Cross-cultural communiqué: At home with Chicagoans

Mon Oct 29, 2012 8:23am EDT

A squirrel eats a pumpkin left over from Halloween on the front porch of a home in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, November 27, 2008. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

A squirrel eats a pumpkin left over from Halloween on the front porch of a home in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, November 27, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes

(This is an edited excerpt from "Chicago: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (CultureShock!)" by Orin Hargraves. Any opinions expressed are the author's own.)

(Reuters.com) - In Chicago, friends or business associates are as likely to eat out together in restaurants as they are in somebody's home.

When you are invited to someone's home, there are a few rituals (or lack thereof) that may seem unusual to you, but you can rest assured that they are simply a part of American hospitality. If you are visiting for the first time, it is customary to be invited, if not strong-armed, to ‘take a tour', that is see all the parts of the house. This will sometimes be done in tortured detail that includes lavatories and unfinished rooms. It is suitable for you to murmur appreciation from time to time, and if your host calls attention to some piece of decorating ingenuity or a challenging do-it-yourself project recently completed, you can marvel at it.

Most Americans do not take their shoes off in the house; they wear them everywhere. People sit in whatever way is comfortable for them, without regard to postures that may be considered offensive in some parts of the world. If someone sits with their feet pointing toward you, or exposing the bottom of their shoes, you should think nothing of it; they are not aware that it can cause offence.

MIND YOUR MANNERS

The general informality of American culture means that you need not be on tenterhooks at the dinner table, wondering whether your way of eating is going to cause deep offence.

Most meals are accompanied by a fork, knife and spoon beside the plate, but the fork does most of the work. There is a slight awkwardness in American table manners in that both the knife and fork are used in the same hand, so that after you've cut something with your knife, you have to put it down and then take the fork into the preferred hand to bring it to your mouth. There will be no offence if you eat in the European way, keeping the fork always in one hand and the knife in the other, but it may mean that you will be constantly rubbing elbows with someone sitting at your knife-wielding side.

It is better not to even ask if you can smoke in somebody's home if you have already observed that no one else is smoking. Many people today simply do not permit smoking indoors, and it may be awkward for them to refuse you.

When looking for a toilet in someone's home, you can ask for the restroom or bathroom. These terms can also be used in public places, along with men's room or ladies' room.

TALKING THE TALK

Long before you set foot in somebody's house, you'll have probably already noticed the tendency of Americans to ‘get personal' very early on, sharing bits of themselves with you in conversation that you do not have any real need to know, and asking you personal questions about things you may well feel are none of their business. Your presence in somebody's home is a green light for your host to proceed further down this road.

Asking questions and sharing personal information is the fast-track American way of ‘getting to know' somebody. You are not obliged to reciprocate by asking a lot of questions yourself - indeed, you may not have to because volumes of information may be volunteered - but to the extent that you are comfortable with providing personal information about yourself, you will be regarded as likable and friendly.

A popular perception of Americans among foreigners is their insularity, manifested not so much in a lack of openness as in a studied disinterest in what goes on in the rest of the world beyond their borders. The reasons for this phenomenon are the business of the sociologist, but the effects of it will be very much of concern to you and probably obvious to you from the outset if you have not lived in the U.S. before. You should not be surprised to find Chicagoans quite ignorant about where you come from; even if they know where it is, they may be unfamiliar with the social, political and economic issues that are paramount in your country.

("Chicago: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (CultureShock!)", published by Marshall Cavendish International, can be ordered <amzn.to/RoMUsO>)

(Editing by Peter Myers)

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