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One thing I never understood when I was a child: Adults. More specifically, what they think is a nice way to spend their free time. Usually, they just sit around, talk and drink wine! Doesn’t that get boring soon? Also, these people had known each other for twice as long as I was alive back then. Do they even have topics left to talk about? This was one of the greatest mysteries of my childhood. Building my Lego castles, I was wondering what the reason might be.

Today, I don’t build Lego castles that often anymore. I’ve started drinking wine with my friends, enjoying a good conversation more than anything else. Growing up shifts our preferences in a remarkable way. We suddenly develop opinions to discuss, we create our own content for conversations, we experience remarkable things to share with others. Meaningful conversations become an important goal to strive for, they help us deepen relationships with our friends, family or to expand our network. Not to forget that they make us learn. Meaningful conversations teach us about other identities, worldviews, struggles, feelings, and successes. Also, they teach us about culture. Through conversations, I’m learning the most about the place where I am.

Same same but different

There seems to be a global consent that conversations are great. However, the way in which they happen strongly varies between cultures:
What’s the setting?
How deep do they go?
What are the common topics?
People back home usually have some stereotypes about how Americans handle their conversations. Therefore, I want to look at all three questions individually and share my perception of how it works here.

Food talk

Conversations in Italy involve wine. Germans usually have a beer or a Radler. People think that Russians drink vodka, but probably they prefer Kvass.
Back home, if I want to meet a friend, I think of drinking places to go to. With some, I go to Jazz bars, with others I grab a coffee. If we’re acting like poor students, we go to the other’s place and have a drink there. You might have noticed that we always drink. Not just alcohol, but there is always a liquid involved.

The US is different, at least a bit. Food is much more relevant as a social lubricant in this country. When I was in Chicago with a friend two weeks ago, he kept showing me places to eat: “This is the donut place where I always hang out with these friends. There’s the sandwich place I visit with that group. That chicken restaurant is where I usually go with my people from Michigan.” A major convenience that you don’t have to switch food habits when moving to a new city; almost everything here is a chain thanks to capitalism. With the drinking age at 21, social alcohol culture has a hard time evolving. At a young age, bars are inaccessible as a place to hang out. The non-alcoholic locations are often fast-food restaurants. The more I think about it, the more logical it seems that conversations are frequently accompanied by burgers and fries.
In fact, my description is an exaggeration. People still have drinks in bars. Austrian adolescents also go to MacDonald’s to just hang out. But there’s a tendency, a curious difference.

You’ll never find friends

I have been warned by some family members and friends: American friends are fake. The so-called “Amis” (classic Austrian term) only have shallow conversations, small talk has taken over the field. There is some truth to this, but the extreme view I’ve just described is fake news. What’s most remarkable to me is how easy it is to have a non-shallow conversation here. Most Americans are very open about their feelings, values, and ideas. They will share their “secrets” much faster than the typical German person. We could now discuss whether that’s good or not, we could talk about how Data Security laws reflect exactly this difference between the countries. Germans tend to hide more while Americans are more transparent. For the pursuit of interesting conversations, this gives the US a clear edge.

When I stayed in a hostel before arriving on Campus, I once spent a whole evening talking to two 30 to 40-year-old travelers about the US. I learned about their political views, about how fucked they think this country is. They complained about corn subsidies, probably the reason why popcorn is so popular. More importantly, however, they shared their current worries and dreams. One was currently staying in the hostel because he was hoping for his recent job interviews to succeed. The other one was traveling on a low budget because he had to spend most of his salary on his accidentally fathered kids. On that evening, I was impressed by how quickly they opened themselves up. This may happen across the globe, of course. But I’ve had similar experience more often since I’ve landed in Chicago.

This general culture of openness, I feel, also encourages fast friendships. It’s a misconception that I would never find friends here. Just the process is different. Back home, I know people that have sat next to each other in the first lecture of the first semester and they’re friends since then. The United States makes it a bit more complicated. As it’s easier to get to know many people pretty well within a short timeframe, choosing friends very deliberately is more common. It’s like the difference between an ice cream store that serves Vanilla or chocolate versus a typical American ice cream place that offers twenty flavors that all don’t exist in Europe (including “superman” and “cotton candy”). In the European store, you’ll just always get your scoop of chocolate and you’ll enjoy it every time. The American vendor offers you a spoon of as many flavors as you like, and you can choose the best. Tasting ice cream is a bit like a rapidly deep conversation. You get to know the other person with all the stuff going on in their heads. Then you can decide whether you want a whole cone full of them or not, i.e. whether you want to engage more in the relationship. This doesn’t necessarily encourage long friendships, but it’s easier to find people you “vibe” with due to the higher number of options to choose from.

Time for content

Having talked a lot about openness related to feelings, I want to lose some words about openness towards content. For this, it’s important to know about the explicitness of US culture. Being explicit about your ideas and talking about uncomfortable subjects is almost encouraged here. The lack of unwritten rules in US culture, in general, brings with it a lack of unwritten rules for conversational topics.

My favorite example is Sustained Dialogue, a club I’ve been in on campus. It’s an organization that literally has the main goal of making participants talk about subjects they think should be discussed more. These include gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. Back home, I almost never talk about these in my family and very rarely with my friends. In Sustained Dialogue, it’s the exact opposite. Not just there, but also with people in class or in other clubs, I’m more likely to talk about “uncomfortable” topics. Openness towards content is big in this country.

Let’s go talk

Having deconstructed and analyzed all these conversations, I just want to go out on campus and talk to the next Northwestern student I find. Being no longer a kid, I enjoy conversations as one of the major opportunities to learn about people, their views and their passions. Instead of building Lego castles, we can share our dreams and achievements, inspire each other and discover funny cultural differences along the way. Through conversations, I have come up with the ideas for most of these blog posts, I have met wonderful American friends and I have picked up some fancy accent. If you’re abroad, talking is crucial. But also, back home, we could have more meaningful conversations. Try to be aware of how you talk to your people the next time you do it!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Greg Schneider

    I love reading about American culture from your perspective. Hope you enjoyed your time here!

    1. jakob.maier

      Thanks Greg, I absolutely did!

  2. Qi

    Okay, my friend, I’ll try to be more aware when I talk to you next week! 😉

    I love the ice cream metaphor! Though I sometimes also feel like the vendor only offers a tiny scoop of each but often doesn’t allow you to have more – you have to convince him to get more (i.e. by being interesting enough for the other person to still want to talk to you).

    1. jakob.maier

      Don’t worry Qi, we have the conversational vibe up anyways!

      That’s a really good observation, I agree to that. It’s exhausting to beg for attention..

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