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American Culture Tips for New Expats

I love when I get questions from my readers. The most recent question I got is about American cultural behavior and what could seem odd or puzzling about it to a new expat. It’s been over eight years since I had my first encounter with the American culture, but I sure remember every bit of it. So let me dive right into it and give you a few examples of what to look out for.

Easy “First Contact”

What pops into my mind when thinking about the culture and “first contact” with Americans is, that it’s very easy to get into a conversation with them, because they usually pick up on your accent which is an immediate conversation starter. Americans also like to compliment you on stuff (clothing, car, gadgets you use, you name it…), which is very nice, especially when you’re not used to something like that. Most of them are very friendly and helpful, so it’s good advice to just open up to that culture instead of pulling back because of unfamiliarity.  But this friendliness should not be mistaken as seeking friendship. Things like “We should get together sometime” doesn’t really mean anything, unless the same people keep mentioning it to you.

Clint Eastwood

Touchy Subjects

Topics to be a little careful with are obviously politics, guns and religion, because Americans can be very passionate about them with a very strong opinion. Most of them are either Republican or Democrat. In Germany for example there are lots of different parties and politics is not being discussed as passionate as in the U.S.
If you follow the news or certain TV channels you pick up on an either very Republican or Democratic sided view of things and since the TV is usually running all day long, these political views can rub off on you depending on what channels and shows you’re watching. So unless you’re well educated about what the current political challenges are in the U.S., don’t try to engage into a political discussion with Americans. What you think you know about America from the news back home is probably just a tiny fraction of what’s really going. It helps to just observe for a while and form your own opinion before discussing things out loud, that you’ve heard on TV.

The gun culture is pretty black and white, meaning you’re either for guns or against them. Republicans tend to be more pro guns than Democrats, although there are plenty of Democrats who are owning guns themselves. In fact 47% of all U.S. households report to own at least one gun. In most other civilized countries guns are not even up for discussion, because the availability to the general public is very limited. So visitors to the U.S. should be careful to share a passionate opinion about ethics and guns with people they just don’t quite know yet. Some Americans could take great offense with a stubborn expat’s point of view. Being from Germany myself I know that we often think we know everything better and need to “educate” Americans about certain things. I would not recommend doing this unless you’re talking to a buddy.

Bible BeltReligion is the third topic that expats might have to tip toe around depending on what area in the U.S. you live in. Let me mention the “Bible Belt”, which stretches from the south eastern to south central region of the U.S. and is known for a significantly higher church attendance rate than the rest of the nation (see map). I live in the Bible Belt and EVERYBODY seems to go to some sort of church every Sunday. It is quite amusing to see the wide selection of brand new churches and how hard they are competing with each other. They are doing serious Marketing with banners, events and cool websites – something I wasn’t familiar with as a German. Every month you see banners for a new church. Sometimes a church had a different name last week and they just decided to change their branding to attract a new crowd to their service. The older churches try to keep up with the competition and make good use of their billboards to grab people’s attention.
Anyhow, so one common question you might get from Americans in the Bible Belt is “What Church do you go to?”. I usually reply that I go to a German Church and change the topic pretty fast to avoid any follow up questions, because I usually just go to Church in my home town back in Germany whenever I’m visiting during Christmas. Which basically means I maybe go just once every 1 or 2 years. All these questions about what church you go to almost sounds like you have to enroll for churches in order to visit the service. But that’s not the case. You can go to any church without having to be a member, although the pastor will probably try to talk you into it.  Whenever you give a donation in an American Church, you should probably not give just pocket change. They expect either paper bills or a check (aka. the big bucks!). And if you have ever donated something with a check, they will know your address (it’s on the check) and might ask you for another donation pretty soon, which can be kind of irritating, since it’s supposed to be a voluntary gesture. (That’s based on one single experience from a fellow expat and I don’t intend to generalize this for every church in America.)


Having People Over

When you finally do get together with an American, being invited to a party or having people over to your place, you should not expect Americans to show up right on time. If the party starts at 7, they will probably be there 30-60 minutes later. Germans would be at your doorstep right on time or a few minutes early. Something to keep in mind.
During a party at your house, don’t be surprised if Americans will just walk up to your fridge and help themselves. Usually they are just looking for a drink or ice, so they are taking you at your word when you tell them “Make yourself at home”.
Another thing I’ve noticed with Americans is that they will almost always leave their shoes on when entering your place. You can do the same at other people’s homes, although I would probably ask if they want me to remove my shoes or just do it without asking. When you think about what people step into outside or in public bathrooms, you don’t really want that in your carpet at home, especially when kids are playing on the floor. It’s okay to politely ask them to remove their shoes.
An important thing for party loving expats is to not stay over at somebody’s place all night long. I keep mentioning Germans, because I can relate to them best and I know we love to drink and party until after midnight, but your American host might not like it as much as you do. They’re probably too polite to kick you out, so pay attention to the other guests and leave whenever they are starting to leave. If you’re the only person invited, maybe stay for 2-3 hours and then call it a day, unless your American host asks you to stay longer. Sometimes there’s even a start and end time for an event posted, which is a clear indicator, that the host expects you to leave at a certain time. Please respect that.

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Stop Complaining

Nobody likes to be around people who seem to complain about everything all the time. So don’t be one of these people, even if you feel like venting when things turn out not to be exactly like back home. I would advice every visitor to be respectful of the American culture and to try holding back too much criticism or the need to educate Americans. Stop trying to find the same foods or brands that you know  from back home and just try out something new. America is a melting pot of many different nationalities with a lot of different cultural influences. Soak up the experience, meet new and interesting people from all over the world and enjoy your time in America. Especially if you’re just here for a short time. No need to complain about how things are here or if you can’t find what you’re looking for, but rather take any challenge as an opportunity to start a conversation with an American. They will be more than happy to help you.

Good Read About American Culture

I remember reading a pretty interesting and funny book about the American Culture before I moved to America and I learned a lot, which helped me to adapt to my new environment a little better. Then I came across the books from Bill Bryson – an American who lived in the UK for 20 years and experienced his very own culture shock when he finally moved back to the US. At times he sounds like a complainer too, but in a funny way worth reading.

I'm a Stranger Here MyselfI’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away

After living in Britain for two decades, Bill Bryson moved back to the United States with his English wife and four children (he had read somewhere that nearly 3 million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliensas he later put it, “it was clear my people needed me”). They were greeted by a new and improved America that boasts microwave pancakes, twenty-four-hour dental-floss hotlines, and the staunch conviction that ice is not a luxury item.

I’ve listened to the audio file of this book, which is already 14 years old, but still very entertaining and spot on. Some things just never change in America. Get the book at Amazon »

Photo credits: Rufus Gefangenen / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND and Wikipedia.org

24 Responses to “American Culture Tips for New Expats”

  1. Nicely written post! As an American myself, I find that your observations are pretty much spot on.

    As for going through someone’s refrigerator, I only do that if specifically given permission, or after asking for permission. And I try to take my shoes off in other people’s homes, especially in winter, because it can get messy pretty quickly.

    Each region of the U.S. has different cultures, political leanings, and traditions, so don’t expect people in the Bible Belt to act similar to those in New England or the Pacific Northwest.

    Enjoy the U.S.!

    • Dan says:

      Chris, I totally agree and I know I’m guilty of generalizing my US experiences every now and then. Thanks for your feedback. I need more people from other parts of the nation to share their stories here on the blog, so that it’s not too NC centric.

      • Tom says:

        I would say along the ‘make yourself at home’ line- if its a casual party/ barbecue- then going into the fridge is OK for drinks and minor things for the party but don’t start making a meal out of their food. Generally, we’re so private and polite- I’ve heard that from quite a few friends who were international students in college- that if we’re inviting you into our homes for a social gathering, we’re letting our guard down. The stereotype/assumption I always found most interesting is that we’re always optimistic and smiling. I guess the ‘American Dream’ and the fact that ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a right in the Declaration of Independence has some impact!

        • Dan says:

          Ha! That would be hilarious, if somebody would start cooking with stuff from the fridge :)
          Thanks for your comment, Tom. I really appreciate your input.

  2. Very good post. And talking about “Having People Over”, I, as a french expat, was very surprised when my guests helped themselves in my fridge the first couple of times (different people).
    And I must say, I had never say “make yourself at home”, so I guess, it must really be something deep in their culture to feel at home when invited to other people places.
    In France, it would be considered *so* rude, and I guess it was pretty much my reaction at first… But frankly now I don’t really mind and it makes much easier for me not having to worry about people run out of beer or so…

  3. Wes says:

    Liked the read! Your words are pretty spot on. For people coming here just remember we(US Americans) are very different not only from other countries but from also eachother here. More so then most of the rest of the homogenesis world.

    • Dan says:

      Wes, thank you for the reminder. Sometimes I like to generalize things I experience here and I know I really shouldn’t.

  4. Rick says:

    I live in West Virginia. Maybe its a regional thing, but opening someones refrigerator is considered rude. You just wouldn’t do it without asking. It is true when you tell a guest to make themselves at home, that is pretty much what it means. Free to get a glass out of the cabinet, ice from the freezer. Just remember even though its a party you are never welcome to explore the house, go into bedrooms, check out the basement without specific permission. I know folks that would promptly kick you off their property for such a breach of etiquette.

    As a young man in the Navy I visited a dozen countries. Getting used to local customs is a real trick to say the least. Don’t speak to females unless introduced by a male member of their family (Bahrain), Smokes are called fags, your not being insulted (England), If someone buys you a drink you are expected to drink it, and how well you handle your alcohol says a lot of the respect you will be given (Belgium).

    No matter where you go every country, every city/region, every local people want respect. Thinking your way is better than theirs is utterly disrespectful.

    Even as an American born and raised, learning how they do things in different parts of the country and learning local customs is paramount if you plan to get along.

    You are an outsider of you are from the other side of the state! So imagine how being a foreigner is viewed by some. You will have to put in more effort to go with the flow.

    I have much respect to anyone willing to put the effort to learn local customs and experience what they have to offer. Some regions of the US, people will be your best friend the moment you meet. Other areas forget it.

    I recommend asking new friends for guidance. They will know their region better than anyone.

    Oh, if you ever are in my house as a guest you can open the refrigerator. I do not mind. I like people to feel at home. I have wood floors so shoes are OK too :-)

  5. Kelli says:

    This was a fun read! I always find it interesting how other cultures see ours.
    “The But this friendliness should not be mistaken as seeking friendship. Things like “We should get together sometime” doesn’t really mean anything”
    Sooo true. We have a lot of sayings that sound friendly and inviting but are generally meant just to be polite and not literal. It all depends on how well you know a person!

    • Dan says:

      Glad you liked it. Yes, polite things are being said quickly, and even though it might just be a matter of very good manners of making a guest feel welcome I have developed great friendships and good relationships with Americans over time. :)

  6. Kevin says:

    I enjoyed this! American myself, it’s interesting to see another persons perspective on our little ‘world’ we live in. Believe it or not, not that many generalizations in this article…I’ve visited many places in Germany over the last ten years and I loved each city, the people, and the experience. Caution was used, however, to keep German customs as they were and not to offend anyone. I wish I had an article like this when I was younger! Good read.

  7. 'Tex Kopke says:

    Very interesting. I am always curious what differences visitors from other countries notice about the United States.

    As you commented on having people over. I always tell people that the party starts at a certain time but expect them to arrive within a half hour or so of that time. I never expect someone to show up early though. I have only been to a home once and been asked to take my shoes off and this was a party at a very nice home in Dallas. They had white carpet so it did make sense but we all felt very odd wearing dress clothes while walking around with no shoes on.

    Speaking of differences. When on vaction with friends in London, while riding to our hotel in a taxi the driver mentioned he hoped that with the underground on strike he hoped it wouldn’t spoil our trip. One of my friends commented that she had no idea the mafia ever went on strike. The driver didn’t understand what she ment but the rest of us thought it was funny. She later commented that if people would just speak in plain English it would make things a lot easier to understand. I had to remind her that since we were in England we should assume he was using propper English. She was also supriesed that our hotel restaurant didn’t serve iced tea. She was able however to order a pot of tea and a glass of ice and so then showed the waiter how to make a glass of iced tea. Experiencing all the differences is part of what makes visiting other countries so interesting.

    Hope “ya’ll” get to visit Texas while you are in the States. Didn’t know if you noticed that you all is pronounced ya’ll in the south and youse or you guys in other areas. Also that you guys may mean either male or female and that in the south you ask someone to go with you to get a Coke even if you intend to get Pepsi or any other soft drink. In other areas they go to get a soda, pop or soda pop.

    Take care,
    Tex

    • Dan says:

      Great tips, Tex! Thanks for sharing. Your example with the Underground being on strike is hilarious. And just as your friend was creating her own iced tea, I usually have to be creative to get my “Radler” (Beer + Sprite) here in the States ;)
      I think you guys call it Shandy here. Might be a British term though.

      • Pet says:

        I am from Malaysia, have been living in US for the past >23 year (10 year in Midwest (kansas), less than 10 month in East Coast (Virginia) and >12 years in CA (SF-Bay area)) I believe Shandy is a British term. American generally does not know what Shandy is. I have to buy Sprite/7-up to mix with Beer myself every time I want a Shandy. My German friend mix the Beer+Orange Juice for me once when I visit her in Germany one time, is it also call “Radler”?

        My observations on US are 1) East coast people does not work as hard as West Coast people. When I was in East Coast working for Tech company, by 5pm people, the company parking lot is almost empty, while in West coast, most cars still in the parking lot at around 6PM. 2) People in Mid-West (at least in KS) are friendlier and most helpful. In Kansas, same national chain of restaurant, the Kansan greets you with big smile, no so much in CA (at least my area). my other experience with Mid-Western, One time my friend’s car skipped into ditch during snow storm. 2 cowboys drove by without a word, pull over their truck, hook my friend’s car to their truck, pull her car out of ditch, and without a word, drove off. We did not even have tome to properly thank them. From the license plate, they are Taxan.

        • Dan says:

          Pet, that is very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us.

        • Rex says:

          I take offense at the perception that East Coast people don’t work as hard as west coast people. (Actually I don’t take offense, but it really isn’t true in that generalization.) People in the East (at least in the Bos-Wash corridor) work way too much, tough you will find it depends on the company that one works for. The West Coast on the other hand is very laid back, sandals, shorts and t-shirts at work, and if they are there after 6PM it’s because they did not get there until 10AM. Though that is an over-generalization as well.

          People in the mid-west are definitely the friendliest. People in the North East are rudest in their cars, meet the same person in a bar and you get a completely different person.

  8. Paula says:

    Great post! Funny that most of the comments are from the U.S.

    When I was in Spain studying, I kept being asked to make general statements about the States. And every time my answer was the same: “It depends.” The country is so large, and most things are regional. The east coast, and especially the northern part, tend to be more formal. So “Make yourself at home” would most likely be a euphemism for “Relax and enjoy yourself,” and not “Do whatever you would do in your own home.” I’m originally from Virginia, and I would never invite myself into someone’s ‘fridge unless I’d been there many times and we were good friends. At formal parties, everything should be provided to the guests without their having to rummage, but at more casual ones it is very likely that drinks and ice wouldn’t be put out. That doesn’t mean someone can start pulling out your leftovers and making lunch! I actually get annoyed when I’m at someone’s house for the first time and they expect me to get up and get my own drinks. They might think it’s friendly, but I find it awkward.

    In California, where I live now, people are MUCH more casual, especially as you go south. (I always joke that “formal” means a clean Hawaiian shirt.) So as you can see, we are all just as confused about propriety and what we should and shouldn’t be doing! You’re advice to be open and just go with it is the best advice to anyone, American or not.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks Paula. I love how this article is developing with all the great comments that I’m getting, just as yours. I already learned a lot and serves the other readers from all over the world too.

  9. Dana says:

    This was very interesting to read! As an American who lives in Germany I am fascinated to see what Germans think of my culture as I learn about theirs.

  10. Rachel says:

    Great read! I’m from Texas and just wanted to pipe in about how some of these things might be taken down here. I would never go in someone’s refrigerator without them blatantly telling me, “Help yourself to the drinks in the fridge.” or something similar. I ask to use the restroom in someone’s house as well, because it’s just considered strange to help yourself. I think it has to do with politeness and general consideration, such as saying, “excuse me”, when leaving the table during a meal. As for the shoe removal, it’s weird.
    I have never been asked to remove my shoes at someone’s residence except for when I was a child. I always wipe my feet before entering if there is a door mat, but I just have never encountered that situation. I can see why it might be a concern when you really think about it, but I think most Americans just don’t think about things like that. What’s really odd (now that I’m thinking about all this) is that when I invite people to my house, even if I have been barefoot all day alone there, I put shoes on before anyone arrives. It’s just the same as putting on pants.
    I actually visited Germany for a couple months a while back and Berlin is easily one of my favorite places I have travelled. I met so many amazing people and had such a great time. One of my favorite memories was when a German friend asked me the word for scissors in English and he spent a good five minutes trying to pronounce it right.
    Thanks again for the great read!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rachel. Yes, Berlin is still on my list. I’ve never been there, even while growing up in Germany.

      Regarding the shoes, just remember that you are wearing the same shoes in public bathrooms with lots of “leftovers” spread out on the floor, and you’re standing right in it. From my experience the men’s bathrooms looks really nasty and sometimes you can’t avoid standing in other people’s pee.
      This stuff will stick to your shoes for quite a while and you’re spreading it out on your carpet in your house. Yuck!! :)

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