Stars, Stripes and Stereotypes


Katharina Spöth, Writer

For nearly half a year I’ve had the opportunity to develop my observations about (part of) the U.S. American culture. Living in a host family, travelling to some other places besides Vermont and attending BFA has been, and still is, a great for me way to kind of get to know what is going on here.

I think it could be interesting to share some of what I experienced because “communication is key to world understanding” (something I was told a hundred times during my preparation and learned even more the last six months).

One thing that I would like to add is that this whole story is about my personal observation and I definitely don’t want to generalize. What I experienced may totally differ from your opinion, but isn’t that what makes it even more interesting?

Starting with something I was part of recently: the concept of fundraising. It is used to such a large extent – and people don’t get tired of doing it, neither the ones who are fundraising nor the donators. Through this “concept” so many things can get realized. I’ve been noticing that at high schools especially, doing fundraisers is more than common giving students more opportunities to support and fulfill their desired actions, which is great!

One of my points is definitely the tradition of celebrating everything! I’ve never celebrated as many holidays as I have here. Yes, I always knew the basics of stuff like Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc, but during my exchange year I have learned what it means to actually feel holidays: decorating everything, including food (!) and homes, having spirit weeks and special events at school and simply being in a fancy mood.

There are so many events executed competitively and you can get rewards for everything. Again, looking at high schools, it is nearly the normality to be involved in any number of teams and races. And even if you don’t actively try to, you’re automatically part of this concept of competition. I’m not sure if that is something everyone likes but I personally find that the competitive aspect and getting recognized for what you achieved can lead to healthy ambitiousness and motivation.

How are you? How is it going? How do you do today?…

I’ve never been asked those questions with such frequency in my whole life before. In the very beginning I often ended up being overwhelmed by answering somebody asking me in passing while I was hectically running to my next class; while I started thinking about my current emotions the person was already gone. Only after some time had passed I started realizing that 90% of the time the expected answer was just a simple “I’m good”. I figured out that those questions are rather used as a polite gesture without a big meaning or real interest behind it, which is nice but definitely important to know.

Something I was astonished by and really admire is how quite a few people talk straightforwardly about everything. Opinions, other people, money, careers,…. This openness and casualness really improves conversations and makes them much more interesting. However, it can also give you a hard time if somebody gets really passionate about his or her opinion, no matter if you think differently or if you have already agreed on his or her statement. And, by the way: I love the wonderful expression “to spill/ sip the tea”.

There is so much more to write about but those points are some the most important ones for me personally. Getting to know and becoming part of a foreign culture can be confusing, but at the end it widens your mind.

Although I still have not gotten used to the tons of ice in my beverages and the grocery guy shouting at me “How are you?” from five food isles away, I enjoy all those enriching and often funny moments where cultural horizons expand.