How Things Work in the USA
The way things work in the U.S.A. can be quite different than what you are used to. But with a little knowledge of the basic differences, you can get accustomed to it quickly.
American English involves many idiomatic expressions and archaic spelling rules. This presents challenges for international students who are trying to understand American students.
Idiomatic expressions are phrases where the actual meaning differs from the literal meaning. Examples include “barking up the wrong tree” (looking in the wrong location), “cost an arm and a leg” (very expensive), “letting the cat out of the bag” (revealing a secret), “loose cannon” (unpredictable person), “once in a blue moon” (rarely), “piece of cake” (easy), “put up with” (tolerate), “raining cats and dogs” (heavy rain) and “see eye to eye” (agree). They permeate the language.
The spelling of American English words is often odd, in part because many words are imported from other languages. For example, a common spelling rule is to write words with “i before e except after c.” This specifies whether the letter order is IE or EI in words like receive and yield. Unfortunately, this rule has many exceptions, such as foreign, neighbor, conscience, weigh, eight, seize, ancient, efficient, science and their. Perhaps the most accurate rule is that there are no rules.
Numbers may also look a little different to international students. The roles of the comma and period are swapped. The period is used as a decimal point, separating dollars from cents, and the comma is used to separate sets of three digits in numbers greater than 1,000. For example, Americans write 1,234.56 instead of 1.234,56. The word “billion” means a thousand million (1,000,000,000), the word “trillion” means a million million (1,000,000,000,000) and the word “million” means a thousand thousand (1,000,000). Buildings may skip the 13th floor because the number 13 is considered unlucky.
Dates and Time
The U.S. has a concept called daylight savings time, in which clocks are moved one hour forward at 2 a.m. in spring (second Sunday in March) and back one hour at 2 a.m. in the fall (first Sunday in November). However, Hawaii and most of Arizona don’t use daylight savings time.
To add to the confusion, the U.S. has four main time zones, Pacific (UTC-08:00), Mountain (UTC-07:00), Central (UTC-06:00) and Eastern (UTC-05:00). Most states are in a single time zone, but there are 14 states that span two time zones.
Most Americans get confused by the interaction between time zones and daylight savings time, writing E.S.T. (Eastern Standard Time) instead of E.D.T. (Eastern Daylight Time). Avoid these acronyms and use E.T. instead.
The U.S. also has dates backwards as compared with most of the rest of the world, writing the month first instead of second. Thus, dates in the U.S. are usually written as MM/DD/YYYY instead of DD/MM/YYYY.
The 10 major government holidays include New Year’s Day (January 1), Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January), President’s Day (third Monday in February), Memorial Day (last Monday in May), Independence Day (July 4), Labor Day (first Monday in September), Columbus Day (second Monday in October), Veteran’s Day (November 11), Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November) and Christmas (December 25). Some holidays will be celebrated on the weekday immediately before or after the holiday, if the holiday occurs on a weekend. Colleges and universities will usually be closed, as will banks, post offices and government offices.
Americans celebrate many other holidays, although colleges and government offices are usually open. People give gifts of candy and flowers to their spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend on Valentine’s Day (February 14), drink alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), and play pranks on April Fool’s Day (April 1). Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May and Father’s Day is the third Sunday in June. Children (and also adults) dress up in costumes on Halloween (October 31). Be prepared to give out wrapped candy on Halloween when children knock on your door and say “Trick or Treat.”
Temperature in the U.S. is usually measured in degrees Fahrenheit (°F) instead of Celsius (°C). You could convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius by subtracting 32 and multiplying the result by 5/9. But, it is often easier to just memorize a few key temperatures, such as
- 32°F (0°C) – freezing temperature of water
- 72°F (22°C) – room temperature
- 98.6°F (37°C) – normal body temperature
- 104°F (40°C) – a high fever
- 212°F (100°C) – boiling temperature of water
Americans use metric for some measures and the Imperial system for others. For example, soda (a carbonated beverage) is sold in liters (the American spelling of litres) and cow’s milk is sold in half gallons. There are four quarts to the gallon, but for some unknown reason Americans prefer to refer to a half gallon instead of two quarts. A quart is about the same as a liter and contains four cups. A cup contains 8 fluid ounces. A tablespoon contains three teaspoons and a teaspoon is about the same as 5 milliliters. A pound weighs the same as 16 ounces. There are 2.2 pounds in a kilogram.
Distance is measured in inches (2.54 centimeters), feet (12 inches), yards (3 feet, about the same as a meter) and miles (5,280 feet or about 1.6 kilometers).
In the U.S.A., people drive on the right side of the road, not the left. Steering wheels are on the left side of automobiles, not the right. Pedestrians should look both ways before crossing the road, as drivers can be very aggressive in the U.S.A., and the typical car weighs 20 to 40 times as much as the typical pedestrian. Even if you have the right of way, be careful, as some drivers ignore street signs and traffic lights. If you decide to ride a bicycle in the U.S.A., wear a bike helmet.
If your electronic equipment uses 220-240 volts, you will need a transformer in addition to a plug adapter, as the electric supply in the U.S. uses 110-120 volts (except for some clothes dryers). Video recordings and players in the U.S. have region encoding that is incompatible with foreign discs and video equipment.