There is, without a doubt, a difference in the way the British celebrate achievement in comparison to the way Americans do. However, since I have not raised any children over here, and I know few people who have, I am not in a position to speak about how parents one-up each other, as they do in the States.
Competition between whose child is smarter, better, more athletic has, on more than one occasion, resulted in gunfire in the US. Not so much here. The few people I do know with children of high calibre—championship swimmer, concert violinist, doctor—treat them and their achievements as a matter of course. They are naturally proud of their offspring, but they don't push it in your face. At least not in mine.
Achievement on a national level is not easy to define as the Brits pick their heroes for the strangest of reasons.
Shackleton: He had many achievements, but the one that secured him enduring fame and a place in the heart of Britons was the voyage that ended in failure.
Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards: an Olympic legend for being the best (and only) ski jumper from the United Kingdom. He came in dead last in both the 70 and 90 metre competitions with jumps laughably short of the next worse competitor.
The British, it would seem, don't just love a winner (as in the States) but as often as not will side with the underdog, feeling true admiration for a person who makes a jolly good attempt.
And if someone actually does succeed in an outstanding achievement—sail solo around the world, for example—they have a way to honour them that makes the Americans and their ticker tape parades and appearances on Oprah pale in comparison: they knight them. Now how cool is that?
Dame Amy Williams, anyone?
As a parent to American children, I know I stand out when I don’t give them high fives and “attaboys” for every little thing they do. I’ve grown out of the British habit of actually addressing below-par performance, (“Try a bit harder next time” being a cardinal sin over here) but, I’m still not whooping and hollering on the sidelines. The thing that makes me laugh is that, despite this country’s reputation for stiff competitiveness, my children’s t-ball teams (that’s baseball for little people, where the ball is hit off a tee instead of being thrown at them) never seemed to have a winner. That’s partly because most of the kids kept getting up at the wrong time and playing on the opposition team, but somehow it was always a tie anyway.
What Americans do very well is celebrate their “winningest” people (and yes, that’s a word.) Whether it’s people coming back from a far galaxy, bringing home Olympic hardware or winning a Presidential election, Americans celebrate in the time-hono(u)red way – with a Parade. It’s engrained in the American way of life. They even write songs about it – Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on my Parade” coming instantly to mind.
In New York City they throw you a ticker tape parade if you’re really impressive. That’s where they rip up what looks like bus tickets and throw them all over the place. The last one (November 2009) celebrated the New York Yankees’ win in the (baseball) World Series, and what a mess it made. They aren’t as common as they used to be, presumably because city budget cuts no longer cover the clean-up costs.
Although the US has topped the medal league in the Winter Olympics, I’m noticing there hasn’t been as much chest-puffing and general self-congratulations as I would have thought. Perhaps that’s because half the population is still scratching its collective head at the thought of people winning medals for sweeping the ice!
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