We know a lot of people want to “jand”. You want to leave Nigeria and go over to the U.S to study because, as you have heard, the grass is greener on the other side. Well, it’s got to be, if you’ll be honest, they don’t have to put up with a weather as blood-boiling as ours. Lol. Anyway, on a more serious note, it’s becoming very common for a lot of people to travel abroad for their tertiary education, at least, and a common country of choice is the U.S, maybe before Trump though, but generally, America is almost everyone’s idea of the promised land. And with the plethora of scholarships being offered there, and the many opportunities for self-development, the rate of emigration keeps increasing.
What you might not know though is that even though America is very different in terms of culture, development, and all, it is not always altogether pleasant. For someone from a culture as Nigeria’s, it can be quite confusing and sometimes, even downright annoying having to deal with the American culture. The most prominent of the differences will be the strongly independent disposition of the Americans, the strong familial bonds you’re used to here in Nigeria all but vanishes over there. It simply doesn’t exist. For some, this harsh reality was a bit unsettling at first, and took them quite a bit to adjust to.
So, without further ado, we will quickly run you through the nuances of the American culture and show briefly how it contrasts with the Nigerian culture. This way, you won’t be at a loss when faced with different situations. Obviously, this guide will mostly be for people making their trip for the first time. So, let’s get our boarding passes and get set to travel through the world of the American culture. Leggo!
You must have heard of Silicone Valley, yeah? That’s probably one of the strongest ways Americans express their love for self-sufficiency. Unlike what you have as the primary case in Nigeria, where a lot of people wait on the government for work, or go about applying for jobs in big companies (although that is gradually being eradicated…gradually), a typical American learns to be self-reliant early enough. Entrepreneurships are quite the norm there and are in fact, a huge factor of what drives the economy. As a result, there’s a natural high respect for people who are self-sufficient, whether it’s a paid job or your own thing. The fact that you can pay your own bills, is a trait highly respected by the Americans.
Now, in spite of this, Americans are typically helpful people, even to strangers. However, they also like to mind their business, so, except you ask for help, you’ll most likely be stuck in an unpleasant situation for a while. To the average American, if you don’t ask for help, then you most likely do not need it and they won’t offer to give. They are not being harsh, they are just minding their business and trying not to get into yours, as they respect privacy a lot.
Time! Nigerians, time!!! Please you’re going to the American place, there’s no space for African time there. If they say come by 8, biko, leave by 7, so you can get there by 8. There’s nothing like telling you to come by 7, so that you’ll get there by 8. Things aren’t planned that way there. 8 is 8. Truth be told, though, it’s not like everyone there is an early bird, some Americans are chronic late-goers but then, a typical one will find your lateness to be disrespectful, cos he most likely has every hour of the day accounted for and barely has free time on his hands. You know most Americans work two jobs, don’t you? So you can imagine. Unlike here, in Nigeria, where the person you’re meeting with normally expects you to be late, and will even deliberately come late because he/she knows that the time for the appointment will not be honoured, an American might even take lateness as a personal offence.
What comes to your mind when you’re 18 in Nigeria? Err… most likely JAMB. Very different from the average American. Most (not all though, as the movies make you think) are already thinking of getting out of the house. By the time most are in college, they are already out of the house, only visiting with family on holidays and some weekends. This is very different from the Nigerian setting where you typically stay with your parents till you’re ready to get married. Okay, maybe except for guys, some guys move out of the house somewhat early. Independence is a strong part of children upbringing in America, so expect to see this trait reflect strongly in almost everything they do, e.g. paying for your own meal even when you’re eating with friends.
America has come a long way from the racism and segregation that characterized its culture some several hundreds of years back. While we would love to say that this has been totally eradicated, we will be blunt with you: it hasn’t. Not totally, at least. Yes, there’s more equality and less American imperialism but the same forces still play in undertones today. There are still many black people somewhat sidelined in different aspects of daily living. It’s not blatant (even though sometimes it might be), but it does show up once in a while. There are still very many Americans who do not see blacks and other “minor races” in their country as equal to them. And these guys are still Americans, mind you, the Blacks, the Latinos, the Asian Americans, the Jewish, etc. They are equally citizens. So, what we are saying is that, though, generally, there is equality and Americans can be very friendly, don’t be too taken aback when certain acts of racism begin to show up once in a while, cos they will. Just take everything in stride.
I think this is one aspect of the American culture that the whole of Nigeria is probably familiar with, and totally cannot wrap their heads around. It has been the punchlines of many comedian’s jokes or a teaching point for many parents while watching a Hollywood movie with the family. Americans will not call someone aunt who is not their aunt, or uncle, or mummy, or daddy, if they don’t share such a relationship with the individual. And no, age is not a factor. In fact, the words “mummy” and “daddy” are considered childish; and children refer to their parents as mum and dad as they grow.
Now, for someone you’re not familiar with or in a formal setting, you address the person by his/her title (Mr., Miss, Mrs., Ms. Dr., Prof., etc.) followed by the person’s last name. Some people might tell you to refer to them by their first names after the first introduction, if that happens, then you can do that, if not, please stick to the title and last name.
Please don’t go calling every elderly person “mummy” or “daddy” or “aunty” or “uncle”, the format above is what you should use to address strangers, or colleagues. Your classmates, of course, can be referred to by their first names, the school culture is a bit different. And please don’t act too shocked when a 75-year-old man tells your 18-year-old self to call him “Billy”, you’ve read this guide and seen enough Hollywood movies to prepare you for such event.
Quite unlike here in Nigeria, where we sometimes “lie” or avoid talking “with all our mouth” to avoid offending people, Americans are quite direct and say things as they see it. Like they say, “how I see it is how I call it”. The way Americans see it, doing things any other way is dishonest. It actually confuses Americans when you don’t say how you feel the way you feel it. They expect that if you feel something or need something, you should be able to come out and say it. They are very assertive.
Well, the issue of personal space, I believe is a very universal thing. Nobody likes to be intruded upon in their space. Imagine someone talking to you and literally crawling into your mouth just because he/she wants to talk to you. It upsets everyone generally, so, I guess, that should be a given. But just in case, by some wild chance, you are one of the very weird ones that don’t get irked by things like that, please don’t carry over that attitude to the U.S. Nobody likes it, and definitely not the Americans.
Now, to where there’s a more obvious dichotomy: Privacy. You know, here in Nigeria, there’s a strong sense of community. You know all your neighbors, their names, what they had for lunch, you even “tap their light” (we know….), and things like that. Well, the American community is not really like that, at least not the major cities. You’ll find that more in the rural areas. Asking for personal information like weight, age, salary, would be considered being nosy. You’d probably also want to hold off conversation about religion, political affiliation and deep family issues till you guys are a little more cordial.
There’s a wide disparity between the social customs in the U.S and what we have in Nigeria. A lot of things we consider rude and disrespectful here are not even issues in the U.S and things we consider non-issues could make very big deals there. So, in order for you don’t get embarrassed, here are a few basic customs you should be aware of.
Shaking hands: Make sure it’s a firm handshake, not floppy. The correct thing to do when introduced to someone new is to shake hands with that person, showing that you welcome such a one. Keep the hugging for later, even if you like to hug. Some people find it a bit offensive, even in Nigeria. And for the Yoruba’s especially (no disrespect here) but for goodness’ sake, please don’t bow or curtsy to greet anyone. Simply shake, period.
Eye Contact: I know we weren’t brought up that way. In fact, it never even crossed your mind to even dare to look an elder in the eye, unless you were dying for a factory reset, you know how… lol. But in the states, eye contact shows that you have nothing to hide and you’re an honest person. So, maintain it.
No smells: Get a deodorant! Americans don’t take kindly to smells. Well, it’s a common saying among many Nigerians that Americans smell pretty bad too, whether that is out of spite or it’s actually true, smelling good never killed anyone. So, do the needful.
Maintain the space: We’ve already explained that in the section about personal space, so we won’t go over that again.
Opening doors: Don’t just waltz in and leave the door banging in front of other people’s faces. Hold the door open for them.
Queue up patiently. Lol. I know this is strange to Nigerians, especially Lagosians who would sooner throw someone off a cliff than miss a bus, considering the never lacking traffic jam the city is synonymous for. But whether at the bus station or elsewhere, you must learn to be patient at queues.
People who serve must be treated equally and with respect. If they do upset you, gently and respectfully talk to them about it, as they are also mandated to accord you the same respect. It might be quite strange considering the somewhat “condescending” attitude to such kinds of people we see in our own country, but practice it and you’ll get used to it.
You must leave a tip! Yes, it’s a must! For people who wait on you, cut your hair, lug your suitcase, whatever, you have to tip them.
Eat slowly and make conversation. Don’t just focus on the food and wolf it down. When invited to someone’s place, take only a bit to eat. Why? Because you’ll most likely not like the food (it’s foreign to you), and it will be rude to the cook to leave your meal barely touched. So while you don’t scrape the plate, you have to eat slowly and eat a good portion of your food.
Signaling for a waiter: If you need a waiter in the restaurant, simply say “excuse me, please” while raising your hand, and please don’t shout.
Cutlery and when to use: There are finger foods that require you to eat with your hands, and there are foods that require cutlery. Learn the difference. Also, learn to eat with a fork and a knife.
Paying: When out with a group, assume you’re paying for your own meal.
Tipping: If it’s not a fast food restaurant, then you should leave a 15% tip or more.
Traffic rules and lights are pretty important and must be kept. If you don’t, you could get a ticket. You could get a ticket for about any traffic error by the way. And those tickets translate to fines, or other court orders.
Pedestrians should always have the right of way. Respect the zebra crossing.
If someone allows you to merge, then wave in acknowledgment.
If you want to drive slowly, then stay on the right lane.
Because many American spend a large part of their lives traveling from place to place, they hardly settle long enough in a place to form strong friendships. Hence, they are quite friendly with strangers, and could even invite someone they just met over for dinner or their birthday party. It’s no biggie to them, as they say. This is simply how they adapt to the constant change they face.
But the same trait that makes them quite friendly is also the reason they do not form deep friendships, and that can be quite disturbing for Nigerians who are used to forming deep friendships to the point that most friends come to be regarded as siblings after a while. Because classmates, neighbours, and friends are constantly changing, the few friends made by Americans are usually cherished, and new pals might hardly make it into that echelon.
To make it less frustrating, try not to read a deeper meaning into any show of friendship extended by an American. They are naturally friendly, but don’t assume that because they invited you over for lunch, y’all are now chummy and he’ll give you his kidney should you need one.
So, that’s a brief overview of the American culture. As you know, we definitely did not cover everything there is to know about it, because, of course, you’d need an encyclopedia for that. This guide, however, should help you through the basics though while you figure out the rest as you go. To learn about how to deal with culture shock in general, check out our post on that: Culture Shock and How to Deal with It.
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