Amherst Magazine

When You Are Strange

By Katherine Duke '05

Have Americans ever struck you as strange? Have you ever wondered about Americans’ obsession with sports like NASCAR, “football” or baseball? Did you grow up without American TV shows? Do you find it strange how Americans are constantly interrupting one another? Or asking “How are you?” and not waiting for an answer?

So begins the description of “Strange Americans,” a new Interterm course primarily for international students, who make up 9 percent of Amherst’s student body. Instructor Ryan Milov ’10, area coordinator of the first-year experience, developed the course with Dean of First-Year Students and Professor of Chemistry Pat O’Hara.

Over several days in January, Milov and a small group of students scrutinized everything from Super Bowl parties to different styles of eye contact, with each student practicing whichever style was the least comfortable for him or her. A student from Myanmar, for example, said that averting his eyes while he spoke to people made him feel “unsafe,” while a student from Japan found it “stressful” to look directly into people’s eyes. Americans exhibit a wide range of eye contact behaviors, Milov said (though a trendy Amherst T-shirt from a few years ago read, on the front, AWKWARD, and on the back, AVOIDING EYE CONTACT SINCE 1821).

Students also observed Americans in their natural habitats, including at Rao’s coffee shop and at a town breakfast celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. After the Rao’s visit, the Burmese student said he found it odd that, in 20 minutes of conversation, the two strangers he spoke with didn’t ask him anything about his home country. Other students noted that Americans tend to be animated and explicit in expressions and gestures; they’re “easy to read.”

The student from Japan brought up an article contrasting communication styles in the United States and Japan. “The communication American people usually have is like the [game of] tennis: you have to hit the ball, and the other person has to hit the same ball back,” she said. “But the communications we usually have back home is like a [game of] bowling: you have to wait until that person finishes his or her talk, and then the next person goes.”

Milov loved this metaphor; he began thinking about why he, an American, “plays tennis” in conversation. “Let’s say you told me a story about how, yesterday, you went out and you ran into a flock of wild turkeys, and had a brief conversation with their leader, and then returned home,” he said. “If I didn’t ‘hit the ball back’ and say, ‘Oh, what color was the turkey’s head that was the leader?,’ then I would worry that you were going to think that I wasn’t listening.”

“One of the characteristics of tennis-style conversation is that you have to keep going—even if you’re not interested,” the Japanese student added. “And sometimes you can play doubles, so someone [else] just jumps in.” (This might be where that whole “constantly interrupting” stereotype comes from.)

“That’s so true!” Milov laughed (interrupting her).

Read Duke's extended account of the “Strange Americans” course on Campus Buzz.