How they see us

January 5th, 2010

Hat tip to Mr. Improbable for introducing me, with typical American informality, to this “global portal for diplomats” and its advice about U.S. cultural customs.

I think this one is hilarious, because it is so true:

People who like to touch really like touching, and people who do not like to touch really dislike being touched. You will need to watch your colleagues for clues on what they are comfortable with.

… and I like this one for the alternate perspective it inherently embodies:

Do not be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings by responding “no” to an invitation. People will be offended if you say you will attend and then do not come.

Which ones struck you?


11 Responses to “How they see us”

  1. freddie on January 5, 2010 9:22 am

    My favorite is “Americans smile a great deal, even at strangers. They like to have their smiles returned.” I had never thought about it before! (Though admittedly I am from a small town…I’m not sure if people smile as much in, say, Manhattan.)

    This letter from yesterday’s New York Times has some of the same sentiments: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/books/review/Dyer-t.html?scp=5&sq=americans&st=cse.

  2. JP on January 5, 2010 10:12 am

    The second one is true, and clearly something plenty of Americans also need to master.

    I liked:
    Some Americans are known as “back slappers” — they give others a light slap on the back to show friendship.
    That just tickles me.
    I also liked the ones about social pleasantries. (How are you? See you later.) I hope there’s a list like that for every culture. It’s just really helpful information.

  3. emr110 on January 5, 2010 10:53 am

    My favorite by far, especially the second part.

    “When you are invited to an event, it is very important to call or drop a note letting the host know if you will attend. That said, Americans are notorious for not responding to invitations.”

  4. ameliad on January 5, 2010 11:05 am

    “If you feel uncomfortable with a question asked of you, simply smile and say, ‘In my country, that would be a strange question.’”

    I am SO going to start using this to deflect questions that I think are inappropriate, even though I am from THIS country!

  5. Jenny L3igh on January 5, 2010 11:19 am

    This is great, some of this is interesting because I would have thought it was pretty universal. I guess I thought that if someone smiles at you it’s pretty natural to smile back, but maybe not!

    I also like the information on “How are you” and “See you later,” partially just because the phrasing is so great, “People say this even if they never plan to see you again.” Hehe.

    Other good ones:
    “Americans ask questions — lots of them.”

    “Americans are often uncomfortable with silence.”

    “If you feel uncomfortable with a question asked of you, simply smile and say, ‘In my country, that would be a strange question.’”
    What a great response!

  6. Hazel Stone on January 5, 2010 11:50 am

    Ah yes, but the Irish one (click on ‘Cultural Etiquette’ in the breadcrumb trail at the top and you’ll get a list of countries) says “The small plate next to a dinner plate is for peelings removed from boiled potatoes” which is bizarre. It’s a bread plate, as it is in the States and most of Europe. So don’t put too much trust in the ones for countries you’re unfamiliar with.

    On the other hand the UK one says “The English avoid speaking in superlatives. “I am quite pleased,” means they are extremely happy” which is so spot on that I nearly fell off my chair laughing.

    (I’m English but live in Dublin)

  7. jenny on January 5, 2010 1:11 pm

    “Verbal contracts are rarely legally binding.”

    That’s just not true. An oral contract is as much a contract as a written contract. It’s true that it’s uncommon for parties to enter into contractual relationships without memorializing the agreement in writing, however, and that written contracts are the norm.

  8. Fillyjonk on January 5, 2010 1:43 pm

    I love the ones spelling out the fact that things like “we’ll do lunch” and “how are you?” are just things to say. I’ve heard {American) people grouse about that — “oh, it’s so rude to say ‘we must do lunch’ if you don’t want to, or ask how I am if you don’t want to know.” Which of course is deliberately ignoring the whole point of pleasantries. This just treats them as idiomatic behavior, which I find refreshing.

    There’s a couple of things I find weird — I would be utterly flummoxed if someone brought me a potted plant because they were invited to my house for a party. Maybe that’s the US list’s equivalent of the imaginary Irish potato-peelings plate. I was also surprised that they didn’t mention on the subject of greetings that hugging is considered appropriate among friends but kissing is considered too intimate, the opposite of some countries (this has caused hitches with my French friends, though we’ve more or less compromised on kissing when in France, hugging when in the US).

  9. Shulamuth on January 5, 2010 5:14 pm

    I can certainly remember people occasionally bringing plants to my mother as hostess gifts (or “mitbrings”, as they were called in my family), but the whole hostess gift thing seems in the decline these days.

    “Americans often share things in casual conversation, even with strangers, that may seem shockingly private.” Amen to that! I’m pretty out-front and open but I’m amazed at what people sitting next to one on a bus or plan will tell you about their lives and the lives of people that you are never even going to meet!

    I’m disappointed that the list doesn’t include Panama, where I am going next month.

  10. Stupendousness on January 5, 2010 6:42 pm

    Fillyjonk, I don’t see that people complaining about the “Let’s do lunch” pleasantry as deliberately ignoring the fact that it is a pleasantry. In fact, I did not know that it was considered solely a pleasantry until very recently (just last month). I’ve always thought it very rude to suggest a get-together and not follow through. To me, it’s like saying, “I sort of like you, but not enough to make a real effort,” which makes the fake effort of saying “Let’s do lunch” feel like an insult. Of course when I hear it from now on, I’ll treat it as a simple friendly gesture, like “How are you?” I’ve never been confused about that one, but surely there are people who genuinely do not know, and I don’t know why they wouldn’t know, but I’m not one to talk. I’m not sure why didn’t I know about the lunch thing.

    I still don’t understand why there would be an assumption that people unhappy with this “pleasantry” are choosing to be upset to…be upset for it’s own sake? I don’t understand.

    The one I never would have thought of as being a custom is “Men and women will sit with legs crossed at the ankles or knees, or one ankle crossed on the knee.”
    I wonder how this form of sitting is perceived by other cultures.

    Also, as a left-handed person, I’m glad that “Continental style (where the fork stays in the left hand to eat the cut food) is perfectly acceptable” because otherwise I would be fumbling around my plate.

    And just in general there is a mix of casual and formal customs that aren’t intuitive, so I can see how knowing when to be casual and when to be formal, and when to be casual while in a formal setting, or vice versa, is confusing.

  11. Michelle on January 6, 2010 7:11 pm

    So interesting!

    I was struck by the emphasis on punctuality. I remember when I was in grad school there was a student in one of my classes from South America (Argentina, maybe? I can’t remember which country). She was astounded and a little embarrassed when, on the day that a project was due, we all showed up with our finished projects. Evidently deadlines aren’t really deadlines in her home country, and her expectation was that the due date really meant “get it in within a few weeks of this date”. I felt so bad for her, because it was clearly a case of clashing cultural expectations, rather than irresponsibility, yet she was being judged by the American standards.

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