American Manners : Informal, Not Absent

Mike Tigas/The Maneater Officers and members of the Missouri International Student Council eat together at the Council's inaugural dinner, Saturday night.  New officers were announced and founding officers were recognized at the event.

image via Mike Tigas

Some of the biggest educational moments for our interns do not happen in class or during work. They happen in cultural exchanges during lunch, after work, outside the classroom, or between work assignments. In other words, in daily life.

We’ve already covered some of these educational differences – like the shock of the two-week summer vacation, or the difference between vacations, a holiday, and “the holidays.” But there are many cultural things that do not appear or get fully explained in guide or text books. And they are worth pointing out to newcomers, because they truly make a huge difference in how our interns enjoy their stay in the US. Two of them are about the perceived informality in the US.

Informality vs American Manners

You hear that the US is an informal nation in many ways. But it’s not until you arrive here that you realize how exactly that works in daily life. Instead of “Good morning/afternoon,” people are likely to say “Hi!” in a way that’s reserved only for close family or very informal situations elsewhere in the world. Waiters may introduce themselves by first name. Interactions between student and teacher can be casual. And, much to the relief of younger, less well-paid workers “business casual” has dispensed with formal business clothing in many industries.

But this informality shouldn’t be confused for an absence of manners. In fact, once you get used to it and see past it, you’ll notice that the American workplace and society—like anywhere else in the world—has its own ways of being respectful, and its own formalities. For instance:

  • Younger people may call their elders by name, but not always immediately, and sometimes only if invited to.
  • Colleagues may seem informal with their bosses, and it is an act of friendship and inclusion when the boss tells you to call him by first name—but there’s no doubt about the pecking order, or who outranks whom, or who can give or withhold permission.
  • Business casual doesn’t mean you should come to work inappropriately dressed.
  • Both genders make eye contact and shake hands, but everyone maintains more physical distance compared with other cultures.

The list goes on and can be baffling for outsiders even in the most welcoming of offices. The key is to err on the side of caution. If you’re the newcomer, employ formality—you can always dress down, and your colleagues will tell you right away if you can call them by first name.

Informality vs Intimacy

Informality in the US shouldn’t be confused with intimacy either. This can be particularly confusing for newcomers because casual conversation that other cultures might save for close family and friends—“How is the family/your wife?”—are acceptable and friendly normal small talk here. And, as we’ve mentioned before, it is customary and considered polite to smile, make eye contact, or say a “Hi!” or “How’s it going?” to people. Even if you don’t know the other person you just crossed in the hallway terribly well. In fact, one of the most commonly used phrases, “How are you?” can be a real source of confusion for visitors. Because elsewhere, this is a question saved for close friends or family, people you’re going to have a long talk with.

In the US however it is simply another way of being friendly and politely acknowledging the presence of the other person in a shared space. It is not an invitation to have a long conversation or truly share the state of your health. Because, ironically, the daily digital invasions of privacy Americans live with actually make them very circumspect about sharing certain details of their lives. Which leads us to…

Divulging Or Asking Personal Details

It isn’t that Americans don’t divulge or share personal details in public. Goodness knows we’re the land that wrought social media and gifted the world with the concept of oversharing! But you’ll notice that although it’s very acceptable to strike up a conversation with someone you do not know in the US, what is okay to share elsewhere doesn’t normally get shared here. Americans will talk publicly about many things that are considered inappropriate elsewhere—a divorce in the family, their romantic lives, what they did on vacation. But many other things are tricky and considered very dangerous subjects to discuss, if not outright taboo—money and salaries, questions about mental health, details about physical ailments, personal political or religious beliefs.

So what does one talk about? The weather is always a safe subject. And in DC, nearly everyone hates the commute. Except for those who have really short commutes—those folks can be relied upon to confirm which Metro escalators and elevators are on the fritz. Again.