My experience of America could not be more different when I’m in the grocery store than when I’m on Twitter.
In the grocery store, people open doors for one another. They help each other with shopping, say “excuse me,” and let strangers cut in the produce line. Strangers smile over canned goods, compliment each other’s outfits, and tell the cashiers to have a nice day. It’s that way in Arizona the same as it is in New York: differences are put aside and pleasantry is organic. Even cranky shoppers don’t do much more than scowl.
The same, as you might guess, can’t be said for Twitter. Death threats, condescension, and put-downs are commonplace; bald cruelty is not unusual, and easily provoked. People tweet things they would never say to someone’s face in a million years. And because they are behind a screen, they can get away with it without a shred of guilt, too.
Why is the digital world so different from the physical one, and which is a more accurate depiction of the real America?
We all have the ability to carefully curate a flattering public face online. It’s ironic, then, that people choose to reveal the worst side of their personalities alongside their best-looking selfies.
We end up appearing thusly: as bitter, polarized instigators, constantly gnashing teeth and stooping to new lows.
I believe that all people, and Americans in particular, are better than this. It may be hard to acknowledge sometimes, but generosity, cooperation, and kindness define us just as well, and when exercised properly can be the glue that joins us together. We just need to look at our other faces to see it.
America the Gracious
If social media betrays one face of America, it’s an ugly face that exploits our egos and insecurities. It’s our weakness, amplified, and only part of the story. When things look especially bad, I find it worth examining the other two faces to get the whole picture.
One face is the aforementioned “grocery store” face, which extends far beyond your local Trader Joe’s. It’s cordial, kind regard at the bank, on the street, at the movie theater or out to dinner.
Sure, there are people with road rage, and folks who treat wait staff poorly, but the condemnation of these actions proves the rule against them. Sexist and racist acts are shamed, as they should be. And so while it should be said that too many Americans do experience these things, for the most part, nasty behavior is regarded with disdain.
In fact, Americans have an international reputation for being friendly and hospitable: “When I finally got to America myself, I found that not only were the natives friendly and hospitable, they were also incredibly polite,” British writer Geoff Dyer wrote for the New York Times in 2009. “No one tells you this about Americans, but once you notice it, it becomes one of their defining characteristics, especially when they’re abroad.”
You’ve probably also heard that Americans are one of a few cultures known to smile a lot. That’s probably because we’re a country of immigrants and had to rely on nonverbal communication in our country’s early days, a habit that has had great staying power. As a culture, we also place an unusually high value on excitement and happiness.
So that’s one of America’s smiling faces, and it’s pretty deeply embedded in our culture — whether you’re on the left or the right politically; whether your family’s been here for 20 years or 200.
The other face that is particularly relevant right now is our generosity in the face of disaster. I call this our “when disaster strikes” face.
In the wake of several destructive hurricanes, this side of America became especially apparent when millions of people came together to donate and volunteer to hurricane relief in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and other stricken regions. This reaction isn’t limited to natural disasters, either. When America’s most-deadly mass shooting occurred in Las Vegas, the nation mourned together and took action together to help those affected: collective tenderness in the face of brutality.
Depending on your metrics, the U.S. is considered the most or second-most generous nation worldwide. Part of this is almost certainly due to our country’s roots in religiosity and individualism, which together form exceptionalism, of which philanthropy is a tangible expression. As the Philanthropic Roundtable explains, we “allow[s] for wealth to be accumulated without excessive criticism and suspicion, while at the same time placing a moral obligation on the shoulders of the wealthy to reinvest in their society.”
And while Americans may differ dramatically in their politics, this “face” is very much bipartisan. When Presidents Clinton and Bush came together to spotlight the need for aid in Haiti, the third face of America smiled. And when all five living U.S. presidents did the same to promote Harvey and Irma relief, it smiled again.
Saving Face in America
It’s clear that there’s more to America than the angry visage plastered on the web. But at the same time, it’s not clear enough. As technology becomes more ubiquitous, what we do and say online holds greater weight than ever. Just because it’s happening on a screen doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a tangible impact, on your own reputation and that of the country you represent.
There is no hard and fast solution, but I think mindfulness is one way forward. We get to choose what face we wear and share, both online and offline. The Internet offers countless ways to be kind and generous, so there’s no reason we can’t bring America’s other two faces into the digital mainstream.
Just being disciplined enough to spend time away from social media can help as well. When your social interactions happen primarily through a machine, it’s easy to mistake one face for another.
As much as the face of social media reflects America, it will never be its true face. My advice? For starters, turn off your tablet and spend time in the real world. Instead of tweeting vulgarities @RealDonaldTrump or @ObamaLover101, smile at your neighbor and ask about their day. Make a friend over avocados at the supermarket. Kindness will ripen quicker, and take us all a lot further in the long run.
Nathan Sproul is a political consultant who has served in positions on five presidential campaigns and spearheaded national projects on behalf of the Republican National Committee. As the founder of Lincoln Strategy Group in Arizona, Nathan Sproul oversees a global collective of political strategists and public affairs managers.