What Foreigners Teach Americans About U.S. Culture
When visiting another country for the first time, you probably turn to a guidebook for travel information — recommendations for hotels, restaurants and sightseeing. First-time visitors to the U.S. turn to guidebooks for that information, and also for advice on navigating the complexities of American culture.
In a piece in The Atlantic, associate editor Max Fisher examines several guidebooks and lays out some of the subtle cultural nuances that U.S. residents take for granted.
"What was so surprising to me is we get used to thinking of America as this very informal, laid-back place," Fisher tells NPR's Tom Gjelten. "And it turns out that we're actually a little uptight."
Fisher found that pages and pages of the Lonely Planet USA and Rough Guides: The USA focus on how to deal with greetings — personal space, kissing and hugging — as well as tipping and punctuality.
"We're just so used to these customs, we don't realize how complicated and involved they are, how many rules there are," says Fisher. "It is a reminder that we're just like any other country, and that we do have ... our kind of particular cultural nuances."
Tell us: What surprised you about your first visit to the U.S.?
On guidebook advice for visiting someone's home
"The complications and the politics of when you visit someone's home in America are really complex, and I can't tell you how many pages in these books are dedicated to this. And one thing that they kept returning to that I was so baffled by the first time I read it — it said, if you have dinner guests over, don't give them cash.
"... I thought, who is doing this? And I started asking around, and this Pakistani friend who's lived in the U.S. for many years told me, 'Oh, I can't get my mother to stop giving cash away to our guests.'
"And you realize that these little customs and traditions we have that we think of as universal — you know, you bring food or a bottle of wine to somebody's dinner — it just sounds like it makes sense, but it's actually a very particularly American habit. And if you don't know about that, it can be complicated."
On how guidebooks explain U.S. history and politics
"I was really fascinated by the frankness and directness with which they talk about the history of Native Americans in the United States, and the history of slavery and the civil rights movement in the U.S. You know, these are still such sensitive topics in American life that we can be circumspect when we talk about it, so it was jarring to read these guidebooks that were just very clear. You know, here's what happened. And we're also very clear on the fact that it still affects American life today.
"People outside of the U.S. know a lot about America's racial history. You know, the civil rights movement is taught in primary schools in China, but what they don't know is, you come to the United States and you just do not talk about race, no matter what. It is a big taboo. But otherwise, you talk politics as much as you want, more than just about any other country."
On the misconceptions that come from American television
"American culture is very famous. You grow up in the U.S., you consume probably exclusively American TV and American movies, but if you grow up in India, you probably watch a lot of Indian movies and a lot of American movies. ... Who's to tell you which parts of those movies accurately represent American life and which ones don't?
"I remember a conversation with a Chinese friend, where she said, 'Oh, you know, you American women — you get a new boyfriend every single week. Right?' ... 'Where did you get this idea?' She said, 'Well, it's on Friends. It's on Gossip Girl. It's on Sex and the City. Of course it's true.'
"... People are so exposed to so much about America. They know so much about it, and we get so many tourists. It's always amazing to me, the difference between perception and reality."
TOM GJELTEN, HOST:
When you visit a foreign country for the first time, you probably turn to a guidebook for travel information: recommendations on hotels, restaurants, sightseeing, maybe local customs. First-time visitors to the United States need that same information. They also use these books for advice on how to navigate American life, with all its quirks and complexities.
Max Fisher is an associate editor at The Atlantic. His new article is "Welcome to America, Please be on Time: What Guide Books Tell Foreign Visitors to the U.S." He'd read several guidebooks and found insight in them about some of the subtle nuances of American culture that residents take for granted.
Here's an example: Foreigners are told that when you're invited to someone's home in the U.S. for a meal, it's customary to ask what you can bring. Recommendation: Don't bring toiletries.
Max joins us in a moment to talk more about some of these nuggets of advice for foreign travelers and what they tell us about our culture. Tell us your story. If you came here from somewhere else, what surprised you on your first visit to the United States? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And now, Max - sorry, Max. Max Fisher joins us now in Studio 3A. And welcome to the program.
MAX FISHER: Thanks for having me.
GJELTEN: Good. So what was the sort of the most interesting, surprising discovery you found in - you read several guidebooks for foreigners visiting America.
FISHER: That's right. You know, what was so surprising to me is we get used to thinking of America as this very informal, laid-back place.
FISHER: And it turns out that we're actually a little uptight. Some of the rules, that there are just pages in these guidebooks about how to deal with personal space, which Americans are just notoriously finicky about.
FISHER: Oh, keep arm's reach distance, no matter what. No cheek kissing, unless you're in a big coastal city. And hugging is so complicated, they just say don't even try unless someone else initiates it. But it's so funny, because we're just so used to these customs, we don't realize how complicated and involved they are, how many rules there are.
Let me give you an example: If you sit down at dinner, and there's plate of chicken...
FISHER: ...you know, do you use utensils or your fingers? Well, if you're American, it's obvious. But if you're not used to these little nuances - well, if it's friend, you use your fingers. If it's baked, you use a fork. What about potatoes? Well, if they're round, a fork. If they're square, your fingers. So it's...
GJELTEN: Square meaning french fries.
FISHER: Right, right. Exactly. But if - you know, if you don't grow up with french fries and fried chicken, who, you know, who's to tell you about all this? And tipping - oh, man. They go on and on about tipping, which we just - we do not realize this service culture we think of as so informal is tightly regulated by all of these kind of unspoken rules.
There was this great line in a Japanese guidebook - you know, I think people who work in the service industry will tell you sometimes there can be, you know, incidents with Japanese tourists and kind of knowing the tipping customs - where it said, you know what? Forget about tipping. The price on your check is not the real price. You have to add 20 percent, and then that's the real price.
GJELTEN: Of course, in many countries, service is included. So that - you know, the idea that you need to have some advice for people on how to deal with tips or gratuities is obvious, but it's interesting that they get so formal about it.
GJELTEN: But you said this one, for example, was for Japanese tourists visiting the United States. Did you find a big difference in terms of who these guidebooks are written for?
FISHER: You know, there actually were some interesting differences, there. The guidebooks, of course, are typically written for people from developing, you know, richer countries: Japan, Western, Eastern Europe. And they do tend to kind of take the same tone and talk about the same surprising things, which is how, you know, rigid and formulaic American life can be and how many rules there are.
So I started looking around at what people from other parts of the world found surprising. You know, if you talk to people who've done a lot of work with refugees from other countries - and, of course, there's a rising number of tourists from the developing world, India and China. And one of the things that I thought was so interesting is, you know, American culture is very famous. You grow up in the U.S., you consume probably exclusively American TV and American movies, but if you grow up in India, you probably watch a lot of Indian movies and a lot of American movies. But, you know, who's to tell you which parts of those movies accurately represent American life and which ones don't.
I remember a conversation with a Chinese friend where she said, oh, you know, you American women - you get a new boyfriend every single week. Right? And, you know - what? Where did you get this idea? She said, well, it's on "Friends." It's on "Gossip Girl." It's on "Sex and the City." Of course, it's true.
So, you know, people are so exposed to so much about America. They know so much about it and we get so many tourists. It's always amazing to me, the difference between perception and reality.
GJELTEN: And some of those perceptions that they get from television may be misconceptions, in fact.
FISHER: Right, right. Absolutely. And another big one is race. People outside of the U.S. know a lot about America's racial history. You know, the civil rights movement is taught in primary schools in China, but what they don't know is, you come to the United States and you just do not talk about race, no matter what. It is a big taboo. But otherwise, you talk politics as much as you want, more than just about any other country.
GJELTEN: You mentioned India. We actually have a caller on the line who's calling us from Folsom, California, Suka Marr(ph). You came from India?
SUKA MARR: Yes, I did. I...
GJELTEN: And what was your experience?
MARR: I came as a student 15 years ago. It was just funny. So, when I went to the schools, we were invited to a welcome party at an American home to see, you know, how American life is and how American homes are. So I'm all excited and we just go there and they show us - you know, they invite us into the room like, you know, around 10 of us, and then go to the living room and then they offer food and stuff.
And then they just show around the home and they have closed the bedroom door and then they say, oh, you know, that's our bedroom and it's a pretty big place, but then, you know, some of the time, because it's a complete mess, I'm sorry I can't allow you inside. I'm like, what the heck is going on? I mean, in India, everyone just walks into all the rooms with no - you know, no problem at all.
And that's the first time it struck me that privacy is such a huge deal here and bedroom is really private and, you know, you can't just walk into somebody's bedroom like I could in India.
MARR: So very interesting.
GJELTEN: That could very well be, but it could also simply be that that bedroom was really messy. What do you think, Max?
FISHER: It is true that, you know, the complications and the politics of when you visit someone's home in America are really complex and I can't tell you how many pages in these books are dedicated to this. And one thing that they kept returning to that I was so baffled by the first time I read it - it said, if you have dinner guests over, don't give them cash. OK. First of all, how can I get these guests?
And then I - you know, I thought, who is doing this? And I started asking around and this Pakistani friend who's lived in the U.S. for many years told me, oh, I can't get my mother to stop giving cash away to our guests. And you realize that these little customs and traditions we have that we think of as universal - you know, you bring food or a bottle of wine to somebody's dinner. It just sounds like it makes sense, but it's actually a very particularly American habit. And, if you don't know about that, it can be complicated.
GJELTEN: So, in other countries, people who are invited for dinner don't necessarily assume that they should bring something.
FISHER: Oh, well, you know, in a lot of countries, it's actually so assumed that you should bring something, the books drive home you should ask before you bring something in America and be careful not to bring anything too lavish. There's, you know, all of these politics about. It has to be so big, but it - you know, also has to be kind of under a certain value. And it can be some things, but not others.
GJELTEN: And you should show up in time.
FISHER: Oh, that is a big one. That is a really big one. It has to be driven home so many times. You have to show up on time. And, you know, I did not realize that, as an American, I am very finicky about that. You really don't realize it until you talk to people from other cultures. Man, you Americans are just nuts about punctuality.
But, you know, it's true. It's something that we are very touchy about and the books say, you know, if you're more than five minutes late, don't expect them to like you.
GJELTEN: Let's read a couple of emails from people who have had experiences in this regard. Let's see. Nicola(ph) says, when I came to the U.S. for the first time, everybody gave me their phone numbers with area codes, but nobody told me to dial a one first. Seems so simple, but nobody mentioned it and it caused me so much confusion when using the landline. This was pre-cell phones.
Well, it's true that the whole rest of the world has a very consistent telephone system.
GJELTEN: It's different in the United States.
FISHER: Right. And it's also, you know, we just got lucky enough that our international dialing code is one and, you know, everybody else has much more long, involved dialing codes. So, you know, I think that's just kind of a case of American centrism. But, you know, we got there first, so everyone else has to learn our way.
GJELTEN: And Joe in Big Rapids, Michigan says - yeah, Michigan - says: My Slovak relatives said they were told that, when someone asks you, how are you, to say, OK. They don't really care how you are. They don't expect a list of maladies of other details.
FISHER: Yeah. That's right. Again, all of these little habits, what you say, when you're supposed to say it. You know, I was just having dinner with a Chinese friend who is from Beijing and lived in the United States for seven years and I said, what are you looking forward to about going back home to China? And she said, I am just exhausted by all of these complicated rules about gifts, about when you're supposed to let someone else go first, about standing in line.
And, you know, I've heard the same thing from Americans who go to China. These rules are so artificial.
GJELTEN: Now, do you - you have looked at guidebooks for Americans visiting other countries.
GJELTEN: Are these guidebooks that you're referring for people visiting the United States really that much more detailed than the guidebooks for people visiting other countries?
FISHER: You know, in some ways, it is a reminder that we're just like any other country and that we do have, you know, our kind of particular cultural nuances, but I really did find that the guidebooks for America were unique in the attention that they paid on politics and I think part of that is that, you know, people not from the U.S. have very strong political views on America and America plays a big role in their lives and in their country. So it's on the forefront of people's minds around the world.
GJELTEN: And so the advice to people as far as politics is concerned?
FISHER: Talk about it, but only if you have a lot of spare time. Americans love to talk politics and they will go on and on.
GJELTEN: Let's go to Monica now, who's calling from Painesville, Ohio. Good afternoon, Monica. Thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.
MONICA: Yes. Hi. I came from Germany a long time ago, so I told your screener, I'm not sure how relevant this is anymore, but it probably is. And that is that I was told that you need your driver's license. You have to have your driver's license within reach just about all day long for all kinds of identity checks. And I'm pretty sure that that is not the case, at least, in Germany. You could use your driver's license, you know, when you're in trouble on the road or, you know, in various traffic situations, but not when you want to buy something in the stores or someplace else.
The next thing is the significance of flowers. I know that, in Germany, you give red roses to someone you help, but of course...
GJELTEN: Red roses.
MONICA: Red rose to, say, a hostess or to a dinner party, you would not bring a bouquet of red roses. Another one that may still be true is a chrysanthemum. In Germany, you give chrysanthemums when somebody dies and so, here in the U.S., I don't think that there is anything like that where I think you would bring chrysanthemums. I guess this goes the other way now.
GJELTEN: Yeah. Well, Monica, I think...
GJELTEN: I think you're right that it would probably be inappropriate to bring a dozen roses to somebody...
GJELTEN: ...who you're coming to for a dinner - for dinner. Did you find, Max, any instruction in there about what kind of flowers to bring people?
FISHER: You know, I'm going to disappoint my girlfriend and say that I did not pick up much on flower rules, but I knew Monica is on something good with licenses. They actually - these guidebooks have these kind of long, earmarked, you know, yellow highlighted sections on if you're traveling near the border, be sure to have your documentation papers with you because, you know, in America, we're very familiar with kind of, you know, issues along the border and different states have different rules.
But, you know, if you're from a foreign country, you might not know about how tough it is.
GJELTEN: Thank you very much for calling, Monica. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News and we're talking about the kind of advice that foreigners visiting the United States get about life in the United States. Our guest is Max Fisher. He has an article on this subject in the - is it the latest issue of The Atlantic?
FISHER: Just online, actually.
GJELTEN: Just online? Oh, well, go online and read it because it's actually very interesting. So you mentioned politics. I know that, in many of these guidebooks that I have read, they provide pretty long sections on the geography of the country, the history of the country. Is there - do these guidebooks make any effort to explain American history to foreigners?
FISHER: Oh, yeah. Actually, I was really fascinated by the frankness and directness with which they talk about the history of Native Americans in the United States and the history of slavery and the civil rights movement in the U.S. You know, these are still such sensitive topics in American life that we can be circumspect when we talk about it, so it was jarring to read these guidebooks that were just very clear. You know, here's what happened. And we're also very clear on the fact that it still affects American life today.
GJELTEN: Here are a couple of emails from people who came from other countries to the United States reflecting on their experience. Jane(ph) came from Great Britain. Her comment is about modesty in the United States. She says, my first no-no is when I tried to modestly change into my swimsuit on the beach with a towel appropriately wrapped around me. My host let me know it was not done. And I thought Californians were relatively carefree.
FISHER: That might say more about Western Europe than about the United States.
GJELTEN: It might. Karen, from Houston: When I first came here 25 years back from Latin America, what was really different was making a phone call to my neighbor before going over there, actually calling everyone before visiting.
Well, I know, having spent time in Latin America, that there is a tradition there of just showing up, particularly, let's say, on a Sunday afternoon.
FISHER: Sure, sure.
GJELTEN: I don't know whether that's true in other countries, as well.
FISHER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And it goes back to the personal space question and it's not just about keeping somebody at arm's reach. It's about - figuratively and literally. It's about, you know, going to a restaurant and, in big parts of the world, it's acceptable to sit down at someone else's table and strike up a conversation, but the books warn you, in America, this is a big no-no and you will get some weird looks if you do it.
GJELTEN: You know, Max, one of the things that Americans are told about traveling abroad is, don't drink the water. Are there any sort of comparable pieces of advice for America? I mean, our water is pretty safe, but are there some advice for foreigners about health concerns in the United States?
FISHER: You know, the books actually have a lot of praise for health and infrastructure in America and it was a reminder for me of how good we have it. One thing they talked a lot about was the traffic and people from other countries can not believe how good our traffic is. People obey all the laws and, you know, it gets to the same - everything is kind of very safe here and hermetically sealed and we get very accustomed to that.
GJELTEN: Max Fisher is an associate editor at The Atlantic. And let's go now very quickly. We don't have much time left, but let's go to Arthur, who's on the call, on the phone from Berkley, California.
Good afternoon, Arthur.
ARTHUR: Hi. I just wanted to mention - I came to the States from Israel in the '50s. At that time, we didn't have any tipping there at all, but I did learn that you tip. You tip cab drivers and you tip restaurants. I didn't know that you had to tip barbers, so the first time I went to a barber, after I am finished, I was ready to leave and the barber says to me, aren't you going to take care of me? I didn't know what it mean at all. It sounded almost lewd to me.
GJELTEN: Well, we tip everybody in America, don't we, Max?
FISHER: Oh, yes. We tip everybody, but the opposite end of that is that we never haggle and, in other countries, it's pretty customary to haggle over just about everything. So there's a lot of people who come to the U.S. for the first time, especially from the developing world, have this story of the first person who they, you know, deeply offended by trying to bring down on, say, the price of a haircut.
GJELTEN: Well, thank you very much, Arthur, for calling us. Max Fisher is an associate editor at The Atlantic. He wrote an article on advice for foreigners visiting the United States based on what he's written in the guidebooks they read.
Tomorrow, we're going to look at facts on guns, who owns them, how we compare to other countries and more. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tom Gjelten, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.