All over Facebook like a rash is the meme that it’s ‘Pi Day‘. No, not Apple Pi, or Chicken and Mushroom Pi, or even Four And Twenty Blackbirds Baked In A Pi, but Pi, as in The Life Of Pi, that is, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. But Why Pi? Well, today is the 14th March, you see, which is, in the American system of date notation, 3.14, which is an approximation to the value of Pi.
Now, in many countries that aren’t militant theocracies; in which people don’t carry concealed weapons; have the death penalty; think that God created the world in six days; or seriously consider climate change to be connected with astrology, calendrical conventions are different1. In the U. of K., for example, 14 March is represented 14.3, which makes sense, as the day comes before the month, which comes before the year, rather than all jumbled up together. And yet we have become used to the barmy conventions of our colonial cousins, who still think that the way to appreciate tea is to throw it into Boston Harbor Harbour. I expect it’s all to do with the events on the 11th September, 2001, which have become confused with sports cars made by Dr. Porsche.
What irks me is that the prevalence of Americanisms has become so pervasive that many Americans (of all political persuasions, not just those on the political Right) assume, without any need for explanation, that their cultural quirks will be understood – and accepted – everywhere else.
Many years ago, when the world was young (OK, it was 1994) I had reason to visit and travel extensively in the fine and diverse country that is Mexico (Nature 368, 789-804, 1994: doi:10.1038/368789a0). Knowing almost nothing about Mexico (itself a telling difference, given one’s daily familiarity with American culture) I read avidly. Among my reading materials was an article about the do’s and don’ts of doing business in Mexico, aimed at US business travelers. As I was traveling to Mexico for reasons of business, I took special notice. The main message was that Mexico is a country in which old-world formality is very seriously. You won’t get invited to your contact’s homes, said the article. People don’t readily address one another by their first names, and business people tend to dress formally. I took the hint. I spent two weeks in Mexico in a dark suit and tie, and took pains to observe the attitudes of Mexicans to anglophony.
Most Mexicans I met assumed that I was Un Norteamericano until told that I was, in fact, an Englishman – a revelation that was always greeted with a relaxation of tensed muscles and relieved smiles all round. This tension appeared to be merited. When in Mexico City I stayed in a large, international hotel in which all the staff spoke excellent English, and I had cause to witness the way that the reception staff was treated by some Americans. Tirades of abuse and cavalier orderings-about were met by a professional yet stony wall. Making a mental note, I approached hotel staff (and cab drivers, airline staff, and anyone else whom I engaged to perform any service) with exaggerated politeness and formality. The difference in outcome was palpable. That airline magazine I mentioned – written for American business travelers – warned that Mexicans have a more relaxed attitude to timekeeping than is customary in the United States – but my experience was of a country that ran so much to time it could have been Switzerland, only friendlier. There’s a moral here, somewhere.
1 I was going to say something about a country in which large numbers of people take Sarah Palin seriously, but demurred. After all, the U. of K. boasts political representatives as varied and idiosyncratic as Nick Griffin and George Galloway.