Photograph taken by the author August 2019

American conformity and the car park

Most nations have ideas about themselves, as a country and as citizens, that are completely at odds with reality. These national narratives and notions of ‘us’ are usually predicated on a mixture of myth and ignorance and are disseminated unthinkingly from generation to generation. Often these self-perceptions have some semblance of truth rooted in distant history but lack any rationale or validity in the modern context. The United States is no exception to this phenomenon and has its own litany of erroneous ideas about itself and ‘Americanness’ that are quite divorced from the real world. Examples include American exceptionalism; Americans being brash and loud; the United States as a beacon of democratic governance; and the US as a meritocracy.

One less overt but equally disingenuous notion held by many Americans is that their country is home to ‘rugged individualism’. Such a perception might have held some credence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but now it could not be further from the truth — America is one of the most conformist and homogeneous countries on the planet. It is where individualism is not only unusual but is perceived as reprehensible and, ironically, ‘anti-American’. Indeed, there is nowhere else quite like it in terms of the scale and depth of its uniformity, and it remains striking how, in a nation of over three hundred million, everyone effectively lives in the same way. Random examples include dressing identically; living in identikit houses with identikit interiors; eating the same food, and at the same fast food and chain restaurants; sharing the same political views; vacationing at the same destinations; being baffled by anyone that is from another country or speaks a different language; following the exact same holiday traditions; and driving the same cars. This socio-cultural homogeneity is matched only by the physical sameness — geographic landscape excepted — whereby every town, city, street, strip mall, and main street all look exactly alike whether on the West Coast or the East, Midwest or South. The homogeneousness is especially astounding when one compares the US to other large countries, such as China, Russia or India, where there are dozens of different languages, cultures and identities, let alone the varied physical and material environments.

The United States considers itself a melting pot for good reason; it is where individuality, difference and anything of the Other is unwanted and melded into conformity and group belonging; where any forms of divergence, whether socio-cultural or political, are quickly called out as foreign, dangerous, anti-American, and not the way things are done or meant to be. America celebrates the group, elevates the herd, and castigates those who dare stray from convention and the cultural norms. One only has to consider the reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling to understand the American fear and hatred of non-conformity and non-compliance.

There is perhaps no better encapsulation of this American emphasis on conformity than the bumper sticker slogan; “America: Love it or Leave it”. Here, there is no place for ‘rugged individualism’, questioning or dissent, simply complete obedience and deference to the status quo.

Sometimes the smallest actions in everyday life embody the essence of a nation’s quirks and identity. This could be the lack of littering in Japan, queueing in the UK, or punctuality in Switzerland. In America, the essence of its conformist nature could be in its car parking. Nowhere else in the world do people park like they do in the US — always next to each other and always in a line. Whether parking for church, soccer practice, or shopping, Americans will invariably park directly alongside one another and create an organized row of cars even in an otherwise empty car park. It is a peculiar sight when watching a car arrive in a half-deserted car park but then making a concerted effort, often involving much maneuvering in and out or reversing back and forth, to fit in the gap left in a line of cars (if a previous car has departed, thus leaving a space). If there is no empty space in a row of cars to be filled, then the new arrival will automatically slot in at the end of the line to keep the row intact. The lede photo above is a perfect example.

One can only speculate on the meaning of such parking behavior, though I suggest it is clearly linked to the American instinct to follow the group. It is an unthinking, herd-like characteristic that epitomizes not only the fear of standing out, the embrace of safety in numbers, and the importance of social organization, but also the overwhelming demand for conformity in American life. E Pluribus Unum.

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