Visiting and especially living in a new country is going to be fun and exciting, but it is also going to be an adjustment. The following are some things to keep in mind about Americans and U.S. culture before you arrive.
“To-go” concept—Eating on the run: Most Americans are always on the go. They are running from one appointment to the next, going to and from work, picking up kids, running errands and going to business and social meetings. Because of this, there is often not enough time to have a formal, sit-down meal. A common expression is, “24 hours in a day is not enough!” You may be surprised to see Americans walking around with coffee mugs, beverages or food in to-go containers. You may see people eating a slice of pizza on the street or downing a cappuccino while in line at the bank. Since there isn’t enough time to sit down in a café and enjoy a cup of coffee, or relax for a few minutes and eat a snack, Americans often take things “to go.”
Going out to eat/Ordering take-out: American’s eat out not only in the interest of time and convenience, but because it’s fun! The U.S. is a melting pot of different cultures, bringing along with it a variety of tasty food options. Dining out allows Americans to explore new cuisines and food varieties. It’s important to keep in mind that people’s habits always vary. Some people rarely eat out, but it is not uncommon for Americans to eat out several times a week. In addition to bringing lunch from home, many Americans get take-out for lunch or go out to lunch everyday.
Think BIG: Whereas in other countries the emphasis is on being practical, compact and concise, in the U.S., Americans often prefer large and luxurious. Don’t be surprised by the enormous trucks and massive SUV’s taking over parking lots. Americans just like their space, and to them, large can be practical. Most restaurants also serve very large portions. It is not uncommon for someone to order a meal, and then take the remainder home as leftovers. Some restaurant entrees are also meant to be shared. If you’re out to eat and aren’t sure of the portion size, it’s okay to ask your server what they recommend! Large doesn’t just apply to size, but can also be a way of looking at things. There is a counter-movement against the “big is better” mentality though. Many people, especially young urbanites, are buying eco-friendly cars, shopping for local and healthy foods and trying to lower their consumption and waste as much as possible.
Speaking Up—In general and in the workplace, Americans are known for speaking up and generally going after what they want. Particularly in the workplace, you may be surprised to see how Americans are not afraid to voice their ideas. While your supervisor is your superior and should always be treated with respect, it’s okay not to hold back and ask a question if you have one. If you need clarification on a project, your employer would prefer that you let them know. While there is certainly a difference between speaking up and being subversive or rude, it’s okay to say something!
Sports: Something that many Americans love and follow is sports! They love to root for their favorite team, the most popular being football, baseball and basketball. A huge difference is that the following of soccer is much smaller in the U.S. than it is in other countries. Sports are a huge uniting and dividing factor among Americans. It is currently football and basketball season, so you might see your coworkers getting into spirited debates about whose team is better. Football is fun to watch but can be pretty confusing to follow, so be sure to see what it’s all about!
Competition: Like many other cultures, Americans thrive on competition. From a young age, children are encouraged to always try their best and work hard. This has to do with academics and also things like sports and other hobbies. Universities tend to be very competitive, so parents prepare their kids early for gaining admission. Some high schools and even pre-schools have competitive admission. You will certainly see that many Americans have a very ambitious and “go-getter” attitude as well. They are proactive and if they want to accomplish something, they go for it. They don’t tend to sit back and wait for others to catch up.
Political Correctness (or being “P.C.”): Since the U.S. is so diverse, there is a general practice of always respecting other cultures and people’s differences, especially when communicating and expressing your ideas. It is an underlying rule not to use words or expressions that could be interpreted as offensive, regardless of whose company you are in.
Small Talk: A lot of Americans participate in what is called “small talk,” where you make conversation with strangers or acquaintances about non-controversial topics, such as the weather. While waiting at a bus stop, in line at a store or in an elevator, don’t be startled if a stranger says something to you. They might make a joke or comment on the situation you are in. Small talk is supposed to be harmless, so it’s not okay if a stranger says something that makes you uncomfortable.
Independence: The idea of being self-sufficient and being on your own is valued highly in the U.S. Many American kids and teenagers leave home for extended periods of time, for summer camps or travel. Upon graduating secondary school, many Americans choose colleges and universities outside of and often far from their hometowns. They generally live on their own or in residence halls with other students while at school for 2-4 years and many stay away from their childhood homes even after graduation. After 17 or 18 years, most Americans no longer live at home with their families. They also do their own shopping, laundry, cooking and pursue careers or studies on their own.
Diversity: The U.S. is a melting pot of people from many different backgrounds and cultures. It is for this reason that there are such a wide variety of beliefs, values and traditions. There is no such thing as the “typical” American—that’s part of what makes it such an interesting place!