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.
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.
Religion 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.
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.
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 aliens—as 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
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