Communicating with Americans — Speaking on Equal Terms

Exchange year in PA, US Stays
Girl on Her Phone

Image by lusi

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?

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6 thoughts on “Communicating with Americans — Speaking on Equal Terms

  1. I found this post really interesting – thanks for sharing these experiences. As an American, I can relate to both of the responses the Americans had to your communications, but at the same time, seeing it like this makes it sound like a really rude and irrational way to behave. So I apologize on behalf of my countrymen!

    I think one thing you don’t mention here, that I’ve heard from a lot of international students, is that Americans are more comfortable with casual friendships than people from most other countries. That is, to consider someone a friend you don’t need to have deep conversations with them or share every detail of your life, and often people get uncomfortable if they feel like you are sharing too much or invading their personal space. That might be a bit of what you ran up against in these examples as well. So interesting!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jessica. I didn’t realize someone was reading this!
      No need to apologize; I realize there is no right or wrong in culture, but being aware of preferences makes one more adapted to the culture they’re in.
      I see you point about casual friendships. There may be many ways to explain this — from the constant mixing of classes in high school and college to the high(er) population mobility, especially among the young.
      Another thing I’ve noticed — you know how they say Asian cultures tend to be more in-group vs out-group? I think this is actually true about Americans. Americans do have these “deep” friendships, as it were, but they are reserved for their close family, high school buddies, and the such. The emphasis on business networking and outstanding customer service in the US necessitates friendly communication with virtually strangers (colleagues, neighbors, store clerks, etc.), but I see why you wouldn’t want to include them in your in-group.

      1. šŸ™‚ I found this post by accident from a Google search (I write about international students and culture shock issues, so I’m always looking for stuff on different aspects of cross-cultural relations), but I’m glad I did. I found it really interesting and definitely plan on reading some of your other posts…that is, if you don’t mind having an audience.

      2. Ha, cool! No, I didn’t even realize. I’ll start following now though. You clearly didn’t need us to become a successful blogger!

  2. As a multicultural American with extensive overseas experience, I can understand your reaction. Have you heard of the ladder approach to relationships? You climb up one rung of the ladder, give a little more to the relationship, and wait to see if the other side reciprocates. If they do, great, you can escalate to increasingly personal contact, if not, then no harm done. A brief, “Hey, what’s new with you?” to open the door for dialog is almost always appropriate. And you can keep sending out small impersonal contacts over time as well to see if they elicit a response then.
    This ladder theory works for me too in my intercultural relationships.

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