Half Empty or Half Full?

I spent the first twenty-two years of my life learning how to complain. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Anyone can whimper once in a while or have an occasional pity party, but we’re talking master-level skills in a country full of bellyaching champions.

In Poland, complaining is not just a type of small talk; it’s an art form that requires years of dedicated practice. A skillful exchange of sorrow-evoking gripes is a customary lead-in to casual conversations, business meetings, doctor’s visits and manicure appointments. Each nation has its preferred topic: the British talk about the weather, the French about traffic jams and Sécurité sociale, the Americans about sports and celebrities, and the Poles—about their hard life. To wit:

- How are you, Zofia?       

- Eh, the usual. My arthritis is killing me, haven’t slept in three weeks. On top of that,     I’m getting the flu. Everywhere I go, it’s terribly drafty!

- Mój Boże (My God), how awful. Those drafts are deadly.

- I know. We should avoid them like the plague.

To some degree, it’s historically justified—after all, the one thing Poles cannot complain about is a shortage of tragic events, from wars, uprisings, loss of sovereign status as a nation, and communism. Consider, if you will, what it would feel like to lose part, even all, of your family to war? Or having a communist show up at your house to inform you it is no longer yours and that you need to permanently share it with six other families? You might be complaining, too.

In the sixties and seventies when I was growing up, the country was recovering from a double dose of national PTSD, brought about by the World War II followed by a Communist takeover. It was a nation in mourning, a nation grieving, with flashbacks to horrific events too numerous to count. The healing didn’t happen on therapists’ couches, but through commiseration around dinner tables, in multi-hour bread lines, and on the pages of underground publications.

Then there is the Catholic faith, with its pathos of suffering, guilt, and restraint in earthly pleasures. If the Church tells you to reject happiness until Saint Peter lets you through heaven’s gate, then we have no choice but to choose anguish for the here and now.

In Poland, you never want to be accused of not suffering enough. That would immediately put you under suspicion for living an ungodly life, lacking empathy, being arrogant, engaging in shady dealings, or even being a communist spy. Happiness is a guilty pleasure. Boasting about success is strictly forbidden. So how would you let your neighbors know about your kids’ accomplishments? By griping about them, of course.

- What’s new with you, Mr. Klopsinski?

- Oh, nothing much. Same old misery. Kids are in school, have horrible teachers as      usual. But my youngest got into Harvard somehow. We have no idea how he  managed to do that. I guess they were on a quota system or something. Now my  wife and I have to get second jobs to pay for it!

- Yeah, that’s four years on bread and water, practically. I really feel for you. 

A nation historically infiltrated by one enemy or another had to develop reliable ways of telling friend from foe. If someone’s life was as bad as yours, they were probably safe, so complaining became a method of interpersonal clearance. It’s what a handshake used to be in the American Wild West, or what bowing signified in imperial Japan.

So do the Poles ever laugh then? Do they have fun at all? Of course they do. Behind the seemingly impenetrable Great Wall of Moaning lies a world filled with laughter, friendships, music, hospitality and delicious food. It’s where bellyaching turns into belly aching from roars and guffaws unencumbered by fear. Still on the face of it, most Poles seem satisfied only when they are dissatisfied. It’s a nation of 38 million chronic curmudgeons. I know. I was one of them.

Coming to America was a culture shock. Friendly people. Happy people. Courteous people. Lots of teeth. Nice, white teeth. No-gap teeth. Smiling teeth.  While in Poland things were always bad and getting worse, in America they were always great and getting better.

- Hello there! Long time no see. How are things?

- Pretty good. My mother landed in the ER last week, but she's ok now. Luckily, it was  just a mini stroke.

- I’m so glad to hear it. Have a wonderful day!

What happened to complaining? I expected it from my new friends, and was generous at pouring out my woes like Coke from a soda fountain. I was good at it, too—after all, I learned from the best: my mother, God bless her, can successfully arouse sympathy through a single, deftly applied verbal ace or a strategic sigh. Here in the US though, my soul-bearing was not reciprocated. It left me feeling shortchanged and misunderstood.

- How're you doing? my coworkers would say.

- Well, I was declined for the job I wanted and…

- That’s great! they would respond and go on their merry way.

I lost my footing. I missed sharing my problems and commiserating with friends. I felt out of balance among people who insisted on being happy. Americans wanted to have fun, to enjoy life, to celebrate every little occasion. They loved their birthdays, baby showers, surprise parties, parades, marching bands, cheerleaders and fireworks. They wanted to laugh and to do it right now.

The more I was exposed to happy stories, pleasant small talk, and endless fun, the more I was suspended in cultural mid-air. Don’t Americans ever have problems? Are they superficial? Immature? Fake? Where is the substance? I wondered. They can’t always be positive and sparkling. Just as complaining can serve as a shield, can a whole nation hide behind a smile?

I was completely out of my whiny comfort zone, yet had no choice but to unlearn what I’d been taught. I began to say “great” and smile to strangers. I flossed my teeth. I said “hello” to women in the ladies room. I attended bridal showers, Fourth of July parades, surprise parties and baseball games. Gradually, I loosened the shackles of my Polish martyrdom. I stopped searching for misery-tested friendships. In fact, I became so adept at being positive that someone at work once told me that it seemed “rehearsed.” Ouch. If only they knew how hard I worked on that.

It took a long time to adjust my ways. It took me even longer not to feel guilty about it, or to think that I was losing “substance.” With time, I discovered that beyond the exterior cheerfulness of Americans, there are people with all types of lives and all kinds of stories. When the pleasantries and kidding and the laughing has ceased, their hearts open up and the connection begins. Friendliness is the American equivalent of interpersonal clearance.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when smiling became a routine, when I no longer felt fake with constant optimism, nor when I started to “get” Americans. Perhaps it started when I became close friends with a special young woman from rural Indiana, whose depth coupled with humor helped me construct a bridge between Polish and American customs? Maybe each time I traveled outside of the country, coming back made me better appreciate my new home and its people? Perhaps it was when I became an American citizen? Or when my three kids were born? Or perhaps it was when, during my five-year illness, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from American neighbors, acquaintances, friends and complete strangers? The fact is, one day I realized that I was comfortable with cheerfulness and that the US was definitely my home.

In contrast, I found complaining to be harder and harder. Before my trips to Poland, I found myself compiling a mental list of recent misfortunes—I would need them for meetings with grocery clerks, neighbors, acquaintances, and even the pedicurist in my mom’s favorite nail salon. I didn’t want to be accused of a lack of empathy, of turning into a conceited émigré. I could not—would not—be out-bewailed by anyone. But kvetching had become hard work.

This past summer during a trip to Warsaw, I had to see an urgent care doctor for an annoying cough that would not go away. At the clinic, the forty-something physician waved me into the office with an air of barely-veiled displeasure. As soon as the door closed, she immediately covered her mishaps of the day:

“I just hate my commute,” she said. “What have those idiots done with the buses? It used to take me ten minutes and now it takes thirty!”

“Oh grrreeaat,” she moaned, “the computer won’t start. I may have to take longhand notes in the 21st century!”

I listened and waited, coughing apologetically.

Finally, she swept her hand in a ‘why bother’ gesture and got out her stethoscope. She examined me carefully, clicked her tongue a few times, and hand wrote a prescription. “Thank you, doctor,” I said opening the door, but her question made me stop, one foot in the air:

-       How long have you lived in the US? she asked.

-       Thirty years. Can you tell from my accent in Polish?

-       No, not at all. It’s your smile that betrays you.

I’d never felt more American than I did right then.