There was a lot I hadn’t known about Americans  before we moved to the US to pursue graduate studies. For example, I wasn’t aware of the implications of the famous strive for excellence, which, at our school, meant a strong competition among the students.

As a result, there was tension in the air, especially in class, and I often felt surrounded by rivals rather than friends or colleagues. In instances like those, it is recommended (MS. Mentor?) to be cautious and to think twice before speaking. Indeed, many fellow students chose not to speak in class. But coming from an Israeli university, where studying was a social activity, I was used to being able to participate in class and ask questions. Thus, although many students in my new class were quiet, and sometimes it was a challenge for my professor to draw them in, I usually spoke up.

The other day doing some pre Pesach cleanup, I came across an old letter, which reminded me how conspicuous I must have seemed at that class. A recommendation letter from my professor described me as an outspoken young woman who never shied away from expressing her opinions. The professor went on praising me on being frank and persuasive. He concluded that, while other foreign students he had taught were normally timid and reserved, I was different.

At that point we lived in the US less than a year, so no wonder I was inexperienced and understood it as an excellent letter. But later when I learnt that opinionated was a derogatory word, at least in graduate school, I was no longer sure.

That dubious recommendation letter is an example of another quality, which I hadn’t know: many Americans are masters of euphemism

A short scene in Anne Tyler‘s novel The Amateur Marriage (2004), illustrates brilliantly this special talent. Upon seeing a sick friend wearing a ridiculous hat, the protagonist compliments the woman on her hat. She feels bad about the plight of her friend and feels guilty for disliking her hat. But rather than saying nothing about it, her way of repentance is to address the hat and to replace negative sentiments with kind compliments.

Tyler calls this act a “protective impulse” and the name captures the complexity of the emotions involved. Protective impulse is human and  kind, but it is also motivated by pity, guilt and a touch of superiority.

“Protective impulse” is also an adequate label to the letter which expressed that way my professor felt about me. I doubt that he had ever taught an Israeli student before, and his attitude toward a foreigner who studied English literature must have been ambivalent. My guess is that while he was able to appreciate my hard work, he was also taken aback by, what he perceived as, my chutzpah. He must have felt guilty about the way he felt and chose to focus on what had annoyed him in my personality. Here, like in the case of the hat,  he replaced negative sentiments with kind compliments.

As an outsider it is almost impossible to decipher the exact meaning of what people say (or write), and what they don’t. Perhaps it is best not to know all the negative nuances, life is hard enough when you live in a foreign country.