This blog post was contributed by our intern at AFS International, Lisa Hischer from Germany, who is working on education and school relations. After finishing her BA in Cultural Studies and Educational Sciences, Lisa went to Ecuador for doing voluntary work in the jungle. In summer 2014 she interned at InterCultur (a subsidiary of AFS Germany), where she prepared and took part in intercultural Summer Academies in Istanbul and Karlsruhe.
- – -
AFS is an organization which provides learning opportunities by connecting people all over the world. But not only the core exchange programs draw on the intercultural spirit of their participants –the AFS staff are also sparkling with their cultural variety!
AFS International recently offered a training on U.S. culture to give new colleagues who recently moved to the U.S. the chance to gain a deeper understanding of their new environment and to share their experiences of living and working in a foreign culture – the U.S. culture!
The training was based on this article written by Max Fischer who took a closer look at guidebooks for tourists who come to the U.S. and what they recommend to keep in mind and to be aware of.
Many guide books highly recommended to always be on time, eat appropriately (always depending on what kind of food you eat: fried potatoes with fingers, boiled potatoes with fork and knife), never drink and drive and one of the most important tips: discussing about politics needs to be handled VERY carefully!
Another relevant topic seems to be personal space since many guidebooks try to explain the rather distanced concept of U.S. Americans when it comes to greeting or conversations. How to tip without insulting the server also appears to be a challenge for newcomers to the U.S. Apart from rather practical tips, the guide books generally give a draft of U.S. history, touching sensitive topics like slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.
But what do these tips really tell us? Do the guidebooks depict a realistic picture of what to expect when encountering the U.S. culture or are they rather a collection of stereotypes that push forward a certain perception of what we see?
To reflect upon these tips and assumptions, the participants of the U.S. culture training compared them to their own experiences and to the insider perspective of the training facilitator who is a U.S. citizen.
Lingran Zhou, Intern in Risk Management (came to the U.S. in August 2014 from China):
Did other people give you tips before you came to the U.S.? How was it in reality?
“My friends pointed out that the U.S. is a country focused on laws and that it is important to figure out the different state and federal laws in order not to violate them. It was a useful tip because I feel that in America you have to be careful to stick to the laws, maybe even more than in other countries.
Also I was told that religion plays an important role in some parts of the U.S., so I studied Christianity before I came to the U.S. My background knowledge is helpful to connect people’s behavior to religious values and it gives me a deeper understanding of their motivations. But since the U.S. is such a huge and diverse country, I always have to keep in mind the differences of U.S. citizens.
Are there any tips that are mentioned in the article that you find helpful?
“I think the tips in the article are accurate and precise, they fit to what I experienced in the U.S., for example it is very important to always be on time to not insult people.”
Do you see a danger in the guide-books or are they rather helpful?
“As long as you consider the travel books as guidelines which include basic knowledge about a country and its culture, they can be very helpful for a tourist or a newcomer.”
Guillermo Bril, Intern at Sentio (came to the U.S. in April 2015 from Argentina):
After living in the U.S. for a while, is there something that is still foreign and strange to you?
“The working style and communication in the office is different to what I experienced in my home country. People are more task oriented vs. relationship oriented. It still feels a little unfamiliar to rather schedule a meeting when you want to discuss a topic than to just walk over to my colleagues’ desks and talk to them right away.”
Are there any tips that are mentioned in the article that you find helpful?
“It was helpful to know about the different concept of personal space in the U.S. compared to the one in Argentina when I started my internship. People here tend to prefer more distance and I needed to get used to not kissing people as a greeting ritual.”
Do you see a danger in the guidebooks or are they rather helpful?
“Some guide books need to be careful not to overstep the line between limiting stereotypes and more broad and open generalizations. Generalizations can be helpful to orientate yourself in a foreign country and they still leave space for new and different perceptions and experiences.”
Katharine Sanders, Sentio (U.S. citizen and facilitator of the U.S. culture training):
What is your reaction to the tips in the books? Do you think they depict reality or do you feel stereotyped?
“I think the article gives an interesting perspective on U.S. American culture. It is always an exciting experience to look at yourself through a different lens. The article mentions some generalizations that never would have occurred to me as notable cultural “rules” that might stress someone out while visiting the U.S.; like our collective and complex conventions for table manners (we eat fried chicken with our hands, but baked chicken with a knife and fork) or hugging/not hugging. I don’t really feel stereotyped by the books since they seem to also depict regionalism and the diversity of U.S. culture. Instead, I take them as an occasion to reflect upon what is perceived as important and different in the U.S. as compared to other cultures. However, reading about your home culture through this lens can also make you a little frustrated, especially the parts that talk about history or safety concerns without being particularly detailed or nuanced. Warnings to travelers, like in “conservative” rural areas or “dangerous” urban areas can come across a little overly simplistic.
Did you meet people who struggled with topics mentioned in the article?
“Some common themes, especially around personal space and touching, seem to always come up. Surprisingly, the two topics I feel I’ve heard most often are not covered in the article. Visitors I’ve interacted with have generally been quite impacted by the high number of homeless people living in the cities. Juxtaposed to that, they’re also usually a little overwhelmed by the abundance in our supermarkets. I feel like these two examples hint at some underlying U.S. cultural values and historical/politically relevant issues that might be helpful to explore more.
Guidebooks don’t really claim to provide intercultural learning but good guidebooks can give some cultural specific background knowledge to help people understand and survive in the short term. Reality will of course be much more individual and complex than how it is described.
What would you think should be recommended before coming to the U.S. for a person coming from a clearly different background?
I really can’t think of any specific recommendation on U.S. culture that would be relevant for all people coming to the U.S. for the first time. It always depends on where they are coming from, what kind of previous knowledge and experiences they have, what their reason it to come to the US, etc. Guidebooks including generalizations can be a great starting point if read with a critical eye. Still, I think it is more important to provide people with tools and strategies on how to take in all the “newness” to really understand and cope with differences.” Guidebooks seem to be a helpful start to encounter a foreign culture and to avoid dropping a brick or being overwhelmed by a surprising situation.
Still, no guidebook can offer what a real intercultural adventure can come up with. So, why should we believe in everything a book is telling us? Let’s get out there, form our own opinion and encounter the differences!