How to Not Look Like an Idiot in America

Living in a foreign country can be a great opportunity to look worldly and sophisticated or an easy way to appear absolutely clueless. There are times when you are surrounded by people who are envious of the fact that you are from Europe and you feel almost sophisticated regaling them with tales of your far off homeland. Then there the times when you lack some important piece of knowledge and you feel like a complete plonker because of it. The first time I dialled into a conference call at work I was asked to dial the conference line followed by the pound key. I looked fruitlessly at the keypad on my phone for the £ symbol and ended up having to ask a colleague where it was. After a little bit of mirth on their part it was pointed out that the pound sign in the US is # which we call the hash key in the UK. For two countries that supposedly share the same language this sort of thing happens surprisingly often so here is my handy guide to not looking like an idiot in the US.

  1. Find a friendly American to show you how things work. My friendly American is my wife but as I am so hopeless at trying to not look like an idiot I need her full time so you will have to find another one. There are approximately 318 million of them so every Brit should have at least 5 potential helpers. Americans often like talking to Brits so it shouldn’t be hard to find one who is willing to help. If your friendly helper isn’t around then you may substitute them for another one temporarily. I have some nice colleagues who teach me important things like Girl Scout cookies are worth buying and where to find Indian food in Boston that actually tastes like Indian food. Warning; your friendly American will be able to tell you that a tap is called a faucet in the US but he or she may not accept that tap is a better word. There is also a high (90%) chance that they will try and mimic your accent and an even higher chance that it won’t sound anything like yours but you are expected to return the favour and get their accent equally wrong which is the fun part.
  2. Be careful with words. Some words and phrases have different meanings in the UK and US meaning that you can offend people or appear rude by accident. I’ll never forget the time I told my sister in law and her family I was “full of beans” either. I was referring to having an excess of energy but they thought I was happily breaking wind! It’s also difficult to be angry when you use British words like “bloody”, you will be in mid rant about how the local transit system hates you and makes you hate life (yes I’m referring to you MBTA), but the emphasis of your rant will be lost if you use British slang or swear words as your listener will find it “funny” or “cute”.
  3. Watch and learn. Keurig coffee makers are ubiquitous in the US but I had never used one before moving to the US and the first time I saw one in action I stared at it like a caveman being introduced to fire by a neighbouring tribe. The waste disposal unit in our kitchen sink is another example; you let the food detritus in your kitchen sink be chopped to tiny pieces by some hidden blades, but if you put something too big or too solid down there then you will know about it courtesy of your kitchen vibrating to pieces. Biding your time and letting someone else show you how to use something new before you break it is always a good idea, especially if there is an audience.
  4. As the saying goes “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”. If you don’t know the correct way of doing something and don’t have the friendly American to show you, don’t own up to it and pretend you are merely doing it a better way. This is how people drive in Massachusetts sadly but driving is not one of the areas I would recommend using this advice for!
  5. Be prepared to be caught off guard. When I made my first ever purchase in a clothing store in the US a few years ago the store was pretty quiet and the girl at the register asked me for my phone number. Wow I thought, this whole British accent thing really works! Turns out it’s standard practice at retailers in the US to ask for your phone number and/or email address so they can send you special offers/mine your personal data. Even paying for things is done differently; Americans mostly still sign for things and chip and pin machines are a rarity so make sure you don’t try and type your pin into the card reader like I did once! It’s a minefield out there.

Do you have any advice on how to blend in and not look like an idiot where you live or anecdotes about when you have got things badly wrong in a foreign country?

30 thoughts on “How to Not Look Like an Idiot in America

  1. A good majority of people in America are idiots and they act like Americans so really you don’t have to change that much of you! 😛 One of my best friends is British and she always uses the British Slang and all of that around me so I’ve picked much of that in my speech – not my writing though. So I’m set if I ever go to England.

    Best advice would be to stay in your house as much as possible. If you don’t want to bother with American drama, that’s what I would do…of course this is the introvert self speaking. Stay away from the idiots and you’ll do fine!

      1. Sure! What kind of introvert are you? I love the personalities and all. Just curious! If you do not know but to know, 16 personalities is a good site. It is so creepy how it pegs you.

  2. Josh Wrenn

    I’ve never been outside the US except for Vancouver, B.C. (unfortunately) and so that doesn’t really count because it may as well have been the US. But I could so easily see the pound sign thing happening to you. Don’t feel like an idiot, it would be idiotic for someone not to understand.

  3. Not only are Girl Scout Cookies worth buying, but you should stock up on them. Samoas are the best, with Thin Mints a close second.

    And if you’re ever in Western Mass, I can highly recommend two good Mexican places in Amherst: La Veracruzana and Bueno y Sano. Good times.

    1. I didn’t even know they were a thing until last week, now I’m curious to try more of the flavours. Thanks for the recommendation, I love Mexican food but have embarrassingly failed to make it to Western Mass thus far. Hopefully this Spring 🙂

      1. Northampton and Amherst are great little towns. Springfield has nice museums, including one with a collection of Indian motorcycles and vintage Smith & Wesson weapons (both companies are native to the area). Enjoy your travels!

  4. My (British) daughter who is currently on work placement in London with MAJOR US organisation recently got confused by the word ‘period’ in an email from America. She sent a long winded reply, describing in detail the ‘period’ over which the project was to be completed 😦 Much derision from UK and US colleagues alike. I did not bring her up in a cave; she had plenty of exposure to US films, TV & sitcoms – but I am still left with the feeling that I have somehow failed as a mother!

  5. Don’t you run the risk of finding a Friendly American who gives you false advice so they can have a laugh at your expense? 🙂

    Glad to hear you’re getting on well though!

  6. Aakansha

    On a side note, sometimes I really really feel very sad for you. 😛 I don’t know why. I wish you better and happy days. 🙂

      1. Aakansha

        No no, not at all! That’s not what meant. 😛 It’s just that I really hope your struggles lessen down a bit.

  7. LOL. Many years ago, I went to live in Germany for a bit so I know exactly what you mean. By now, you’d think I’d be better at going to new places….but a fish out of water I will always be when I’m anywhere but home. But I don’t feel so foolish these days and am not so hesitant these days to ask dumb questions. I’m not sure if I’m getting wiser or just older but I am trying not to let it bother me so much….just say “what the heck” and move on to the next bit of craziness I need to know when on the road.

  8. Into the mild

    How could you give a crash course on fitting in in the US without mentioning peanut butter???

    For Americans traveling abroad, a cheek to cheek “kiss” with a kissing sound on ech side is a standard greeting in most of western Europe and South America.

    And bringing up your transgendered pet gecko as an icebreaker is generally frowned upon.

  9. My number one tip for English people in the US is be very wary of the toaster. I came down to breakfast and set fire to one in a hotel we were staying at, only to learn my colleague had just done the same.

    Another trip, I spent quite some time and attracted quite a lot of attention trying to toast what I thought was a current teacake shaped like a loaf. When I gave up and ate it anyway, I discovered it was a blueberry muffin.

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