So You’re an American?

So You’re an American?
The Department of State presents:

So You’re an American?

A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad

Imagine you are abroad.

You’re at the local market, or on a bus, or at a party, and you’re asked…
Older man
“Why do you Americans put your parents in nursing homes?”
Younger man
“Why are your schools so dangerous?”
Middle aged woman
“Why don’t your children respect their elders?”
Sometimes these questions are posed out of genuine curiosity, other times they reflect a stereotypical view of the United States and its citizens. It may seem like no topic is out of bounds. Occasionally, questions can be antagonistic or simply too personal for you to feel comfortable responding.
People outside of the United States are often curious about American culture, its politics, and the general way of life. As an American abroad, you can expect to have encounters with people who want to ask you questions that you may find uncomfortable. It can be challenging to respond when you are asked difficult questions, since they can come up in any conversation and can be asked regardless of where you are or what you are doing. You’ll need to be prepared for these situations and the cultural differences that will impact your communication with other people.
Illustration of a person speaking.

You can navigate these conversations with confidence if you take the right steps to prepare. This resource will help you learn how to respond with competence and confidence to difficult or challenging questions about the United States, its culture, and yourself.

The top layer of an iceberg
It’s important to understand the concept of culture, the ways in which cultures vary, and the basic precepts and perceptions of U.S. culture before you begin to communicate. This section will help you develop cultural awareness through the examination of cultural differences and how to navigate them.
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Cross-cultural Communication
In order to respond to difficult questions, you will need to effectively communicate across cultures. This section will help you form and sharpen pre-existing communication skills, examine verbal and non-verbal communication cues, and identify the cultural context in which you’re communicating.
Interaction cycle, representing Before: Do your homework, with an arrow pointing to During: Get out there, with an arrow pointing to After: Reflect on your experiences with a final arrow leading back to before.
With the right understanding of culture and communication, you’ll be ready to engage with people and respond to difficult questions. This section will help you “do your homework” before arriving in a new culture, apply tips and techniques on how to engage and respond to difficult questions, and reflect on your experiences.

Getting the Most out of This Resource

What kind of learning experience do you want? There are a few different ways you can choose to explore this resource. Take a look at the options below.

Scroll through Each Page

We recommend scrolling through each page of the resource in sequential order. Taking this path will allow you to build a foundational knowledge of culture, cross-cultural communication, and how to engage before exploring the practice activities. When you reach the bottom of each page, you will automatically be presented with navigation options to continue moving forward or to review an earlier section.
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About this Resource

Representing the United States—and Americans—while living and working abroad is an honor and privilege. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to answer questions on behalf of a nation and its people, especially considering the diversity of the American experience. Every American living or working abroad needs the skills and confidence to answer difficult questions politely and substantively, while at the same time respecting the many cultural realities of all interpersonal encounters.

This interactive resource, So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad, is designed to build skills and confidence in responding to difficult questions about culture and nationality. Specifically, this resource focuses on handling everyday inquiries from curious folks around the globe. Have you ever jumped in a taxi and been confronted with “Why do Americans love their guns so much?” or some such question mired in history, culture, and values? Or, have you been at a local market trying to purchase a gift and been surprised that what should have been a 10 minute encounter has turned into a 45 minute ritual of tea, presentation of goods, and detailed explanations of the craftsman’s process?

So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad is an online resource created by the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute for all Americans living and working abroad who are eager to prepare for the many informal and unofficial questions they will receive while overseas. Throughout this resource, you will explore cross-cultural communication techniques as well as various aspects of culture through self-paced activities, videos, and simulations. Participants will develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult questions and conversations, including knowing how to disengage appropriately. This resource limits its scope to non-foreign policy questions, as those demand answers from official sources.