In part 1 of our blog on American Culture we discussed the American propensity to work hard, skip lunch, and devote oneself to the office. In some cultures this devotion is imposed from the top down; from the boss to the worker. In American culture however, it’s often a choice made by the worker based on the anticipation of financial reward. Especially in industries requiring a heavy workload, like law, consulting, and finance, this can lead to a kind of insulation of the American worker from his/her colleagues.
For the foreign worker trying to make friends with his or her American colleagues, this can make for some frustration and even loneliness. But one way to bridge the gap is to learn and bank (save) some American cultural references, especially from our films and TV shows. You may hear an American say: “Say hello to my little friend!” (Carlito’s Way) or “I’ll be back…” (The Terminator). You might hear someone say: “He’s a close talker…” (Seinfeld) referring to someone who stands uncomfortably close when speaking to you. If something goes wrong at the office, someone might say, “Houston, we have a problem…” (Apollo 13), or maybe “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse…” (The Godfather). If someone makes an error and emits: “D’oh!” he is clearly making a reference to The Simpsons.
An all-encompassing investigation of current American culture might begin with a link to reddit.com, an American social news aggregate. Its topics range from (limited) high-culture, through middle-culture, to the lowest possible corners of social interaction, with a wicked and irreverent sense of humor. As with any internet exploration, tread carefully, and avoid those threads that you are not comfortable with; but frankly, a half hour on Reddit will provide you with more of an American cultural education than a second semester course at a top Ivy League school.
As mentioned in Part 1, Americans are happy to give advice and opinions on things (even if you didn’t ask us and even if we are not really experts!). A non-native can initiate a conversation with almost any American if you ask us “good place to…” eat, shop, travel, ski, hear jazz, hike… any opportunity to share our knowledge! Ask us… and then we’ll ask you.
Being a “foodie” is a phenomenon which is in play across the planet, but perhaps no more passionately than in New York City. We love to talk about food: how to make it, where to buy the best ingredients, the best chefs and restaurants; how to construct a vacation around the hottest chili, or the coldest beer. We love to take pictures of food. You may not get an American to show you a picture of his new baby, but he will happily show you a photo of the best steak or bowl of ramen he ever had.
Which leads us to the best current path to gastro-connection in the American culture. We want to know where YOU eat. Are you Japanese? What’s your favorite place for sushi? Are you Korean? I would love to know from YOU where in NYC is the best place for bibimbap? If you’re Italian: what do you think of the espresso at St. Ambroeus? Hey, you’re French: what do you think of our version of a brasserie: Balthazar? One of our German clients told me she could only find the black bread she craved in Brighton Beach. Often clients will bring me a sample of their favorite snacks. Edamame with bamboo shoots: delicious! A Chinese treat called a “Pineapple Bun” with a “Mandarin Duck” (actually tea and coffee mixed together): amazing! A box of Japanese Shiroi Koibito cookies: fantastic! A Russian student introduced me to sweet tamarind (never even saw it before) and Imperial Vodka. A Brazilian student brought me my first can of Guarana: a perfect, delicious, refreshing beverage.
We value these gestures with deep gratitude, and strive to give back, and the conversations that emerge from these exchanges are always delightful, educational, and bonding.
And now…on to a completely subjective and non-comprehensive list of American cultural touchstones, many of which date from 15-20 or more years ago but totally permeate our current culture:
Seinfeld (VERY 80/90’s Upper West Side NYC), Friends, The Simpsons (many years ago predicted Trump would be president), Star Trek, Law and Order (in about 5 permutations), SNL (it used to be referred to as “Saturday Night Live”), The Daily Show (with Jon Stewart) and The Tonight Show (in 6 permutations starting in 1954!), 60 Minutes (news program), Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune (game shows), reality shows like The Bachelor, The Kardashians, and The Housewives of…[various cities], talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show, and news and weather on New York 1 (very local NYC news culture).
And if you’re interested in ultra-classic/super-dated (50’s, 60’s, 70’s), check out: The Twilight Zone (back in style!), Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, The Groucho Marx Show/You Bet Your Life, The Flintstones (super-popular animated show for kids), The Brady Bunch (first take on blended families), Bewitched (a genie slave living with her astronaut lover) and more: The Addams Family, The Avengers, Gunsmoke.
The Godfather, Star Wars, Jaws, The Terminator, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall. A few movies that are shown every year around the holidays: The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and of course, two shows featuring a beloved cartoon character Charlie Brown: It’s the Great Pumpkin and A Charlie Brown Christmas. All must-sees!
Food (totally, stereotypically American):
Pizza, burgers, hot dogs, “French” (NOT) fries, bagels, bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches (BLT’s), grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, ham and cheese on rye bread, macaroni and cheese (we do like cheese, especially melted!), wings wings wings, fried chicken, milkshakes, anything grilled outside during the summer.
NY-centric Sports (we have two of each):
The Mets and The Yankees (our two baseball teams…New Yorkers are only loyal to one or the other), The Rangers and The Islanders (ice hockey), The Nets and The Knicks (basketball).
And then there’s the All-American institution of “football”. This is not soccer. You MUST know all about football (local and/or national), especially if you’re hanging out at all in the Midwest (we confirmed this with an ex-Ohio resident.) The Super Bowl, which takes place usually in February, started in 1967, and at some point you probably will get invited to a Super Bowl Party, where you will without a doubt drink a lot of beer.
Check out this the famous Super Bowl half-time show in the pouring rain – featuring the late legendary Prince.