Smiles, 7 Continents, A Pat on the Back, and We’re All Set! : New Insights on American Culture

Recently some new friends have moved to the U.S. from Spain. On one of their first night’s in town, we sat down to dinner and they had some interesting questions and speculations that have led me to some new conclusions about us Americans.

Based on their first three days spent in snowy Rochester NY,  this couple questioned me about American English and culture. It started when the waitress asked for our drink order, “Are you all set with that wine list?” ……After she left, their questions oozed out. “What is this term, ‘all set’?” If you try to translate “set,” you get a variety of translations, none of which refer to the idiomatic expression of one being “all set”. Apparently this is something that isn’t used in the Irish-English vernacular that they learned. Think about it, we say this all the time! Especially in customer service. Imagine how many foreigners we are confusing. “Are you all set?” …”I don’t know….am I?”  Once I taught them the proper response, and how they can use it so easily, “we are all set…,” “I’m all set,”… they were thrilled with this easy-to-use colloquial phrase.

The next topic we covered was geography. [Most] Americans are outstandingly horrible at geographic orientation.  This is something I’ve known for awhile. It’s something I constantly try to better myself at, in order to smother this stereotype that is rapidly spreading around the world. In this couple’s first three days, they had already picked up one it. Twice they were asked where they were from, and when responding, “Spain,” twice, they received comments referring to Spain’s geographic location in South America…… In case you have fallen victim to the failure of public education in the U.S.* please note that Spain is in Europe, and kindly go find a map to study. This led our dinner conversation to a nice discussion about education and geography. How many continents did you learn there were? Apparently it’s solely an American view to learn that there are seven continents. Much of the rest of the world learns that there are only 5 land masses making up our great Earth…who is right? Fascinating, no?

We then moved on to one of their other observations- how American people greet one another. Spaniards, and many other countries, greet each other with a close hug and a kiss or two on the cheek (Spain does 2!). Our friends pointed out that Americans seem to be slightly fearful of the closeness of this hug. It’s true, we definitely have different ideas about personal space, and especially if we are just meeting someone (except for those of you who come from big Italian families), we are usually more reserved and we keep our distance. So much distance, that it seems we prefer to do the barely-touching double-pat on the back. While this is disguised to look like a hug, appearances can be deceiving. Take notice next time to see if even your closest of friends dare let your shoulders touch, and if they give you a genuine hug or you feel a little double-pat! While we Americans don’t think much of this, and we aren’t put off by the distance, others probably view this as cold and void of feelings!

But alas, our smiles save the day. Their last observation, is the one that salvages our touchy-feely issues. We Americans, or at least, us Rochesterians, are never short on smiles. “Everyone here smiles so much! Always smiling! Strangers, waitresses, everyone!”. Coming from a country where the wait-staff is not tipped, and therefore greets everyone with a “Que quieres?” (What do you want?),” a smiley “Hi! How are you? What can I get for you today?” goes a long, long way, past our double-pat on the back! Alas, we may have personal bubbles, but at least our smiles and our friendliness pierce right through them!

What have you noticed about American culture through your travels?

*Disclaimer: I am a public school teacher. And yes, I feel that our American public education has failed in teaching geography. However, this does not represent my actual opinion of American public schools!


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