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American Phrase Book (mit.edu)
235 points by troydavis 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 167 comments

Yup. One of the great mysteries of the world is how Americans think they are so straightforward and direct and honest... and then they ask a German if their butt looks big in these pants, and burst into tears on hearing the answer.

On a mildly more serious note, I remember well my first ever serious business meeting in the US, where we pitched a potential joint venture to another company. 30 minutes of mutual praise about the awesome potential of the idea and positive affirmations of how we're totally going to do this ensued... and immediately after we left, my (American) business partner dropped the smile, said "welp, that went badly" and stated that there was no way in hell they'd proceed. Which proved to be the case.

This is something of a misunderstanding of American culture. It's far more complex than can be summarized in a HN comment, but it's more accurate to say that American culture prides itself on accessibility, egalitarianism, and a "lack of barriers" more than directness, defined as pure unfiltered honesty, per se.

A good example to illustrate this phenomenon: in most American cities, it is considered fairly normal, even expected, to talk to strangers on the bus, in the street, in line at the grocery store. There is no mental "barrier" to overcome in the public sphere. However, one is typically expected to be polite and not overly direct while interacting with strangers.

The same activity, contrarily, is borderline verboten in German culture. The typical German will rarely engage in spontaneous conversation with a stranger, even if he/she would be extremely direct (in American terms) if such a conversation were to occur.

On a recent trip to Italy I experienced all of what you attribute to the US in a way that makes my typical US experience seem full of pointless boundaries and distance. The grocery store was a huge social scene that they let me, a foreigner, in on. I was given plenty of unsolicited life advice in train stations. Most of that would be called inappropriate in polite circles in the US.

I wondered how much this was that my ancestry is half Italian so I looked the part. My wife seemed in contrast much more likely to be figured as a foreigner and given distance.

This resonates with my recent experience. I'm Indian, but I live in Europe, and during a recent trip to the US, I was amazed by how easy going the people were. I was able to have nice conversations with random locals. From a nice uncle spontaneously telling us about the history of Santa Cruz to a stranger helping us park the car properly in SF, to jolly waiters in restaurants, it all felt very human. I find it quite hard to make small talk in European cities. I used to think it's the language barrier, but I realize now that it might be more than that.

Plenty of US cities aren't like that. You're going to get a wayyy different response talking to random people on the NYC public transit than in SF. Seattle has the infamous "Freeze", and DC has that government contractor omerta thing going on.

Santa Cruz is a whole 'nother creature too.

I'm a government contractor in DC and I'm thankful to you for teaching me the word "omerta."

Would you please explain? Thanks!

It is more than that. To talk to a stranger in Europe, you need a "reason" (or an excuse), otherwise it's weird.

>The typical German will rarely engage in spontaneous conversation with a stranger

This is true, but there is one great exception: if you are with small children. Many Germans get very warm and smily, and are happy to start talking with you, at least about your kids.

Same in the uk, and also for dogs.

> The same activity, contrarily, is borderline verboten in German culture. The typical German

The most disparaging remark to keeping the distance in Germany will include something along the lines of "Kenne ich Sie?" (Do I know you?). This essentially means "Don't you ever dare to talk to me you piece of HOOOPS!".

I found this especially true in certain social circles. People with some sort of so-called elitist pedigree, traces of former nobility for example, used to react like that. They know each other and strangers are shot down this way.

Funny! ;)

>borderline verboten in German culture. The typical German will rarely engage in spontaneous conversation

I spent a year in Germany as an exchange student. I still return every few years to visit friends and just because I'm in love with the place. I have so many random conversations with strangers there about all topics. These take place in trains, pubs, parks, etc.

IME, contrasted to America, German "leisure" is more about experiencing and valuing downtime. IME American leisure involves tentatively exchanging anxieties, butt-sniffing to see who's on what side. This may be skewed bc I'm an American who can speak German somewhat well, so I'm a bit of a curiosity over there.

I miss that German mode of relaxation. Of course, there are plenty of people on both sides of the pond whose relaxation involves equipment, gear and challenges. But in Germany, I find people much more comfortable enjoying downtime, doing little to nothing at all, staying open to experiences, wandering and talking to strangers about random topics. IME, they tend to be more confident and less blustering than Americans when asserting themselves. It's as if they aware of the depth of subjective experience and feel safe presenting themselves.

Whereas in the U.S., I feel people entering that mode preface their presentation with implied threats. It gives me the feeling that I can't authentically respond, not with a threat. I'm thinking of biker/right-wing types as well as skittish soccer parents here. They're not open; they're spreading their tribe. It seems to reflect a humble image of one's self and country as part of a bigger whole, whereas in the U.S., the bigger whole is simply one's tribe and its competition with others. This may all be skewed by my own insecurities around strong persona...

Are you German? perhaps you're more aware of internalized social anxieties and pressures than I experience as a visitor there? I've got a more or less Zen mind, but also great curiosity and impulse to communicate, so I probably draw out the social ones. Of course, I do encounter many "grumpy" Germans who don't want to talk, but the same is true in the U.S.

No, I'm American but I've spent a considerable amount of time in Germany specifically and Europe generally. Most people find that Americans are more approachable than Germans. My experience was the same. That's not to say that I prefer one to the other; they are simply different cultures.

Maybe your experience was different, but your whole comment seems to implicitly have a problem with Americans, so I'm dubious as to exactly how neutral your sentiments are.

> This may all be skewed by my own insecurities...

I think you answered your own question there.

I've never heard of Americans thinking/saying they were direct. In my case I see our culture as the opposite, as this page seems to demonstrate. Corporate double-speak is a well-known thing here (I presume its similar in many places, but I don't know), and I'm sure most people like me were taught "if you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all". A common trope in child programs when I grew up was that being honest but hurtful was "incorrect".

Perhaps subtle cues or assumptions create such imagery of directness for those on the outside? Not that I take issue with your characterization, I just wonder how it came to be.

Throughout my (American) childhood, I was always told that harmful lies were bad, but various purported sources of moral lessons (books, shows, etc.) had different ideas about "white lies." Some were all for them ("It's a lie, but we say it because we love them!"); others took the line "It's better to be honest even if it's hard."

Of course, there was a very common character trope with some kid who was told "Honesty is always the best policy," and who then proceeded to go around telling people (e.g.) that yes, their butts did in fact look too big. inevitably annoying all the adults they were honest with.

To any foreigners wondering, no, none of us enjoy the fake corporate double-speak either. Things like asking, "How are you?" and never wanting an actual answer are of course too engrained in our culture for most of us to even notice. But the extreme levels this gets taken to in the corporate setting is almost offensive. In the worst offenders, any exchange even close to approaching confrontational is liable to get you labeled as "difficult to work with." But this has almost less to do with our general culture, and more to do with corporations' need for bland, compliant, agreeable clone-employees.

> had different ideas about "white lies."

Maybe, without going all sapir-whorf, the common use of an idiomatic "white lies" expression might mean something, like, say, the existence of "jeitinho" in brazilian portuguese.

Well, it all depends who you compare to. I too heard many times of Americans being direct, but usually it's said in comparison to British people, and in that case it's fairly true I guess. On the other hand, compared to say Mediterranean or Balkans, no, you're not direct at all :)

I don't think more direct at all. Perhaps more direct than southerners, particularly London, but hardly compared to northerners or Scots. More determined to bring overstatement and excess superlatives certainly, while British are the inverse and overdo the understatement.

"This is good" En-GB: "Not bad, I 'spose", "it'll do" En-US: "Awesome man, incredible", "I'm excited you asked, amazing"

I will retire never having used "exciting" in a work context. :)

With apologies to both sides of the Atlantic.

>I've never heard of Americans thinking/saying they were direct.

They wont say it for themselves, but it's something very common to hear Americans and foreigners say/write as a fact for Americans in general (ie. the culture). Some areas even compete/praise themselves on how more direct they are (New Yorkers come to mind).

Of course, compared to a culture with a lot of innuendo and second guessing required, like e.g. the Japanese, or more subtle and ironic, like the English, that would be very true, but not in general.

> Some areas even compete/praise themselves on how more direct they are (New Yorkers come to mind).

In the US I frequently cite that I am an east coaster to explain why I don't play the politeness game as in this phrasebook, and people seem to accept that explanation. (Or perhaps they say they accept it but don't give a shit, as some of the phrasebook might suggest.)

Likewise, I often explain to people that I'm from the midwest. Sometimes it helps cut through the bullshit, sometimes it doesn't.

> One of the great mysteries of the world is how Americans think they are so straightforward and direct and honest... and then they ask a German if their butt looks big in these pants, and burst into tears on hearing the answer.

The Culture Map by Erin Meyer goes into this a bit; one of the key traits she uses to assess cross-cultural communication is how directly cultures give/take negative feedback.

There are two things to reply to here from that book:

1. The stereotype for a lot of the world is that Americans are direct, much like you said here -- but this isn't the case for ALL types of communication.

2. There's a scale specifically for negative feedback from "direct" to "indirect" for various cultures and the US is shown in the middle of that scale.

The UK is also listed around the middle, but more toward the "indirect" side than the US.

For more extreme examples, Russia, Germany, and France are listed as tending toward more direct negative feedback, whereas Japan and Indonesia are listed as tending toward more indirect negative feedback.

It's a fascinating book that really opened my eyes about ways to perceive cultures and communication, so if this is anything you're at all interested in, I'd really recommend it.

> On a mildly more serious note, I remember well my first ever serious business meeting in the US, where we pitched a potential joint venture to another company. 30 minutes of mutual praise about the awesome potential of the idea and positive affirmations of how we're totally going to do this ensued... and immediately after we left, my (American) business partner dropped the smile, said "welp, that went badly" and stated that there was no way in hell they'd proceed.

This kind of situation is also discussed in the book! ;)

Edit: I bring this book up relatively frequently, but I'm not associated with the publisher or author at all. The book was an absolute revelation for me in that it gave me a way to conceptualize cultural differences rather than the traditional/stereotypical "good/bad" scale, so I like to pay it forward and recommend it to people who seem like they might be interested in it.

I'll second the recommendation for The Culture Map, I found it very useful.

>One of the great mysteries of the world is how Americans think they are so straightforward and direct and honest... and then they ask a German if their butt looks big in these pants, and burst into tears on hearing the answer.

Or how they ask a friend/relative/acquaintance "How have you been" and expect just a fake generic "fine" or similar, not the actual story of how you were, as told in several (at least European I know of) countries...

Non-Americans always harp on this yet don't understand that "How are you?" is just functioning as a generic "Hello" and not as a literal question. This happens in every language with various phrases.

For example, the phrase for "Hello" in most European languages directly translates to "Good Day." It is not as if people are saying "Good Day" in any literal sense of the words; the meaning implied is "Hello."

>Non-Americans always harp on this yet don't understand that "How are you?" is just functioning as a generic "Hello" and not as a literal question. This happens in every language with various phrases.

We very much understand that.

Our problem/concern/issue is that you don't seem to expect/appreciate the outpour of how one has been in the first place, whereas elsewhere it's a natural part of meeting the other person...

That is, it's not like:

"'how are you?' just means hello, but we have another phrase to say if you want the other person to really tell you how they've been/feel when you meet them".

It's more like:

"Actually telling the other person how you've been/feel is discouraged, nobody cares that much for you, period".

What really gets me every time (and I'm on a US trip right now) is that they say the words but expect no response. I'll walk into a store and the dialog goes:

- Hi, how are you? - I'm fine, how are y... - What can I get you?

They don't mean to cut me off, it's just obvious they mistimed my response. What my American friends do:

- Hi, how are you? - Hello, how are you? - What can I get you?

It's very odd to me how neither responds to the other's question, but it really is used as a generic greeting.

That is very odd to me as an American. Lots of these things are regional though.

"How's it going?" when used as a greeting, is typically only used in brief interactions, like passing someone in the hallway.

In a longer conversation, there are numerous phrases (including "How are you?") which, combined with the fact that the conversation is extended (i.e. you are both sitting at a table, or haven't seen each other in awhile) are universally assumed to mean that the person wants to know "how you are." It's a sort of game that one does subconsciously.

I can see how it appears to be nonsensical and random, but there is definitely a method to the madness, and I wouldn't say that American people care less about asking people how they are.


"I've had a rough week, my dog died and I'm having trouble focusing at work. Hello to you, too."

For Chinese, "Ni Hao" literally means "you good", equivalent to "hello".

If you actually want to ask someone how they're going, the phrase is "Ni Hao Ma", which is literally the question: "you good?"

The question version isn't something you'd normally use. It might be appropriate on meeting a friend if you knew they'd been recently ill.

With the difference that “Good Day” is something you wish uppon others while “How are you?” is a question that also exists outside of the smalltalk context.

You can ask “How are you?” with genuine interest and get a genuine answer in the right context.

These things are complicated though. I’m a kiwi and on moving to the UK it took ages to figure out that “alright?” meant “hello”, not “what’s wrong?”

Where I live (a corner of Ireland) people say "Well?" for hello. I think it's short for "Are you well?"

This was brought up in some sales training I once had. Basically the instructor suggested not using the phrase when you don’t really want an answer, ie most business contexts.

And yet the current American president is renowned the world over for using unusually direct and simple language.

'Americans are straightfoward' to me has always meant that when a large group of Americans decide what to do they'll fight it out in public with big, well defined interest groups coalescing around well broadcast opinions. Very transparent. No real nuance at the strategic level; usually simple opinions like 'more money to X' or 'we want a Y' (although often quite a sophisticated execution). Generally clear why people believe what they do. Compare that to the traditional British approach where there is a lot more emphasis on silly pageantry and maintaining dignity in public, like the basic fundamental absurdity of pretending a monarch is somehow more worthy than any other. Americans literally wouldn't stand for pretending that unless they were making money off it somehow.

For all the complicated details of politeness in the small, Americans in large groups are generally crystal clear about what they do and do not like.

I have to laugh at the notion that British politics is "dignified". The House of Commons is a melee of shouting and heckling punctuated by an increasingly haggard-looking man shouting "ORDAAAA" whenever it gets too rowdy, which seems to be every 2 minutes or so.

Did you see Bercow has resigned? I'll miss his distinctive roar.

I have, yeah. I can't blame him. Even compared to a few months ago he looks very tired, and doesn't seem to have the same enthusiasm he once did. I don't know if that's related to the controversies about some of his decisions, but it's certainly a job that one needs a lot of energy for.

Americans who think of themselves as straightforward and direct and honest are usually thinking of themselves in comparison to other Anglophone cultures. Since very few of us speak German or go to Germany, we wouldn't know how direct they are anyway.

> and then they ask a German if their butt looks big in these pants, and burst into tears on hearing the answer.

Is there even a correct answer to this kind of question?

That's like asking the self-driving car engineer about the answer to trolley problems.

The correct strategy is not to get into those situations in the first place.

I'd love to see one of these for Australian English, although I don't think it would be possible. Aussies have a love of metaphor a simile that's unmatched in any other dialect of English, especially if you hang out with bogans (basically Australian Rednecks, for lack of a better description). It's basically the opposite of America, where instead of trying to be excessively polite, we try to be excessively offensive. The other habits of Australians are to shorten words down and add an "O" to the end, and to swear excessively.

Here's a couple of my favourites:

"Not here to fuck spiders" => Not here to waste time

"Mad as a cut snake" => Very angry

"Busier than a one armed brickie in Baghdad" => Very busy (a brickie is a bricklayer)

"Built like a brick shithouse" => A large, muscular man

"Crack the shits" => get annoyed

"Dog act" => something done to a friend that's uncalled for, e.g. skipping your round at the pub

"Stitch up" => A scam or a trick

"Sick cunt" => An outstanding person

"Old mate" => Someone who's not your friend

"Smoko" => Morning break at work

"Misso" => Girlfriend (short for missus)

"Ambo" => Paramedic (short for ambulance)

"Servo" => Service Station (gas station for Americans)

"Seppo" => American

"Pokies" => Poker machines

"Yeah nah" => either yes, or no, depending on context. Can also be used as filler in a sentence.

This leads to beautiful sentences, such as:

"Yeah nah, the misso cracked the shits at me 'cause I spent the whole arvo at the pokies"

Here's a decent sized list of Aussie slang: https://nomadsworld.com/aussie-slang/

"Seppo" => American

Seems related to the cockney rhyming slang:

Septic tank = Yank


It is. Also as a Brit I love calling American's "Septics".

To clarify the "yeah, nah". It often depends on the order, e.g:

"Want to go out tonight?" "Yeah nah let's stay home." ('nah' last = no)

"Should we leave now?" "Nah yeah let's go." ('yeah' last = yes).

Sometimes "yeah nah" by itself said strongly can be synonymous with "no way". Sometimes "nah yeah" said strongly can be synonymous with "hell yeah".

Australian is the best dialect of English.

And for extra points explain the addition of “but” as a sentence final. Maybe it reverses the meaning of what proceeded it, maybe it is just a full stop.

“Nah yeah but.”

As an American living in Australia this one took me a while. Just substitute “though” for “but” and you’ll have the meaning.

“You don’t look tired.” “I feel tired but.”

For a long time I just kept waiting for the rest of the sentence. “You feel tired but....but what?”

All of these strike me as being very similar to Southern American phrases.

"Cuter than a bug's ear", "Madder than a stuck pig", "Don't piss on my shoes and tell me its raining" etc are all examples of sayings that sound very similar from the South.

For full context of "Smoko" see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j58V2vC9EPc

Looks like a third of the country has watched that video. The others were all on smoko.

“Not bad” - something is pretty good, or at least better than expected. Had to laugh when I saw that phrase on the linked page.

“Not bad at all” - something is really good

“Munted” - trashed or unserviceable

"Built like a brick shithouse"

Interestingly this has a different meaning in the US, and explains the Commodores 'Brick House'[1]

"Busier than a one armed brickie in Baghdad"

At the risk of over analysing, I wouldn't employ a one armed brickie, unless he were cheap ofcourse.

[1] https://www.idioms.online/built-like-a-brick-shithouse

> "Old mate" => Someone who's not your friend

Yeah, I dunno about that. I reckon "old mate" refers to someone you don't know particularly well, rather than someone who specifically isn't your friend. Synonym with "bloke".

This is correct. "Old mate at the servo blew a plugga" - some guy at the gas station broke his flip flops

Often used as a slight pejorative, especially if you can’t immediately recall old mate’s name.

There's a rich vein of terms for occupations where Ambo comes from: Brickie, Sparkie, Chippie, Truckie, Garbo, Cabbie, Firie, Cockie...

Ambo has made its way over to the UK and is slowly starting to spread. There's not much use among the public yet. Usage tends to be by commissioners and providers.

Where I'm from -- Northern California, USA -- "built like a brick shithouse" was used frequently, and exclusively, to describe very sexy females. It had nothing to do with muscularity per se, and would never have been used to describe a man, not even in jest.

At least, in the 80's it was thus.

From southern Pennsylvania, in the 90s-00s, I've heard it used for both men and women. If you forced me to subtitute another phrase, I'd probably say "well-built." (Edit: maybe "better-built than the average")

For men, (to me) it means that they're big, strong, and muscular.

For women, (to me) it means that they're whatever kind of woman the speaker prefers.

So, as a kid, Arnold, Sly, and Hulk Hogan were all built like brick shithouses. But so was Cindy Crawford.

There's also a little thing Aussies employ called sarcasm that often goes through to the keeper.

Love these.

Also, don't forget to watch the five "How to Talk Australians" clips on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHQRZXM-4xI


It should be pointed out that the word 'Seppo' meaning American comes from the rhyming slang of a septic tank rhyming with 'yank', and then seppo being the shortened form of septic tank.

Very good list, I hear my dad's voice when I read these.

My goodness. That’s why one really has to love you Aussies!

This is a fun list! Let me add two of my personal favorites:

"Literally", which means "figuratively".

"I could care less", which literally means "I couldn't care less".



Edit: I feel like a party pooper saying this, but I see a few comments where people may be taking this phrasebook seriously, perhaps because it's been Published on the Internet by MIT?

It's not a serious phrasebook! It's just an MIT alumnus having some fun with us all.

In fact the author is clearly not a native American English speaker. Here are a few "tells"...

"Upon arrival it is therefore often to their surprise how many seemingly simple phrases actually turn out to mean something completely different in the US American variant of the English language."

"You might want to consider to do X."

"You might want to consider to postpone your trip until after the deadline."

"It is highly recommended that you turn in your application in time to increase your odds at being considered."

These are close, but not quite what anyone would write who grew up speaking American English. And that's fine! My goodness, the author's English is 1000 times better than my... whatever their native language is. And I'm glad they shared this fun list with us. :-)

BTW if you enjoy this phrasebook, I heartily recommend English as She is Spoke:


"Literally" doesn't mean "figuratively". "Literally" is used figuratively, as a hyperbolic form of emphasizing already-hyperbolic statements. It's not that the word is being misused, it's that it's being used with a deep sense of irony.

I use literally as incorrectly as I can as a joke, but I probably just sound like a moron. I think that is true of most my jokes though.

I always say figuratively and try to see people's expression when they realize that's the correct word.

My friend, you are literally the stupidest person on earth!

Well, second stupidest, next to me.

No, the dictionaries have been updated recently - you can pretty much use 'literally' however you want!


> "Literally", which means "figuratively".

Also, "officially" which means "non-officially".

But actually I think it's half joking half true. I'm American but I find when I talk this way it can be confusing to me colleagues in Norway.

If you check out the rest of his page (main page, CV), it seems he's an Israeli.

This is great. I think we need phrasebooks for all cultures. I'm Indian, and a Chinese friend was pissed that Indians say "yes" and never do it. I think it's a cultural no-no in India to say "no" to someone's face. I finally realised that a short "yes" most probably means "yes", and a long-drawn out "yes" probably means "no".

A good friend of mine from Japan said something similar: if someone says "we will do our best", it means "ain't gonna happen."

I can sympathize with this! I have such a hard time saying "no", even (or especially) when that is what must be said.

In any case, keep in mind that this is a fake phrasebook made for the sake of humor. It doesn't depict how Americans actually speak with each other, it's just all in fun.

Hahaha, it's like how "inshallah" is used colloquially.

> I'm Indian, and a Chinese friend was pissed that Indians say "yes" and never do it.

I laughed. For a Chinese person to give any other culture shit about this is hilarious. The only thing foreign businesspeople in Shanghai complain more about than people saying they’ll do something and then forgetting or ghosting them is poor quality control/fraud.

This is not helpful for a Dutch person like me (who are usually very direct) when the IT has been outsourced to India. You ask them to do something, they say yes and when time comes it hasn't been done. This got me so annoyed.

I am a Dutch person outsourcing as well.

I normally ask for a probability to complete by a certain date. That works well enough.

> This is not helpful for a Dutch person like me (who are usually very direct)

While we are at this, I think Dutch people should work on being less "direct", and also try to improve their sentence construction when writing English.

Plenty of my (former) Dutch coworkers' emails in English just came across as rude, in both senses of that word.

Hows your Dutch sentence construction?

I mean, if we're going down that road, might as well go one step back and ask how the Dutch fellow's understanding of Indian culture is.

In any case, these are things you learn once. After that, the better you are at navigating the differences, the more successful you'll be. After all, it's low probability that you'll reform (in your mind) another culture and high probability that you can improve your ability to win. So might as well chase the win by modifying the self every time.

Learning a language is hard.

This whole thread is the differences between nations who speak the same language. If they can't agree what chance has a non native got?

As a native English speaker I appreciate that I don't need to learn another language. But on the other hand, the language has also become the worlds language, so its about as fair criticising the Dutch for sentence construction, as it is for criticising Australians for making everything into a question?

Once you’re dealing with different cultures, it makes sense to adjust your communication accordingly.

I agree, but I had to find this out the hard way as I was a junior back then just rolling with it. I didn't outsource IT but had to live with it.

If you ever deal with offshore workers in India you very quickly learn to avoid yes/no questions.

I got bit by "How's it going / How are you?" when I first came to the USA. Turns out you're not actually supposed to answer with how you really are, and if you do so, they look at you like you've said something weird.

This is such a weird thing isn't it.

It's like this in the UK too, every conversation starts with "How are you?" "Fine, how are you?" "Fine."

It's always the same, pretty much. It's daft, it's just like a ritual that everyone is happy to partake in.

No one is actually asking you how you are, it's just a noise that both parties have agreed to start each conversation with. No actual information gets exchanged. You could easily replace those phrases with nonsense and as long as both parties are aware of the nonsense and what the nonsensical response is expected the it would work just as well.

Person 1: "Hippopatumus soup triage?" Person 2: "Triangle, Hippopatumus soup triage?" Person 1: "Triangle."

It's so strange.

It's known as phatic communication. It's not nonsense or noise: it conveys a wealth of information.

It (re-)establishes the relationship between two parties (and to observing parties). You can tell if two people are strangers, friends, or enemies by how they do this ritual.

It signals intention on part of the initiator and receptiveness on part of the responder. If "Hey, how are you?" gets a cold and abrupt "I'm fine." without a reciprocating question, then it's a pretty strong signal that the other party isn't open to further or prolonged conversation.

It's also like a shibboleth. How someone interacts in the ritual can signal how well socialized s/he is and whether s/he's an in-group or out-group member. If you ask someone you don't know very well "How are you?" and s/he immediately begin telling you about the rash on his/her belly and how s/he hate the traffic and the weather, then that might tip you off that s/he doesn't understand your society's social protocols and therefore is either a social misfit or an outsider.

It's not just noise though, it gives you time to mentally prepare to interact with someone. It's like a practice run!

As geeks we've already developed the optimal handshake: SYN, SYN-ACK, ACK.

It was liberating when someone told me so, because I was always unsure on what to answer. There's still acceptable canned answers like "great, thanks, how about you?" or "not too bad".

I'm from Spain, and there canned answers as well, but you risk someone can answer genuinely: "Today it's being a shitty day, I slipped this morning and my leg is still aching", even in situations where you don't have a close relationship...

When my wife came to America the first time she got asked that by department store employees and she kept thinking that something must be wrong for everyone to worry about how she was feeling.

As a non American, I sometimes just enjoy deliberately messing a bit with Americans when they utter these expressions, by doing it over the top.

Someone meeting me for some boring work related thingie: "Hi! How are you doing?"

Me: "Super awesome, thanks so much for asking! Super excited to meet you and discuss this!".

They probably think I'm crazy and/or are not sure what to make of it, so it's fun to see the puzzled looks, but I'm also just being nice.

I've met plenty of people who respond like that without it being a joke, so if you're going for over-the-top you're undershooting the mark quite a bit.

I'll try to raise the crazy a bit. Relocating to SV soon so I'll have plenty of opportunities. Umm, I mean, I'm super excited and stoked to finally be where all the magic happens!

As an American, I wouldn’t blink twice at your response...

I've seen raised eyebrows and responses like "Awesome... wow, o...kay... that's great to hear"

Which I took for "What the hell is wrong with you, crazy foreigner who doesn't know how to read social cues"


As an Israeli this was a shock for me when I first moved to the US. Here "let's have lunch sometime" is literally "let's have lunch sometime".

The American culture is so indirect and giving direct feedback is so hard. One of the biggest prides in our culture here is that employees can always burst into the CEO's office and tell them they are wrong if that's the case :]

Same here, even after five years in the US I still had to remind myself how some phrases actually communicate the exact opposite of their literal meaning.

Wasn't surprised at all to see this phrase book was authored by another Israeli :)

This feels like someone has taken the classic "Anglo EU translation guide (2011)"[1] and tried to do the same thing for American sayings. It works a little better for British sayings because, frankly, we Brits are incredibly repressed and never say what we mean if we can put our true meaning in the subtext.

[1] https://www.thepoke.co.uk/2011/05/17/anglo-eu-translation-gu...

I worked on multiple cross European project. And my favorite time (as a Swiss guys used to try to find a middle ground solution) was when we had meeting with British, French and Polish guys that don't agree on a subject. You can really see the huge cultural divide in action. The English guys will says "hmmm interesting", the French will raise his voice (creating a huge discomfort for the British guys) and start a long speech how all of this is stupid" and the Polish guys will just tell everyone that they can go f... themselves and that they won't do it. I really miss that time.

They lost me on the first two.

"Let's have lunch sometime" - Yeah, when I say that I genuinely mean it. It does NOT mean "I don't want to see you again." to me.

"Thanks for reminding me" - Again, I genuinely mean that when I say it. NOT "Stop bugging me!".

Most people are like you or me: we mean what we say and say what we mean.

This list is not supposed to reflect how people actually talk with each other. It's just a made-up sarcastic list, put together for the sake of humor. That can be a fun thing, as long as we don't mistake for an useful phrase book that tries to describe what people actually say and mean.

This is either completely wrong or the perfect satire.

Good satire that explain the cultural meaning that would stay hidden otherwise.

As an American... this list is 100% accurate

Some are too cynical but pretty funny.

As a recent inductee to silicon-valley-ese I found it odd and funny how often people were "excited" about something.

We're not excited about everything, only awesome things!

As a Romanian that worked a lot with US companies, I find this to be pretty spot-on: https://medium.com/octavians-thoughts/what-does-its-a-good-s...

This « excitement » about anything became quite trendy everywhere in the world: you can't read a newsletter or an announcement that don't start by « We are very excited of/to... »

Hella excited

Maybe I'm old now or too into old school rallying, but when someone says "hella" I just think of massive foglights on old rally cars.

I remember when a native American told me that saying "it's OK" doesn't actually mean that something is good, but just average. I must have told "it's OK" a million of times to partner about their work; they must have assumed that I had huge standards.

> US natives will usually phrase everything in a manner that creates the least social friction in any given interaction

This person has clearly never been to Asia, where a whole different level of this exists.

My experience (as non-American, non-Asian) has been the interaction was actually somewhat easier in Japan or China, because you don't expect a smooth communication to begin with and both sides are not speaking in their native tongue.

When you're in the US you have the false sense that you actually understand what's being said, while in truth learning the actual meaning can take a while.

I picked up an English copy of the Culture Shock series of books at a bookstore in Japan that was focused on the US (where I was born). Hugely enlightening. The biggest "ah ha" moment was how Americans always worried about owing people something, so they don't like to ask to borrow things or ask for help.

At first I thought this was pretty garbage content for HN.

Then I realized how many people on here aren’t native English speakers, and might need years of socialization to understand these nuances. Bravo

As a Brit the really stand out difference here is "not bad", which for us means "good". (And our stronger "not too shabby" - excellent).

Also "quite good", which can mean either "good" or "not good", depending on whether the stress falls on "quite" or "good".

And "with the greatest respect", which means "you, sir/madam, are a blithering fool."

There is a British English version of this, which has been around on the internet for a few years.

A friend of my partner's, who works at a high level in the European commission told us that it is passed around in diplomatic circles as a (non-ironic) instruction manual.

The American/British preference for avoiding direct communication is apparently not normal in Europe at all, and causes a lot of confusion amongst people who are unfamiliar with the layered meanings.

Might be worth noting that this is a private page from MIT alumni.

I saw the "mit.edu" next to the link and thought it was a study or official publication first.

As a European, I assume the page is presenting a stereotype and not the (more nuanced) truth. Personally, I've experienced problems communicating with US folks that reflect this stereotype, but at least in Tech/Science, I assume (and hope) people are somewhat more straight-forward in their communications.

I think most fluent American speakers here would agree that a few of these are true, but most of them are just humorous exaggerations.

... unfortunately, I'm not quite so sure that there would be much agreement on which ones were the true ones. :)

So, what would an American say when they actually do want to have lunch sometime?

A lot of these seem to be ambiguous. "Let's have lunch sometime" followed by some form of actual commitment (phone number, "does next friday work for you", etc) might mean what they literally said. But if it's used to end the conversation... Yeah, you're not getting lunch.

"Let's get lunch tomorrow/this week/some actual date!"

Took me a while to realize this actually works, as a born and raised American.

“works” as in “gets the other person to leave me alone”?

“works” as in “the meaning of the phrase depends on whether timing is indicated.”

As a Brit some of these seem fairly universal, "no offense" for example. Although my Grandparents don't say it before announcing something outrageously offensive, I just put that down to mental filters breaking down due to old age.

There also needs to be a section on Americans aversion to discussing bodily functions. "restroom", "powder my nose"?

Is "loo" any less ambiguous?

Speaking of Brits, they did point out the perils of faulty phrase books many years ago:


Strictly speaking it is less ambiguous.

I understood it to be a shortened corruption of lavatory and it's worth noting that the English definition of that gives toilet, and the American definition gives the sink in the toilet, which kind of reinforces my point.

I took "loo" to be from "gardy loo", which in turn is a corruption from the French "gardez l'eau", meaning "watch out down there, I'm tipping this bucket out of the window".

So "loo" would be from "l'eau", meaning "water"; so possibly "water closet", or WC, a.k.a. crapper.

My opinion wasn't particularly informed so ill happily defer. The only other explanation I heard was that it was a contraction of Waterloo.

I think we should all just say "toilet". Of course that was a euphemism originally (indirectly from French "toile"), but I think it's the closest we have to a neutral term at the moment. Unless we go for "excrementarium"

Overall I think this is bad and completely attributed to politeness, and is even weak at that compared to other languages. Many people in the Philippines would lie in response to seemingly important questions just to seem polite. "Do you know where the {important building} is?" "Oh yes, it's just across the way over there!" (it wasn't)

It's not a serious list. It's just a bunch of made-up stuff. Some of it hits close to home, as good humor should, but much of it is just there for humorous effect.

I often wonder if part of America's productivity can be attributed to the shortness of this list.

It's just a handful of expressions that are mildly misleading.

In other cultures, you have to get together with friends over dinner to discuss the hidden meaning of a single suspect word your boss had used that day.

High context cultures take a lot of mental effort.

Only a small part of the productivity, if so. I suspect larger parts come from offshoring the less productive industries (as we have done in the UK) and actually optimizing for productivity at national/cultural/political level (which I think is optimizing for the wrong thing. Truckloads of salary but only 2 weeks holiday? No thanks!).

A related thought however is whether such lists, for any given culture, tend to grow over time, like special cases in legacy software, until the overhead of working with complexity exceeds the cost of starting a new culture afresh..?

Which cultures would be considered high-context? (Genuinely curious)

Not sure if everybody would agree, but here's one chart I found: https://online.seu.edu/wp-content/uploads/795x400-Internatio...

> In high-context communication, a message cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Asian, African, Arab, central European and Latin American cultures are generally considered to be high-context cultures.


Cultures that differ the most from author’s require most context to be understood by author? Hardly surprising.

The quoted source is an anthropological work from 1959, a time when anthropology still wanted to be a natural science. These sort of generalizations do not go over well in contemporary cultural anthropology.


One story comes to mind, though it's not so much about productivity.

A friend in South Korea was running late to the office (I think it was Samsung?). He made it in by his start time and went into the office bathroom for a quick shave.

His direct superior happened to walk in. As the boss was washing his hands next to my friend, he said something like, "make sure you do a thorough job of shaving" (though obviously not as awkwardly).

Other Koreans who heard the story confirmed this probably meant: "I see what you're doing: get yourself in order this one time, and if I ever catch you shaving at work again you're toast".

(Note this was about 15 years ago, and I hear Samsung and most of the other Chaebol have mellowed out a great deal since then)

Odd omission of "Bless your heart."

How about "with all due respect". It means "no respect is due to you for this absolutely idiotic opinion you have tendered you insufferable clown"

Many of these fall under the pattern of comedic overexpression or tactical underexpression. For example, "You're really dirty, you literally smell like trash" obviously means "you figuratively smell like trash" but the latter doesn't pack the same punch.

At the same time something like "not the best programmer" is a minimizing statement which is less mean than something like "bad programmer".

There's a bit of a directness/politeness spectrum, and even in the US there are different places on the spectrum, with the Northeast being more direct, the West and South being more polite. I would say we're not nearly as polite as the English--who can often get away with completely insulting an American without the American ever realizing it--but we're also not Dutch :)

Seems inspired by https://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/what-british-people-say-v... - a guide I have known to help marriages between people from opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Would be nice if they added a column with 'But if you really mean to express (what is in the first column), say ...

As an American I found this list funny at first, and then it made me realize how difficult it must be for people who learned English in other countries to come here.

While this may have been intended as a joke, it may actually be useful to people who want to do business in America.

IMO some of those aren't american only. When I lived in Ireland, everybody kept looking at me oddly when I talked about my well being after being asked "how are you doing". Took me a while to realize they only meant "hello".

We (Irish) are very indirect too, but here we mostly avoid direct positivity as well as direct negativity

I think this isn't exclusive to Americans. Also I think this shows perfectly how there is a positive and negative perspective on everything, with which you could relabel the columns most of the time.

My favorite is “literally” which really means “figuratively” these days.

Yup, I quite enjoy answering, as detailed as possible when someone asks me how I am, interrupting and insisting I tell my full story since they were so good as to ask. :)

Definitely, this list is not something you should be proud of.

Where is all this suppressed behavior coming from and what does it tell you about the country? Language is the key to the psyche of a person.

Bless your heart. You may also want to consider that there is a thing called culture that influences the typical patterns of communication.

I'm American, and I've got to say - we haven't been talking with the same Americans.

In my school in India, "That's a good question" means that the teacher knows the answer pretty well!

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