D.I.Y. Culture: Americans Build Stuff Themselves

Are you handy at building or repairing things?  Some Americans are, and some are not.  However, there is a general feeling among Americans that they can (and should) be able to do basic fixing and building jobs around the home.

My friend Phil

My friend Phil

Disclaimer: I am not a fully handy person like my good friend Phil.  I can do painting, rough carpentry, and landscaping.  Phil, on the other hand, knows finish carpentry, does electrical wiring and plumbing, and has many other installation skills.  He also owns tools that I don't even know the names of.

A few summers ago, Phil helped me put new shingles on the roof of our shed.  I mostly watched and assisted, but in the process, I learned some things about shingling.  Now I am more confident about trying it myself in the future.

When my wife and I got a new puppy last year, some of my students were surprised to learn that I built Gladys's kennel myself.  This short slideshow shows the steps necessary to build a dog kennel and is meant to give you a glimpse of American do-it-yourself culture.  Write to let us know if it inspires you to take on a project!

(An earlier blog post on DIY culture can be found here.)

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Don’t Sweat It!

"Don’t sweat it!" What does that mean? This expression recently showed up in an article about how to attend your company's picnic.  The writer's advice: don't sweat the details and have a good time.

“Sweat” is an informal word for perspiration—when water comes out of your skin.  This can come from hard work or exercise.  Or it can come from nervousness.

If you are nervous, your American friends may tell you, “Don’t sweat it.”  If they say this, they mean, “Don’t worry; everything will be fine.”  (Note: this is an informal expression that would be too casual to use with your boss, customers, or strangers.)

Supermarket display in the personal care section  (photo: A. Headbloom)

Supermarket display in the personal care section

(photo: A. Headbloom)

This display for men’s antiperspirant uses the word “sweat” in a double meaning.  The company believes its product will reduce how much you perspire.  And they don’t want you to worry about it.

Ask your American friends for examples of when they would say, "Don't sweat it."

(photo: fotolia.com)

(photo: fotolia.com)

New Vocabulary and Pronunciationsweat = informal for perspiration [rhymes with "wet"] deodorant = a scent applied to the underarms (and sometimes elsewhere) to cover the odor of bacteria that naturally form in moist places anti-perspirant = personal hygiene material applied to the underarm to block pores from perspiring (and therefore reduce underarm moisture); may be scented or unscented Don't sweat the small stuff. = Don't worry about little things; keep focused on big-picture, high-priority issues. (A book with this title was published many years ago.)

(source: fotolia.com)

(source: fotolia.com)

Cultural Note The American belief in privacy goes beyond individual space and property. U.S. Americans also prefer that others keep sounds and smells to themselves.  Don't let your music invade my space, that is, turn down your radio!  And control your emissions of odors, that is, I don't want to take in your human smells!  This includes bad breath, body odor (also called "B.O.") from the underarms, foot odor, and others. Note how much shelf space is given to personal hygiene products in American supermarkets and pharmacies. 

If you don't shower daily and use masking scents, powders, or sprays, your co-workers may complain about you to the human resources officer, creating an awkward conversation for both of you.  Bottom line: if you work with Americans, I recommend you adapt your hygiene habits, unless you want to eat alone in the cafeteria!

Cheeseburger in Paradise

photo source: D. Suzuki

photo source: D. Suzuki

What do Hawaiian shirts and palm trees have to do with cheeseburgers? A student of mine recently asked me this question after attending the Cheeseburger Festival in Caseville, Michigan. While he and his wife enjoyed the tasty cheeseburgers, they couldn't help but wonder about the connection.

The cultural answer is simple: Jimmy Buffet!

Who is Jimmy Buffet, you ask?  He is a multi-generational inspiration for Americans who like easy-listening music and the laid-back lifestyle.  With a tropical theme, he and his Coral Reefer Band sing about beaches, rum drinks, love, and life.  Their devoted fans attend his concerts wearing Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and tropical hats--some of them decorated with parrots. For this reason, his fans are often called Parrotheads.

JimmyBuffet-bumper-sticker-300x100.jpeg

The song, Cheeseburger in Paradise, has inspired a restaurant chain by that name.  You can read the lyrics below while listening to the song.  If you're not in a tropical climate, turn on your sun lamp, pour a margarita, and click on the link to the song. (Difficult words* are explained below.)

Cheeseburger In Paradise by Jimmy Buffet

Tried to amend* my carnivorous* habits. Made it* nearly seventy days, Losin' weight without speed,* eatin' sunflower seeds, Drinkin' lots of carrot juice, and soakin' up rays.* But at night I'd have these wonderful dreams Some kind of sensuous* treat. Not zucchini, fettuccini, or bulgur wheat,* But a big warm bun and a huge hunk* of meat.

Cheeseburger in paradise. Heaven on earth with an onion slice. Not too particular, not too precise. I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise.

palm-tree-150x150.jpeg

Heard about the old time sailor men, They eat the same thing again and again; Warm beer and bread they say could raise the dead.* Well, it reminds me of the menu at a Holiday Inn. But times have changed for sailors these days. When I'm in port* I get what I need. Not just Havanas* or bananas or daiquiris,* But that American creation on which I feed!

Cheeseburger in paradise. Medium rare* with Muenster'd* be nice. Not too particular, not too precise, I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise.

A margarita is another tropical drink that Jimmy Buffet sings about.

A margarita is another tropical drink that Jimmy Buffet sings about.

I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57,* and french fried potatoes, Big kosher pickle,* and a cold draught beer.* Well, good god Almighty,* which way do I steer* For a cheeseburger in paradise? Makin' the best of every virtue and vice.* Worth every damn* bit of sacrifice To get a cheeseburger in paradise, To be a cheeseburger in paradise. I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise.

57-CU-150x148.jpeg
photo: cheeseburgerinparadise.com

photo: cheeseburgerinparadise.com

NEW EXPRESSIONS TO LEARN

amend = change

carnivorous = meat-eating

made it = lived, survived

speed = illegal energy drug

soaking up rays = getting a sun tan

sensuous = feeling good, a little sexy

zucchini, fettuccini, bulgur wheat = healthy foods

hunk = big piece [too much red meat is unhealthy]

could raise the dead = [it was so terrible that it could] bring dead people back alive

in port = in dock, in the harbor (not on the sea)

Havanas = Cuban cigars

daiquiri = a sweet/sour rum beverage

medium rare = meat cooked outside but red inside

Muenster'd = Muenster cheese would (be nice)

Heinz 57 = an American ketchup brand

kosher pickle = dill pickle made with garlic and salt

draught beer = poured from the tap [pronounced “draft”]

steer = go, direct myself

virtue and vice = good quality and bad quality

damn = darn [strong word used for emphasis]

Showing off their new cheeseburger hats in the paradise town of Caseville, Michigan (photo: D. Suzuki)

Showing off their new cheeseburger hats in the paradise town of Caseville, Michigan (photo: D. Suzuki)

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

New Talk Show Coming Soon!

Prima Donnas, Jerks, and Other Bad Apples at the Office

In a recent article called "Why it's so Hard to Deal With Office Jerks,"Stephen Balzac talks about why we tolerate bad behavior among our co-workers, even when they are really unpleasant people. His final suggestion is to fire these "bad apples" before they destroy the whole office. From the analogy with rotting fruit, Balzac is referring to an old saying in English: One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.

Balzac gives good reasons for getting rid of such poisonous workers, even though they are often the most productive workers on the team.  His business advice is sound, but a big attraction is his use of many terrific slang expressions for the office.  Below are explanations of the tricky vocabulary he uses.  After reading the list, check out the article via the link above.

Sometimes the really productive workers are the biggest jerks.

Sometimes the really productive workers are the biggest jerks.

I have highlighted the top ten most useful expressions for you to know.

Vocabulary and Cultural Concepts

palpable = able to be felt

sidelong glances = short looks to the side

set Jim off = made Jim angry

set Jim off he did = This word order is for emphasis. It means: Making Jim angry is what he did.

laced into = attacked, strongly criticized

in no uncertain terms = very clearly, without any doubt

top player = best performer

cut him some slack = be flexible with him, don’t monitor him so tightly

lest = so it won’t happen that

not go there = avoid it, don’t talk about that topic

drag on = continue for too long

get on with = get along with, have a good relationship with

bad apples = people with rotten personalities (like spoiled fruit)

No one approached... = Nobody was even close to (his level).

egregious = horrible, offensive, obviously bad

contagious = spreading, infectious

bite back = criticize in return, attack back

pick on = criticize, be unkind to

edgy = nervous, on edge, uncomfortable

irritable = grumpy, in a bad mood

jerk = person with bad or rude behavior

spiral = increase, continue going

pretty much everyone = almost everyone

thrive = grow, prosper, succeed

After all, = Here’s a logical reason for this.

take = tolerate

obnoxiousness = being really unpleasant or rude

or whatever = or other bad traits

ambiance = atmosphere, environment

take his pick = have a choice of whatever he wants

all the while = the whole time, during

disengage = disconnect, retreat, pull away

mushy = soft, (about fruit/vegetables) over-ripe

this apple is pretty mushy = this guy is pretty bad (We expect apples to be crisp, not soft.)

skyrocket = to increase dramatically, to shoot upward

refrains I often hear = repeated stories that I often hear

inevitable = unavoidable, inescapable, destined to happen

What took you so long? = Why didn’t you do this sooner?

Stephen Balzac is a writer on leadership and organizational development. Contact him at  steve@7stepsahead.com.

Overcoming Expat Isolation In the U.S.: Ten Ideas For Fitting In

Source: fotolia.com

Source: fotolia.com

As an immigrant, expatriate, or refugee newly landed in the United States, you face a number of obstacles.  Americans may not look like you, dress like you, or talk like you.  How can you fit in when you seemingly have so many differences working against you? The simple answer is that you need to jump in!  The world around you is full of opportunities for getting involved, meeting Americans, and becoming a full member of your new community.* In a recent article for international students, Tra Ho from Vietnam talked about how new students needed to change their mindsets in order to make the transition from outsider to insider at American colleges.  Among her ideas, she talked about making new friends and pursuing activities you like.

The following list comes from years of working with and listening to immigrants and expats as they sought to make the U.S. their home.  The links below just scratch the surface of all the possibilities, but I hope they inspire you to begin connecting today.

Sometimes it’s all about you!  Here are some ways you can nurture yourself and make friends in the process.

Photo source: Grand Rapids Running Club

Photo source: Grand Rapids Running Club

1. Hobby groups: There are thousands of groups organized around interests.  When I lived in mid-Michigan, one of my clients belonged to the local orchid society.  They held meetings and put on an annual swap/sale for other enthusiasts to come buy or exchange these special flowers.  After I moved to West Michigan, I was eager to find others to run with and learn about area jogging trails and races.  The Grand Rapids Running Club is friendly and organized for people on a budget, only $17 a year for membership. What activity do you like to do?  Where is the group for that?  Maybe you could start a new group.

2. Self-improvement: If you’re a fitness nut, you may need to find a place to practice yoga or Pilates.  Most cities offer classes you can sign up for.  Maybe you need to improve your public speaking skills.  Several of my students have gained more confidence speaking English in public through membership in Toastmasters.

Bible study group (source: atlantavineyard.com)

Bible study group (source: atlantavineyard.com)

3. Spiritual support: In the U.S., many people find membership in a church a great way to meet people and experience a personal and spiritual connection.  For newcomers who are Christian, joining a congregation is a terrific way of gaining relationships with Americans.  Of course, once you join a church, the other members will probably invite you to participate in both social and volunteer activities.

4. Get yourself adopted: For those internationals who are lucky enough to have an American host family, you know how invaluable it can be to have someone looking out for you.  Exchange students are able to develop close-knit relationships that last decades, all the while getting advice on the mundane aspects of life like taxes, driver licenses, and RSVPs.

5. Be where you live: If you are new to a neighborhood, you need to get to know your neighbors.  This will be helpful the next time you lock yourself out of your house, have a flat tire, or need someone to accept a delivery for you.  A good way to meet people is to just go up and introduce yourself when you see someone walking on the sidewalk or watering their lawn.  I know not everyone is as outgoing as I am, so you can also watch out for upcoming gatherings through a homeowners association, Neighborhood Watch, or block party.

Neighbors get together at a neighborhood block party (source: KathyButler northjersey.com)

Neighbors get together at a neighborhood block party (source: KathyButler northjersey.com)

Sometimes it’s all about the community.  Here are some ways you can share yourself through volunteerism and make friends in the process.

6. Share the skills!  Even if English is your second language, you can probably read and write better than a child.  Perhaps you have really good math skills.  Consider becoming a community tutor at your local literacy center.

7. Money mentoring: Maybe you’re a shrewd businessperson.  Junior Achievement is always looking for volunteers to teach students about money management, entrepreneurism, and personal finance.

Source: mrsmillersclass.org

Source: mrsmillersclass.org

8. Be a good sport! Coaching youth sports teams (whether or not you have kids) is one way to stay physically active while sharing your love for your favorite sport.

Volunteers pose in their clean-up vests at the side of the road.

Volunteers pose in their clean-up vests at the side of the road.

9. Community activities: One of my students joined an Adopt-a-highway group to pick up litter along a local roadway.  He said every time he drives past that stretch, he feels such a sense of pride and ownership of this piece of West Michigan.  Another avenue for community volunteering is the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts, the largest all-volunteer festival in the U.S.  Activities range from setting up chairs or painting designs on children’s faces to working on the clean-up crew.

These signs in Michigan are accompanied by a second sign listing the name of the organization responsible for that stretch of road.

These signs in Michigan are accompanied by a second sign listing the name of the organization responsible for that stretch of road.

10. Your kids, your community!  Your children’s elementary school is always looking for volunteers (room parent, field trip chaperone, technology assistance, shelving books in the library).  Most kids love seeing their parents involved at their school.  “That’s my dad/mom!” they proudly tell their classmates.  That could be you!  This local list from Grand Rapids gives examples of the kinds of volunteer opportunities available at American public schools. For more volunteer opportunities in West Michigan, go here. Across the United States, here are volunteer opportunities listed by state.

Kids get on a school bus for a field trip. Would you enjoy being a chaperone?

Kids get on a school bus for a field trip. Would you enjoy being a chaperone?

I’m sure you have many more suggestions from your own experience.  I invite you to share them here.  In the mean time, I wish you good connections in your adopted communities!

* Of course, meeting Americans and fitting into the community is important.  However, I don't dismiss the need to connect to your own ethnic group to give you a touchstone.  Belonging to a mosque or temple or other affinity group from your home country can be a source of stability and calm as you navigate the new waters of the USA.  Just don't become dependent on them as you make your transition to interdependence.

The ABCs of College Basketball’s March Madness

So, your American co-workers have undoubtedly been talking about the college basketball tournament and their brackets.  For some of you, this will be a new conversation.  Both men’s and women’s teams compete in this annual event.  I will focus my comments here on the men’s side of the sport. This past weekend, American television was overflowing with basketball games.  At work on Monday morning, conversations definitely included discussion of who won, who lost, and how everyone did in their predictions following two rounds of play. To help you understand better, we outline the ABCs of this time of year known as March Madness.

(photo source: Wikipedia)

(photo source: Wikipedia)

A is for Americana.  The annual basketball tournament captures the attention of fans and casual fans across the entire United States.  A is also for alliteration (using the same first letters).  Anything worth selling is worthy of catchy names.  Winners of the rounds of 64 and 32 advance to the Sweet Sixteen.  From there, game winners can join the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the Top Two.  Of course, March Madness is also an alliteration.

B is for brackets.  There are six full rounds of games played over the course of three weeks.  Losers go home; winners advance to the next round.  It’s dramatic and emotional. B is also for betting.  Many work groups organize betting pools where each worker chooses his or her winners.  Typical bets are between $5-20 but occasionally go higher.  B is also for bracket busters.  As you look at the chart below, you will notice many of the teams were predicted to be in the top four of their regional grouping; consequently, there are teams with a ranking of 1, 2, 3, or 4.  However, there are also teams picked 9th, 12th, 13th, and 15th.  Because most people in the betting pools selected the favorites, these underdogs* busted many brackets.   Teams like Oregon and LaSalle were not popular picks in the betting pools.  And this year’s Cinderella (team that no one expected to be invited to the big dance) is the team from Florida Gulf Coast University, the first-ever #15 seed** to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

"Sparty" is the Spartan mascot from Michigan State University (photo source: msu.edu).

"Sparty" is the Spartan mascot from Michigan State University (photo source: msu.edu).

Jayhawk mascot from the University of Kansas (photo source: about.com)

Jayhawk mascot from the University of Kansas (photo source: about.com)

C is for collegiate.  College sports are always less predictable than professional sports.  This is because the participants are 18-22 years old, have less-developed skill sets, and can fluctuate from sublime self-confidence to complete psychological collapse.  This makes betting on the sport wildly uncertain, as noted in the bracket discussion above. C is also for craziness.  Fans of the college game are wildly passionate, mostly because students of college age have maximum enthusiasm and energy.  The tournament is also crazy because of the sheer number of games played in a short amount of time, especially the first weekend.

If you want to be included in the conversation, just ask someone, “How did your brackets do?”  Then, just sit back and listen to the stories.

The 16 men's teams left in this year's tournament

The 16 men's teams left in this year's tournament

The match-ups above represent the teams in the coming weekend of play.  If you were not able to join the betting pool for the first weekend, see if you can convince your co-workers to start a fresh pool for the final two weeks.  You can call it a do-over or second-chance pool.  There will be support for this idea among the poor fans who predicted that #2 Georgetown or #1 Gonzaga would win the entire tournament.

A note on Mascots: Most of the team mascots are represented by the world of animals or people.  This year’s field of 16 includes mascots as follows. People: Hoosiers, Explorers, Spartans, Blue Devils, Shockers Birds: Eagles (2), Cardinals, Ducks, Jayhawks Animals: Wildcats, Gators, Wolverines Forces of nature: Hurricanes Colors: Orange Nuts: Buckeyes

Read more here.

*Underdogs are teams which no one predicts to win.  This article is about being an underdog.  It says “Florida Gulf Coast Crashes Sweet Sixteen.”  The expression “to crash a party” means to attend a party where you were not expected or invited. **To seed means to arrange the drawing for positions in a tournament so that the more skilled teams meet in the later rounds.

Embracing Triplets: How We Sometimes Repeat Ourselves

An old American joke goes like this.

A tourist on the streets of New York asks a resident, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  The New Yorker replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Carnegie Hall stage (source: Wikipedia)

Carnegie Hall stage (source: Wikipedia)

This joke is only funny if you understand the double meaning of “get to” in the opening question.  The tourist’s meaning is concerned with finding the location of Carnegie Hall, a famous venue for concerts.  The New Yorker’s meaning of “get to” is “be invited to.”  Of course, only the best musicians can play there, so it will take lots of practice to “get there.”

The line, “Practice, practice, practice” is famous in American culture, and you might hear it being adapted to other situations. 

Besides English, I know many languages use repetition as a colorful way of emphasizing an idea.  In the West African language of Hausa, the word kaɗun means “little."  To say “very little,” Hausa speakers say kaɗun-kaɗun.  In one aboriginal language of Australia, the word binji means “stomach.”  Binji-binji is the expression for “pregnant.”

Real estate yard sign (source: Prudential Realty)

Real estate yard sign (source: Prudential Realty)

What is interesting for me is the use of the triple form to emphasize an English speaker’s point of view.  If you ask a real estate agent the most important aspects of a piece of property for sale, the famous response is “Location, location, location.”  In other words, the top three selling features all involve where the property is located.

Triplets in English can also be used for complaining.  “Work, work, work!” someone might grumble to a friend.  “Don’t you ever take time to have fun?”  More examples are given below.

TRIPLETS FOR EMPHASIS: Meaning

Go, go, go!: To encourage people to go/run faster (sports)

Yes, yes, yes! / No, no, no! Strong affirmation (or negation)

Ho, ho, ho.: How Santa Claus laughs

Jobs, jobs, jobs.: Interviewee on radio re: needs in this economy

La, la, la. [with fingers in ears]: I’m not listening to you.

Surprise, surprise, surprise!: In famous military sitcom, Gomer Pyle gets a visit from his cousin

Location, location, location.: The top three considerations when buying real estate

Practice, practice, practice.: The answer when a NYC tourist asks, “How can I get to Carnegie Hall?”

Penny, Penny, Penny!: A neurotic physicist tries to get his neighbor’s attention

(source: Wikipedia)

(source: Wikipedia)

COMPLAINING TRIPLETS (spoken by...)

"Work, work, work! That’s all I do around here!" (tired person)

"Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" (frustrated younger sister)

"Sports, sports, sports! Is that all you watch on TV?" (frustrated wife or girlfriend)

"Bitch, bitch, bitch." (someone tired of another’s complaining)

BLASé TRIPLETS (lack of enthusiasm) (meaning)

Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Curtly spoken: Okay, I got it. Now I gotta get out of here.)

Yadda, yadda, yadda. (And so on and so forth.)

Blah, blah, blah. (Ongoing talking. Meaningless chatter. This is tiresome. Et cetera. And so on.)

Please write to share other examples you can think of.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

What Do Americans Mean By TGIF?

On Fridays you may hear co-workers or classmates say “TGIF!” This is a common acknowledgment that the end of the work week or school week is here, and the weekend is ready to begin. As you are learning, Americans are very fond of acronyms and abbreviations.  In this case, TGIF stands for “Thank God It's Friday.”

TGIF

If you want to start using this expression at your school or workplace, there are three things you should know about saying it correctly.

First, it’s pronounced /tidʒiyai'ɛf/, with stress on the final letter.

Next, there is no –s at the end of “Thank” because it is a verb, not a noun.  You are probably familiar with the noun form “Many thanks!”  The meaning of TGIF is sort of like “I thank God” or “We thank God (that it’s the weekend).”

Also, the word “it’s” is a contraction for “it is.”  Many of my Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking friends try to say “is” because in their language, the word “it” is optional.  In English, “it” is grammatically required.

Getting over the hump: Quitting time on Wednesday is 3/5 of the way to the weekend!

Getting over the hump: Quitting time on Wednesday is 3/5 of the way to the weekend!

Finally, let me make a cultural observation.  Some people are not accustomed to using religious language.  If so, you can substitute “Goodness” for “God” in similar expressions.  For example:   • Thank goodness my paycheck came today!  I’m traveling tomorrow and my bank account was at zero.   • I left my apartment key in my room.  Thank goodness my roommate was there when I got back home. By the way, did you know that some Americans call Wednesday “hump day”?  A hump is a small hill.  If you see the week as an obstacle to arriving at the weekend, then you are happy when Wednesday is done and you are more than halfway through the week.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

One restaurant chain knows people like to celebrate after work.

One restaurant chain knows people like to celebrate after work.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Getting Comfortable in Michigan, Chapter Two: Making Left-Hand Turns

Driving culture is huge in the United States.  Except for New York City and a few other crowded metropolises, cars are an American way of life.

Born to drive: the author poses with his first Buick, won when his ticket was drawn at a metro-Detroit raffle.  (Also pictured: the author’s dog, Rocky.)

Born to drive: the author poses with his first Buick, won when his ticket was drawn at a metro-Detroit raffle.  (Also pictured: the author’s dog, Rocky.)

The U.S. has a history of cheap gasoline (except in the past decade).  It has vast spaces to traverse.  And it has a population of independent citizens who want to go somewhere WHEN they want to go somewhere.  We can also thank Henry Ford, who realized that sales of his early models depended on their being affordable to the working class. As a young driver in Detroit, MI (aka the Motor City), I got accustomed to making “Michigan left turns.”  This involves driving through an intersection in the left lane, making a u-turn across a median, and then coming back to the intersection to make a right turn.

image via Wikipedia

image via Wikipedia

As I got older, the name occurred ethnocentric to me.  Why call it a “Michigan” left?  Surely other states have this traffic feature as well?  As it turns out, no they don’t.  This idiosyncratic turning mechanism was adopted by the state’s Department of Transportation in the 1960s, the only state in the nation.

Although it is quirky, traffic engineers will tell you that it reduces accidents.  By sending left-turn drivers past an intersection—via deceleration and acceleration lanes—and eventually making a right-hand turn, there are fewer broadside collisions in intersections.  Broadsides are among the deadliest accidents and happen when turning vehicles misjudge oncoming traffic or don’t see it at all.  Michigan left turns only expose drivers to glancing blows, instead of the deadlier 90º impacts also known as T-boning.

Michigan lefts help prevent broadside collisions (also called T-boning) as in this photo.  Safety engineers also report fewer pedestrian accidents with Michigan left turns. via jalopnik.com

Michigan lefts help prevent broadside collisions (also called T-boning) as in this photo.  Safety engineers also report fewer pedestrian accidents with Michigan left turns. via jalopnik.com

For narrow highways, a standard Michigan left may be too tight for turning, so engineers have added a feature called a “bulbout.”  Below is a diagram of a bulbout in Grand Haven, MI, about 10 miles from my house.  It allows u-turn drivers extra space to complete the turn before straightening out their vehicle for the eventual right turn.

image via Wikipedia

image via Wikipedia

A similar attempt to enhance turning safety is done through the “jughandle” turns in over a dozen U.S. states.  They are particularly associated with New Jersey.

Because they also cause drivers to drive extra distances and wait extra time, jughandles are unpopular with some drivers.  Recently, the New Jersey legislature introduced a bill to outlaw future construction.

With over 700 intersections designed with the Michigan left-turn, this feature is in no danger of disappearing from my state anytime soon.

For newcomers here, welcome to Michigan.  I wish you safe driving and safe left turns!

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.