Xykademiqz Attempts to Socialize

Disclaimer: This post was not meant to be obnoxious, but might have ended up being so anyway. It illustrates the experiences my husband and I have had with the arguably very limited number of Americans who happen to be our friends or acquaintances, so for us they do represents Americans. Why we have had such experiences is probably a complex interplay of the fact that we are immigrants, how we are generally as a family (we might be very crappy people indeed and oblivious to it), the part of the country we live in, the fact that we are middle-aged and married with kids (as opposed to young and/or single and/or kidless etc.), and the fact that we hang out with people whom we mostly meet through work at a university or through our kids, i.e. with generally middle-class parents like us who live in this particular area of the country. I understand the US is big and there are many different kinds of people here. But these are our experiences, and being a scientist I have tried to distill the general patterns based on experiential evidence. If you feel something I wrote is too harsh or not representative at all of anything that you have ever experienced, then I say good for you! You are very fortunate and enjoy your awesome social life! 

I have been in the US for 15 years, of which 10 where I am now. I believe I am well assimilated. Socialization with the local Americans still feels quite unnatural to me, as there are a lot of aspects of it that are very different from where I grew up.

1) All build-up, no main event

This is a phenomenon I have now come to expect of nearly every event for which one doesn’t have to pay through the nose. Whatever is free or cheap — a 4th-of-July parade, a concert in the park, Halloween trick-or-treating — starts with many weeks of relentless propaganda, be it on the radio or via emails from the neighborhood list, followed by the main event that would generously be characterized as ‘meh.’

I remember a few years ago a colleague made a really big deal out many of us professorial moms making it to her neighborhood for the 4th of July parade. There were many emails, texts, a whole lot of activity to schedule us meeting and decorations. In reality, it was a 10-min walk, followed by a fun-and-games carnival consisting of literally two lawn games and a beer stand. The colleague who was the organizer left after 45 min.

Anything that the schools organize are weeks and weeks of relentless emails and colorful flyers, followed by the event that is very brief, very cheaply organized, crowded, and generally having a very poor fun-to-hassle ratio. So I no longer go. My husband doesn’t mind as much, so he occasionally takes the kids.

The same holds for individual events. I have been at a number of parties where the person spends a lot of time on colorful invitations, sends numerous emails infused with the list of all the fun things that will be happening, and then the main event is 2 hours long, there is nowhere near enough food or drinks, the party activities are very brief and very lame, and the whole thing is… underwhelming.

I understand the underlying reasons — everything is expensive, and nobody wants to spend money on anything.  But what’s all the pre-event hullabaloo then? It just raises everyone’s expectations (or perhaps just my expectations, cause I am naive), and then the poor execution is a real let-down.

2) Dinner parties

When you have dinner guests over in my home country, there is a great emphasis on food as food=caring, so it’s assumed that you will put in the time to prepare some of the most delicious things you can make. When we have people over, I spend a lot of time cooking and usually make the food that takes longer to make than my usual repertoire, something people don’t have a chance to eat every day. Also, in my culture guests are king, and having people over generally means you spend a lot of hours eating and talking and having fun.

This has not been my experience here. Again, I apologize in advance if this feels like I am offending anyone, but this has been occurring very regularly.

Here goes…

2a) Food

Outside of Thanksgiving, I have never been to anyone’s house where I felt they went out of their way to prepare dinner for the guests. It’s usually something very quick, like what I would make on Tuesday night after work. The portions are limited and it is not expected that anyone would want seconds; only the amount expected to be eaten is prepared.

This is something really unheard of in my culture, where it is imperative to make sure your guests have had enough (or more than enough) to eat. If there are no leftovers that means I have failed as a hostess and didn’t make enough. In contrast, when visiting my American friends, the hosts routinely decide how much everyone eats and that is exactly what gets made , and no more (e.g. 2 hotdogs per kid, without a chance that an adult maybe wants one or a kid would want three). For instance, at some point we had one of my Eldest’s friends over with his dad and brother. The friend was quite astounded at the food that was left over and made a snide remark about us not being able to count. The dad tried to save it by stating that people often made enough for leftovers, but it did make me feel very uncomfortable. What is considered being a good host where I come from appears to make me a dumb waster of time and money here. It is also interesting that some  friends who are careful about having no leftovers and restricting portions at their place are happy to go for seconds and thirds at our place.

(This has not been the case when I visit my Chinese friends, where there is generally plenty and a variety of food, and the attitude towards hosting is similar to my own native culture.)

2b) Overstaying One’s Welcome

Another aspect of entertaining over dinner is how long these events are supposed to last.  In my home country, having guests over is an entire-evening ordeal, with hours of talking and fun. Alas, not here. It took a while to get used to, but now I  consider it a rule: assume that Americans want you out of their house in no more than 2 hours, no matter how fabulous of a time you feel you are having; after 1.5-2 hours the hosts start cleaning up, which I consider a cue that we should really get going. (The same people might stay at our place considerably longer.)

I was really disappointed a few months ago, as we traveled as a family. In the city where we went on vacation lives a very good friend of mine from graduate school, whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years. He’s married with no kids. We went there with drinks and ice-cream (which is what they told us to bring), they ordered takeout, and still after about 2 hours they started to clean up, so we helped and then left. I was really disappointed, because I hadn’t seen him and his wife in a very long time, and god knows when we will meet next, and the most important thing was apparently to not have us over for too long or to not have their routine disturbed or what have you (in case you are wondering, the kids were angels, watched a movie the whole time).

Conclusion: Basically, my impression is that Americans with whom I have had a chance to socialize are happy to entertain (in general, or possibly just me and my family) as long as they don’t have to spend much time or money on it, or perturb their routine. But they really like to decorate flyers and Evites. And they don’t seem to mind us spending both time and money on entertaining them; they might think we are really stupid and wasteful for doing it, though.

What say you, blogosphere? Are these common features across the US? Do they vary with age group/part of country/when you met your friends (young and single vs old or partnered)? Any other immigrant experiences regarding mingling with  the natives? 

54 comments

  1. My (young, American, academic) husband and I do have dinner parties, which usually are 4-5 hour events with multiple courses that we spend days planning and the entire day-of preparing. That may slow down a bit now that we have a kid, but I suspect the parties will be equally elaborate, just less frequent while we adjust. We have friends with different tastes in dinner parties. I’d put them in 3 categories a) elaborate food/multiple courses b) potluck get-togethers and c) casual inclusion in a normal family meal. I enjoy all of these.

  2. I have certainly had similar experiences – and yes, it makes sense to me that if you don’t have leftovers, someone might have gone home hungry – it’s just embarrassing if all the food is gone! Also, to me, part of the POINT of having people over is to cook food that is a little more elaborate and maybe is best made in larger quantities (e.g. many dessert recipies that I think I make well are for at least 8-10 generous servings) – and then for at least a couple of days afterwards, enjoy the delicious left-overs as a recompense for the extra effort of making special food. Although the BEST is when people feel comfortable enough to say “I really loved that dish, could I possibly have some of the leftovers for lunch tomorrow?” that feels like I have done a good job on the food, which means I have really shown my guests that I liked them, really been hospitable.

    And the short event! The number of times I’ve “gone for a drink” with a north American colleague or group to find that they actually meant one drink, leave after 45 minutes, not “spend the whole evening having a good catch-up and conversation”. Mind you, the drinking places I’ve encountered in North America (outside of Newfoundland, which is very UK-like in these terms in my experience; and with the caveat that I’ve not been further west than the eastern prairie-forest border regions yet) have not exactly been places for a fun evening unless your idea of fun is get drunk/chat up strangers.

    [note: same provisos and caveats as Xykademiqz, and I only lived in North America for a few years as a post-doc without kids, where most of my ‘contemporaries’ were young couples, so some of the awkward may just have been the usual singles versus couples thing]

  3. For some reason I thought you were in the midwest, and that food thing is totally violating the midwestern culture. Whenever we have a party, there’s always enough leftovers for a second party. That’s how we were brought up and that’s what we grew up with. Maybe you have weird transplant friends from like NYC or something. You should be getting more than you can eat of casseroles and jello molds and cream cheese with salami and little hotdogs in sauce. And desserts using Pillsbury products.

    Here in the South, with my limited experience of parties (really we mostly just do kid parties and work parties at work, but we used to entertain/be invited places more), there’s plenty to eat too. (Not always the highest quality stuff to eat… but if my biggest complaint is supermarket desserts, that’s not so bad. Plus I like the bbq catering that a lot of people around here get for parties.) Northern CA parties also have lots of wine and cheese if nothing else, and tend to linger for hours. East Coast parties were shorter and less food-related. So-Cal parties have been light on food.

    Re: the kid parties and events, we take turns (though DC1’s best friend’s parents throw awesome parties). I don’t think they’re supposed to be fun for grown-ups. And we haven’t done a fourth of July yet because it’s too hot. I have to draw a line somewhere. I do remember fireworks being magical, but my kids are just going to have to wait until they go to Disneyland or something to experience that.

    Re: length of time. Kid parties last 2 hours and thank goodness for that. We hire out our kid parties and those are 2 hours because that’s how long they last. Whenever we’ve thrown a party people tend to linger for hours… That may be because we have enough food and drink to last days. (Guests usually bring alcoholic beverages because in the South people have to bring something and we have no taste in wine and beer but we’re amazing cooks.) Or it may be that we’re sparkling hosts who only invite interesting people. Though we haven’t had a real party in THREE YEARS other than small dinner parties of at most 2 couples and their babies. We need to get over the kitten destruction before we can have another one. Also we need that third toilet back and that bathroom floor replaced.

    Also we just invite people via email because we are not crafty. Occasionally I think about using doodle scheduler, but we haven’t gone to that level of technology yet. Generally we find a time that a base couple can come and then invite additional people as add-ons.

    You would approve of our parties.

  4. I quite agree with all your assessments. Especially the one with overhyping rather lame events and even places sometimes. Like once after along drive following like a hundred signs near a popular town for a picnic area, my husband and I discovered two sadlooking barbeque stations along a muddy road. Maybe my memories of a picnic in my home country are rather fanciful, but there it is.

  5. Aw, this makes me sad for you that you don’t have better friends! Especially regarding dinner parties – we certainly go out of our way to prepare special food & lots of it. & it’s almost always an all evening affair (little kids and work nights sometimes cut things short). We do have very close friends and family over often for some hum-drum meals but it’s more about frequency and I wouldn’t classify that as dinner party. However I realize not everyone cooks so I certainly don’t mind take out, but cleaning up after 2 hours is rude I think. (Although one thanksgiving my motherinlaw stayed for 5 hours. I was ready to clean up and shoo her out at that point!)

    That said, I am always so touched when we visit friends in Mexico – they really pull out all the stops which makes me feel like we don’t do enough when hosting them.

  6. We haven’t had friends over for dinner in ages (5 years? 10?), but when family come they generally stay for several hours—even if we go out to a restaurant to eat.

    I recognize the massive-hype-lame-event phenomenon—I think it comes from people not realizing how much effort a good event really takes, and how little of that effort is the advertising. But I’ve been fortunate in living in a town where there are a lot of events, and some of them quite good. After a year or two, you learn which events are the good ones, and ignore the rest. Some of the low-key events (like a small parade) can be just right for a young child, while terminally boring for one just a couple of years older.

    We’ve been fortunate as parents in not having to put up with a lot of useless events—our son has been part of a theater community that puts on some pretty decent shows. When they do a fundraiser for their scholarship fund, they call on a bunch of the older kids to do monologs, songs, and other “talent show” stuff, most of which is at least mildly entertaining and some of which is professional (often from college kids coming back to share) These are certainly a big step up from the usual school play or school talent show. There was a fund-raiser last night that was scheduled to start at 6 and ran until all the scheduled performers and the open-mic volunteers were done—about 3.5 hours. And a lot of people hung around chatting afterwards—I left at 10, and there were still about a 1/3 of the audience still hanging out.

    When our son was younger, I helped start a “family science night” at his private school. If I’d done it all myself, it would probably have been the sort of 20-minute event you are encountering, but I managed to get half a dozen parents each to find and set up two “science” stations (the Exploratorium website is a treasure trove for such things) and kids had a lot of fun. Many of the parents participated in the hands-on stuff, and those who didn’t generally seemed to be having a good time chatting with each other. It is possible to have events that are fun even for the somewhat geeky, introverted people like me.

    Of course, my wife and I stayed away from school events that seemed to have no purpose but drinking or schmoozing, and our whole family avoids organized sports, so we’ve avoided some of the most mind-numbing of the events.

  7. (1) Kid parties are brief because kid parties fucken sucke for adults, and the adults are in charge.

    (2) Dunno exactly where you live, but this is not at all how adult parties in NYC work. People have lots of food and drink and stay late.

  8. I don’t like all the build-up for lame events, but I think that is part of the US culture, just like super overly glowing letters of recommendation. I think no one would bother going if you didn’t have the advertising because they would suspect something really, really lame.

    For amount of food, in my mind, if I can’t have seconds at a party, I blame the hosts for not knowing how to entertain. I’m at an age however where our friends are just learning to behave as adults and have kids so I assume they don’t know how to do these things instead of purposely limiting food supplies.

    For party timing, it depends on how much “cleaning up” they do and when. I’ve often been at dinner parties where they will clear the plates from the table and load the dishwasher, but my sense is that they just want to tidy up a bit before moving on to the next event, like a board game or hanging out in the living room, outside, etc. Maybe I’m dense and am actually overstaying my welcome, I grew up with socially awkward parents that never hosted or went to dinner parties. The cleaning up, though, in these cases happens right at the end of the meal, not after chatting/ doing something else after dinner and then going back to the dinner table after an hour or two. That would definitely signal time to leave in my mind.

  9. Your fellow immigrant of 20 years (childless) co-signs.

    I’ll add that in my culture the hosts beg the guests not to leave even if they themselves are propping eyelids open with matchsticks and have the most important meeting of their life the next day, which is all part of the party ritual.

  10. (1) Kid parties are brief because kid parties fucken sucke for adults, and the adults are in charge.
    What are you talking about? I love it when my friends invite me to a birthday party for their kids! Kids are adorable!

  11. I’ll add that in my culture the hosts beg the guests not to leave even if they themselves are propping eyelids open with matchsticks and have the most important meeting of their life the next day, which is all part of the party ritual.

    AHAHAHA! This! Totally! That’s what I grew up with, as well. There is this elaborate dance, where the guests pretend they are leaving and the hosts beg them to stay, and then the guests stay a little more, and this goes on several times. As a host, you are never supposed to show you’d rather the guests went home already. So the guests pick up on subtle clues, like a drop in your enthusiasm when begging them to stay, as a hint to leave if they want to be considerate.

    Also, at dinner parties, no cleanup while the guests are there. You can take the dishes to the kitchen in order to replace them with new ones for the next course, but no washing the dishes or loading the dishwasher; the point is to spend all the time focused on the guests.

  12. My mother was the champion of scooping guests back in from the front door when they’d nearly made it out 🙂 I’d love to be like her but the most I can manage in the US when my guests get up to leave after the 2 hour mark that they’re told is polite is “I’m really enjoying our time together. Why don’t we have a coffee/nightcap on the porch/den?”

    We do have some US friends who break the mould. They have parties that go on until the wee hours, and arrange things spontaneously without fanfare. We are part of their “fun friends” who are up for anything without planning and the crowd that these spontaneous gatherings draws appears to be more relaxed and not hung up on the 2-hour/4-hour thing. Some of that is the childless bit, but not all. It seems in the US that to be available at short or no notice is somehow bad, as if being caught doing nothing is shameful.

    A couple of our “fun friends” who are often available at short notice have a young daughter and we’re happy to include her in our plans. She parties until she drops and then nobody pays her much heed when she crashes out in the spare bedroom. I also remember the role of children was different outside the US from most parties we go to. When my parents had parties, I could be around or not, as I wished. I’d usually been fed earlier when I was young, or with the guests when I was old enough. The focus was not on me and I went to bed when I wanted. Certainly the rhythms of the party were not dictated by my routine or needs.

  13. It seems in the US that to be available at short or no notice is somehow bad, as if being caught doing nothing is shameful.

    Oh, yes! Even with kids’ playdates, we quickly realized that unless we called/texted the parents no later than 8 am Saturday, or better yet during the preceding work week, there was no chance of a playdate that weekend at all. As we all work/go to school/daycare, we keep our weekends unstructured and would be open to last-minute fun stuff, and we initially expected to be able to find someone to do that with, but we have since pretty much given up. Indeed, it looks like something is wrong with you if you are not booked well in advance; like you are not in control and your life is disorganized. I think it’s part of the same phenomenon as the whole busyness bull$hit. I believe it really is cultural, similar to how engineering prof says above that the overhype is akin to the glitter-heavy letters of recommendation.

    Btw, my house is the only one in our neighborhood with lights on past 10 pm. Gotta love American suburbia.

  14. HaHa yes, it’s now 11:35 pm and I’m still reading the NYT. I wonder how much of the socializing problem is due to the early-to-bed habit. It’s difficult to have a proper dinner party if your guests are sleepy by 8h30 pm.

  15. This post and the ensuing discussion reminded me of one of my favorite short stories written by Stephen Leacock: The Awful Fate of Melpomenus Jones. Perhaps your hosts are trying to spare you and your family this terrible fate?

  16. I had similar experiences in the Midwest. I remember being shocked at people washing dishes right after dinner (unimaginable where I come from – you are supposed to sit around and talk and drink). I live on the East Coast now, have two children, and things are completely different. We get together with friends often, and party until late, with nobody cleaning up. We all try to make something special, but sometimes we just throw something on the grill, and hang out. If kids are around, it usually goes way past their bedtime (if it’s not a school night) and nobody complains.

    I have always been the last-minute kind of person, and cannot get myself to plan anything. I generally don’t hang out with people that require months of planning for every little thing – we tend to stress each other out. I was lucky to have found a few kindred spirits among my neighbors and my kids’ friends’ parents, and some of them are now really good friends. It did take close to ten years of living in this city to get to that point.

    I hope you find some proper friends too!

  17. I don’t think of cleaning up as something that means guests have to leave. (In the midwest, at that point guests are supposed to offer to help, and then it goes back and forth 3 times depending on how much the host actually wants help with cleaning up– cleaning is a form of bonding– possibly it’s a historical thing from corn shucking and barn raising parties. In the South my guests will often start cleaning up themselves without me doing anything and I have to ask them to stop or thank and help them. Maybe that’s historical from bugs and heat causing rotting food or something.) I think that’s just a cultural difference. There are a lot of cultural differences even across the US where when you (you here being the universal “you”) realize their meaning is different than what you think they mean based on where you’re from and not rude like it would be back home.

    Also I don’t try to force guests to stay because that would be impolite. If they’re having a terrible time, or they have someplace they have to get to, I don’t want them to force them to stay. That’s just a different dance than the one you’re used to. I’m always on the alert for stifled yawns and watch checking as a queue that the host has had too much.

    My biggest cultural change was moving from the Midwest to SoCal– people from SoCal do things that are INCREDIBLY rude in the midwest. But really it’s just a cultural difference, and once you’re clued into that, you can do things that way even if it’s against your original instincts. Ex. midwest: We’ll have lunch = we are going to have lunch, let’s pick a time, SoCal: We’ll do lunch = if the stars align and it just happens, that would be great. Or as another example: midwest: NEVER ask personal questions. If you want to know something personal, you volunteer something about yourself and hope they respond in kind. It’s rude to be invasive. SoCal: Always ask personal questions. It’s polite to get people to talk about themselves and no question is off-limits. They can choose not to answer. It’s rude (and gauche) to talk about yourself unless asked.

    The not enough food thing is still weird.

  18. Oh, this is interesting. I briefly had an American roommate (raised in TN, but mom from the East Coast, dad from abroad) who said her mother expected guests to do the dishes and would be upset if they didn’t offer. I thought that was the most ridiculous thing ever, because I don’t want anyone who’s not a really close personal friend or family doing my dishes. Because — get the hell outta my sink!!! Seriously! I would consider someone I don’t know really, really well attempting to do my dishes to be considerably more intrusive then asking personal questions.

    I am in the midwest, and I do find the natives quite reserved. A lot of early-to-bed church goers (I am mentioning it because DH and I are neither). They make perfectly civil colleagues and neighbors, but I think I am too intense and rude for them (when I am not trying really hard to modulate my MO). I think I scandalize some of my midwestern-born colleagues in faculty meetings by simply saying what I mean. It’s interesting that, over the past couple of months, two east-Asian colleagues (from two different countries) independently complimented me in one context or another on being honest and direct; in contrast, I think these are my worst qualities when dealing with my midwest-born colleagues, some of whom I think I make very uncomfortable by my natural demeanor.

  19. I am in the midwest, and I do find the natives quite reserved. A lot of early-to-bed church goers (notable because DH and I are neither). They make perfectly civil colleagues and neighbors, but I think I am too intense and rude for them (when I am not trying really hard to modulate my MO).

    This is probably true. My family is from the midwest and I finally decided as an adult that I was not going to participate in the passive-aggressive, indirect form of communication wherein one says nothing direct and to another’s face but then complains about them incessantly behind their backs. I have adopted the direct approach. It still bothers my mom.

    I am surprised about the food being scarce, though. Last time, I was in Ohio, I had my relatives offering me multiple versions of the same meal. “Oh, you had lunch with Grandma? Well then, you can just have a little hamburger/sausage/potato salad/dessert.”

    I am bad about short dinner parties. I think it’s because I am a) deeply introverted and find I have had enough socializing after a few hours and b) have chronic fatigue syndrome or something, because I am exhausted very early in the evening. I would never shove people out the door but I do find I am ready to say “It’s been lovely” either as guest or host after a few hours. I love to cook though, so we serve pretty elaborate dinners for guests.

  20. I’m in the South, and yes, people do the dishes. I hate this with a passion and sometimes I just want to clear the table and smash all the dishes in the back yard to avoid it, claiming some strange custom from my native land. In addition to being intrusive, it serves the purpose of segregating the sexes and conversation becomes gendered. As I am in no ways a Southern Lady and I enjoy discussing politics, current affairs, and being basically very forthright with opinions rather than having “good manners”, there is no way I can join the women without ending up in tears of boredom and frustration after the party. So I join the men if I can, but this puts my partner in a tough place, with neither of us doing the washing up. It’s awful because I can either have a good time and transgress socially or cry over the sink. These days we just don’t have formal dinner parties anymore unless I’m entertaining for work (and then I can view it as work rather than social). We have our fun friends over and we have a large annual cookout at the pool, which is great because people can leave at their 2 hr/4 hr mark without breaking up the party, and the friends who are having fun (and their kiddies who usually turn blue at some point) can stay until we can’t convince them to stay any longer 🙂

    nicoleandmaggie, you have taught me something I didn’t know. I had no idea that in order to find out things about people, I was supposed to reveal something about me and hope the other person reciprocated. It has puzzled me for 20 years that people don’t ask questions of each other and it’s always such a relief when I go to my home country (or anywhere except the US, actually) and everyone peppers the conversation with questions to and about the other people who are present. I understand these are all cultural things but I will note that it’s only in the US that I feel like this and that hospitality norms are far more similar between my country and all the other countries I’ve lived in (five) and visited (tens) than between any of them and the US.

  21. Just moved to Midwest. Young family with a two year old. I think I agree with a lot of what you say but it also depends on the kind of friends that one has. When I used to live in the east coast most of the parties ( by which I mean 2 or 3 families) when potluck style. We brought a lot of food and so did everyone else.

    In my native culture we plead and beg the guest to stay; plead them to eat more (even though they might say No a couple of time and would eventually give up and eat more) and try to drag them back from the front porch if they want to leave.

  22. My mother is Asian and just like in your culture, it is completely expected that you have enough food for a huge army, even if you only have 10 guests (my spouse thinks this is totally insane, BTW). We enjoy having our guests stay into the wee hours and I never used to do any clean up or anything. Like others have mentioned above though, I have noticed that sometimes people will try to help clean up, so I’ve learned to just do some minimal cleanup to prevent them from feeling like they need to help. Definitely NOT a signal to leave though! I also host different kinds of parties – sometimes the big feast kind, sometimes just a bunch of close friends getting together for a casual bbq and everybody brings something so it’s not too much work for anybody.

  23. ” My family is from the midwest and I finally decided as an adult that I was not going to participate in the passive-aggressive, indirect form of communication wherein one says nothing direct and to another’s face but then complains about them incessantly behind their backs. ”

    See, I would say exactly the opposite about the midwest given that’s one of my big complaints about SoCal. The thing about the midwest is that they really take to heart “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” so the code is that silence is *deadly*. Saying nothing direct is saying something negative quite loudly if you know the code. And anything you say out loud in the midwest is the truth (as you see it, anyway) and can be trusted. Whereas in SoCal you say something that’s exactly the opposite of how you feel and then you complain incessantly behind the back. (But there’s a code there too– the more effusive adverbs, the less likely they mean what they’re saying.)

    If you hit our “geography” tag on our blog, you’ll get a lot of these observations since between the two of us we’ve lived pretty much everywhere in the Continental US.

  24. p.s. xyk: in the midwest, if you don’t want them to help clean up, you just have to ask them not to 3x. Why three? Once to be polite. Twice to judge what people really feel. And Thrice just to make sure. (And if they don’t want to clean up, they’ll offer once or twice, depending on how much they don’t want to do it, but not a third time.) It’s a dance. Every culture has these kinds of dances, they’re just different from each other and they’re jarring if you don’t know the code. I’m sure there’s anthropologists out there who know the jargon for this kind of thing.

  25. Also: @BBSshrew, The US is an enormous country with tons of microcultures. If you feel comfortable with asking personal questions instead of volunteering personal information, there are large parts of the country where you can do that (like Los Angeles). That doesn’t mean it’s better or worse than the countries you’ve lived, just different.

    My mom hypothesizes that in the US there were lots of areas settled by people where it wasn’t safe to get too inquisitive about people’s back-stories. There’s probably a reason people talk about the weather to make small-talk in the midwest. And people don’t talk about religion or politics in the South in polite company (unless they know they’re in like-minded company). It’s easier to not get shot that way. This is all speculation, but it does make a certain amount of sense.

  26. My mom hypothesizes that in the US there were lots of areas settled by people where it wasn’t safe to get too inquisitive about people’s back-stories. There’s probably a reason people talk about the weather to make small-talk in the midwest. And people don’t talk about religion or politics in the South in polite company (unless they know they’re in like-minded company). It’s easier to not get shot that way. This is all speculation, but it does make a certain amount of sense.

    Ha! Yes, no doubt. Even today, I’ve found out some back-stories that make my eyes pop. Definitely not stories that would have been revealed over dinner!

    And I’m sure that part of the fish-out-of-water wailing is that fact that I’m so ideologically far away from most of the people I meet outside work that there are taboo subjects or ones we take on when fueled by alcohol and regret doing so almost immediately. Not being religious is also a barrier to close friendships – possibly also a factyor for xykademiqz. So yes, it’s partly where we are.

  27. And I’m sure that part of the fish-out-of-water wailing is that fact that I’m so ideologically far away from most of the people I meet outside work that there are taboo subjects or ones we take on when fueled by alcohol and regret doing so almost immediately. Not being religious is also a barrier to close friendships – possibly also a factor for xykademiqz. So yes, it’s partly where we are.

    Yep. Definitely.
    Unfortunately, with academia, you can’t really choose where you live.

  28. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate politeness; I really do. I would much rather that passing interactions with random people be pleasant and courteous than not. However, I find all the decorum and reservedness to be a real obstacle to getting things done efficiently at work, and to forming real, close personal bonds.

    But, as B^3SH says, there is likely a fundamentally unbridgeable chasm between us (DH and me) and the surroundings, so close friendships are both improbable and contraindicated. Removing the decorum would perhaps just make it impossible for others to tolerate us and us them.

  29. Honestly, once you figure out how to speak the (cultural) language, you get things done just as efficiently and you form real bonds. Deep down people aren’t that different, they just express things in different ways that seem like a mystery if you didn’t grow up that way. (And cities will generally have a faster pace of life than the country because there’s more demands on time, and so on.)

    It took me two years (by myself, so I really had to figure it out or drown) and a lot of screwing up majorly to figure out Southern Californian. It took I think five years (and again, quite a bit of screwing up) to function socially appropriately on the East Coast (which was slowed down because I had other people whose cultures I was more familiar with). The South is enough like the Midwest that it hasn’t been as difficult (AND I started out looking for cultural differences, so I haven’t screwed up quite as much, other than some memorable classroom disasters my second year) though friend-wise I mostly only hang out with Northern transplants and immigrants.

  30. “I am bad about short dinner parties. I think it’s because I am a) deeply introverted and find I have had enough socializing after a few hours and b) have chronic fatigue syndrome or something, because I am exhausted very early in the evening.”

    This is me. My PhD lab was full of people from Latin America who would stay up socializing all night. I wished so many times I could keep up, but I just can’t. I adore having people over for special dinner parties too, but if it pushes my bedtime back severely (I’m a morning person) and requires 2-3 days of recovery, it becomes so hard. I’m also introverted, sensitive to caffeine and sleep deprivation, etc. I wish I could be different, but these are my limits.

  31. Although I live and work in CA, I’m from Milwaukee, and all of the stories that multiple people are telling about the Midwest lead me to one of three conclusions:
    1) Your experiences are weird.
    2) Milwaukee is weird.
    3) I’m weird.

    3 is definitely plausible, since I’m a loudmouth, I am kind of proud to be politically incorrect, I’m mostly estranged from the branch of my family that has been in the Midwest the longest, and the branches that I’m closest to have grandparents that grew up in different settings. I’m accustomed to the gendered ritual where the party continues after the eating is done, but some or all of the women do dishes and talk and then come back out of the kitchen and continue socializing, so I don’t interpret doing dishes as a sign to go home. OTOH, I am the neat freak in my household, so I do dishes on my own (because I can’t stand leaving them) while talking to the guests (our kitchen opens onto the dining room) and my wife stays in the dining room and keeps talking to them.

    2 is plausible. We Milwaukeeans have bits of slang that are unusual even for Wisconsin. (Do ya know where da bubbler is?) While much of the Midwest is German and Scandanavian, Milwaukee also has lots of Poles, Serbs, Slovaks, and African-Americans. So maybe my experience is just totally diffrent from da rest of da Midwest ya know?

    Or, maybe academics who comment on blogs have weird experiences, which would be consistent with both 1 and 3.

  32. Oh, and Milwaukee has elected 3 socialist mayors, and contrary to what Alice Cooper told Wayne and Garth it is NOT pronounced “mill-e-wah-que”. The “l” is pronounced faintly, in the back of the throat. Sometimes it’s so faint that the first two syllables blend together like the French word “mois.”

  33. I am trying to see how this post were to play out if we changed the cultural targets from white folks in the Midwest to (pick your favorite thing to insert here). I can understand that folks may not have the same culture or expectations than you, and that it might blunt your enjoyment, but does that make them bad people??

  34. I don’t think anyone is implying anywhere in the post or the comment thread that people from anywhere are good or bad. They are just people, of course, with a spectrum of individual characteristics. We are discussing cultural customs, and how someone being used to different customs affects their ability to feel at home, forge friendships, and have fun. You can be surrounded by perfectly good people, who still may want nothing to do with you because they think you act too weirdly. Or you may think that they are weird and don’t want much to do with them. Neither is going to result in great personal happiness for the outsider.

  35. Your point number 1 is hilarious! And I think an interesting observation. Maybe Americans like to think about fun activities more so than we actually like having them?

    And point number 2, well I think that must really vary by geography and maybe age. I am from the south where food=love, so I always make too much food (it is nice in my culture to send younger or older people home with leftovers, so I still can’t help but do that with my students and mother in law). I
    generally cook something that I have my own little special twist to and that is more comfort-food like. I used to go to a lot of trouble — willingly & happily– as a way to show someone I really care about them. I have learned to tone it down a bit since I moved out west as it seems like I was making people feel uncomfortable). Maybe it’s the puritanical Christian thing where they don’t like to think they inconvenienced you. There are more of those religious sorts in your neck of the woods.

  36. I’ll let you all in on the southern dish washing thing… You have to help family, especially female family members. Outside of family, you only help the women with whom you want some alone time with to talk about private things. If you don’t want to help in the kitchen, you totally aren’t obliged. It’s really about which women want some alone time with each other.

  37. Also I don’t really get the leave when the dishwashing starts thing. I was raised to “clean up as you go” – so of course the dishes go directly from table to dishwasher, trash is cleaned up, the table is wiped and washed between dinner and dessert, with drinks still flowing. It’s not like putting them in the dishwasher doing a lot more work than putting them on the counter. I feel like if you attended a dinner at my house you might leave when we start putting the dishes away and then we’d be sad you ran off and didn’t want to stay for dessert… 😦

  38. Jojo, the video is absolutely hilarious! Anon, very interesting survey.

    Jojo, now that I think of it, I was brought up with the notion that entertaining guests is a performance of sorts (you know, entertainment). Cooking and clean-up are part of staging; guests are there to relax and enjoy themselves and are not to be bothered with it, and we (the hosts) are to maximally focus on the guests while they are there. Dishes can be moved aside, but if I were at your place and you started wiping off the table or washing the dishes, I would definitely take it as a sign that I should leave, as I consider it part of what gets done by hosts after the party.

    I know many Americans expects guests to chip in and help clean up, so I do offer to help. But I am really uncomfortable with people whom I don’t know well insisting to help with cleanup at my house. I am very territorial about my kitchen.

  39. 1. I generally love the blog so I must have been grumpy when i read this.
    2. I do think you were right when you said “This post was not meant to be obnoxious, but might have ended up being so anyway. ”
    3. Perhaps its all explained by the fact that I am from Minnesota and remember Howard Moore fondly–he did an awesome piece on Prairie Home Compaiion in which he read the list of county names. I guess you had to be there..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s