Europeans aren’t more cultured, they’re just more privacy-aware

This post, shared on Hacker News, is really interesting. Entitled Why European Children Are So Much Quieter Than Yours, it’s written by an American mother bringing up her children in Vienna.

The playgrounds weren’t just beautiful. They were quiet. That was what struck me when I first moved to Vienna, Austria. Children there played and laughed, but rarely yelled across the park. Naturally, we Americans stood out. It wasn’t just my young daughter yelling, “Hey Mom, look at me!” from atop the climbing gym. I was part of the problem: “Time to go home!” I’d thoughtlessly yell from my bench, and then feel other parents’ eyes dart toward me in disapproval.

I was skeptical after reading that opening paragraph, much for the same reasons as one HN commenter:

Man, when do we stop this European thing? Have you tried to compare a kid in Naples with a kid in, say, Denmark? Come on, the kid in Naples will be a 24/7 hurdle, shouting in the street from when the sun rises. I even have a hard time talking about Italians since kids from North and South are very different.

However, I was disarmed as the author of the post continued to share her experiences:

Americans often hear about how much more sophisticated Europe is: women nurse their babies openly, and people change their clothes in public parks or by swimming pools because they don’t have our hang-ups about nudity. It may be that Europeans are just more comfortable with nudity, but this different relationship with public spaces also comes into play. In Europe, I may be in a public setting but the space around me is mine. I know that my neighbors at the playground, café, beach, or bus stop are going to do their best to ignore me entirely and give me whatever privacy I may want or need.

She also makes a great point about how, because (most?) Americans have large backyards, etc. they don’t use public areas in the same way that Europeans do. 

At first, I mistook these customs—the failure to make eye contact or smile while passing on the street, the utter lack of chit-chat that’s the background buzz of American waiting rooms and checkout lines—as evidence of a core coldness. Yet I’ve come to see it not as a lack of friendliness or compassion, but an outgrowth of the Europeans’ respect for privacy in the public sphere.

It’s a great post that I’ll hang onto when I need to explain the differences (not better/worse) between Europe and North America.