Examples of traditional North American traditions/habits needed to share
September 14, 2019 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I’m looking for examples of typical, everyday North American traditions or habits that I can share with my adult ESL student from South Korea. For example, she was totally unfamiliar with the tradition of adding an extra birthday candle to the birthday cake for “one to grow on.” Not really looking for superstitions, but more traditional, everyday habits that are particular to North America (or specific regions of North America). Another example would be saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Thanks!
posted by bookmammal to Society & Culture (63 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not an answer, sorry, but saying 'bless you' after a sneeze is not particular to North America. Would that it were.
posted by pompomtom at 7:37 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


For example, she was totally unfamiliar with the tradition of adding an extra birthday candle to the birthday cake for “one to grow on.”

Umm, what?

Be careful not to teach her that any of these things are universal because I have never heard of that and I have lived in North America for basically my entire life.

I would teach her about holiday greetings - Christmas is merry, most holidays are happy, but Memorial Day and Remembrance Day and such are not holidays you can say "happy X day" about.

What about silly kids things like jinx you owe me a beer and punch buggies?

Shotgun for who gets the front seat in a car.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:38 AM on September 14 [59 favorites]


There's a particular subset of foods that are considered normal breakfast foods and it doesn't include a lot of things that are very normal to eat at other times of day. Pizza, hamburgers, tacos, soup, spaghetti and meatballs, Asian-inspired stir-fry, cole slaw, or corn on the cob are all super normal things to eat in North America - except for breakfast. Of course plenty of individual people do eat things like that for breakfast, but most of them probably have a sense that they are making an odd choice when they do it.
posted by Redstart at 7:49 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


"Jinx you owe me a Coke."

So yeah, be careful that you're not just teaching her regionalisms, or explain that some things are regional and what that means.
posted by cooker girl at 7:50 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the responses so far.
Yes, please assume that I am not making generalizations. Please assume that I am simply exposing her to some habits/traditions that are probably unfamiliar to her as someone new to living in the US. I am definitely not telling her that “all” people in North America share these traditions.
For what it’s worth, she is also sharing many Korean traditions with me.
posted by bookmammal at 8:00 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


There's a particular subset of foods that are considered normal breakfast foods and it doesn't include a lot of things that are very normal to eat at other times of day.

Again, not specific to NA.

posted by pompomtom at 8:01 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Other countries might have their own breakfast food traditions, but the specific things that are "normal" or "not normal" for breakfast probably are different in each place. In the UK, for instance, mushrooms and tomatoes are on the "normal breakfast" list, but they're not in the US, especially not tomatoes.
posted by Redstart at 8:06 AM on September 14


Calling “shotgun” for a car or “punch buggy!” when seeing a beetle
posted by raccoon409 at 8:08 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


[Folks at this point please stick to offering constructive answers to the question. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:09 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]


S'mores when camping are pretty North American, I think.

There are a ton of these little rituals around cars, most of which I'm not super familiar with because I don't drive. The one I'm thinking of is where you kiss your hand and slap the sun visor as you go through a yellow light to "make sure" the light doesn't turn red until you're through the intersection.
posted by Mizu at 8:11 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


I moved to the USA from Australia. Things I thought particularly American when I moved here were free refills, huge food portions, wrapped straws (you trust them to touch your food but not your straw?) oh & giant cars and turning right on a red light though these are probably not what you are looking for.

Celebrating Halloween & how crazy even adults get about it. Pop Up Halloween stores & fireworks stores. Though this is now spreading & was based on traditions from other countries.

Thanksgiving. Just all of it.

Drive through everything. Prescriptions, banks, coffee shops.

Tipping. Make sure she gets tipping. It terrified me for year as it wasn't just for good service & was pretty much compulsory.

Decorating for each season and holiday seems weirdly American to me, above & beyond just Christmas decorations. All my US friends are putting out special table clothes & decor for fall & putting away their summer decorations right now & will bring out Halloween stuff in a few weeks then thanksgiving stuff then winter stuff then Christmas stuff. SO much decorating.

We Jinx'd & shotgunned & punched for VW's in Australia when I was a kid 40 years ago and bless you is pretty international.
posted by wwax at 8:13 AM on September 14 [14 favorites]


Oh, I know you said it wasn't about superstitions, but I think it would be fun to practice talking about Bigfoot and maybe also Area 51 and aliens and the mothman!
posted by Mizu at 8:15 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


If she is local to you (not sure if it is an Internet tutoring thing?) maybe whatever the local habits are re: shoes on or off in other people's houses and how to judge which is correct in a given house.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:23 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


MM/DD/YYYY
posted by pompomtom at 8:28 AM on September 14 [21 favorites]


Not sure if this is the kind of thing you're looking for but the Pledge of Allegiance at school (and lots of school/childhood things in general: pep rallies, proms, show and tell, the 5-paragraph essay, buying cafeteria food, riding the school bus, summer camp...) I don't know which of those is also done in Korea, but they're definitely not all done everywhere.

Going to diners/diner culture in general is a thing in some areas.
posted by trig at 8:28 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


I’ve never heard “one to grow on” for birthday candles either, but it was used in the 60s for birthday spankings (you’d get spanked once for each year plus one to grow on), a custom that I hope has disappeared.

The answer to “How are you?” is “Fine” or something like it unless you’re talking to your doctor or therapist.
posted by FencingGal at 8:30 AM on September 14 [8 favorites]


Oh and the specific forms of games kids play, like patty cake and dodgeball. I've been asked outside the US if dodgeball is a real thing or made up for movies.
posted by trig at 8:31 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


I feel like the art of the roadtrip is a pretty American thing with lots of rituals given our interstate highway system.

Lots of families have game rituals around this (in my family we held our breath whenever we crossed a state line). A lot of kids like to pump their arms up and down near truck-drivers to get them to blow their horn.

The cultural trope of missing the last gas station and running out of gas, or of Mom saying "this is your last chance to pee" and the car having to pull over so the kid can run out after they ignore Mom's pleading to go pee are in tons of movies. Kids fighting in the back seat is such a cultural cliche that "DON'T MAKE ME PULL OVER" is kind of a shorthand joke in the US for when people are getting out of control.

I like to get a free highway map from every state welcome center (i.e. rest area) I encounter.
posted by mostly vowels at 8:41 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


For US college kids, playing beer pong in red cups is a real thing (that I would get asked about a lot when I studied abroad)
posted by mostly vowels at 8:42 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


Clapping games, like Miss Mary Mack or Rockin Robin
posted by rue72 at 8:43 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


My exchange student in high school had never heard of baby showers. (Re the extra candle: I'm a 13th generation American and have also never heard of this).
posted by pinochiette at 9:03 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Cake is universal at celebrations, not just birthdays. Weddings, office parties, etc. I think the classic two-layer cake is mostly an American form.

The pie vs cobbler debate rages on.

The typical "Have a nice day!" Is probably American.

Something else that foreigners don't expect is how the US is still really a union of states and most laws are state laws. Traffic laws, and laws about alcohol and drugs vary from state to state.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:05 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


On the food angle: cold cereal and things you can put in a pop-up toaster for breakfast. Pop-up toasters in general. PB&J sandwiches. Putting lunch in a brown paper bag.

Other things: the kind of mailbox where you put your outgoing mail in it and raise a little flag so the postman will know to collect it. Making a left turn by driving out into the middle of an intersection and waiting until you can turn freely, or having to turn quickly before the light turns red because left turn arrows are not a thing. "Paper or plastic?" at the supermarket (and not bagging the groceries yourself). Wrapping your schoolbooks at the beginning of the year because they belong to the school. Laundry in the dryer. Communal laundry rooms in apartment buildings. "My name is X and I'll be your server tonight," "how are we doing, are we still working on that?", "can I get a doggy bag?" at restaurants.

Annual doctor's checkups even when you're not sick on the one hand, and not going to the doctor when sick or injured because you don't have insurance on the other. Health insurance as a factor to consider when taking a new job. Getting reminder cards from doctors/dentists to schedule a visit.

Moving to the suburbs once you have kids (for certain socioeconomic groups). Baby showers.

Everything connected to the college admissions process and college itself. Kids getting bombarded by mailings from hundreds of schools, and signing up for activities specifically so it looks good on their applications, which aren't just about grades.

Saying "Sir" or "Ma'am" in some parts of the country. Blessing people's heart. Cursing and, at the same time, certainly not cursing because four-letter words are an offense to good order, civilization, and the young. Offering guests cocktails before dinner.

The national anthem at sports games.

If your purpose is less to help your student practically and more for general edification, you might get some mileage out of regional guides (or parodies) like this one for Minnesota.
posted by trig at 9:05 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Charlie Brown. Oh, Charlie Brown.
I can't believe it. She must think I'm the most stupid person alive.
Come on, Charlie Brown. I'll hold the ball and you kick it.
Hold it? Ha! You'll pull it away and I'll land flat on my back and kill myself.
But Charlie Brown, it's Thanksgiving.
What's that got to do with anything?
Why, one of the greatest traditions we have is the Thanksgiving Day football game. And the biggest, most important tradition of all is the kicking off of the football.
Is that right?
Absolutely. Come on, Charlie Brown. It's a big honor for you.
Well, if it's that important, a person should never turn down a big honor. Maybe I should do it. Besides, she wouldn't try to trick me on a traditional holiday. This time I'm gonna kick that football clear to the moon.
[SCREAMING]
Isn't it peculiar, Charlie Brown, how some traditions just slowly fade away?
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:06 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


Christmas cookie exchanges?
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 9:08 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


- Big holidays where shopping is considered your civic duty (Presidents' Day sales)
- Baseball traditions like the seventh inning stretch and (at Fenway) singing "Sweet Caroline" at the top of your lungs
- Chinese food and a movie on Christmas
- trick or treating
- sponsored highways like "bla bla bla company is picking up trash along this part of the highway"
- summer camp

Local to me (Vermont): Sugar on snow when the syrup is first running, parades on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July (happen elsewhere also), spring cleaning, winterizing your home in late Autumn, getting your snow tires on/off, potluck dinners, harvest/grange festivals, talent shows State Fairs, bringing in monarch caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies.
posted by jessamyn at 10:28 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


NASCAR, pro wrestling, cornfield mazes, hay rides, county fairs, Sunday lunch/dinner/supper, pot-lucks, hunting, the sheer size when say driving from one coast to another and taking a whole day to get through Texas. Old Southern Gentleman rules like men holding doors open for women, or pulling out seats, or always walking closest to the road when walking down the sidewalk. Hats off indoors. Native American Reservations / National Parks.

dammit jessamyn
posted by zengargoyle at 10:44 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


wwax's answer brings up more of what I think you're going for - everyday things that would be surprising and aren't likely to be determined more by regulation/legislation or personal preferences/family-specific customs. I feel like a lot of the answers upthread are more regional/localized than people might suspect, ha.

(California no longer has plastic bags at the grocery store, for example, and I've seen maybe one VW beetle on the road in the past year - are buggies still being driven regularly in other states? Also, the "one to grow on" candle seems more family/person-specific rather than broadly-American specific - it's something I think I've read about in a Babysitter's Club book but haven't ever seen in person).

* Halloween and Thanksgiving are two specifically very American holidays that could take up entire lessons all by themselves, but Halloween's going to be more fun to discuss since it doesn't, er, whitewash certain aspects of our country's fraught history. Making jack o' lanterns, trick or treating, dressing up in costumes, dressing up pets in costumes, the concept of handing out individual wrapped candies b/c of fears of food tampering (and allergies and other perils), decorating a house to look "spooky" or "haunted," visiting haunted houses for fun, scariness being a fun whimsical thing... you could get a ton of mileage out of Halloween!

* Small talk being a thing. In my part of California, the usual small talk reply to "Hi, how are you?" is "I'm good, how are you?" "Good" (regular talk commences). Another frequent small talk opener is chatting about the weather: "Man, sure is hot today" "I knowwwww" (commiserating over trying to get things done, etc). It'd be interesting to ask her what the usual small talk openers/responses are in her part of South Korea, if they have anything similar or not.

* S'mores while camping, outdoorsy recreation in general. Road trips to national/state parks, leave no trace (ideally - as in, I wish more fellow Americans actually did this), Smokey the Bear (only you can stop forest fires!).

* I guess this isn't a ritual but I'd be really interested in what she thinks of grocery stores having an "ethnic" food aisle (or tiny shelf in part of an aisle) and the concept of Asian supermarkets being distinct from "regular" supermarkets here (if there are any Asian markets near you? I've never lived anywhere more than half an hour away from an Asian market, but I've had plenty of colleagues mention having to drive for hours with their parents just to do the big shop if they weren't living somewhere with a sizable diaspora population).

* Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Japantowns. The concept of having a ____town or a Little Italy or whatnot within a major city.

* Costco!

* Not using the metric system
posted by rather be jorting at 10:49 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


Not sure if done in Korea but my other-asian family was totally surprised at the tradition of marking and keeping a child's height growth on a wall or door jamb. It looked unkempt so marks were erased.
posted by perdhapley at 11:01 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Bringing an apple to the teacher on the first day of school (even if kids don’t do this anymore, there’s still an association between teachers and apples, I think because of this?)
posted by sallybrown at 11:22 AM on September 14


* Tanning being a thing that some Americans actively seek to do, instead of avoiding sun exposure and trying to stay as pale as possible. Fake tans, spray tans, and tanning beds still surprise me when I remember they exist (because maintaining dewy pale/light skin is such a major emphasis in kbeauty and other East Asian beauty trends.)

* Birthday-related things such as: not already being 1 year old the day you're born, not increasing your age count on January 1st, not having a separate age from your "international age"

* MLK Jr. Day

* Korean restaurants in the U.S. including more non-spicy options on the menu b/c spiciness is considered less of a default here
posted by rather be jorting at 11:34 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Ask her about what kinds of rituals existed in her childhood for baby teeth, and tell her about the Tooth Fairy (baby tooth under pillow, replaced with money while child sleeps) if she doesn’t know about it.

Even though it’s not only North American, it’s very common, and it might be quite strange and interesting to someone who didn’t grow up that way.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:41 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


My friends from more elaborately hospitable countries have laughingly remembered how surprised and actually kind of insulted they were at first hearing North American hosts say "help yourself" to food instead of "let me help you" or just being served -- [thinking the American offer was kind of like "I'm not going to help you, you have to do it yourself"] or hearing "make yourself at home" instead of the host insisting on treating them as a special guest who is pampered. You can explain phrases like this that are meant to be hospitable here and that show different ideas about graciousness and comfort. It's always an interesting and humorous conversation.
posted by nantucket at 11:47 AM on September 14 [14 favorites]


The ridiculous popularity of Cinco de Mayo I think seems mostly based in US.

Are there greeting card stores in other countries? I’m thinking now and I can’t recall seeing a Hallmark or similar store in the countries I’ve been to in Europe. I’ve not been to any place further east than Poland though.

Hallmark and Target both have rows and rows of greeting cards that I just don’t see anywhere. A book store or stationery shop might have a single wall with a few rows of cards but not to the extent of stores in US. Heck even the supermarkets can often have several aisles of greeting cards.
posted by affectionateborg at 11:58 AM on September 14


- "you get up, you lose" for saving seats in front of the TV
- "have a blessed day"
- "well bless your heart" (Southern, actually an insult)
- "Have you been saved?" (in very religious towns)
posted by Ms Vegetable at 12:02 PM on September 14


I've heard that in many countries, the question, "What do you do?" is not synonymous with, "What is your job?". Rumor has it that in other countries, people might answer by citing a particular hobby or passion -- "I write poetry", or "I like to garden". Again, I'm not sure if this is accurate.
posted by JD Sockinger at 12:14 PM on September 14


As someone who grew up in both the US and Korea, some of the stuff here is good and others are super off (like, people eat cold cereal and send greeting cards in Korea!)

Here’s my list:

- Tanning.
- High school locker culture.
- Making job decisions around healthcare (what a concept!!)
- Huge portions of food at restaurants that you’re expected to not finish.
- People being fake nice and not being very comfortable with moderate conflict unless it gets super intense
- Underlying racism and history of slavery in the US and how race and class is super intertwined (this doesn’t happen in Korea).
- People are generally uncomfortable with sharing meals and think it’s something intimate you do
- house parties
- at those parties, you just invite friends of friends and anyone you know and that’s ok - that is, some parties aren’t actually gatherings of friends you know.
- People are very uncomfortable with public transit and think it’s less efficient than a car (to be fair, in most of the US, it is)
- School buses
- School dances!! What a thing.
- Gender roles in the US can be both more fluid and more separate.. in my experience, groups of friends in Korea are more mixed gender-wise
- School sports culture - I remember being absolutely boggled by how sports-dominated American schools and society is - like it was an assumption that everyone did a sport
- Did I mention racism? Honest to goodness, this is a huge part of American culture in subtle ways
- In most American cities there are implicit “weird parts of town” that you shouldn’t go to not because there’s crime, but because there’s the “wrong people” living there.. Seoul / Korea doesn’t really have that concept
- Tipping culture / restaurant culture is focused on service
- Families don’t always eat dinner together even if they’re at home at the same time (this blew my mind!!!)
- picky eating
- Gun culture or adjacent hunting / fishing / archery / ATV / motor sports / boating culture
- lawns/backyard pool culture
- outdoor BBQs and grill culture
- stocking stuffers (I don’t think people who celebrate Christmas in Korea do this - the first time I witnessed this I was in my late 20s and was so surprised/excited that this was a real thing)
- people being ‘friends’ with their parents
- people liking being ‘friends’ with authority figures - teachers, police, bosses, etc
- Saying things like “let’s hang out” and other displays of friendliness that aren’t actually true
- Using the word “love” a lot about everything
- People generally split the bill for everything by default at a restaurant rather than fighting each other to try to pay for everyone (I love this)
posted by many more sunsets at 12:19 PM on September 14 [22 favorites]


Knocking on wood to get rid of bad luck if you express hope that some situation works out in your favor. It's not safe to hope outloud! Superstition is a rich vein, but I'll mention "break a leg" as a similar "don't express hope out loud," theater version of the superstition. I'm sure that sounds very weird in countries with different theater traditions.
posted by wires at 12:20 PM on September 14


In general, I would highly discourage you from teaching things that are “common in North America” or “the US” because culture is varied and your experience is not a universal one.

The same goes vice versa - your student’s experience of Korea is not universal either, and not a representative sample.

This misunderstanding happens all the time, where someone will say “OH, my Korean friend said that everyone in Korea does XYZ” and believe that to be true. Also, growing up, every once in a while I’d meet a Korean kid who would believe that ‘absolutely everyone in the US goes to baseball games and nascar games’ because they had learned that from an American English teacher who had taught it as a universal thing — because it was such a part of that teacher’s own background.

And then they’d generalize and start confusing “things that are a part of my life” and “things that are unique to the US”.

So instead, I would urge you to frame it as part of YOUR culture - as in, your hometown and the people you know, and your neighborhood, and to not generalize as much.

This is kind a personal exhortation, because I’ve experienced and witnessed this kind of misunderstanding literally 100s of times!

Sounds like you have a nice ongoing relationship with your student, and I hope you get to share a lot of nice aspects about your lives/cultures with each other!
posted by many more sunsets at 12:31 PM on September 14 [7 favorites]


Thanks again for all these responses.
I should have clarified—I am not seeking this info to teach formal lessons on “North American culture”. I am looking for ideas for habits/traditions that seem very common here and that I take for granted, but may be unfamiliar to someone new to the country—so I can bring them up organically with my student as examples of what “SOME PEOPLE in the US do” so she can be prepared if/when she encounters them. She has expressed interest in learning about these things, and has also been very eager to share examples of things occurring within Korean culture that she thinks may be unfamiliar to me.
I’m going to go ahead and mark this resolved. Thanks again.
posted by bookmammal at 12:45 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


Daylight savings time, when it happens and how it doesn’t in a few spots in the country.

Seasonal flavors—I’m sure that is the case everywhere, but the flavors themselves are probably different. Apples/ pumpkin spice in early fall, candy cane ice cream only available in December, strawberry shortcake in the spring, that kind of thing.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:47 PM on September 14


College sports, especially football and basketball,and associated rituals. Homecoming and prom.

Plenty of US-specific peculiarities around our elections. Iowa and New Hampshire, swing states. The idea of televised debates has been spreading globally.

Refrigerating eggs.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 1:19 PM on September 14


A lot of the things mentioned in this thread are not US specific or even of US origin (breakfast cereal? seasonal flavors? hunting? day light savings??)

As an non-USian these are specifically American things you notice:
National flags everywhere and used as decor, clothing, bikinis etc. "sexy" flags. Very few other countries citizens do this, not event the Welsh proudly make and wear flag underwear as far as I've ever seen. It seems... tacky? A bit scary too sometimes because if you don't know you think they are militant nationalists who might hate foreigners. Same for people wandering around everywhere in camo. Only soldiers do that overseas, it can be a little off-putting.

Televangelists. Also the special rules for anyone who claims to be a pastor even when they are obviously sketchy as fuck. In general, the idea you can just make up a religion and get all the benefits of a well established church is kinda weird.

All the police looking the same big beefy look no matter their other physical characteristics. It's like they are bred in a lab somewhere. They look paramiliatary and carry lots of weapons. They can be really intimidating to foreigners.

Turning right on red- best idea ever. Should be adopted worldwide. Explain the rules though!

Being able to post letters from your home letter box. Genius, see above.

Cheerleaders in schools. It's fucking weird to most foreigners that teenage girls dress up in sexy outfits and dance and cheer for male athletes and their parents. I would never in a million years let me daughter do that, I think it's demeaning, but American parents are proud so don't say anything.

Mainstream American adults liking and taking very seriously things that are widely regarded as for children elsewhere: Harry Potter, YA novels in general, the whole Sci-fi convention culture, Halloween, My Little Pony. The internet is not a good indication of how wide spread this is in other countries, where people might be considered a bit off if they are really into it. So just smile and nod.

The ease of reinventing yourself. Moving and starting over is soooo easy in the US compared to other places. Community colleges and the like aren't a thing most countries. And academic and apprentice programs often have age limits. Most American's like to talk about how they want to do this but it doesn't mean they really are going to or are really unhappy. It's just an option.

Moving far away and starting a whole new independent life with few to no ties to your childhood between age 18-22 being seen as desirable and normal instead of weird and cruel to your parents who raised you.

The idea you must always be employed. Taking time off work to travel or do your own thing is much more normal other places.

For women, the idea you should always be upbeat and girly and cheery and such. Where I come from and other places I've lived it's more like you are expected to be semi-surly and critical, and acting like a child or being bubbly is not well regarded. I think Sister Michael from Derry Girls embodies this well.
posted by fshgrl at 3:13 PM on September 14 [5 favorites]


The "rules" governing American social mores are hugely variable by sub-culture and largely based on what you can get away with, whereas in other more homogeneous countries there are just more rigid and well understood ways to act in all kinds of social situations. End results: most places it is very easy to tell what your should wear or if someone is acting properly or being inappropriate and to know what you should do. That can be VERY hard to tell in the US. Like, is it OK to go for a drink with a male colleague after work if you're a married woman or not? If so where is OK and where is not? What topics can you discuss? Can you approach a stranger and start a conversation? Can you ask them out? All that is much easier to navigate most places.

And finally American culture is very casual and live and let live which can come across as astonishingly rude. If someone dresses sloppily for a nice event and tells fart jokes at dinner I'm definitely going to take that personally, not just look at it as Doug's weird personality, what can you do?
posted by fshgrl at 3:28 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Did I mention racism? Honest to goodness, this is a huge part of American culture in subtle ways

The self-segregation US people do is kinda weird to me as a foreigner. Like, the government and bureaucracies and military and all that seem really well integrated racially and culturally. Movie stars and famous people all seem to hang out no matter what nationality or race or culture they are. But in day to day life that doesn't happen unless you make an effort and you'll get a lot of push back. And even some sports, hobbies, vacation locations etc are seen as being primarily for one race or another. I think this might be getting worse in some ways even.

There is also a similar divide in the US between religious and non-religious people. Like, I have almost NO religious friends in the US but loads in Europe. I know religious Americans from work and hobbies but they absolutely do not socialize, instead they have a parallel , alternative culture with schools, sports leagues social events and media and everything. So if she tries to befriend someone like that don't be offended if they blow her off.
posted by fshgrl at 4:14 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


Tailgating! Drinking beer and grilling sausage in the parking lots/fields that surround sports stadiums before games. Even when it's below freezing and/or snowing out.
posted by octothorpe at 4:27 PM on September 14


Blowing dandelion puffs and making a wish

The tooth fairy

Saying white rabbit to “make” campfire smoke blow the other way

Kids playing ball hockey in the street and yelling CAR to clear the road

Bad luck to open an umbrella indoors, walk under a ladder, be crossed by a black cat

No 13th floor in high rise buildings

Calling your friends’ parents by their first name instead of an honourific (Auntie in many languages, (name)-Amma in Korean)
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:40 PM on September 14


Guest and familial norms are important for Koreans to understand.

Elder deference is not so much a thing in North Am. as it is in the Korea. Same with authority. People are allowed to not drink at social events if they don't want to even if their boss is drinking.

Shoes off or on in the house is much more idiosyncratic (cuts along winter snow lines mostly).

Guns and gun law in America are very much an alien thing to the most of the world.
posted by srboisvert at 5:42 PM on September 14


St Patrick's Day as a holiday that everyone is supposed to participate in - wearing green, drinking beer etc even if you have no personal connection to that part of Ireland.
posted by metahawk at 6:06 PM on September 14


> day light savings??

South Korea doesn’t do daylight savings, and I specifically mentioned it because it was a thing several Korean students I was friends with in grad school asked about in separate conversations.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:07 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


This is very regional but rules about dropping in on people in their homes.

The Allusionist did an entire podcast about the differences in when to say "please" and "thank you" between the US and the UK. (Transcript here)
posted by metahawk at 6:12 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]


No one's mentioned spirit days in elementary / middle / high school? (Connecticut suburban schools; not sure if it's still done)

God I hated them, because how the hell am I supposed to know (or pre-internet commerce / parental prosperity, source) what you think a "50 s" look is? And what does it have to do with how much I care about school?

Because clearly I was more academically focused than every other girl who happened to have their grandma in the same country and access to her poodle skirt.
posted by batter_my_heart at 6:28 PM on September 14


State/County fairs and everything that happens at them?
posted by fiercekitten at 6:44 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


shopkeeper isn't an insulting profession in north America...around the time of the la riots I read an article claiming that many koreans consider it to be.

the cashier weighs produce at checkout
posted by brujita at 7:38 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Thanksgiving Day Parade with Santa at the end then the dog show (and then the day after Thanksgiving with leftovers)
Black Friday (and Cyber Monday)
How all the holidays creep in ridiculously early in retail
Leaving out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer
Easter Bunny and dying Easter Eggs (Easter Egg hunts)
Yuletide channel!
People tying Christmas trees on their cars (and sometimes finding bats in them)
You can also go into Jewish Holidays and hiding Gelt, Passover Seders, Yarzheit candles, leaving stones on gravestones, etc.
Memorial Day "starting summer" and Labor Day "ending" it
Fourth of July = Fireworks
Summer = BBQ!
The phenomenon of Homecoming Football games on Thanksgiving weekend
Movie theater = popcorn and ridiculously expensive snacks
Super Bowl and the commercials (or Puppy Bowl!)
You can also explain the concept of Halal/Kosher food/restaurants and how everything in grocery stores is marked so people know what they can safely buy.
posted by dancinglamb at 9:47 PM on September 14


This is the thread in which I am a Viking, as someone who grew up in both countries and attempted to explain the differences to people since forever. So here’s a bit more.


- The idea of “saving up for college” or the idea of a “college fund” since college is so expensive in the US / not free
- the idea that private colleges are better (Korea’s best university, with social prestige akin to Harvard, is a public university)
- Counterculture paradigm (ie how a “mainstream” vs “alternative” mindset dominates American culture; everything is either “truly indie” or “the man”)
- saying “I like your shirt/shoes/X” as a casual comment (the first time this happened to me I was like ‘Okay.. so?’)
- People mostly don’t take off their shoes at home
- people lie on their beds with their shoes on????
- In certain professional business contexts, everyone isn’t just friendly but pretends that they’re ‘friends’ with each other
- People asking each other “where did you grow up” as a conversation starter since the US is so big
- fshgrl: most places it is very easy to tell what your should wear or if someone is acting properly or being inappropriate and to know what you should do. That can be VERY hard to tell in the US. (This is SO SO true.)
- Saying “please pass the X” during dinner; it’s not considered rude to reach for things with your utensils in Korea because it’s a normal part of eating communally with a lot of dishes/banchan, but in the US the proper way to share dishes is seen as to hold a dish and spoon food on your plate
- In the US, people stay at the entire restaurant for dinner/dessert/drinks/etc. Koreans do this too but it’s equally a common thing to go move to other places for the second / third round.
- Malls. Korea has vertical department stores, but very few horizontal sprawling malls.
- Prom / asking each other out to the school dance
- People blowing their noses during meals is totally okay in the US
- Drive thrus - they exist in Korea but are pretty rare. I honestly get pretty excited about drive thrus in the US because they’re still so fun and new.
- White people who love to love rap and black culture but have no black friends
- Legal culture - “I’ll sue you” as a threat
- Thanksgiving turkey
- winter breaks that are not really seen as vacation but as winter vacation (in korea the semester starts in the spring, and winter vacation is longer)
- College spring break culture (College students in Korea don’t have spring break because they’re already on break; the winter vacation is long.)
posted by many more sunsets at 10:47 PM on September 14 [11 favorites]


And finally American culture is very casual and live and let live which can come across as astonishingly rude. If someone dresses sloppily for a nice event and tells fart jokes at dinner I'm definitely going to take that personally, not just look at it as Doug's weird personality, what can you do?

- People blowing their noses during meals is totally okay in the US

Again, some of these things are location-specific or cohort-specific. In my locations (US midwest/south) and with my sphere of people, Doug would get a talking to at least, and a public reprimand if it continued and there is no nose-blowing at the table (ew, people DO that??).
posted by cooker girl at 7:13 AM on September 15


Not sure how surprising this would be to a South Korean, but it can be really confusing and off-putting to someone from China, where shopkeepers are expected to be polite and helpful but otherwise allowed to express the usual range of emotions or lack thereof:

In the U.S., women and, roughly, servants (in the Confucian sense) are expected to make a show of constant cheerfulness and excitement. Or, perhaps I should say, behaviors that in China would be reserved for people experiencing cheerfulness and excitement are here part of the ordinary ritual of certain interactions.

Stuff like, lots of positive interjections ("Delightful!" "Perfect!" "Wonderful!"), exaggerated head nodding, pitching the voice as if to imply exclamation points all over ("I'll just put that order in! Right now!"), lots of clearly forced smiles.

I had a guest who was super creeped out by a waiter who, after a typically enthusiastic round of order-taking, looked down at her notepad to write something, let her face fall into a neutral expression, and then looked up, made eye contact with her, and moved her mouth into and out of a smile.

It was as obviously conscious a gesture as if the waiter had bowed or something. I had to explain to my guest that it was exactly that, and that she was meant to understand it as such. Whereas I think my guest experienced a sort of uncanny valley effect (she used that phrase) because she interpreted it as a patently insincere expression of the waiter's emotional state.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:28 AM on September 15 [3 favorites]




In the South, strangers will make eye contact and give each other a little smile. Try to do so in northern cities and you might creep people out.

Saying “bless his/her heart” in the South is NOT a nice thing. Quite the contrary.

Making eating sounds (smacking, slurping, etc) while eating is looked down upon.

Breakfast tacos are a thing.
posted by Neekee at 1:09 PM on September 15


are Korean department stores similar to Japanese: every counter( often on each side of a unit)is a separate business? in north american stores one can take items to different sections before paying and leaving.
posted by brujita at 7:27 AM on September 16


Canned pumpkin can be found at just about any American grocery store, in my experience. In some countries, pumpkin in a can would be weird; I don't know if it's available in Korea.

Canned brown bread
is an unremarkable thing in New England (again: in my experience). I can buy it here, near Seattle, but it confuses the cashiers. There must be someone else buying it -- why else would it be in the stores? -- but from the reactions, you'd think I was the only one.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:17 PM on September 16


I don’t know if other places do this, but in childhood if your parent ever uses your full name (whole first name, middle name, last name) you know you are in a lot of trouble.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:55 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]


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