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Travel, Teach, Live in Japan

Culture Lessons - Handshaking and the American Family
By:Tom Aaron

Many native English speakers leave America and other countries to teach English abroad. We have primarily taught Japanese students, but we have also taught some students from Europe, Latin America, Africa, and other Asian countries. American culture fascinates many of these students. This article will discuss two culture items that we teach about in Japan: handshaking and the changing American family. Teachers of English in Japan and other countries may find these items to be of interest to their students too.


The American handshake has several basic components. The first basic component is that the handshake is quick. First the hand moves up, then down, and then returns to the original position. The handshake is not a pumping exercise. Nor is it a hand-holding exercise. The handshake dates back to extending your hand so the person taking it knows that you are not holding a weapon. The second is that a handshake should be firm, but is not a contest to prove your strength.

Not all Americans have mastered these two concepts. Some Americans pump hands up and down. Others try to prove their strength. Most Americans, however, understand the two basic concepts. Many abroad do not, creating negative impressions with Americans when they shake hands. We teach our students that the handshake may be important to many Americans. The impression they make when shaking hands can influence their future relationships.

The handshake also has varieties. Some people use their left hand to cover the other person's hand while shaking with their right hand. Many people think this shows more sincerity. The handshake also has some remaining gender issues. Long ago, men shook hands; women did not. Today, almost all men and women shake hands.

Reading about shaking hands can be a little dry and lack clarity. If you are teaching abroad, you may want to try talking about handshaking and demonstrating. Then, have your students practice. For teaching ESL in America and other English speaking countries, this may be too basic for many students. For students freshly arrived, however, such explanations and culture tips, along with practice can be helpful.

The new American family

Not that long ago, many Americans thought of the typical family as a father, mother, and two children in the suburbs. Every morning the father would leave for work; the mother would stay at home with the children. While many families were like this, this image was more an ideal or stereotype than reality. We often gaze back through our rose-tinted glasses, ignoring many Americans. Not all Americans lived such apparently happy suburban lives. Many women had to work. Many Americans could not afford to live in the suburbs. Not all male workers earned enough to support families. Not all Americans got married. Some families had single mothers and grandparents raised the children in some families. Single people, gay people, and people of color existed, but they were rarely mentioned.

America has changed since then. The vast majority of Americans realize that there are many kinds of families. The image of a white family with a stay-at-home mother, a working father, and two children has faded. Americans now see families with two gay parents, families with single mothers or single fathers, interracial families and other kinds of families. They also see many people living alone. Many Americans have become more accepting of other ways of living, and Americans with these other ways of living are now more open about their life patterns. This family diversity appears in movies, on television shows, and in books. Some people may still have problems accepting everyone, but America has come a long way since the days when the image of the suburban family reigned supreme.

If you teach English abroad, the reaction of your students and their interest in these topics will vary given their background and knowledge. These topics may not be the right ones for your students. If not, your challenge is to find the right ones. Almost all English students around the globe are interested in the culture where English is used. English is more than a language; students want to learn the culture too.

If you are an experienced editor specializing in medicine or the hard sciences, Aaron Language Services is interested in working with you. You can find us at on the web at http://www.aaronlanguage.com/personnel.html. We are a translation and editing business primarily serving a Japanese client base. We are looking forward to hearing from you.

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