When I first arrived here in the United States to pursue graduate studies, I not only noticed the language difference, but also the unfamiliar conversation conventions. I realized that many conversations here operate according to a different communication style than what I was used to back home. Here in LA, I have found that many people greet others warmly and openly, even strangers. Since my arrival here, I have been greeted by cashiers, sales clerks, and bus drivers; even pedestrians on the streets usually greet me with a smile. This happens less often back home.
During the many opportunities I have had to chat with Americans in the United States, I have observed some interesting features of conversations. For instance, not only do people greet each other, many also cordially share their opinions and information about themselves in lengthy dialogues with strangers. This openness and frankness is helpful, since it gives me more opportunities to hear what Americans have to say. From such conversations, I have been able to learn about American culture in terms of interpersonal communication. To illustrate, I will recount below some interactions I have had here with new friends.
Here, on the streets in LA and on campus, I am often greeted and asked: What is your name? Though I chose an English name back home and had prepared myself to use it, I still instinctively answer with my Mandarin name. Then, the question that follows is usually: How do you pronounce your name? I then engage in a process of sharing the meaning and the pronunciation of my name.
These exchanges of names are unique experiences for me. I am blessed to have a chance to really reflect upon and reexamine my own name, which I had long reduced in my mind to merely a set of sounds for people to identify me with. I explain to American friends that the “Yann” syllable in my name means “scholar,” which reflects my parents’ encouragement for me to strive to become a knowledgeable person. I am also fortunate to meet new friends who are genuinely interested in me and are concerned enough to want to get to know my name, its correct pronunciation, and its meaning. I also learned to respect others by paying attention to others’ names and pronouncing them correctly.
I also have fun memories of American friends asking me to pick a Mandarin name for them. Their preference for certain words in names helped me to get to know them better and also probed into some aspects of the naming culture here. For example, not all names here, I have learned, are English. Moreover, I have learned more about how names divide into male and female conventions not only in English but also in other languages. American names, like American society, consists of a variety of forms deriving from diverse cultures.
Furthermore, I learned that when choosing names in the United States, some parents name children after a relative or grandparent in the family. My friend’s middle name is the same as his great-great grandfather’s; he was named after a beloved relative. I explained to my friend how it is customary in Chinese to avoid naming children after people in the family in order to show love and deference. We marveled at the seeming opposing cultural naming norms but also contemplated how both customs seem to converge at the point of placing importance on names of loved ones. Again this is a chance for me to reflect upon customs which I took for granted, both shedding new light on cultural norms I follow at home while opening my eyes to cultural norms I am newly acquiring here.
Mingling at Social Functions
In the United States, often on the university campuses, there are many social gatherings and events. Such events, I find, are a great opportunity to meet new friends. Many of these social activities are not arranged formal seated dinners, but are informal gatherings that allow ample room for people to walk around and chat with others. I have also found out that people usually do not stay within their little circle of old friends at these social functions; instead, they attempt to reach out and approach new people. This activity, I learned, is known as “mingling.”
Sometimes people directly approach others, introduce themselves, and start engaging in conversations. Other times, asking friends to introduce other friends becomes a great way to get to know more people. I notice that the settings of these events facilitate the initiations of conversations: there is usually a large space with refreshments and drinks on the side so that people have room to move around and mingle with others.
It is also customary to invite others to join in conversations. I remember the first time I was at an orientation event and felt shy, clutching my beverage and snacks to cover my uneasiness. I remember standing within eyesight of a group of people chatting, wanting to join the conversation but not knowing how to begin. At the height of my awkwardness, the group of people turned to me and smiled, inviting me to join them in conversation. It turned out to be a great conversation and I made new friends on that day. Now, at social functions, I also invite others to join me in conversation because I remember how this gesture made a difference for me at the first party.
There are also activities at these functions, especially in less formal events, that are aimed at getting people to make new friends. For example, the Halloween party included a costume voting contest. During the voting process, party participants could give stickers to people whom they believe wore the best costumes. This was an opportunity to meet new friends, because chatting about costumes could be a conversation opener. These events have been very helpful for me in making new friends and learning a bit more about American communication culture.
Importance of Discussion
Conversations and communications are not only important at social functions, they are also a crucial part of American classroom culture. The courses I attended usually employ a discussion format and involve direct communication between all the participants. In the classrooms, silence is not common. Hands frequently shoot up and diverse questions follow. During the group discussion time, there is never a lull in the conversation. People will grasp at chances to share their opinions and they also expect to hear others’ opinions. People come into the classroom without a predetermined assumption that there is only one right answer or only one set of opinions; they want to hear diverse viewpoints.
For me, it was difficult at first to keep up with the tempo of the discussion and interactions in the classroom. Initially I relied on teachers and classmates to ask for my opinion and allot time for me to speak up. I have since gradually learned to speak and find time for sharing my opinions. I realized that here, people probably do not know when precisely I have something to share and will not put me on the spot unless I actively speak out. I now know that it is better to join in conversations or discussions instead of waiting many rounds. Otherwise, it will be difficult to refer back to a previous topic when the conversation has already moved on. Most importantly, I learned that it is acceptable to share feelings and giving genuine feedback to what others have shared.
Furthermore, I am impressed at the openness and genuine communications of my teachers and classmates who honestly share how they evaluate others’ opinions and work. Through this I also learned that it is essential to give appropriate credit and acknowledgement to work and opinions that others have shared. I feel that this supportive atmosphere encourages discussions. I have heard more than once that it is essential for people here to create a safe environment for all the participants to share their opinions and standpoints. I am grateful for this friendly environment that encourages me to speak up and learn to express myself more in English.
The three themes and related stories are manifestations of some aspects of American culture that I have been able to experience. I acknowledge that there are variations within in American culture and I understand that these three aspects of American culture are far from encompassing everything of which American culture consists. They are one part of the wide spectrum of the diverse cultures the United States has come to embrace. This diversity comes perhaps partly from the communications and sharing of opinions and cultures that enrich society. Listening to how others understand and interpret the materials and topics helped me learn more about their diverse backgrounds. It is a great opportunity for me, as a recently-arrived international student, to meet new people and to learn about other people’s ideas and opinions. Most importantly, I learned that I should not only listen and get to know others, but could also speak up and let others get to know me to better achieve the goal of cultural exchange.
Yann-Ru Ho is a Taiwanese graduate student majoring in education and is currently studying at UCLA. She arrived in LA in September and this is her fourth month here. She is enjoying the warm LA weather here while learning more about the neighboring communities by exploring the city.