America is a vast country. In fact it is about 40% of an entire continent.
However, it is not the possibility of getting lost in its vastness, which could be intimidating to any Indian traveling to the US for the first time. It is rather the fear of the difference in the cultures between the two countries. And there are many. Of course there would be.
India is in no way lacking a rich cultural history, going back thousands of years, and diversity large enough that you could be yelled at in more than 1600 languages!
Compare that to the US and you will realize that America, as we know it now, is still a toddler country. There are halwaiis (bakeries), in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, older than some of their famous historical buildings! But what it lacks in age, however, has not stopped it from creating a unique and multicultural brand of its own – the American way.
Given the strong identities, unique of each country, it is not uncommon to hear of social or cultural faux pas, resulting from the cross cultural mixing. I will be the first to admit that. It was only my second week, in the US, when a cop asked me to lower my voice while speaking on the phone, in public. You see, being from Delhi, that’s the only way I could talk – over all the honks and people yelling for no apparent reason.
It is not like these mistakes are lethal. But it’s always a good idea to make yourself aware of the social and cultural norms of the country you plan to visit. Phikar not! Most Americans are quite comfortable with showing you the reigns of the land. Nevertheless, think of this as a proactive measure to get your own little cheat sheet to spare you the possibility of ever having to share an embarrassing story.
Social and Cultural Mistakes to avoid in America
This one is completely understandable. For many, English is not the primary language of communication. People generally tend to think in their mother tongue, or the language they are most comfortable in. So it is quite possible that a lot is lost in translation.
While accent is something that you should not bother about, ‘coz the twang is hardly a function of your knowledge of the language, you should increase your awareness of the verbal guffaws that you can avoid.
- Myself (Insert your name) is incorrect. So is “today” morning. I am “living” in New York is improper English. As are tell me “na” or adding“only” at the end of every sentence. Read Common English mistakes Indians make. Try this instead. My name is Pappu. I arrived, in DC, this morning. I live in New York. Could you tell me where the White House is? Is it going to be renamed Trump Tower 2.0?
- Indians tend to ask questions by raising their voice a little, instead of framing the sentence accordingly. It is 9:30? instead of Is it 9:30?
- Cousins are just cousins. Americans don’t refer to them as cousin sister or cousin brother. The only siblings you can talk about are the ones you share at least one parent with.
- And then there are many words that have a completely different meaning in the two countries. Words like rubber and period have colloquial references that may leave you red in the face if you are not careful about the way you use them, in the US. Like the one time an Indian friend told a professor that he cannot go for coffee between his periods! It would have had a whole different meaning if only he had used between his classes.
The ever ambiguous headshake
Most of us have a habit of a little head shaking, sideways, to express agreement to something. The higher the frequency, of the shake, the more in agreement we are.
Such a nod is unique to us and confuses the hell out of Americans. Do you want whipped cream on your coffee? Try responding to the barista with that nod and you will find him staring at you as if your heart wants whipped cream but your head is jerking a vehement no!
The Social Interactions
Are you generally in the habit of feeling creeped out when a stranger, on the street, smiles at you? Unless you want to be a perpetual nervous wreck, you need to get over that creepy feeling. Strangers greet. Don’t be surprised when someone decides to have a small chat about the weather in the elevator. Nope. He is not talking to himself. Americans like to have small conversations – in the elevator, at the grocery checkout, at the bank, anywhere there is a possibility of pausing in the company of people. It is not an invitation to share phone numbers, friendship bands and assume that you have found your new American BFF.
Just as well, when you converse, you should try to maintain eye contact. You see, they believe that looking somewhere else, other than directly at the person you are talking to, is a sign of something fishy. As if you have something to hide. Quite contrary to our habit of staring at our toes while speaking to someone authoritative or that angry uncle who comes over once a year and asks you what are you doing with your life!
People are generally very straightforward about their thoughts, irrespective of age or seniority. The same goes for titles. If you refer to your professor as Sir (or Madam), he (she) may just do a double take not realizing you are talking to him (her). The convention is usually Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.
Don’t automatically assume an older woman to be Mrs somebody. It is always better to use an honorific that is matrimonially vague. Try Ms (pronounce Miz) instead. You could also use the first name. I used to call my PhD supervisor, a 70 year old man, by his first name. The best way to go about it is to ask them how they would like to be addressed.
Also be careful of how you refer to different races and ethnicities. Without intending to, you may risk sounding insensitive and impolite if you don’t educate yourself with the terminology. Here’s a guide.
Oh and by the way, in America, an Indian could be a Native American. Though a person of Indian descent, settled there, is considered an Asian American, an Asian is the colloquially popular term for people from China and the South East Asian countries.
And finally there are certain basic etiquettes that are part of their everyday going about. There is a probability that Americans might get offended if you push ahead in a line, be tardy all the time, don’t hold the door for someone behind you or don’t thank the person who held the door for you. In fact, these are etiquettes you should just follow wherever you are, really! Remember how you were taught, as a kid, to not stare at anyone or point to someone? Well exercise them, will you?
The truth about grub
Food is tricky, especially for vegetarians. Tricky when you realize that the “cheeseburger” you just ordered is the meatiest burger there is. Or that fish and eggs are not considered part of the meat family. That the term non-vegetarian food doesn’t exist. There is food and there is vegetarian food. When in doubt, ask. Also keep in mind the portion sizes in American restaurants. They can feed a family!
While you are there, don’t forget to enjoy the massive variety of cuisines that America has to offer. So get out of your comfort zone of the Taj Mahal Restaurants or the Taste of Indias. Try the Thais,Mediterranean, Turkish, Moroccan and even Sushi if you are okay to try eating raw fish. Here’s a scoop, it is delicious!
This particular point is just helpful information rather than a cultural education. The American measuring unit system is vastly different from ours. While we have been brought up with the metric system of chaar kilo atta or do meter ka nadaa, they are used to eight pounds of flour or hundred yard road.
Your car speed will be in miles/hour. Your petrol (aka Gasoline in the US) will be in gallons rather than liters. While most of these are a mere mental multiplicative factor away from your familiar metric units, the one that can really bust your chops is the conversion between their temperature unit of Fahrenheit to our Celsius. Try doing (Fahrenheit – 32)/1.8 quickly in your head before deciding to wear your jacket outside. This also leads to some rather uncomfortable moments when you automatically assume the reading is in Celsius, by habit, and walk out in a t-shirt at a temperature of 32!
Going past the social and cultural differences, let’s explore how to handle the everyday rulebook. We’ll be published some more tips on what to do when you first arrive in the US (we’ll leave this as a placeholder for now).
The omnipresent kanoon
Americans are serious about their laws, however insignificantly small they may seem to you. Barring the rare possibility that you manage to commit a heinous crime, the rest of the little things that seem so everyday here in India, may just bite you there. You see these laws are present here too. Just that in the US they are considered less of guidelines and more of you better do that or there is a cop hiding behind the bushes to jump on you. So do bear in mind the consequences of jaywalking idly on a busy street or answering nature’s call by a random wall. While the first one may lead to a ticket, if they are paying attention, the second one has the potential to become quite a serious charge if there are kids around, even if it is in the middle of the night and the school building next door is empty! Here are a few reminders for the relatively benign outlaw in you.
- Don’t cross the street without a walk sign. In the worst case, cars run at great speeds out there and won’t have time to stop before you suddenly appear. Indians officially drive on the left side. It is natural for us to look towards our right for oncoming traffic, before crossing the street. And it is a hard habit to let go off and could be dangerous if you are not aware that Americans drive on the right side. Here’s a simple way to not bother taxing your instincts. Just look both ways before you cross. And while you are at it, try the same in India too. Takes care of not getting hit by that one idiot who decides to go against the traffic to reduce 2 minutes of his travel time.
- Don’t go about using the street as a public toilet. Nearly every public building has an accessible restroom to spare.
- If you are driving, follow the traffic rules. They are not suggestions! Cops have a multitude of sneaky ways to detect your slightest infractions – even if it is only a broken brake light you weren’t aware of.
- Never trespass into someone’s private property, even if you just walked over to their garden to smell the roses. The best case would be that the owner’s call the cops. Remember guns are totally allowed in the US. You don’t want to get shot at while smelling the flora and fauna, do you?
The crash course tutorial of cultural intermixing obviously doesn’t end here. While these guidelines help you to navigate your way through the brand new culture, initially, the learning continues as you meet and mix with not just Americans but people from all over the world. Becoming a global citizen should be a part of your overall educational experience.
Here’s hoping that your experiences are rewarding. And that you decide to come home before it’s been so long that you need a reverse cultural training to return. And when you do, read NRI checklist to return to India.
Sources: 1,2 | image credit: Abhimanyu Sinha