American Culture For Foreigners

American culture for foreigners! Despite the cultural variations in the country, there are certain characteristics that do mark Americans as Americans.

Commercial guidebooks usually give a general description of what cultural taboos a traveler will encounter when visiting a foreign country. Handing a gift to an Arab with the left hand, flashing the soles of your feet in Thailand, or raving about the shellfish in Israel might brand you the ultimate foreign misfit if it weren't for their handy tips. General cultural descriptions for Americans, however, are little more difficult to formulate. Given the unique immigrant roots of the country, social customs from the motherland still hold sway among many second and third generation American families. Political correctness - so fashionable these days in the States - also dictates that nothing is truly "˜American' for the country is in a constant state of flux as it accepts the influence of all cultures within its borders.

Despite the politically correct purists, certain American cultural ticks do exist that clearly mark Americans as Americans, regardless of the cultural variations posed by the newer generations. For visitors to the States who might find themselves socializing with the natives on a more personal level than the local theme park, here are a few American quirks that, if avoided, will keep you from committing any nasty gaffes.

First and foremost, Americans are punctual, if not absolutely ruled by the clock. If the theater show you are to attend starts at 7:30pm, expect the majority of Americans to be in their seats twenty minutes prior. Crawling in the dark over other patrons to reach your seat even five minutes after the curtain has risen will cause grumbles. You might even be forbidden to enter by the theater ushers who will force you to wait in the wings until a suitable break in the show. Time sensitivity extends to dinner reservations at local restaurants, as well, whether or not you are meeting any Americans. A mere thirty-minute delay will push you to the end of the reservation list at bustling, popular eateries. Dining with Americans at their home is only slightly less restrictive. The hostess will fret over her perfectly timed meal when you don't arrive at the appointed hour, but you are allowed (and almost expected) a fifteen minute leeway - which is considered "˜fashionably late'.

A popular American phrase is that "all men are created equal" and Americans quite literally practice what they preach here. The average American will not take kindly to bullying, condescension, line jumping, or downright pushiness all of which might be acceptable practices among the well-to-do of other countries. Service for almost anything is on a first-come, first-served basis, and attempts to breach the protocol will be vocally resisted. Expect to be regarded as arrogant and pompous if you dare to sweep past other patrons to reach the head of the line whether at the clothing store or at the theme park. Bribery to receive any special treatment is not recommended and will most likely be met with scorn by those to whom you are offering the money (or jail time if you dare bribe any official). Note, however, that there is a difference between bribes and tips (if only in connotation), and the maitre d' at your upscale restaurant would not hesitate to seat you at a preferred table for a little delicate compensation. Be sure to be well skilled in this game of favors, however, or you might come off as gauche to even the maitre d'.

Most visitors will notice right away that "˜proper' dress is not a concern with most Americans. Short skirts and bare arms can be a shock for the visitor coming from more traditional countries, but negative comments will never be appreciated. Americans are known for their uniform of jeans and T-shirts and a good number will not find it necessary to deviate from the dress code for even more formal events. Opera lovers visiting the States should not be shocked then when they are seated next to an American patron in shorts and flip-flops. Many opera houses aim to appeal to the broadest range of American society, and feel a strict dress code might inhibit some from enjoying a night of entertainment.

American women are liberated in just about every sense of the word, and visitors should tread carefully if discussing feminism in any form. Insisting that a woman's place is only in the home will guarantee that you never seen the inside of any home in the States. Most American women take pride in the fact that they have a choice between the office or the home (or both), and will vehemently deny that the social problems of the nation's children stem from such empty households. Unless you know your hosts can openly discuss the issue without offense, it is best to stick to more neutral topics. Subsequently, issues such as gun control (or lack thereof), abortion rights, and racial issues should be avoided. However, Americans -- who have grown up with the luxury of free speech -- will openly discuss politics. Americans are always eager to explain the workings of their government, but again you should avoid specifics. National defense and international affairs might ruffle a few feathers.

Finally, visitors should keep in mind that Americans pride efficiency above all else. Utilitarian by nature, Americans think of almost everything in terms of units to be produced in the most time and cost-efficient manner. Although the mentality has served Americans well in the business realm, the attitude might transfer to the social, as well. Visitors might find the strict American timetable too confining, or perhaps downright rude when a causal lunch abruptly ends so the American can rush back to work. For the foreigner from a country where special emphasis is placed on social encounters, the standard "Hi and Bye" can appear superficial and fake; an image reinforced by the insatiable American appetite for consumer goods. Keep in mind, however, that Americans are firm believers that they must work to earn money so they may buy consumer goods that will pump money into the economy and create jobs. The result will be that Americans will keep working and earning money, and will maintain the cycle that has allowed the American standard of living to be the envy of most of the world. Most Americans see little wrong with their priorities.

The United States is large and varied, and depending on your travel plans, you might find variances to these pointers. Southerners tend to live less by the clock than the rest of the country. City dwellers can be more cosmopolitan and open-minded about other cultures than those raised in smaller towns. Northerners might be more traditional and conservative than the anything-goes crowd of California. But the guidelines above do point to characteristics that are considered prevalent among most Americans, and traits that are often misunderstood or overlooked by the typical short-term visitor. As open and accepting as Americans are, however, they will appreciate your visit that much more if you take a moment to understand them.

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