In today’s global village, who can afford not to understand the United States, still the world’s biggest superpower, the largest economy, and, by many standards, one of the world's most important nations? Many facets of American life have been eagerly embraced around the world. Yet the sense of “just like in the movies” familiarity that first-time visitors often feel can be misleading.
Underneath the gleaming smile of popular culture lies a varied and complex society, brimming with contrasts and contradictions. Ostentatious wealth and consumption coexist with grinding poverty, time-worn towns with vibrant cities that scrape the sky. It is a culture of go-getters, of high-tech, high achievers who have put a man on the moon and count Mars as their latest scientific sandbox. It is also a deeply spiritual, compassionate country with a quiet devotion to church and charitable works.
An immigrant nation, spanning six time zones, newly carved from a thousand cultures, isn’t going to fit a single template. Generalisation is unavoidable. The rule of thumb is: be informed about cultural norms, but be flexible in applying this knowledge. In other words, when you travel to the United States, make sure you pack an open mind.