America is a diverse country with many different people from many different backgrounds. When you don’t understand something, ask questions! This will:
- show others that you’re interested in learning about them,
- provide a way for you to start a conversation, and
- help you learn more about American culture, vocabulary, jokes, and more.
In this video, international students at the University of Minnesota recommend how to learn more about American culture here:
Become a Cultural Detective!
If you don't understand a word or topic in US culture, you can follow these steps to find out more.
- 1 Step 1: Decide who and when to ask
- 2Step 2: Specify the word or topic you don't understand
- 3 Step 3: Ask a question about it
Step 1: Decide When and Who to Ask
- The more American friends you make, the more you can learn about American culture.
- In a one-on-one or small group conversation, ask the person you are talking with if you don’t understand something they say.
- If you don't understand something in class, ask a classmate after class or during a break, or ask your instructor.
- If you’re pretty sure of the word or phrase, try Googling it.
Step 2: Specify the word or topic you don’t understand.
- What does __________ mean?
- You said something about __________.
- I saw/read something about __________.
- I heard about __________.
- My professor said something I didn’t understand. It sounded like __________.
- I don’t understand __________.
Step 3: Ask a question about it.
- Can you explain that?
- Do you know what that means?
- Can you tell me more about that?
Social Media and Popular Culture
Social media is a good way to learn about current memes, jokes, and other popular culture references. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are all popular in the United States. Choose one or more of these to follow. If you don’t understand something you see on social media, ask a friend or Google it.
- Follow Twitter Moments for "the best of what's happening on Twitter" each day.
- If you have a Twitter account, you can follow trends on the left side of your page. These trends are based on your location and who you follow.
- The right side of your News Feed has a Trending section based on your likes, follows, and other Facebook data.
- In the Events section, click on Find Events to see new activities to attend—this can be a good way to meet new people.
- Go to the menu on the left of the homepage to find trending videos in the United States.
- General news: @time
- Style news: @wwd
- Tech news: @wired
- News with an opinion: @slate
- Sports news: @bleacherreport
- Entertainment news: @mtv
- Satirical news: @theonion
- Humor: @collegehumor
- University of Minnesota: @umnpics
Joining a student group is another good way to learn about American culture.
Understanding jokes in another culture and language can be really challenging. Jokes can be difficult to explain because they depend on the situation they occur in. The people making jokes might refer to an experience they shared in the past, a person they both know, a cultural idea or reference, a current event, or a word or phrase you don’t know.
If you are in a situation where you don’t understand a joke, here are some things you can try:
- Ask. If you feel comfortable, ask someone who seems friendly and helpful to explain the joke. You will probably learn new vocabulary or cultural references this way.
- Make a note. If you don’t feel comfortable asking anyone when the jokes happens, make a note about what people said so you can show it to someone later. A different friend might be able to explain what was so funny.
- Google it. If you understand a word or phrase used in the joke, you might be able to search online later to find an explanation.
Remember, the more you hang out with Americans, the more you will learn about U.S. culture, vocabulary, and humor to understand jokes. You will also have more friends to help explain jokes when you don't understand them. Visit our page on making friends for more resources.
Types of Humor and Jokes
Humor is closely related to culture so it can vary greatly across languages. What might be funny in one culture, may not be funny in another culture. Even within a culture, types of humor can vary, and there are certainly different norms about what is humorous across the many different cultures that speak English in the world. Since humor often relates to societal norms or stereotypes, be careful about using humor so you don't offend people.
Here are some common types of humor used in American culture. Understanding these types can help identify when someone is trying to be funny or why people laugh at something.
Sarcasm is when you say something but mean the opposite. Your voice is usually lower and you say words more slowly to show you are saying something sarcastically.
- Someone spills coffee all over her desk and says "I'm having such a great day."
- Your roommate didn't study for a test and got a bad grade. Another friend says "Well what a surprise!"
- A student comments about something that everyone already noticed and another student says "Thanks, Captain Obvious!"
For more details on understanding and using sarcasm, watch this video lesson. The video refers to sarcasm in the U.K. but also applies to situations in the U.S.
A pun is when you make a joke using a word that has multiple meanings, or two different words that sound very similar.
- A library has several floors because it's a multi-story building.
(story = floor of a building AND book)
- The grammar teacher was very logical. She had a lot of comma sense.
(comma = punctuation, but also sounds like "common")
- You say you ate eggs for breakfast, and your friend asks "Were they eggstraordinary?"
(extraordinary sounds like eggstraordinary, which is a made-up word)
Sometimes people say something and then realize the word they used has two meanings that could work in that sentence. They might then say "No pun intended" to show they accidentally made a pun.
- In my chemistry class we have quizzes periodically. No pun intended.
(periodically = occasionally, but it can also describe the periodic table of elements commonly used in chemistry)
Dad jokes get their name from being commonly told by dads to their children. They are usually innocent and sometimes predictable, and have a reputation for being only mildly funny, or childish. People besides dads tell these jokes, but they are often pointed out to be "dad jokes" because they are the types of jokes your dad might say. Dad jokes are often puns, but can also be other silly wordplay or pretend misunderstandings.
- Someone ask "Did you get a haircut?" and the dad replies "No, I got all of them cut."
(misunderstanding "a haircut" to mean "one hair was cut")
- Someone says "I'm hungry" and the dad replies "Hello, Hungry, nice to meet you."
(misunderstanding "I'm hungry" to be someone introducing their name as Hungry"
- Someone says "My nose is running" and the dad replies "You better go catch it!"
(misunderstanding a drippy nose for a nose that literally runs away off your face)
Self-deprecating humor is when someone makes a comment that makes fun of themselves. Sometimes it can be a little exaggerated, what might be called dark humor.
- Do you know that feeling when you meet someone and you both fall madly in love with each other? Yeah, me neither.
(No one has ever been madly in love with me.)
- I finally figured out the reason I look so bad in photos. It's my face.
- My life feels like a test I did not study for.
- Could my hair look any worse in this selfie?
Dark humor is a joke about a sensitive, taboo, or serious subject. Examples would be joking about a car accident, racism, or death.
Memes and vines
Memes are funny images with text on them that are shared widely on social media. Often people change the text to continue making jokes with the same image. Vines are 6-second videos that are also shared on social media. If you see a meme or vine you don’t understand, you can Google the phrase or Google a key word from the phrase + meme to learn what it means, or you can ask a friend to explain it. The more you follow American social media the more you will see (and start to understand) popular memes.
Knock-knock jokes are silly, formulaic jokes. When you use them, it is obvious to others that you are telling a joke. They are popular among children and can be seen as a bit childish, like dad jokes. Knock-knock jokes almost always follow this formula:
A: Knock-knock. (like you’re knocking on a door)
B: Who’s there?
B: ____ who?
A: (punchline, which is often a pun based on a word that sounds similar to ____)
Don’t cry! (‘boo hoo’ is a phrase people use to imitate crying in English)
Doris open so I thought I’d stop by. (Doris sounds like “door is”)
Lettuce in, it’s cold out here! (Lettuce sounds like “let us”)
A: Why did the chicken cross the road?
B: I don’t know.
A: To get to the other side.
This joke was originally funny because people expect a punchline, but instead get a factual answer to the question. You can now hear and see many variations on this classic joke.
- Why did the fox cross the road? It was looking for the chicken.
(to eat it)
- Why did Adele cross the road? To say “Hello from the other side.”
(This is a reference to the song “Hello” by Adele.)
- Why did the cow cross the road? To go to the moooo-vies.
(Cows say ‘moo’ in English)
- Why did the fish cross the ocean? To get to the other tide.
- Why did the chicken stop crossing the road? It was tired of everyone making all these jokes.
Change a light bulb jokes
This joke always starts with the question “How many ___ does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer will always be something funny or stereotypical about ___. These jokes are often offensive because they are based on stereotypes about a group. Other times, they can be self-deprecating if you are a member of the group that is the subject of the joke.
- How many graduate students does it take to change a light bulb?
Only 1, but it will take him over 5 years to do it.
(It takes graduate students many years to finish their studies.)
- How many politicians does it take to change a light bulb?
Two. One to change it, and one to change it back again.
(Politicians sometimes contradict each other and work against each other.)
Remember that describing entire cultures focuses on patterns and average tendencies of an entire society, but individual people within the society may vary from the norm. While you may find many Americans who fit the general descriptions below, you can also probably find examples of Americans who do not. Try this Culture-Specific vs. Culture-General activity for practice identifying when behaviors are individual, cultural, or universal to all humans.
Minnesotan are known for being “Minnesota Nice," and many international students find this to be true (e.g., they smile at strangers, start conversations with people they don’t know, and hold doors open for others in public spaces). The negative side of “Minnesota Nice” is that people might not be direct about things they don’t like or might not clearly explain how they truly feel (also known as being passive-aggressive). The more you interact with Americans (from Minnesota or other states), the more you will learn about American culture, behaviors, traditions, and expectations. If you are looking for ways to reach out to people here and make friends, check out our resources on starting conversations and connecting with others.
The chart above shows how the United States scores on six cultural dimensions. The scores are relative, meaning that the numbers are only revealing when compared to another country's scores.
The U.S. is low on Power Distance, meaning Americans generally emphasize equal rights for everyone. If there are inequalities of power, Americans often want to know why. Hierarchical order is not very important in the U.S. Examples of this include open communication between managers and employees, calling professors by their first names, and people communicating informally with one another across status differences.
The U.S. has one of the highest Individualism scores in the world. Many Americans view themselves as individuals first, rather than as members or representatives of a group or family. You might see evidence of this when you see Americans who are comfortable interacting with strangers, seeking information, being self-reliant, not depending on authority very much, moving away from families for work or school, and basing promotions more on skill and merit than on connections.
The U.S. has a high score in Masculinity, which means achievement and success are more important than caring for others. Many Americans learn to “be the best you can be” and will openly talk about their life achievements. Competition is common, and seen as a way to bring out the best in people. Many people look for better ways to do something and keep improving.
The U.S. has a lower score in Uncertainty Avoidance, meaning Americans are okay with some uncertainty about the future. Examples of this are being open to new ideas, opinions, and innovations; a willingness to try new things; and allowing people to freely express their ideas. You may also find that some Americans express their emotions less than people from other cultures.
Long Term Orientation
The U.S. has a low score in Long Term Orientation, meaning traditions and norms are important, and societal changes are viewed suspiciously. Some examples of this include: checking whether new information is true or not, measuring business performance on a short-term basis (every 3 months), and a desire for quick results in the workplace. You may also notice that many Americans have strong beliefs about what is good and evil.
The U.S. is an Indulgent society, which means Americans don’t exert strong control over their desires and impulses (compared to someone from a Restrained society). You can see examples of this in celebrity scandals, in the wide-spread drug addiction problem in the U.S., and in the saying “work hard and play hard.”
Hofstede, G., Hofstede G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. Revised and Expanded 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
See how your country's culture descriptions compare to the U.S. scores described above.
Complete this Core Cultural Values Worksheet to identify some of your own cultural values.
Take this Culture Learning Styles Inventory to identify how you learn about culture and to find other strategies that might help you learn more about cultural differences you encounter while living in Minnesota.