Communication is how people share information and ideas with each other. If you are new to the United States, learning how people communicate in the USA can help you feel more connected in your new home.
People communicate in a variety of ways depending on the situation and what they want to say.
- Verbal communication is words spoken directly by a person.
- Nonverbal communication is messages delivered without words.
1. Pay attention to nonverbal communication
Nonverbal communication uses the body to share feelings. This includes body language such as facial expressions, eye contact, posture, and gestures. It can also help you express yourself, especially if your English is limited.
Listen to the tone of voice. Be aware of your own tone too.
Make eye contact. It shows respect and interest in what the other person is saying. If you make eye contact with a stranger, it is polite to say “hi,” smile, or nod.
Watch and use gestures. These can express certain ideas and feelings. Some common gestures in the U.S. include:
- Smiling frequently is a way to be polite and show warmth.
- Waving a hand is a way to greet or say hello and goodbye.
- Nodding your head up and down is a way to say yes.
- Shaking your head from side to side is a way to no.
- Putting your hand facing out is a way to say stop.
- Leaning forward is a way to show interest.
- Putting your thumb up is a way to show approval.
- Crossing your arms is a way to show discomfort.
- High-fiving (slapping your raised hand with the other person’s raised hand) is another way to greet someone or show excitement.
Be prepared to properly greet someone. Both men and women who don’t know each other usually shake hands when meeting. Family and friends often will hug or kiss when they first see each other and say goodbye. It’s okay if you are not comfortable with physical contact. You can choose to place a hand on your heart and smile instead.
Give people personal space. Americans tend to prefer a large amount of personal space, about arm’s length, between people in social settings. Families and friends may stand closer to each other. People may step back or lean away if they feel that someone is standing too close to them. Pay attention to their facial expressions and body language to understand their comfort levels.
Know that silence can be uneasy for Americans. People sometimes feel awkward or uncomfortable when there are long moments of silence during conversations. A smile or calm body language can help.
2. Be direct and clear
Many Americans value direct communication to avoid misunderstandings. Direct communication is when people express messages clearly in spoken or written words. They share their intentions and feelings openly.
People will get straight to the point and freely share their opinions. Some areas of the country have more direct communication styles than others. Some people may prefer less direct communication when sharing negative or conflicting information.
To be direct, try expressing your thoughts in fewer words. Make your message clear. Consider:
- What do you want to say?
- Why do you want to say it?
- Who do you want to say it to?
- How can you best say it?
3. Know when to speak casually and formally
Americans also tend to communicate informally in everyday conversations. They will use first names and slang or colloquial terms even with people they do not know well.
Colloquial terms are informal words or expressions used in a familiar conversation. For example, some Americans say “gonna” instead of “going to” or say “y’all” instead of “you all” when talking to two or more people.
Some people may speak more formally in certain settings, including in the workplace and in meetings.
4. Try small talk
Small talk is when you have polite conversations about unimportant topics such as the weather, sports, food, books, and movies. Small talk topics help you have conversations with people you don’t know. You can ask a simple question like “How about this weather?”
5. Ask questions
It can be difficult to understand people in certain situations. It is important to speak up and ask for better explanations so you are not confused. You can ask people to repeat what they said or say it in a different way. People may assume you understand or agree with them if you do not ask questions.
6. Be an active listener
Active listening is important to understanding and communicating with people. Smile or nod, make eye contact, and lean in to show that you are listening. Pay close attention to their body language.
Restate what you hear and ask open-ended questions that require answers beyond “yes” or “no”. Asking open-ended questions is a way to get more information.
7. Learn common expressions
Take some time to learn common expressions in American culture.
- Please is a polite way of asking for something.
- Thank you is a simple way to show appreciation.
- I’m sorry is a way to apologize or express sadness. It can also be another way to politely say no.
- Excuse me is a way to get someone’s attention or move around them.
Some common expressions don’t actually mean what you might think they do:
- What’s up is a way to ask someone how they’re doing.
- Under the weather means someone feels unwell.
- It’s not rocket science means something is not hard to understand.
- Piece of cake means something is easy to do.
8. Explore humor
Humor is heavily based on culture and can be hard to understand when you are new. Locals may not understand a joke that you make. It’s okay to explain or ask what something means. Speak up if you find a joke offensive.
9. Be careful with sensitive topics
Some topics can make people feel uncomfortable especially if they are personal. For example, people may not want to talk about their age, weight, or income. Some questions or comments on a particular topic can cause arguments and conflict.
If you don’t know how someone feels about a topic, check with them before you start a conversation. In cases of conflict, talk about how you and the other person feels. Work together to find a solution that you both agree with.
10. Be honest
It’s important to be honest about your emotions and feelings. If you feel uncomfortable, misunderstood, or hurt, talk about it so you can make it right. It’s okay to set boundaries. Don’t be afraid to say no to something you do not want to do.
Don’t forget to practice.
Good communication is a skill that you can improve with practice. You will get better at understanding what people are saying and expressing yourself with time.
If you are also learning English: