Communication is how we share information and ideas with other people. We do it by speaking, by writing, and even with our hands, face, and bodies. In a new country, we need to learn new ways of communicating. Here are some tips to help you communicate in the USA.
During your first months in the USA, there will be many times when you do not understand people and situations. This is very difficult, but it is also normal. Try not to be discouraged! Communication will get better with time. You will get used to the new culture and start to understand the language.
Language in communication
When you arrive in a new country, not knowing the language makes everything difficult. Here are some useful things to know about communicating with Americans.
During the first several months you are in the United States, you will probably misunderstand lots of things. This is normal and not your fault. Try your best to be positive – if someone appears rude or mean, remind yourself that it may be because of a cultural difference. Do not assume they are a bad or rude person.
If you don’t understand something that is said to you, ask the person to repeat what they said. Or ask them to say it again more simply. Do not be afraid to keep asking.
Many Americans are sensitive about certain subjects. For example:
- They may be “politically correct.” Being politically correct means trying not to say things that will offend a particular group of people. For example, many Americans do not tolerate racist or sexist jokes. This correctness helps to create an inclusive society. But it will cause problems if others are disrespectful.
- Most Americans do not like to talk about their weight, their age, or how much money they make. If you say something about someone’s weight, how old they are, or how rich or poor they are, they might be upset.
- People also may not want to tell you where they are going or where they live. If you ask someone, “Where are you going?” they may think you have a bad intention.
Some topics are easier to talk about. Common areas across cultures are children and sports. If you are having a hard time talking to someone, talk about these topics!
Most Americans will talk “small talk” with you. They will ask how you are or talk about the weather. This is considered polite. If someone says, “How are you?” the other person almost always says,”Good,” “Fine,” or “OK,” even if he or she is sad or unwell.
Please and thank you
In the USA, people say “please” when they ask for something and “thank you” when they receive something or someone helps them. Americans tend to thank others even for little things. If someone holds a door open for you, it is polite to say thank you. If someone gives you a gift, you should also say thank you.
English as a second language
Learning English is one of the most important things you can do to help you adjust to life in the USA. If you do not speak much English, you can find free classes online and in your community. You can find ways to learn English online or in your local community.
One of the best ways to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in it and to listen to it a lot. Try to listen and practice English as much as you can. Pronunciation, or saying things correctly, is one of the most difficult parts of learning a new language. Your tone and which words you emphasize also matter. You might feel frustrated because you are saying something correctly, but Americans cannot understand you. Not all Americans are used to foreign accents.
When we are in a conversation with other people, we communicate in two important ways: verbally (using words) and nonverbally. Nonverbal communication means the way we use our body to communicate. It includes:
- facial expressions
- hand gestures
- eye contact
- posture (how we stand or sit)
- tone of voice
Some people think nonverbal communication is more important than the actual words we say. It helps people decide if they like and trust others.
Different cultures use different types of nonverbal communication. Here are some of the ways Americans use nonverbal communication:
Most Americans make eye contact during important conversations. If you do not make eye contact, people may think you are lying or something is wrong. People who look directly into your eyes are often viewed as more trustworthy, intelligent, and kind. If you come from a culture where people do not look into each other’s eyes, this may be very hard for you to do.
Americans smile a lot to be polite and to show that everything is okay. When you meet someone new, they expect you to smile at them.
If you stand up straight, people tend to give you more respect.
Most Americans shake hands when they meet. Sometimes people will hug each other if they already know each other. If you feel uncomfortable shaking hands, you do not have to shake hands.
In the USA, people have more “personal space.” This means if you are talking to someone, they will probably stand at least a foot away from you.
People in the United States are taught to “stand up” for their beliefs. This means if someone disagrees with you, they may argue with you to try to prove their point. This can be very uncomfortable if you come from a culture that values “saving face.” In some countries, getting into an argument may mean you have lost face.
Americans argue not out of anger or to fight, but to show you why they believe they are correct. Arguing is generally accepted as part of the conversation, unless you are speaking very loudly (screaming) or using bad or rude language. Students are allowed and even encouraged to disagree with their teachers. Children may argue with their parents. Workers can disagree with their bosses, but politely. Sometimes, especially in American politics, people argue so much that nothing can get done!
If you feel uncomfortable in an argument, it is okay to explain that you do not feel comfortable arguing. However, you may need to learn to tell people that you disagree with them or else they might think you agree with what they say.
Humor in communication
One part of communication that can be very hard when you are adjusting to a new culture is humor. You might make a joke that people around do not understand. Or someone might make a joke that you do not understand. Since humor is cultural, sometimes even if you understand the joke, you might not think it is funny.
Many Americans like to tell jokes. Sometimes, jokes can be funny and everyone laughs. Sometimes, jokes can be offensive. For example, someone might tell a joke based on race or gender. These people and jokes are not politically correct! If someone tells a joke that offends you, you can politely say you find it offensive or disrespectful and ask them not to tell you any more jokes of that kind.
Freedom of speech is protected by the United States Constitution. Because of this, the American media can make jokes about things that people in other countries may not joke about. For example, there are some US newspapers that are “joke” newspapers – they write news that is satirical or funny, but not true. For example, a US satirical newspaper paper called the Onion wrote a story about the President of North Korea. They said he was voted the most handsome man in the world. Some people in North Korea and China thought the story was true. But the story was just a joke.
In the USA, some people like to watch comedies on television. They might also like to watch professional comedians on TV or in theaters and clubs. Sometimes, American comedies and comedians can be offensive.
Some Americans like to trick each other. In America, there is a holiday called April Fools’ Day. It is on the first day of April. On this day, many people like to try to play tricks. For example, someone at work might make you believe something is true when it is not. People call these jokes “pranks” or “pulling your leg.”
Contracts and agreements
In the USA, written contracts and verbal agreements are important.
Agreements are typically verbal. For example, someone may ask you to do something and you say yes or no. This is an agreement. In America, verbal agreements are generally taken very seriously. Sometimes, when you make a verbal agreement, you may also shake hands. Shaking hands is a symbol that you are both going to fulfill the agreement.
One problem with verbal agreements is that sometimes people can misunderstand. For example, you may make a verbal agreement with someone that you will meet them at 5pm that day. But, maybe they misunderstood and thought you meant the next day.
If you agree to something, it is important to Americans that you either fulfill that agreement or that you let them know you can’t complete the agreement. This is true even for something small. For example, if someone asks you to have lunch and you say yes, you should either go to lunch or you should call them and tell them you can’t come before it is time for the lunch.
Contracts are written agreements that state what two (or more) people agree to. When you move into an apartment, you sign a lease. When you start a job, you may receive an employment contract. If you buy a car on credit, you might sign a loan agreement. All of these are contracts.
If you sign a contract, you probably have a legal obligation to fulfill that contract. So it is very important that you read it carefully. If the contract is in English, you may want to ask for help translating it. For a simple contract, you can ask a friend or you can email us and we will try to help you understand the contract. If it concerns money, work, or legal services, you may want to use a professional translator or ask your caseworker for advice.
These are generalizations about American culture – not facts, just ideas to help you better understand why an American may be acting a way that is different to what you are used to. American ways and culture are not better or worse than other ways – just different.