I have had a few breakdowns in communication with my American friends and host family that could perhaps be explained by peculiarities of the American communication style. Feel free to correct me if I am overgeneralizing here.
Example one. During my year as an exchange student in Pennsylvania, I had a good friend — the daughter of my host mother’s tenant. We spent quite a lot of time together until I moved to my second host family. In any case, we naturally grew apart over the 8 years I spent away from the US.
However, once I moved back to the US, I thought we could reconnect. So I started sending my friend detailed personal emails, asking what she was up to and telling her about where I was in life and what got me there. I used email and Facebook some 3 to 5 times — no answer.
I had pretty much given up on our friendship, but then I was going to fly to Florida via Pittsburgh, the city where I knew my friend now lived. So without much hope, I skipped the personal touch and posted a very impersonal and almost rudely straightforward message on her Facebook wall (something I don’t normally do) that ran “Can I stay with you in Pittsburgh on such and such dates?”
Need I tell you I got an answer this time? My friend checked with her roommates, and I stayed with her on my way to Florida. She explained that she had not answered my messages because she was at a point in her life when she didn’t feel like she had anything to share about her life.
Another example. Not once did my second host family, who I stayed with after the move, call me after I left the US at the end of my exchange year. I was always the one calling, asking how everyone was, and hoping to come back to visit. I had witnessed their previous exchange student come and visit while I was there, so kept thinking to myself, “What am I not doing right?”
After I came back to the US for grad school, I kept calling the family and kept getting the same polite but disinterested replies. My emails with updates largely went unanswered. I would only get a Christmas card with a picture of the family that otherwise never initiated communication with me.
I suppose you know where I am going with this. The moment I wrote a “dry,” factual email to my host dad, letting him know my new mailing address and not once asking how the family was I received a much more detailed response where he even said he might visit me when in the area.
Again, I am not trying to make broad generalizations — certainly not on the basis of a less-than-statistically-significant sample. However, it may well be that these isolated examples do illustrate a real trait of intrapersonal communication in the US. You are not supposed to approach anyone as an asker. People who may want something from others make many Americans uncomfortable (and I don’t blame them!). Therefore, to be talked to, you often need to approach others as an equal, even if it means acting more “callous” or disinterested than your native culture warrants.
International readers and people who have traveled abroad, would you agree?