US social customs

Traditions and habits

American culture regularly falls victim to stereotyping and belittlement, arguably thanks to its portrayal in Hollywood films and US television serials.

Expats should bear in mind, as with all cultures, the image presented to the world is rarely representative. America is not simply a nation of baseball cap wearing, fast-food eating, obnoxious sports fans. Rather the United States has a culture rich with its own peculiarities and eccentricities, both good and bad.

Positivity

If there is one thing that characterises an “All-American” it is their infallibly cheery outlook on life. Unlike the British, renowned for their cynicism, the Americans seem to maintain eternal optimism even when in the direst of straits.

Andrew Carnegie once commissioned a young writer to interview successful Americans to find out the key to their achievements. He discovered that the key to success did not in fact lie with innate intellect or wealth, but simply the conviction that they would achieve. This positive attitude embodies the American culture and inevitably led to the US becoming the most powerful country in the world.

Greetings

This positive attitude and behaviour can at times be misconstrued as insincere, but it comes from the desire of the Americans to make everyone feel welcome. It also presents to the world a positive image of the nation; to contrast against the negative depiction regularly broadcast around the world.

Unlike in Britain, for example, smiling at a stranger in the street in America isn't met with utter bewilderment; it is totally acceptable. It is, however, simply courteous and polite and requires no deeper analysis. The same applies to the infamous ‘How are you?’, which will be the greeting of choice for many Americans. It is the verbal equivalent of smiling at someone, and should not be taken as an opportunity to relate your life story. The correct response is merely ‘fine’ or ‘okay’.

Social interaction in business

American manners also extend to the way in which they interact. Eye contact is mandatory during all meetings, and reflects a desire for openness. Small talk is the way most relationships begin. Americans avoid talking politics or religion, unless they know the leanings of their company; this way no one can be offended.

Conversely, the Americans are noted for their blunt, to the point way of doing business. In some cultures this could be thought of as rude, but in the US niceties are not necessary. Time indeed is money, so there is no beating around the bush in American business; a business lunch will be exactly that.

On a first introduction it is not uncommon to be abruptly asked, ‘What do you do?’ The American work ethic means that judgement of character is based largely on one’s profession; the work you do and your identity are inextricably linked in the eyes of an American.

Traditions  

Although in the grand scheme of things, America is a relatively young nation, in its 237 year (as of 2013) history it has created and nurtured its own flourishing traditions and customs. Thanksgiving and the 4th July are known the world over, but there are other peculiarities that make up American culture.

For example, the voting of the presidential election only ever takes place on a Tuesday. The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, confused? Therefore November 2nd is the earliest date it can fall on and November 8th the latest.

Groundhog Day, made famous by the 90s comedy film of the same name, is the 2nd February. Folklore has it that if, when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on the 2nd of February it is cloudy, then spring will come early. If it is sunny, however, the groundhog will upon seeing its shadow retreat back underground and winter weather will continue for another 6 weeks.

Food

America has a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with food. On one hand table manners are of the utmost importance and on the other it is known globally for its obesity crisis and love of convenience food.

Possibly contrary to popular belief, etiquette is a fundamental part of American identity, with etiquette guides written in the 19th century still in print. Most simply, talking with your mouth full or chewing with your mouth open will not go down well. It is also considered better practice to ask ‘May you pass the…?’ rather than reach across a table for something. For children, they really must ask to be excused from the table if they finish eating before others.

There is a culture of eating out in America which, aligned with the somewhat ridiculous portion sizes, has meant that the custom of taking a doggy bag home with you from a restaurant is still common practice.

This is simply a taste of what the American culture has to offer, but it goes to show that you shouldn't always judge a book by its shiny, Hollywood cover.

This article has been written by Jade Carracedo

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