As an American living abroad, I often wish that someone had sat me down and given me the low down on what to expect. Not about the big stuff like currency conversion rates and voltage, you can Google that stuff. What I really wanted was the Cliff Notes*version. A cheat sheet. A list of some of the cultural knick-knacks that make your time abroad slightly less befuddling.
I could write about what to expect if you are an American moving to Denmark or an American moving to Cyprus, but that knowledge is limited by my own time and experience. What I know a lot about though, oodles and oodles and cheese doodles about, is life in the United States.
I don’t want to brag, but I’m sort of an expert about what it’s like to be an American…
So I thought I’d reverse the trend and let you know what to expect if you’re an expat expecting a move (or even a vacation) to the U.S. Y’all might already know the difference between New York and New York or be able to correctly identify half or more of the U.S. states. Hell, you might even know some stuff about The War of 1812 (which would give you a step up on most Americans), but that’s not the stuff I’m talking about. I’m talking the everyday. Stuff like….
Most Americans eat in the American Style, which involves cutting one or more pieces of food, putting down their knife and transferring the fork to the dominant hand. Though my very English friends and family seem to think this is one step short of barbaric, in reality, it’s simply a variation on the way most western Europeans eat.
What not to do: Liken it to eating with your feet or refer to it as a tragedy.
What to do: Keep calm and cut your meat.
Hear that? A-loo-min-um. I’m not mispronouncing or misspelling it. In the US (and Canada) it is a different word. There’s a whole history behind why, but I’m not going to go into it. Asking an American to say ‘aluminium’ is like asking an American to say ‘air-o-plane’ instead of ‘airplane’ or zed instead of zee when they’re singing the Alphabet Song. Ain’t gonna happen.
What not to do: Poke fun at or assume syllabic superiority.
What to do: Say tin foil instead.
Hi, how are you?
What can I say? It’s just a thing Americans say; a phrase, a stopgap, a conversational greeting filler. Variations include “How ya doing?” “How’s it going?” “You doing okay?” and “Alright?” Non-Americans are correct in their assumption that we are not saying these things in attempt to find out how you are.
What not to do: Launch into the story about how your Aunt Mary’s dog just died or your suspicion that the guy at the deli counter shortchanged you on the ham.
What to do: Simply say ‘Fine, and you?’ and keep walking.
Miles and Cups and Pounds, Oh MY!
You are right. It is slightly ridiculous that Americans cling to their outdated, non-metric measuring system which includes mysterious units like cups and quarter-pounds. Yes, it’s laughable that the United States is practically the only country left using miles instead of kilometers and Fahrenheit instead of Celsius. (I will not go gently into the kilo vs. pound debate though. Hello? The UK still uses stones!). There is no reason or excuse for it. I will just say that there are 350 million Americans and er…less than that number of you.
What not to do: Harp on about it. We know. We can’t figure it out ourselves.
What to do: Get yourself a nifty little conversion app for you phone.
Unlike the rest of the first world, the US does not have a federally mandated living wage. (There is a minimum wage, but I would argue it’s not the same as a living wage). Most service workers in the US rely on tips as the bulk of their income. Tipping is not only encouraged, but expected. There is also a cultural expectation for tipping in other service industries, including hair and beauty salons, taxi/cab drivers, doormen, skycaps, food delivery, etc. There are whole bookshelves of books dedicated to the sub-culture of tipping if you want to get into the niggly details about it.
What not to do: Scoff at the little line on the bill that says, ‘tip’ or frequent the same Starbucks without leaving something in the tip jar and still expect that you’ll get the correct drink at a temperature above 32 degrees. (Fahrenheit, remember? Start converting now.)
What to do: Err on the side of tipping. When in doubt, tip.
Oh Beautiful, for Spacious Skies
The US is big. I mean, really big. Unless you’re coming from Russia or Brazil or Canada, it’s hard to get a good feel of just how big it is. As I’ve mentioned before, driving times are often calculated in hours rather than miles. Sometimes days.
What not to do: Assume you can see the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and Bourbon Street in the space of a week.
What to do: Enjoy. Breathing room is the one thing we’ve got covered. Take a road trip.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Because of the geographical size of the place, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that traveling from region of the U.S. to another is not unlike crossing borders in the EU. While you won’t need a passport, sometimes you’ll be flummoxed by the dialogue, the accent, the slang, the cuisine and the local habits.
What not to do: Steer clear of talk about Yanks and Rebels, the Confederate Flag or Gone with the Wind.
What to do: Marinate in the melting pot that is the U.S. then buy a fridge magnet or a bumper sticker and head back to where you feel more at home.
Excuse me, Pardon Me
Generally speaking, Americans are a polite, mannered lot. Most people will hold the door open for you or let you go ahead of them in the super market check out line if you are only buying a pack of gum. Sometimes, if the moon is in Aquarius, they may even let you merge into traffic from a busy intersection. Most people say, “excuse me” if trying to elbow past you.
What not to do: Forget to acknowledge the person who held the door or let you out into traffic. If you do forget, do not be surprised if you are flipped the bird. That is American speak for ‘the middle finger”.
What to do: Thank them after the first of the double doors or they will let the second one slam shut in your face. You may also get a sarcastic, “you’re welcome” hissed at you and possibly a middle finger.
Disney world vs. Disneyland
They are two different places. In two different states, which happen to be 3,000 miles or so apart.
What not to do: Plan a vacation to one of them thinking you’re going to the other
What do to: Go to the one in Paris instead, they probably have crepes.
Take my advice and you’ll be singing Yankee Doodle Dandy before you know it. You can thank me later, when you’re trying to figure out the right oven temperature to bake your cookies. Try wrapping them in tin foil, it helps keep them fresh.
*Cliff Notes are a heavily abridged version of a book or other text. As in, what American high schoolers turn to when they have trouble with A Tale of Two Cities
** New York is most often heard when referring to the city. Usually when referring to the state you will hear New York State.