I am on a trip down the west coast of the US, taking in a few large cities and some smaller places. It’s easy coming to the States, apart from the money. Or not so much the money, but the tick I’ve developed whereby I can’t help comparing the notes to Monopoly. It’s boring for anyone in the vicinity and I’m dealing with it. The language is by and large the same; the culture is familiar from films and TV; America’s political news was the world’s news even before Trump made it dangerously compelling, and people are friendly and keen to help.
But there’s still a surprising amount you have to get to grips with. There’s the driving, for instance. Not just the other side of the road, but you can turn right – yes right – on a red light – yes, a red light! It goes against everything you’ve ever learned but if you don’t do it, you’ll get beeped from behind.
Pedestrians seem to have the right of way, pretty much all the time – please don’t rely on this as an instruction, but it is my experience.
You must have the right change for the bus – and in San Fransisco anyway people really do give up their seats for the elderly or incapacitated.
You pay in advance for petrol – I mean, gas.
Rest rooms aren’t for resting in.
Everything is a bit more expensive than the price tag.
People talk loudly in the street and on the bus, about their $5 breakfast, about how they were dumped, about their mum – sorry, mom’s – ailments.
You can’t drink openly on the street and health care isn’t free.
These are the codes that make one society different to another. I’ve been thinking about how these differences probably exist in a smaller scale within one’s own neighbourhood too. One family will have habits and expectations around eating and meal times different to another’s. Schools have different rules to do with playtime or homework. Work places are riddled with unspoken codes and traditions. On a more detailed scale, between individuals, one person’s understanding of a text will be different to the next; she might peddle in irony, and he might not realise he has to read between the lines. He might say he’s tired which is why he doesn’t want to go out to dinner; she might interpret it as a verdict on her friends. She’s doesn’t check because she doesn’t want to seem needy; he doesn’t understand why she’s upset and is too scared to ask.
As a foreigner you will be largely forgiven for transgressions. There’s usually someone you can ask (though it’s best to check the rules in advance if you’re hiring a car).
There is no information kiosk to help with the minefield of social misunderstandings. Being aware is the first part of getting it right. Being aware that there will be a code at your new school or workplace; being aware that not everyone will get that you’re joking; being aware that if you don’t tell her she won’t know. And if it’s gone too far, call someone experienced in dispute resolution or communication coaching to help you unravel the difficulty and give you some useful skills in how to avoid the misunderstanding the next time.