Coming to America just a week after 9/11 was sure a cultural shock. The country was in turmoil - glued on CNN talking about weapons of mass destruction. During these times we had to adapt to the local culture, which we were able to thanks to the tremendous heart of the American people.
But America does not cease to amaze me in both ways since I moved in almost 20 years ago. I found that many assumptions that were formed inside me as normal behavior somewhere else simply did not work out in America and had set me up for failure or painful social interactions. I just wish someone had told these to me in the airport - it would have made my life much easier.
If you are an American, do not read this or read it with a lot of latitude to spare. I love the USA. However there are quirks here and there that I'd like to point out not so you can change, but so we aliens can better fit in.
1. Utilities are not racist. Do not victimize yourself.
This is more funny than anything but I heard this from so many other foreign nationals that moved to US that I thought placing this first in this list.
For years I thought the utilities companies were giving me crappy service because of my accent or because I was an immigrant. I was amazed how AT&T was able to get away with such unconstitutional behavior. Only years later I realized their costumer support is horrible - to anyone. What a relief!
In general, you will be tempted to consider yourself a victim of some type of discrimination. Don't do that. It is not true. America went through great lengths to make sure to build an egalitarian society. It mostly works and it is the best you can get in the world, even compared to (royal) Europe. There is ONE particular case of benign racism I describe below but even that you can easily brush aside.
2. The Outdoors. Oh The Outdoors!
Perhaps this will come as a shock to you but in many countries, in particular in South America, there are not many opportunities to explore the outdoors. If it is too remote, it is dangerous as a stray psycho might kill you on your tent. If it is closer to the cities, it is usually crowded and littered. The only options are expensive hotels.
Not in America. It took me a while to really appreciate how free this country is. Unlike many other countries, it is HUGE. You can point your car to any direction and drive for days. In Europe you will end up in the bottom of the Atlantic, frozen in Siberia or killed by some extremist in Turkey.
The infrastructure is also phenomenal. For a small fee you can drive your RV through the country and park in almost regularly spaced camps in the map. And the rates are VERY cheap - around $30/night (about $50/night near tourist sites)! Everywhere is pretty much safe to arm a tent - the wildlife itself is your biggest worry. So when you come to America, make sure to explore the country in the spring and summer.
3. Speak English Well. Very Well.
In other cultures with higher grammatical content (complex tenses, declension, conjugation, etc) it is possible to pinpoint exactly what was someone's last school year. And as anywhere education reflects heavily in personal economic outcome, the way you talk (or the mistakes you make) is a strong indicator of your economic status.
Not in America. This is actually a huge unifying factor. Everyone, from elementary school dropouts to Harvard PhDs have mostly indiscernible speech. However, the down side is - you speak/write English wrong and you are immediately cast as someone that never went to school. A blabbering barbaric human being.
Americans also have very low patience so they will usually not wait for you to come up with words. So get your sentences straightened out before heading to the counter.
Perhaps for this reason Indians rank so well in the upper management cast while Chinese and foreigners from other nations who tend to speak bad English just cannot make it to the C-level suites.
4. Americans are mesmerized by the British accent. Copy it.
This was a paragraph in the previous block but I thought it deserved to stand on its own. Basically, speak with a British accent and you will get a 20% boost in your perceived intelligence rank. Talk about occupied mentality syndrome.
I have not noticed this until I had a daughter and saw them and friends spend countless hours trying to imitate the British accent. I noticed it was not only for fun - they kept some in their normal speech as a form of status. This effect even works with immigrants whose first language is not English but learned it from a British school.
So, if you can, try to mimic the Received Pronunciation as closely as you can. It really pays off. It is not coincidence that the most famous YouTubers that speak about politics are either British, Canadian or even Indian.
5. Doctors will speak to you like children. Go along with it.
It is still amazing to me, fifteen years after first arriving in the USA, how doctors will treat patients as babies. They will avoid at any costs to say the mainstream medical names for medication and diseases. "Pain killer" instead of "analgesics". "Calf muscle" instead of "Gastrocnemius". "White blood cells" instead of "leukocytes".
When I go to the doctor in US, I feel like I am a kindergartner. Just get used to it and request your "sleeping pills".
6. America is a macho culture. Fit in.
This was actually shocking to me to realize. In America men are expected to behave as alpha males all the time, period. Men are expected to be strong, serious and tough. Any relapse will be frowned upon. Look at American football with its hyper-violent plays and compare to the fanciness and speed of European soccer.
The most strange aspect of this is that women, following the feminist movement, are adopting this super-macho behavior as well. The alpha females are plentiful in today's America corp. It is weird to be candid about it. It is so weird that even the most feminine gays behave as your archetypal Clint Eastwood in their conversations.
How to deal with it and fit in? Just act as if you were in the "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly" movie. But don't carry a gun. Unless you are in Arizona, of course. Then get a Desert Eagle and roam around with it - it's AWESOME.
7. Voice pitch is fundamental - even for women. Retrain yourself.
Perhaps the most glaring mistake I made in years of living in the US is to speak with a high pitch. You see, in other cultures men speaking with a high pitch tone is normal and acceptable. Nobody really cares. But in macho America this is taken as weakness.
The G.O.A.T. Anderson Silva, for years the unchallenged champion of the middleweight division of the UFC (mixed martial arts), is often mocked in the USA for his high voice pitch.
And again, even women follow suit. The annoying vocal fry epidemic is exactly an attempt to artificially lower the pitch of female voices so to tap into extra power, even if it means actually damaging your vocal cords.
Watching celebrities use the vocal fry is even more frustrating when you know the reasons why they do it.
So guys, if you move to America, a speech language therapist is perhaps a must if you wish to climb up the ladder. Or hit some instructables for the cheapos among you.
8. You will be asked about the color of your skin - frequently. Get over it.
In my entire life pre-USA I have never been asked about the color of my skin in an official form. I remember national IDs have eye and hair color, but never skin color - it is considered racism everywhere in the world. But not in America. Every single form will ask about your tan.
That causes some hilarious edge cases as a friend of mine who is an Egyptian Christian that moved to the USA fleeing from Islamic genocide. He is a genuine African-American but has to state "white" in the forms.
How it matters to you? Just get over it. Identity politics is everywhere.
9. Racism exists - but not as you expect. Learn to identify.
Basically the get-this-n*-out-of-here does not exist anymore. Period. In all these 20 years I have only seen one case of open racism - a lady in a Chase bank upset with the teller because of some glitch in the system called her "white trash".
But a benign form racism is widespread if you look closely. See, racism is not only when you offend people based on their skin color or nationality. It is also when you treat people as less able based on their skin color or nationality and this is very common in liberal states, mainly in the east and west coasts.
I lived in New York and Chicago most of the time. Both are very liberal states. The day I realized they were ethnically biased was when I was in a bar and talking to some stranger, I let go that I had never suffered any racist attack in America. The two guys I was talking to became immediately hysterical and left almost immediately. I realized that I made the big heresy of thinking by myself and having my own opinions, which Latinos and blacks are not allowed to. Basically, we minorities are treated as retarded human beings and have to behave as the script says, otherwise the punishment is the same as Islamic apostasy.
If you do not believe what I am talking about or think this is not widespread racist behavior, you can watch this video from Amy Horowitz. So if you are a Latino like me, beware that those talking in your behalf are the actual racist bigots! They will make you feel miserable. Stay away from these people.
10. People are hysterical about children and guns. Don't join the madness.
Talk about survival bias. No, not talking about skills necessary to surviving life, but survival bias as a " logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not" (Wikipedia).
We have known for a while that humans are really bad statistical machines. Americans are a disaster. It just took one boy kidnapped in 1981 to unleash total hysteria into the country and generations of lock-down kids forbidden to ride their bikes around the block. Only a tiny fraction of homicides are caused by legal gun owners but the public prefers to ignore all the glaring social clues (demographic localization of homicides) and pursue a witch hunt on law-abiding citizens. As if the war on guns would be any more successful than the war on drugs.
It is particularly important to know this when you are talking to your children's school teachers. "DID YOU BRING YOUR DAUGHTER TO THE GUN RANGE???"
But that's America in a nutshell. Just know it exists but don't join the madness.
11. America is a socialist country
It is perhaps a shock to anyone that moves to America to find out that the country actually helps their poor - a lot! America is the fourth in government healthcare spending per capita in the world, behind only a few Nordic countries. The average American in welfare takes home $30k in benefits. In some states like Wisconsin, this amount can top $50k per year. This created an entire segment of society that gravitates around welfare. It has become so ingrained that some people genuinely think it is their birth right written in the constitution.
Somehow, however, the international press insists in propagate the lie that Americans are left out in the sun to dry by their government. My fellow Brazilians really believe their crumbling healthcare system, although universal, is better than the social programs in the USA. Just mind boggling. Real cultural shock here.
American also has the concept of personal bankruptcy, which does not exist in any other country that I know. Everywhere in the world you will carry debt for life, earning absurd interest. It might even spill to your offspring. In America, if you get in hard times, you can declare yourself bankrupt, renegotiate your debt or even not pay it at all. And it will be even cleared from your credit records after a while. Businesses already count for that in their insurance plans. Isn't that super?
How it matters to you: stop worrying. You are not going to end up under a bridge unless you get deep addicted in drugs - and in this case you are more likely to commit suicide anyway. Americans do not worry about life as immigrants do. They know if hard times come, there will be a myriad of federal, state and local welfare programs to enroll.
12. Police is tough, courts are soft. Use them.
Again, when you come to the USA you start with the idea that the police and the justice system will put you in jail for the littlest mistake you make. Yes, police usually is very aggressive when dealing with unruly folks. But that is all.
If you rob some place, for example, provided you did not hurt someone, you are likely to go out free with a slap on the wrist. In general, courts are very understanding of first time offenders, almost paternalistic. Even sentences for violent crimes are too short. I have seen folks who unleash their dogs to attack someone get away with just a $250 slap.
This contrasts deeply with many other countries (again, I am thinking about South America mostly) where even small crimes deserve jail time.
What it matters to you? Don't bother arguing or even talking to police. Even if you are an illegal alien, caught with a kilo of cocaine after an hour of crazy car chase, just comply, hire a lawyer and head to the courts. You will be just fine.
13. Winter is no joke. Buy appropriate clothes.
I spent a couple of years hating commuting to work until I learned I was not dressing appropriately for the winter. Dress in layers, buy a heavy coat, gloves and some head protection and voilá, no more daily shivering.
14. Americans have a lobster culture syndrome. Fake in.
If you have not read 12 Rules For Life: an Antidot to Chaos (#1 on Amazon), you should. It is an amazing book. The first chapter describes how serotonin plays a role in animal hierarchy and how our societies are in this sense similar to lobster communities (if you dare to call that open war a society). In lobster world, the most powerful takes all the food, the best places to live, all the girls. It is a winner-takes-all culture. And oh boy, America follows that. Either you are the hunter or you are the food.
Perhaps for that reason there is a widespread obsession with "leadership" instead of just being happy as a productive member of society as in European countries, in general. And do not think the "loser" culture has faded away - it just morphed into the toxic social justice culture.
How do you care: if you want to fit in, play to win all even if you don't mean to.
15. Do not try hard to please everyone. Be serious to be respected.
I repeat, do not try to please Americans when you first meet them as it is common in many cultures (at least all that I know). It is a red flag and sign of weakness. It is absolutely scorned and you will look so goofy that folks will avoid talking to you again. You will be immediately classified as a weakling and put in the mental drawer reserved for the losers.
I finally found that if you act as if you were constantly bored, not at all amazed by your interlocutor, you will be just fine. That is the expected behavior. Of course, as your know people better, you can relax - but just a little bit.
16. Elite liberal arts schools rule the economy. Bow to them.
Sooner or later you will find some poor dude that spent $200k in a liberal arts degree to learn - English! And then now spends his days cold calling people on LinkedIn because the only job they could find is an associate at a mass-recruiting company. And this is very common - it is said that over 50% of liberal arts majors are unemployable and don't have the skills to pursue a career.
My view of this is - liberal arts areas have become a tournament profession. If you are not familiar with the term, it was made popular by Lewitt/Dubner in their best-seller Freakonomics. The tournament profession comes in the chapter "Why Drug Dealers Live With Their Moms".
In essence, having an liberal arts degree from an elite school is a ticket, it qualifies you to the C-level suites. Every VP of human resources will sport one of those degrees. Around these folks, you will find an ecosystem of also elite liberal arts folks, an intelligentsia.
Don't mess with them, they rule the high echelons. Go back to your cubicle and sheepishly complete your diversity training as accurately as you can - and remember LGBTQQIP2SAA.
17. You will be openly challenged. Be prepared.
In many cultures, making the other person lose face, even if they are flat-Earth believers, it is huge nono. I have been told that the Japanese and Chinese culture is especially strong on this one. Saying someone is wrong in their face is rude in most of the world but commonplace in America.
I was truly surprised that, in a culture where euphemisms are heavily sprinkled in the language as a form of rhetoric, you could be called out so frequently.
18. Be succinct in your interactions.
Finally, the golden rule: don't waste anybody's time. Americans are not interested in your story. It is better to be incomplete and have them ask more questions than offer too much information.