Communication and Addressing Others

Communication with U.S. Americans

Politeness counts. Saying "please" and "thank you" matter when dealing with U.S. Americans. Most U.S. Americans are uncomfortable with long periods of silence. They depend more on spoken words than on nonverbal behavior to convey their messages. U.S. Americans most often speak literally and directly by saying "what is on their minds" and by "getting to the point." In the U.S., asserting one's rights and opinions is more highly valued than avoidance of disagreement.

Conversation Topics
When talking to people that they have just met, most U.S. Americans prefer "small talk." Small talk pertains to conversations about the weather, jobs, sports, classes, music, television, movies, mutual friends, and shared experiences. Personal or controversial matters regarding sex, money, politics and religion are not usually discussed with people U.S. Americans have just met, but are certainly topics of discussion in a college community.

Nonverbal Language
A common cause of misunderstanding between persons of different cultures is the way in which we interpret gestures and other nonverbal signals. These are seldom, if ever, taught in language classes and feel so automatic that we forget how they often mean different things in different cultures. For example, most U.S. Americans, including women, value direct eye contact as a sign of directness and honesty and would not interpret it as bold, flirtatious or disrespectful. To avoid misunderstandings, if a person’s words and gestures seem to disagree, it might be safer to follow the verbal message. You might also double-check your understanding with the speaker.

Personal Space
Personal space is the distance at which one person feels comfortable talking to another. The distance perceived as "comfortable" varies widely across cultures and individuals. Depending on your sense of personal space, this may be one other area for adjustment.

Written Words
For U.S. Americans, written words are often more recognized than verbal communication. Formal agreements, contracts, and decisions are almost always written down. Always keep copies of important documents. Always write down the name and telephone numbers of any person who gives you information.

Addressing Others: Use of Names and Titles

First names are used quite frequently in the United States. When deciding whether to call people by their first name or not, the following general rules apply:

Address people of your own approximate age and status by first name. If the other person is clearly older than you, you should address them as Mr. or Ms. with their family name. Some married women will want you to use the term Mrs. and others will not. If the older person asks you to use his or her first name, do so.

If the person you are addressing has a title (whether older or younger) such as "Ambassador," "Professor," "Doctor," or "Dean," use that title and the family name. All professors, administrators, and staff should be addressed by title and family name. Any faculty member with a Ph.D. can be addressed as "Doctor." Instructors without Ph.D.'s should be addressed as Mr. or Ms. Again, the other person might ask you to address him/her by his/her first name. If the person with a title asks you to use his or her first name, do so. Americans generally do not use a title followed by a first name.