EXPAT LIFE: Cultural differences. This may be the single hardest challenge to overcome when moving to a new country as an expat. Hard to prepare for but even harder to anticipate. Sure, if you’re moving from Miami to Myanmar, you should be expecting that there’d be significant cultural differences, so you would plan for this.
But moving to another western economy, with English speaking ex-British colonists? That should be a snap, surely? Well perhaps that was the biggest expat mistake we made – assuming it would be a lot like home in the US. It wasn’t, and our lack of understanding meant a slow adaptation to our new home.
What are these major cultural differences that we found so hard initially?
Religiosity and Conservatism
As a non-practicing Catholic (married to an atheist scientist), I was brought up to go to church but it’s not something I feel the need to do now as an adult. Religion for us as an expat couple is not part of our lives. This makes us quite different though from most American families who if not Christian (the vast majority), then may follow Jewish or some other faith. We have no issue with religion but being non-religious is not common in the USA. Not only is it part of everyday life for Americans (even Democrats and leftist) it’s something hard to avoid conversation about or not to feel ‘different’ from the majority as a result.
Along with much stronger religious ties for many Americans, comes an innate conservatism, which places higher value on the traditional and accepted way of life. As Australians we perhaps are guilty of not upholding traditions at times but probably because we once were convicts rather than puritans or other persecuted religious folk, this approach is not something we find easy to understand. Whether shown in the form of censorship, social attitudes or strong patriotism, conservatism is a much more common American value than we realized.
Sense of Humour
Not all Australians nor expats, will have a hugely different sense of humour than Americans. In our case though, our larrikin-like humour, ranging from mocking disrespect, to sarcasm or irony, was sometimes lost on others. It was plain at the beginning that humour disguised as blunt truthfulness or worse, friendly ridicule, was often getting misunderstood. We certainly struggled at first, even when it was ourselves, we were mocking. This is something that you can work on though. As people get to know you, they understand the objective of your humour and see that it is not to hurt anybody or seriously criticize their country. What is wonderful is when you grow to a common understanding and all share in the joke equally. That’s a real sense of achievement.
No Nudity or Cussing Please! We are American!
One amazing thing we were surprised at initially was the way censorship here only allowed for only very modest levels of nudity or use of profanity. Over the years in Australia we had become anaesthetized to the use of swear words and a certain amount of nudity. Australians just tend to swear a lot in everyday life. Seeing someone’s breasts or buttocks pixelated out on American TV seemed quite funny when we first arrived, as did the rewriting of subtitles to patch over unacceptable language.
How strict some standards are, was highlighted when our son received detention at his NJ public school for saying the word ‘damn’, an expression we wouldn’t have even blinked at. Once we knew what was expected though, it was something we watched out for as a family. Although we tried there were still hiccups with the odd cr.p, s… and f… slipping out here and there. Funnily enough, the word ‘bitch’ which we regard as swearing, is a prolific word that doesn’t even register there as “cussing”. The irony of US censorship for us was and still is, the acceptability of violence over cussing and nudity by media censors.
Sense of worldliness
Australia is not perhaps the worldliest of nations, with our convict background and young history. It is not so long ago that Barry McKenzie and the Australian ocker were the most recognizable images from our home country. Despite these cultural cringe moments from our history, we have grown towards becoming a mature economy, where good luck and prosperity have helped more Australians become aware of the wider world, mostly through overseas travel.
In comparison, when we first arrived in the US, it felt that few locals, had much knowledge of the outside world beyond their borders. A lot of Americans it seems, are more sedentary when it comes even to travelling outside their native state. Whether through lack of financial resources or deep ties binding them to their hometowns, it seems Americans can be a bit reluctant to expand their horizons. Even though many people can access a huge array of different media sources, the majority are parochially-focused news outlets that tend to reinforce a US-centric view of the world. Being the biggest economy in the world, perhaps only nutures this. You will always have a different perspective of things when you are the biggest fish in the pond, versus one of the smaller fishes.
Personal Rights and Freedoms
This is way too big a subject to try and explain in a few lines, as it pervades many areas of life in the US. However, the average American is keenly aware of their sense of freedom, and their own individual rights. These values are drummed into them from an early age when they first get an understanding of what their forefathers fought for in the War of Independence. Freedom, democracy and individual rights are also perceived by many as what the US military still fights for overseas e.g. in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the War on Terror.
There is huge respect for the Founding Fathers and the principles enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. One of these principles is the second amendment which provides the right to bear arms, which is an extremely controversial issue in the US but others cover the right for free speech and other essential bases for a democratic, free society. Respect for individual rights and freedoms though are also reflected widely in US society in many other ways. Just a few examples might include:
- the decentralization of government down to the lowest level-the people want to govern themselves and decide their own fates;
- business entrepreneurship laws which tends to favour the business owner as an individual (although not completely) rather than broader groups such as consumers and workers;
- the right to religious freedoms: a historical privilege that reflects the many persecuted religious groups that emigrated to early America. The application of these laws today is probably more aimed at Christians but favors these conservative viewpoints sometimes over others e.g. the right to refuse services to gay couples.
- Attitudes to child-rearing: children’s individual rights and freedoms seem to be prioritized above other social norms or group welfare at times.
Socialistic approaches like the concept of universal healthcare, paid for by all, are not seen by most Americans as constructive community approaches – many individuals do not want to pay for others, to enjoy the same rights they have earnt through their own hard work. These are just a few examples but they have enormous implications and are hard to digest when your own society back home, is extremely different.
It may surprise you to hear that sometimes the smallest things were the hardest to adjust to. Accepting that driving practices here are different than home took a very long time to sink in.
Minor occurrences such as drivers who do not stop at pedestrian crossings and those that toot their horns because we didn’t speed through an intersection fast enough have often made us (more often me) crazy with anger. Admittedly, this is mostly a NJ issue, although it is likely the same would have happened in NY or perhaps Connecticut. Most other states are different.
Over time, we tried not to let these upset us and to laugh them off mostly without a lot of success. An honest view is that we never really adjusted to ‘bad road manners’, as our cultural views are too cemented in place. We did however adjust our driving in a downward way, to become worse at parking, forgetting to indicate at turns and adopting the ‘NJ turn’.
What many of these ‘issues’ boil down to is Americans having a different value system to us. In hindsight, this was always going to be the case. Perhaps if we had researched more, then sat down and assessed American culture more thoroughly, we might have been better prepared mentally. Most of our opinions sadly were formed from media or infrequent exposure to Americans – really not solid enough information to check on what actual cultural differences existed.
Well down the track after arriving, we have come to terms with many of these differences. Perhaps you could sum it up in some cases, as agreeing to disagree, rather than us converting to American values. However, the big thing that you don’t visualize at the beginning as a new expat, is that at some future time you will soften your views. It seemed highly unlikely but after time passes, you start to empathize with neighbors, friends, workmates and others about issues that affect their country.
Most of all, living there gives you the best opportunity ever, of understanding how Americans think and why – something that is not so easily understood, when you live far away, when your societal values are so different, and you have no idea of the contexts. It is a huge education in what you could never have understood just as a tourist.
That’s expat life for you.