Given Australia’s contemporary relationship with the United States of America, it seems quite jarring when cultural differences between our respective countries become apparent.
I experienced this, in person, on my recent trip to the US. I am not speaking of such things as slight language differences, although such things are certainly present and can be more confusing than one would think! No. Simple things like the direction a head is nodded in greeting are different, too. In my part of the world a nodded greeting consists of a brief downwards nod of acknowledgement. In the part of the US that I inhabited, an ‘upwards nod’ in greeting was the norm. To move one’s head in that fashion here in Oz is an unspoken cue that means ‘come here’ or, in some circumstances, ‘Fuck you, arsehole!’.
Then there was the driving. Oh, the driving! I was told that Americans drive their cars ‘like they are stolen’. I had to agree, but was left wondering how they drive cars that are stolen and shuddered at the thought more than once. Still, being in a car in the US was a rather thrilling and enjoyable experience for an Australian used to mandatory seatbelt laws and police checkpoints in every suburb. I also discovered that ‘flipping someone the bird’ in the US is almost a greeting all its own when on the road. In many instances, holding the middle finger up for an extended length of time, to make sure that the ‘offender’ has time to notice the gesture, can be truly impressive to see! Over here in Oz, doing such a thing would lead to a ‘road rage’ incident grave enough to result in hospitalization of at least one party the minute the lights turned red and the offended person (usually the one who received ‘the middle finger’) got out of their car, smashed in a window, and beat the living shit out of the finger-waver for the insult.
Refusing food when one is a guest in the US can also be construed as extremely impolite. In OZ, if a guest refuses food we may ask if you are feeling okay, but will accept that you are just not hungry, are full, or don’t like our cooking and will drop the topic without fuss or offer you another beer 😉
The next cultural difference appears to apply to women more than men in our respective countries. Australia is a harsh climate. Any woman who wakes in the morning, applies a face full of makeup, and is not about to go to work at the office, risks more wrinkles by the time she is twenty-five than some sixty year old American women have! This is sad, but true. The sun is no one’s friend in Australia; even in winter!
But, I discovered that, as a woman in America, unless you put on makeup within minutes of waking, do your hair, have your nails immaculately manicured at all times (too bad if you are trying to grow your real ones) get a daily pedicure, and dress as if you are about to go out, when all you are doing is hanging around the house all day, you are considered an embarrassing, disgusting, lazy slob who does not take pride in yourself!
Australian women are ‘fresh faced’, and allowing our skin to breathe is part of our daily beauty regimen. We have to, because our climate demands it. This doesn’t mean we don’t get ‘all dolled up’, but we choose our time and place to do so. Botox and plastic surgery are expensive in OZ (and are usually considered the hallmarks of the insecure, disgustingly vain, and incredibly rich) There is still a rather healthy stigma attached to ‘plastic surgery’ in Australia. In OZ, a lack of makeup is considered a sign of healthy self-respect and confidence, not laziness or a lack of self-love.
Then there is ‘phone etiquette’. This is something that has puzzled me for years: long before I ever visited the US. How do Americans know when a phone conversation is over? In Oz, we usually finish a phone conversation with a ‘bye’ or something that enables us to know that the call is over. While I did hear “Bye” and its variations while in the US, I also heard phone calls ended at a sentence’s close. “Can you do that for me?” ‘click.’ “I’ll send you the file” ‘click’ “Tomorrow at noon” ‘click’. “I’ll give X a call” ‘click’. Um. Okay… I spent more than one phone conversation saying “Bye” only to have it repeated in a voice tone that suggested that more conversation was on its way; necessitating me saying “bye” again, and so on, until I finally worked out that I was simply meant to hang up the phone!
I am sure that, if I thought on it all more, I could give a longer list of examples but I think the following will suffice for now.
I can certainly say that my first trip to the United States of America was the most intriguing and life-changing experience I have had in a very long time!