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.
22 Comments Add yours
Unless you’re in NY and then it’s just New York for the state and “the city” for NYC. 🙂
Thanks! I think we should make it a regular thing. You know, from experts like me…;-)
You know, I don’t just think this is for Ex-Pats or travelers to the US. Many here can use a refresher course — Yeah, I’m talking to you, guy who didn’t hold open the door for me yesterday when I was holding two OPEN cups of coffee …
Years ago, I told new Scottish friends a hilarious story about a dumb woman and a microwave. For about 5 years, folks who heard it thought it hilarious.
“She got a meal out of the vending machine, only it didn’t come with a Styrofoam cup like usually happened. Still, she opened the door to the microwave and placed it inside.
I said: ‘You can’t put metal into a microwave!” trying to stop her.
She said: “It’s not metal, it’s aluminum.”
My Scottish friends said, “IT’s what?????”
It was a while before I dipped into the rest of my story repertoire.
I’m married to a Brit. We should have included in our vows something about I take thee regardless of the pronunciation of aluminum….I love your story within a story, Elyse. Why does that extra syllable matter so much?! 😉
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And all those extra “e’s” and “u’s”
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Great advice. We Americans are a strange lot, but most of the time our intentions are good…when we aren’ t invading countries and stuff like that.
There is that. Oh, and my personal bugbear, the lack of a national health care system. So, imperialistic intentions aside…
I’m glad to know I actually taught myself to cut my meat like a European…………
I had to in order to avoid the social evisceration of the family and friends I inherited when I married a Brit. But I do think it’s just a different way of doing it, not better, not worse. No one would criticize the eating etiquette of a, shall we say more ‘foreign’ culture for being different, yet man, you cut you meat up first and it’s like you’re licking the floor! (Fwiw, my kids eat continental style–mostly to avoid the heckles when we’re in the UK ;-). )
This is fantastic. I should forward to all the people I met as an American living in Australia and Canada (which doesn’t really count).
Hey, thanks! Please do share! I had a lot of fun writing it too.
Reblogged this on Wine and Cheese (Doodles) and commented:
We have beautiful spacious skies and amber waves of grain! We have canyons that are Grand and banners that are star-spangled. Who cares if we keep our fork in our right hands???? Thought this one deserved a second chance 😉
A great list of things I miss about the US! Except for tipping, I don’t miss that.
There was a comment on the FB page about tipping, and while I don’t miss it (or the guilt of tipping), I also do miss the quality of service I get in the US (thinking mostly restaurants, not other services. There is a minimum wage in DK which is about the equivalent of 20 USD, which is fantastic–the service…eh, not so much.
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Thanks. It’s funny how important the little things are and they’re always the things that no one tells you!
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You had to mention tipping. Definitely one of the top 10 hotly debated topics on the internet. First thing is, you’ve been away for awhile, many US cities now have or will very soon have higher minimum wages. Second, if a service person does not smile, and demonstrates zero understanding of the meaning of the word ‘service’ – I’ll tip accordingly. Third, I’m not a believer in tipping when I order food (or coffee) at the counter, collect my food (or coffee) from the counter, and self bus the table afterward (“please put your tray here after eating”) … these venues often have a tip jar out, but I don’t think of this as service. At most, they might get a few coins.
Lol. Good old tipping. I remember reading article upon article about how much to tip your doorman, your elevator guy, the bagger at the grocery store, the teacher, the 6 teacher assistants, the postage worker, the guy who brings your bags to the room ad infinitum. Higher minimum wages is a great first step. I’d still argue that many of those wages are still difficult to live on (and thus it rolls into a debate about whether a fast food worker deserves the same wage as a paramedic and how fast food work is meant for teenagers and then the whole argument gets bogged down in economical politics). The minimum wage in Denmark is about 20 USD an hour. I agree with you about the politics of tipping–and I think that all service staff should be paid a minimum wage and we should just get rid of tipping all together. The thing is, they are doing a job, whether or not they are doing it with a smile. And if they’re surly, sure, they are probably in the wrong business, but they still essentially doing the same job as the other guy over there–taking orders, ferrying food, cleaning up etc. Will the service deteriorate if we got rid of tipping? Most probably. I don’t think anyone is tipping the barista at Starbucks 5 bucks on a 6 dollar coffee. I think that jar is more for coins. They used to annoy me, but not as much as small change annoys me. I feel no need to tip them, but then, I also used to prefer to go to the coffee cart guy on the street that charged me a dollar for a small coffee and a bagel.
Great advice. As someone who has traveled and lived places outside of the US most of my I am often confronted by my ‘manners’ and other things that are inconsistent with the host country. I have learned to shrug and stare, then adopt what is comfortable and ignore what is not. I will often tell others to do the same, unless what they wish to bring with them is dangerous or will get them hurt.
It’s a fascinating line I think, the one between how much one is willing to change to adapt and how much of one’s cultural norms you’re not willing to give up.
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