Here is information to help you understand some of the main differences you may experience as a Somali immigrant to the United States.
This page about American culture for Somalis explains some cultural differences between the USA and Somalia.
Like Somalia, the United States was once under colonial rule. The US gained freedom from Great Britain in 1776 after a revolutionary war. Like Somalia today, it took many years for the US to rebuild after the war. Americans are very proud of their democracy. Americans place high value on the idea of free speech. This means Americans can say negative things about the President or protest against things they government does that they do not like. This is different than Somalia culture where you typically show respect for elders. In the US, people believe they are respecting the Office of the President or the American Constitution when they speak and protest for their beliefs.
While the civil war in Somali was relatively recent, the US civil war took place in the 1800s (over 150 years ago). The American Civil War was fought mainly over slavery and economics. However, like in Somalia, there are still some negative feelings about the civil war. Today, many African-Americans still make less money than white Americans.
In the US, children are required to attend school from ages 5-18. In the US, men and women are both teachers, although the majority of teachers are female. Going to community college, a trade school, or university is a good way to get a better paying job.
In general, schools in the US focus on teaching students how to think critically, how to work in groups, and how to pass required state-testing. Thinking critically means students are expected to question ideas. As a result, students may also learn to question their parents. You may notice your child develops this trait in the US. This is not a sign of respect but actually a strength showing they have learned an important skill to succeed in US academics and business. In US schools, parents are expected to participate in their children’s education. This means attending conferences or events at the school, giving students time to complete homework, and sometimes volunteering in the student’s classroom.
The American economic system is based on capitalism. Most businesses are owned by private individuals whose main goal is to make money. Like in Somalia, Agriculture is an important business in the US. However, most large farms are owned by businesses, not by individual families. All businesses are regulated by the government and required to pay taxes to the government. While in Somalia many businesses may have given Zakat to support the community, businesses in the US are not required to provide help to the community. Some choose to make donations to causes they personally support. Instead, in the US, many churches and community organizations provide things like food, housing, and essentials to low-income families.
While the US is a very diverse country with people from many different faiths, many people follow Christian values and celebrate Christian holidays. About 80% of Americans call themselves Christian, although they might not attend church. The US constitution says that the government must not follow or give priority to any particular religion. However, many businesses and government offices are closed on Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. Like Islam, Christianity follows one God. Islam and Christianity are also similar in that they both encourages their members to be kind to their neighbors and to treat others with respect. If you a practicing Muslim, you can talk to your employer about your faith and ask for a place to pray during the day. Many schools will also provide a space for students to complete their prayers.
Just like Muslims celebrate many religious festivals, some of the main holidays in the US are Christmas (the birth of Jesus) and Easter (the resurrection of Jesus). People typically celebrate holidays by getting together with their families and by eating large meals together. The three other biggest holidays in the US are: Independence Day (July 4th), New Year’s Eve (December 31st) and Halloween (December 31st). Independence Day is celebrate with fireworks and barbeques. New Years Eve is celebrate by staying up late and counting down the time until the clock strikes midnight; and Halloween is celebrated as a silly day to dress up and have fun.
Birthdays are also celebrated in the US, often with cake and friends. Families with young children will often have parties and invite neighbors, classmates and friends to celebrate birthdays.
Unlike in Somali, people do not typically acknowledge the day someone dies, although some people may feel sad on that day or visit the person’s grave if they were buried at a cemetery.
Some Somalis say they do not have any skills for the American workforce. However, this is not true. Somali is a very oral culture. This means many Somalis have strong communication skills, an important skill in the US, especially in customer service type jobs. This is an area Somalis can thrive in the US economy. Many Somalis also have strong leadership qualities and are able to help lead organizations or programs in their communities.
In the US, you are only allowed to be married to one other person. Polygamy is against the law. Divorce is common in the US.
In the US, many people visit the doctor for yearly check-ups rather than just when they are sick. Doctors are very respected in the US. US laws require each individual to sign a release statement in order to allow doctors to share information about their health with other family members or friends. If a doctor will not talk to you about your family member’s medical care, do not take this as a sign they are being rude but remember it is because of America’s laws.
Most people in the US have three names: their first name, middle name, and family name or last name. In the US, most women choose to take their husbands last name when they get married, although some choose to keep their own last name. This is different than in Somalia where most women keep their family name. Sometimes, if you have a different last name than your child, you may be required to show proof that the child is your child.
Sadly, elders do not have the same level of respect in the US like they do in Somalia. This may be a hard adjustment for Somali elders. In the US, people tend to give more respect to people with high job positions such as university professors or business leaders, or people who are wealthy.
In the US, the concept of time is rigid. Unlike in Somalia where people will wait to leave an activity until it is finished, in the US, people will leave events early to make sure they are on time to their next appointment. Time is especially important in work and school settings.
In the US, men and women typically shake hands. However, it is for a woman to decline to shake hands or to touch a man. Men do not touch each other very often in the US, except for shaking hands or possibly a quick hug. However, it is ok to touch other men. Women in the US are more likely to touch one another, such as a hug when they first see one another or when they say goodbye. Family members often touch and hug each other.
While oral communication is most valued in Somalia, in the US writing is the most important type of communication. If you write something down or sign a piece of paper in the US, people will take the paper very seriously. Legal contracts are signed written documents that can be enforced by the court.
People in the US may not seem friendly compared to Somalis. For example, many Somali men spend a lot of time greeting their neighbors and family when they first wake up. In the US, people may say hi in the morning or smile but do not take time to greet each other. Instead, you can greet your co-workers when you first arrive at work.
In the US, people often say « thank you » or « thanks » to show gratitude, even for small acts like someone holding a door open for you or pushing a button on an elevator. This may be different than in Somalia, where it is not necessary to say thanks. If you do not say thanks, Americans may think you are rude. So this is one thing you can do to help adjust to American culture.
In the US, people mostly eat with silverware (fork, knife and spoon).
In the US, most people use their own plate and bowl for each meal rather than communally sharing one bowl or plate. If you have a guest at your home, you can offer them their food on a separate plate. If you are unsure if food is communal or for one person, you can ask.
People in the US eat a lot of wheat or carbs. This is very different than traditional Somali food, which is high in protein. Meat is often expensive in the US, especially halal meat. If you can find a Somali shop in your neighborhood, they may sell halal meat for a lower price than a grocery store.
Somali culture is typically communal while American culture is more individual. This means many Somalis see money as something to be shared and will give money to any family or friend who is in need. In the US, people may choose to donate or help their extended family members or friend, but it is not expected.
In the US, counselors are very well respected. It is very common for Americans to see a counselor to help them through the death of a family member or other sad and hard events.
Almost every school has a counselor to help student’s achieve their goals such as going to college. If your student needs to see a counselor, this can be a big help for your family and does not mean anything negative for your family.
In the US, most families live only with their immediate family members (this means the parents and the children). Unlike in Somalia, only a small percentage of families live with their extended families. Men and women are both seen as important to the household. Men help with household chores such as cooking and cleaning and women may work outside of the house. Men who do these chores are still seen as in charge of their homes.
Most families in the US have two children, and that rate is getting lower. This means many American homes, cars, etc. were designed for families with four or less members as compared to the large families most Somalis have. This might make it hard for your family to find an apartment or vehicle. Somalis tend to have a strong community and family network where many women can help take care of the children. Sadly, woman in the US do not have as much support and working women in the US often struggle to balance their work and home duties. In the US, many people pay to send their children to daycare. It is against the law to leave children home alone without supervision. It is also against the law to hit or physically discipline children.
Watch a video about your rights
In the US, men and women live, work, and go to school together. This is probably one of the most difficult cultural adjustments for Somali families. You will probably have to attend more co-ed events in the US than in Somalia. However, for important situations, such as visiting the doctor, you can request to have a doctor of the same gender.
Girls in the US are expected to continue with their educations just like boys. While many young Somali girls begin to help run the household around ages 7 or 8, American children both help with chores. American girls are not expected to run their households until their are older or getting married.
In the US, women/girls are still expected to go to work and school while they are menstruating.
The US provides very little support for new moms. Considering the US is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, this is very sad. In Somalia, most women spend 40 days resting after childbirth. In the US, most women are expected to take care of their babies on their own after one or two weeks. Men typically return to work very quickly after the birth of their child. Many employers do not offer paid maternity leave and expect women to return to work as soon as possible. The US government does require employers to give un-paid leave depending on where you work.