I learned a few weeks ago that there were going to be 800 students from Brazil in Chicago this summer, studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Illinois Chicago and University of Chicago. I immediately sent a proposal to IIT to offer a workshop on Communicating and Socializing with USAmericans.
They need to know that “Barbecue” in the US means hot dogs and potato chips, not the delicious cuts of tasty steak and meats from their hometown “churrasco.” It means being invited to someone’s house but not actually being allowed to go inside it. It means getting an invitation where you have to bring your own food–a great side dish, dessert, or something to throw on the grill.
And all of this means, in USAmerican speak…we really like you and are so glad you’re here!
Without this insider knowledge, a person from Brazil might think we are the rudest people ever! And, if you’ve ever been to Brazil and enjoyed Brazilian hospitality, you would see their point (my son got stung by a bee in front of someone’s house once…which prompted not only first aid from strangers but also an invitation to stay for a meal and a gift when we were leaving).
But, for summer survival in Chicago and making friends to last a lifetime, here’s some good advice that applies overall for experiencing another culture:
Assume Positive Intent and Plan Ahead.
As far as assuming positive intent, we LOVE our barbecues! Nice weather, cold beer, maybe some bean bag toss, a chance to share your grandma’s best potato salad recipe, kids get to eat with their hands and no-one fusses when they get mustard on their clothes. (Yes, be prepared, dear Brazilians–USAmericans eat everything we can with our hands—just look at Taco Bell’s breakfast menu…we even take non-hand-eating food and transform it simply so you can eat it with your hands).
We are so excited that you will come to our barbecue, and take great pride in sharing with you what we believe to be the quintessential USAmerican cultural custom.
And, if you don’t like hamburgers and hot dogs, it is perfectly normal to bring chicken or veggies to cook. In fact, it will be welcomed and you will get the added satisfaction of feeling superior when everyone eats the stuff you brought first! (Note on planning ahead: stand by the grill while your preferred meat is cooked so you get first dips–otherwise it will be gone!).
Want to be the hero of the barbecue? If you have any extra lawn chairs–you might want to offer when you call ahead to see what you can bring….”do you need any extra lawn chairs, or can I stop to get ice?” Chances are the answer will be affirmative to both. And before you get annoyed that you are bringing your own food and chair to a party to which you have been invited, please know that with that call and offer, you have just risen to the status of nicest guest at the party!
One final note, is not to interpret customs through your cultural lens (wait…is there any other way to do it?) No, really, what I mean is, try to evaluate the custom not against your own cultural norms, but in the context of other USAmericans.
If you knock on the door and the person answering says “what do you want?” he or she is probably just not nice. If they turn their back to you and shout over their shoulder as they walk away, “beers are in the fridge, help yourself,” it means it’s a really fun party and you have just been warmly, openly, invited in and encouraged to feel at home. At a USAmerican home.
Of course knowing about cultural style differences in communication, academic writing and more will be critical for a successful summer in Chicago–but those, too, can be learned (via workshops on in one-on-one coaching or training), and a barbecue is a great place to practice your new found skills.