There are a lot of stereotypes about Americans–and most of them are true. I am an American and so I’m allowed to say it. Everyone is different, of course, no matter what his or her culture is. If you’re not an American, you may “love them or hate them” when you meet one, but one thing is for sure: you won’t be bored. Here are some things to keep in mind to make it an enjoyable experience:
Don’t ask about money. Americans love to talk about themselves and they’ll talk abut almost anything. Just don’t ask them about money–meaning their salary, how much their house or car costs, even how much they paid for nice clothes (unless they got them for a real bargain). Americans would rather share details abut their sex lives or toilet habits than talk about their own finances. If you really must know how much an American paid for something, give her a range of prices and ask if the item she bought falls into that range. For example, if you want to know how much she paid for a House of Character in Malta, you could say, “Houses like this in Malta usually cost from 350 to 500 thousand Euros. In your experience, would you say that’s accurate?”
Don’t think they’re all snobs. If you make friends with an American and invite him to call you or drop by for a visit, don’t be offended if he doesn’t take you up on your offer. He’s not acting superior; it’s quite the opposite, in fact. He’s actually showing you respect. Americans have a pathological fear of bothering people–especially other Americans. In the northeast (Boston, New York City, etc.), no one just rings a doorbell because he or she is in the neighborhood. If an American drops by someone else’s house without an appointment, he could be met at the door by outright hostility–even if the neighbor is a friend or colleague. Of course, that’s better than dropping by on a neighbor in the south or west where you can be met with an outright shotgun.
Don’t assume they’re all rich. Most Americans you see abroad come from a middle-class background. They don’t live lives like in a Hollywood movie or Sex and the City. So don’t ask Americans what kind of house or car they own. They probably own a house and car very much like yours-except bigger, of course.
Allow an American to leave a big tip. Americans generally leave larger tips after dinner than Europeans do. The minimum in the U.S. is 15 percent. Many Americans, in fact, leave 20 percent. This isn’t because they’re especially generous to waiters and waitresses or because they’re showing off. It’s because many Americans fear being poisoned the next time they enter the restaurant if they leave too little a tip. So indulge your American dinner partner and let him or her leave that large tip. Whatever you do, don’t remove the extra change and pocket it.
Let Americans ask for a “doggy bag” after dinner. As embarrassing as this is to a non-American, understand that it is un-American to leave food behind on a plate. That’s because as children, many Americans were told to eat everything in front of them because children in Europe were starving. Now, if you can make sense of that, you win a prize. Nevertheless, try not to stop an American leaving with the leftovers in the restaurant. But rest assured, most Americans will not do this in a posh restaurant.
Don’t look shocked when an American talks about his or her therapist. Almost all Americans see psychotherapists. No one really knows why, but just accept it. The problem is usually some typical neurosis that isn’t harmful to anyone else.
Don’t kiss an American on the cheeks. Americans are generally not touchy-feel types and most are not used to the European style of kissing on both cheeks-not at first, anyway. But the good news is that once Americans get used to this style of affection, they love it and they can’t stop.
Literary Note: The Ugly American is a bestselling political novel published in 1958, and was followed by a movie starring Marlon Brando.
Ilene lives and teaches EFL in Malta. She is author of An-American-in-Malta.com.