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From Politics To Punctuality: U.S. Culture's Suprises

Guidebooks help tourists plot journeys and choose which sights to see. The books also provide advice on dining norms, driving habits and punctuality.
Guidebooks help tourists plot journeys and choose which sights to see. The books also provide advice on dining norms, driving habits and punctuality.

When visiting another country for the first time, you probably turn to a guidebook for travel information — recommendations for hotels, restaurants and sightseeing. First-time visitors to the U.S. turn to guidebooks for that information, and also for advice on navigating the complexities of American culture.

In a piece in The Atlantic, associate editor Max Fisher examines several guidebooks and lays out some of the subtle cultural nuances that U.S. residents take for granted.

"What was so surprising to me is we get used to thinking of America as this very informal, laid-back place," Fisher tells NPR's Tom Gjelten. "And it turns out that we're actually a little uptight."

Fisher found that pages and pages of the Lonely Planet USA and Rough Guides: The USA focus on how to deal with greetings — personal space, kissing and hugging — as well as tipping and punctuality.

"We're just so used to these customs, we don't realize how complicated and involved they are, how many rules there are," says Fisher. "It is a reminder that we're just like any other country, and that we do have ... our kind of particular cultural nuances."

Tell us: What surprised you about your first visit to the U.S.?

Interview Highlights

On guidebook advice for visiting someone's home

"The complications and the politics of when you visit someone's home in America are really complex, and I can't tell you how many pages in these books are dedicated to this. And one thing that they kept returning to that I was so baffled by the first time I read it — it said, if you have dinner guests over, don't give them cash.

"... I thought, who is doing this? And I started asking around, and this Pakistani friend who's lived in the U.S. for many years told me, 'Oh, I can't get my mother to stop giving cash away to our guests.'

"And you realize that these little customs and traditions we have that we think of as universal — you know, you bring food or a bottle of wine to somebody's dinner — it just sounds like it makes sense, but it's actually a very particularly American habit. And if you don't know about that, it can be complicated."

On how guidebooks explain U.S. history and politics

"I was really fascinated by the frankness and directness with which they talk about the history of Native Americans in the United States, and the history of slavery and the civil rights movement in the U.S. You know, these are still such sensitive topics in American life that we can be circumspect when we talk about it, so it was jarring to read these guidebooks that were just very clear. You know, here's what happened. And we're also very clear on the fact that it still affects American life today.

"People outside of the U.S. know a lot about America's racial history. You know, the civil rights movement is taught in primary schools in China, but what they don't know is, you come to the United States and you just do not talk about race, no matter what. It is a big taboo. But otherwise, you talk politics as much as you want, more than just about any other country."

On the misconceptions that come from American television

"American culture is very famous. You grow up in the U.S., you consume probably exclusively American TV and American movies, but if you grow up in India, you probably watch a lot of Indian movies and a lot of American movies. ... Who's to tell you which parts of those movies accurately represent American life and which ones don't?

"I remember a conversation with a Chinese friend, where she said, 'Oh, you know, you American women — you get a new boyfriend every single week. Right?' ... 'Where did you get this idea?' She said, 'Well, it's on Friends. It's on Gossip Girl. It's on Sex and the City. Of course it's true.'

"... People are so exposed to so much about America. They know so much about it, and we get so many tourists. It's always amazing to me, the difference between perception and reality."

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