I realized that some of what they assumed to be unreal is actually fairly accurate. For example, they assumed that all US TV shows and movies about high school are wildly hyperbolic, especially how cliquish and divided they are. That blew my mind, because that’s actually the aspect of high school that pretty much everyone in the US identifies with. Maybe not the same types of cliques. But that high school is deeply cliquish, I mean, I thought that was universal. But my coworkers found that stunning. And I in turn find it stunning that anyone could find that stunning.

I’m still thinking about this. I can’t even conceive of how high school, with a bunch of adolescents, could not be as divided into groups as it is. Isn’t that completely natural, though regrettable? But apparently it’s not. Apparently in the UK, while there are interest groups, on the whole, people feel unified as a class. And my British coworker is Indian so it’s not that he’s naive about race or class. But his experience was such that he finds watching American TV shows about high school, with their sharply defined groups, bizarre. My French coworker also. And I can’t figure out why that doesn’t happen here, or what it is about American society that makes it that way. Is the emphasis on sports? Race? Money? I really don’t know, because I never thought it required a cause before.

I’m still thinking about this a lot. There are parts of your upbringing that you fully realize is culturally influenced, and I could have predicted that. But what amazes me is when I realize that some things I just assumed to be universal, like the fact that kids of high school age will separate into strongly divided cliques, is also a cultural artifact. Mind-blowing. That’s happened a decent amount in regards to what matters with faith also, but that’s for another time.

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