Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adapting to American Culture

First of all, I should remind you I am British, so this post is very much written from a British perspective.  For much of the bureaucratic side of the K1 fiance visa application, the experience often has strong similarities wherever the visa applicant is from, however, in this post I am talking about cultural differences, which by their nature are a relative thing.  I also should point out is that America is a very large and diverse place and I know that this post may well contain some sweeping generalizations and subjective opinions, but I still think that it is worth writing and posting.

Basically, even if you have visited the USA on numerous occasions, seen numerous US movies and documentaries and read up on your American history, there is nothing quite like living in the US.  Yes, they speak English in the USA and there are big similarities with the UK in some areas, but don’t kid yourself that there aren’t also some significant differences.

There are differences in the way that people interact and relate to each other, for instance, and there are major philosophical differences in the way that Americans generally perceive their lives and the world around them.  The social set up and politics of the country are also radically different.  Some things, such as religion, generally form a far bigger role in American life than they do in the UK, especially if you live in the Midwest or in the southern states.

Inevitably, I think that most British expats will at one time or another find themselves wondering “what have I done” after they’ve moved, (that is certainly the case with the expats that I have contact with), and to a large extent I think it is pretty normal to feel like that.  I am not exaggerating when I say that some elements of American culture can at times be so alien as to be virtually incomprehensible to a British person.  In some ways, probably the best attitude to take when moving to the USA, I would say, is to see yourself as embarking on an adventure in a strange land, rather than just nipping across the Atlantic to a place that is very similar.  (I am not trying to put anyone off moving to the US, just pointing out that it is reasonable to expect to experience some emotional, as well as practical difficulties at times.)

Americans are generally more open and warm and less reserved than British people when it comes to strangers.  They will commonly greet, chat, and help out people they don’t know.  The friendliness can be almost overwhelming at times.  However, it doesn’t mean quite the same thing in American culture, as it does in the UK and some expats say that they find American friendliness more “surfacy”.  It can still be difficult for expats to make close friends. 

Making friends can be especially tough for expats who are middle-aged or older.  Your circle of friends tends to be large when you are in your twenties, many of them purely social acquaintances, but friends nonetheless.  As you get older, you maybe have a family, get used to doing things in certain ways, and the friendship circle tends to shrink to a hard core of old friends.  It can be hard for expats to meet and make new friends and it can take years to forge the strong friendships that expats have left back home.

Another aspect of US culture that is very different is humour.  It has virtually become a clich√© to say that Americans don’t ‘get’ irony, the reality is more complicated, but the fact is that if you use a lot of irony and satire in the USA, you are liable to be misunderstood in many instances.   This is especially true in the workplace and when dealing with officialdom, such as the police and customs people.  Even in social situations, irony and satire are generally more rarely used and can get you into trouble.

Although the daily pattern of life is similar in many respects, the work culture is generally more intense in America.  The USA is definitely more of a ‘live to work’, than a ‘work to live’ culture, with longer working hours, less holidays, and fewer workers’ rights.  American life also tends to be more family orientated than it is for their British counterparts.  When not working, those Americans with families spend more of their time attending events organised by their kids’ schools etc. 

Most Americans have never really travelled much outside of the USA.  Their knowledge, interest, and direct experience of Britain, Europe, and indeed the rest of the world can sometimes seem limited and you won’t find much mention of foreign places on the TV news or in the media.  Americans don’t get much holiday time and what little they get, they usually spend within the USA.  The USA is massive, of course, with almost every type of terrain and climate imaginable, plus there are variations in culture within the different parts of the US.  It can still seem a surprisingly insular and inward-looking place generally, however, in comparison to the UK.

There are many other things that differ – one could easily write several books on the topic and still not cover everything.  Generally, outside of the big cities, American values tend to be very traditional – this is especially true in the Midwest and the Deep South.  The politics are very different too, with a different political structure, beliefs and history.  There will be times as a British expat that you will feel almost fully settled in the USA, followed by periods where you feel pretty alienated and detached, if the experience of myself and other expats that I’m in contact with is anything to go by.

If you want to read more about my own personal experiences, musings, opinions of the US from a British viewpoint, then feel free to read my personal and informal blog about moving from the North of England to the US, which is called From Sheep to Alligators.


  1. hi paul i wish u were more in-depth with what you meant by the irony and satire. what do you mean that americans dont understand it, or do they use it?
    sorry if i misunderstood.

    i feel like as though..most of us fiancees are forced into quick marriage due to some really harsh bureaucratic crap like tourist visas and such. i tried to apply for it before and they wouldnt give me even though i have travelled outside.

    to be honest france seems like a better and nicer place to visit and probably live in but too bad i dont speak french.

    anyway i am curious to know if british expats are more attuned to the deep south or midwest traditions/people/culture than the big city? just clarifying cause it doesnt seem so.

  2. Irony and satire are used widely in the UK and on an everyday basis. You can get yourself into trouble in the US using irony and satire, especially in the workplace and with officialdom. Americans are more likely to interpret the joking as mean or direspectful than their British counterparts. I discuss it in my post on my personal blog and the links I give to Ricky Gervais and Tim Minchin discuss this matter in some detail.

    American humour vs British humour: What's the difference?

    I would say that generally speaking, the big city culture is more similar to British culture than the Deep South or MidWest. The Deep South, where I live currently, certainly has its own very unique culture.

  3. I think that the adjustment to culture is similar to any nationality. I am Lebanese, and I find myself in similar thoughts and emotions as you. It can get really lonely at times if you are not in contact with people who have gone through your experience. I agree about the satire thing, I am a sarcastic person by nature so I can see your point. Luckily my husband shares that same sense of humor, despite being American, which is great.

  4. You'll have to come visit Oregon - the South and the Midwest and the East Coast are like foreign countries to us up here in the Northwest! He's felt very much at home here in Portland and likes the sense of community here compared to Australia, and has made friends easily during his visits here. It's a "come as you are" type of region where people are generally welcome from wherever - "tradition" is not the same in the West as it is in other areas of the country - generalizing in such a big country is not always a sure bet. :)

    Great blog - my Australian fiance is attending his K-1 immigration interview in Sydney tomorrow and even though your blog posts we're reading are a few years old. His K-1 petition got approved in just 2 weeks and his visa interview scheduled 2 months later, so we're hoping the green card process is also much speedier than it used to be - word is that a lot of the bureaucratic processes have been streamlined internally :)