Illustration by Claudia Egholm Castrone
In the midst of the current election cycle, the United States is looking more divided than it has for 150 years. And with such a wide spectrum of heritages, values and traditions funneled into the melting pot over the past 500 years, it’s no wonder we can’t exactly agree on what it means to be an American.
So what does tie us together, you ask? Well, I think any American would agree that we are all quite talented at the following ten “arts of American-ness.” So if you are planning to visit the USA and want to do like the locals do, follow these tips and you’re sure to fit in comfortably — whether you’re in Boston, New York, Nashville, Dallas, Cheyenne or San Francisco!
1. A skill for small talk
Don’t be shocked when you enter a store and the clerk, a complete stranger, asks, “How are you?” They are not asking impertinent questions. In America, being polite isn’t about showing deference so much as making an effort to be pleasant and personable. Being overly familiar is not “shallow” or “an act” — it’s the societal norm. For example, “See you later!” means “goodbye.” Don’t take it literally, and don’t take it personally if you don’t see the person again.
An acceptable answer to “How are you?” is not to answer the question, but to mirror it with, “Good, how are you?” or the even more familiar “What’s up?” It’s not actually much different from the French “ça va ?” or Portuguese “tudo bem?”
And if you are drawn into small talk with a stranger, there are certain topics you can always rely on: weather, sports and whatever was on TV last night. Best to avoid talking about politics, religion or how much people earn unless you are among friends (and sometimes not even then!).
2. Claiming your own audio space
It’s not that we Americans are loud, it’s just that, well, the music in the café might be turned up a bit too high, and then we can’t hear each other over the couple at the next table, and…
The signature American speaking volume might be a shock at first — you will literally be forced to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations on public transit, at restaurants, standing in the checkout line — but it’s easy to get used to, especially if you put any shyness aside and join the cacophony. And if you like eavesdropping on strangers, you will never run out of strange conversations to entertain you.
3. A talent for bargain hunting
We Americans aren’t satisfied with a purchase unless we’re sure we got our money’s worth. So if you find yourself in an American mall, don’t just shop — look for deals. Never mind that you were looking for a sturdy winter coat — Bermuda shorts are 50% off this week, so you better get two pairs! The rational part of your brain will tell you that the burger on your plate is simply too big, but the bargain-hunting neurons shout it down: “Hey, if you don’t eat the whole thing, you won’t get your money’s worth.” Thank goodness for the doggie bag! Take your leftovers to go and eat them for lunch tomorrow. Two meals for the price of one? Now that is a good deal!
4. The art of tipping
The rules for how much to tip the waitstaff at a restaurant, café or bar (or whether to tip at all) are different in every country, but America’s tipping norms can be the most confusing. Here’s a quick primer:
tipping in a café
Leave some pocket change in the tip jar. If the service was especially friendly and prompt, leave a dollar.
tipping in a restaurant
When you receive the bill (delivered either on a tray or in a small folder) leave cash or a credit card for the waiter to take. The waiter will return with your change. At this point, you calculate the tip and leave it in the dish/folder or write it in at the bottom of the credit card receipt. 15% is considered the minimum for a suitable tip. Above 20% is generous. If you are feeling philanthropic, the sky’s the limit.
If you have to go up to a cash register to pay (many diners do this), leave your tip with the cashier or give it directly to your waiter/waitress after you’ve paid the bill.
Note: Many US restaurants assume that foreigners won’t tip and so add a gratuity charge to cover what the tip should be. Before following the advice above, make sure there isn’t already a gratuity on your bill.
tipping in a bar
The general rule is to tip a dollar per drink (especially if you’ve ordered a fancy cocktail which required all four of the classical elements and a sorcerer’s incantation). Leave the dollar on the bar after you’ve paid for your drink.
5. A knack for pop culture
Pop culture is one of America’s biggest exports and a huge influence around the world. It’s hard not to be exposed to it abroad, but stateside most Americans eat, sleep and breathe pop culture. If anything ties us together culturally, it’s probably the TV shows and movies we watch, the celebrity gossip we read in trashy mags, the top-40 hits we crank up on the radio, the sports teams we follow religiously or the ocean of internet memes in which we soak our brains daily.
6. Mastering regional slang
Depending on which part of the country you’re in, familiar things might have strange new names. For instance, ways to emphasize a point:
- mad (Greater New York area) — Example: “Last night’s party was mad fun. I wish we could go to Webster Hall every night!”
- wicked (New England) — Example: “This chowder is wicked good. Almost as good as my ma’s.”
- hella (Bay Area and Pacific Northwest) — Example: “I’m hella thirsty. I could drink hella soda right now!”*
* note: hella can mean “very” or “a lot of”
Words for carbonated beverages vary by region too. In most of the West and North, you’d order a pop with your meal, in the Southwest it’s soda and in many parts of the South you should call it coke, even if the beverage in question is actually Mountain Dew, Doctor Pepper or Pepsi. And if you want a particularly American kind of sandwich to go with your drink — lots of cold cuts, cheese and veggies stuffed into a long roll — what you call it might depend on where you are:
- hoagie (Philadelphia)
- hero (New York)
- grinder (New England)
- Italian (sandwich) (Maine)
- po’ boy (New Orleans)
- sub(marine sandwich) (nationwide)
7. The art of living on the go
The pace of life is much slower in Mobile, Alabama than in New York City, but no matter how fast or slow, most Americans are on the move. Coffee and food can always be ordered to go. Anything from your dinner to your prescription (and sometimes even booze! :o) can be picked up from your car window. Coffee to go, hot yoga, drive through restaurants… the sky’s the limit.
8. The art of the perfect road trip
The United States is big: 4,500km between NY and LA, 1,500km from New Orleans to Chicago, 5,300km from Seattle to Miami. Sure, you can fly, but the best way to see America is to drive across the country. Mark a route on the map that hits all the most iconic spots, pile into a station wagon with your friends and, of course, bring snacks!
9. The art (and science) of invention
America has long been the place where crazy ideas go to thrive. For every old-timer lamenting the loss of the “good old days,” there are a hundred future-looking iconoclasts searching for the next big thing.
All of the following things were invented in the United States: the wrench, the suspension bridge, the refrigerator, morse code, baseball, the doughnut, the safety pin, potato chips, the vacuum cleaner, the postcard, the motorcycle, American football, jeans, the spork, the QWERTY keyboard, the synthesizer, the lightbulb, the phonograph, the electric fan, solar cells, the skyscraper, photographic film, the ballpoint pen, the smoke detector, the ferris wheel, the Tesla coil, the bottle cap, the zipper, basketball, volleyball, the remote control, the thumbtack, the disposable safety razor, the teddy bear, the airplane, blues, jazz, the traffic light, the fortune cookie, the pop-up toaster, the flowchart, adhesive bandages, waterskiing, the cheeseburger, masking tape, the liquid fuel rocket, bubblegum, sunglasses, frozen food, chocolate chip cookies, the electric guitar, rock and roll, the radio telescope, programming language, the digital computer, the photocopier, the ATM, the microwave oven, the credit card, the transistor, supersonic aircraft, the video game, radiocarbon dating, the atomic clock, the wetsuit, the airbag, the bar code, the artificial heart, the hard disk, videotape, the laser, bubble wrap, the integrated circuit, the communications satellite, the computer mouse, the flatscreen TV, snowboarding, the CD, the handheld calculator, the lunar lander, the PC, the microprocessor, email, GPS, MRI, the mobile phone, voicemail, the post-it, the digital camera, hip-hop, rap, the space shuttle, the internet…
10. The art of individuality
While the country still has a long way to go, the US celebrates diversity more than any other place on Earth. There has never been a singular “national identity” to conform to, but a mishmash of many overlapping cultural norms. Going against the grain is in Americans’ blood, which explains the one rule of American-ness that has no rules: be yourself. Americans cherish their individuality and flaunt it unapologetically, so when you’re in the States you should too! Luckily for you, foreign accents make us swoon. That alone will make you the most interesting person at any party.