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I have come across a few situations when an American will say something like "We should have lunch some time" or "Let's have lunch some time." Or "you should come down to visit me in D.C. (or Miami or wherever"); we have great museums (or Cuban food or whatever)."

It turns out though that more often than not they don't really mean it. Because if I then immediately follow up with "Oh how about lunch tomorrow?" or "Oh will you be in Miami in early December? I could come by then.", they usually start getting evasive and awkward, and back out of what seemed like an invitation that they just made.

How can I tell when Americans genuinely/literally mean what they say, especially in the aforementioned situations?

Perhaps this is common not just to American culture but also to some other cultures across the world, but it was (and still is) very puzzling to me and I am still trying to figure it out.

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    In Egypt we actually have a name for this kind of invitation "boat owner invitation". This comes from a story where two boat owners meet in the middle of the sea and they shout to one another each inviting the other to come over. Of course both of them know it is impossible, yet they have to do it because it is being polite. – mosaad Nov 4 '14 at 11:57
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    @RenaeLider One of the dictionary definitions of "literally" is now literally "not literally". Heh. google.com/search?q=literally – ceejayoz Nov 4 '14 at 13:47
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    I'm from the USA, and this drives me nuts. People just want to pretend that they care without actually trying to care. – ps2goat Nov 4 '14 at 16:56
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    this sort of social behavior is in no way specific to the usa – ell Nov 4 '14 at 19:27
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    I am told that the Japanese are absolutely notorious for doing this. I took classes in Japanese language and even textbooks would tell you this. I think it's just a matter of fulfilling expectations for how people are expected to conduct themselves. To make things even more confusing, the Japanese also customarily refuse an invitation and the inviter has to ask again if he is sincere. – Rice Flour Cookies Nov 4 '14 at 20:59
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There is an essay which explains the difference between "polite" and "direct" cultures. First of all: For members of the Anglosphere like Americans, Britons and Canadians the Germans are using the term "Angelsachsen" (Anglo-Saxons) which is slightly different from the meaning in English, it especially has a more humorous connotation like "Teuton" for Germans. As it is used extensively in the original essay, the original author suggest the use of "English speaker" as translation, be aware of the difference. The essay describes the cultural difference between English speakers (polite) and Germans (direct) very well in German. I translated the essay with help from other people, especially the user Semicolon, because it seems to gather much interest.

Why Americans (Brits, Canadians) do not say what they mean
translated by Thorsten Siebenborn with permission
of the original author Scot W. Stevenson, a German-American
"Hey, how are you" asks an American -- and is surprised when his German friend tells him that his pet ferret was killed by a car. "Just come on over sometime!" said the Briton and is aghast when the German sometime later really stands before his door. English speakers do not always mean what they say; Germans, in contrast, almost always do. If those two cultures come together, there are some more problems than just the handshake [Translator: Short addition to the essay: Germans shake hands and subconsciously slightly bow their head, Americans don't => Americans are arrogant, Germans are cute].

Cultures from the Anglosphere are speaking with a cultural code which demands politeness. For example, it is considered crude to answer directly with "no." Therefore they use phrases that every other English speaker understands as "no," yet do not mean "no". (Dear women: Some problems with "no" seem more influenced by gender than culture. I am sorry.)

When a woman asks her best girlfriend if a specific dress fits her, should the friend be German she may answer with a grimace: "You? Not really" or "I don't know if that really fits you." An American woman would be more apt to answer, "Wouldn't blue be a better fit to your eyes?" -- which means you are looking like an anorexic scarecrow with a drug problem -- while a German girl asking would get the inkling that they are talking past each other. "Eyes? Why is she blathering about my eyes? I want to know if my butt juts out!"

Other examples: During a discussion with Americans, "I wonder if this is really the best solution" means "no." Likewise, "I'm wondering if we need more time" or "we might want to review some parts of the project" are also negative. Americans are perplexed (or simply angry) when Germans, after a short reflection, respond, "Nope, it's ok" and simply continue. From the American's point of view, the message was clear.

The rules are valid for the daily routine, too. A polite Canadian won't tell you that he does not like a present because it seems to him to be indecent as it could hurt your feelings. And that is -- we are coming to the central point of the story -- in case of doubt, more important than the truth. For this reason he or she tells you -- if ever -- encoded in indirect language, and because the gift-giver is expected to know the code, he understands and everything remains polite. Not without good reason there exist the terms "little white lie" and "polite lie," which are significantly weaker even than "white lie": these are culturally accepted, even culturally mandated lies.

This prompts the question of how Britons & co. react if they really like the present. In short: they freak out. "Look, honey, I wanted this since I was seven, no, I mean, before I was born, wait until the neighbours see that, oh my goodness!" There will be many, many, many thanks. This day will rest in his memory forever and he will tell his grandchildren about it and it will be chiseled on his tombstone, etc. If you are German and you begin to have the feeling that it's getting embarassing and you begin to suspect that your counterpart is pulling your leg, all was correct.

While happy English speakers are a bit strenuous for Germans, the reverse situation is more serious. An American who gives a German a present is almost always crestfallen because Germans never flip out. In the codebook of an English speaker, a completely normal German "Thank you very much" is a sign that the present was not liked. The author needed to comfort several saddened English speaking compatriots coming back from a date with German woman: "She didn't like my present! What did I do wrong? I don't understand." Erm, no, she really liked it, but she is a German. They are that way. Marry her nonetheless.

And now the part which may be uncomfortable for interested readers: The rules are still compulsory for English speakers in foreign countries. "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything" has been hammered into their minds as children and so they will hold their tongue about anything negative during their time as a guest. Criticism as a guest is one of the most grievous offenses of politeness.

For that reason it's impossible to find out what English speakers really think about Germany. If they are well-mannered, they will always say that it is wonderful. Amazing. Great! Any other response would be a catastrophic breach of manners on par with using the tablecloth as a handkerchief and chopsticks as cotton swabs.

For Germans this is frustrating. After the guest has been in a new country for some time, the German would expect that there a things which their guest don't find to be as good as in their home country -- naturally. It's expected in Germany to mention such things "honestly" because it shows that you have a "sophisticated" opinion about the world and a cultivated and critical mind. People who find everything super, great and wonderful are considered dumb, gullible and superficial -- the last one is, not without reason, the leading German prejudice about Americans. From a certain American view it could be considered a compliment.

Such cultural differences are known to most Germans in regards to countries like Japan, where "no" only exists in a dictionary because the communication police demand it. For unknown reasons they don't expect it from Britons and Americans. It's also not taught in English classes, which remains a complete mystery for the author. As an exercise I ask the reader to imagine normal German au pair pupils in London, New York or Ottawa. They will all be asked "How did you like your stay?" -- and every year, thousands of unsuspecting German children will run straight into the cultural knife.

When Germans in frequent contact with English speakers become aware of the code, they're prone to panic. Every sentence and statement will be dissected: Does he mean it or is he polite? What do I do now? I want the codebook!

You need to realize that you just won't know some things. A good host will always give the impression that life has changed a bit. If you cannot cope with that you need to follow their train of thoughts, put yourself in their position and trust your empathy. If you are guest, please spare your criticism for your diary and concentrate your honest praise on one point -- at least, as honest as possible. It was different means it was terrible, so you cannot escape easily.

A rule of thumb is the principle I explained above -- behavior that looks like overstating is more than politeness (though be careful with Americans who live in Germany long enough and now know what to expect). There is a helpful "three times rule": If an English speaker tells you something three times ("Please come visit us again!") or enough times that you are irritated, you can safely assume it is honest. One time means nothing.

In the end you should know: No one expects a foreign guest to exhibit completely correct social behavior. Most Americans know that Germans are, erm, more "direct". If you don't mind fulfilling stereotypes, you have a certain leeway to handle things.

If you know the rules or are at least aware of their existence, you could break them on purpose. The most beautiful German [Translator: His wife.] sometimes uses the introduction "I am German, so I am sorry if this seems to be a direct question," which causes immediate blood freezing of every English speaker in hearing distance. Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert... [Translator: German idiomatic expression meaning that once your reputation is ruined, you can stop worrying about what other people think.]

He advises that in addition to Max's answer about necessary included information in your interaction that repeating it several times is an indicator of genuineness. Three times is almost binding; once is simple politeness.

Another thing is that in polite cultures real happiness and agreement are likely to look overstated in general. If the person in question does not change much from his usual politeness, it means nothing; if you get the impression that he/she is out of control for happiness, it really might mean "Yes".

He also added that if you ask for something where a negative answer contradicts politeness ("Did you really enjoy your holiday here?") you won't get an honest answer and you really must look for empathy.

I will add some general information because the blog author is quite astounded that people in Western countries expect that other people in Western countries act the same. They do not.

People in more "direct" cultures like Netherlands, Germany or Russia are quite simple. Yes means Yes, No means No. As noone is expected to adjust his mood for other people, people are looking sad if they are sad and if they are happy they look happy.

What you are saying will be assumed to be true.
If you as "Anglo-Saxon" say: "Just come on over sometime!" it means that you literally invited people to visit you at home !
"Hidden" No's are likely to remain unnoticed. A "I wonder if this is really the best solution" means "I'm ok with that, but I think over if we can find a better solution later". You will be ignored.

For people from more direct cultures it is quite vexing because you are operating outside cultural norms (which can be in fact very different in polite cultures) and if you know the difference you must always ask yourself: "Does he/she mean it" ?
For people from polite cultures people from direct cultures appear to be rude, dismissive and obnoxious. A "No, please redo this parts again" which means in a direct culture "Quite ok, but this part needs some polish" is a complete disgrace and dismissal in a polite culture.

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In general, a genuine invitation is concrete, containing information that helps to make it happen. "Would you like to get lunch tomorrow?" is an invitation, and could be followed up with "Yes, how about [restaurant]?" or "Yes, do you have a place in mind?" to accept.

If you responded instead with "No, but we should meet some other time," that could be a polite refusal, but "No, how about Wednesday?" would indicate a genuine desire to meet.

Something like "You should visit us in DC some time" is not an invitation to visit DC, but might be an invitation to talk about visiting DC. So, at some point later you could call this person to discuss it. For example, "We talked about my visiting DC before. I was thinking of coming next month. If you'll be around it would be nice to see you." At this point, they'll hopefully make an actual invitation.

The point of all this dance is to avoid either party ever having to say, "No, I don't want to" or worse, "No, I don't like you". By forcing the issue immediately, you are putting people on the spot, forcing them to say "no" (or worse, "yes").

(I am no expert in US culture, but my own culture also has these non-invitations, and as far as I understand the meaning is the same in the US.)

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    As an American I believe this is correct as well. Very good answer, I had never thought about it before. – Seth Nov 3 '14 at 14:27
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    I'd confirm as a British English speaker that the same applies here and everywhere I've seen English speakers. Generally it's more of an 'it would be nice to see you again sometime' rather than a 'let's make arrangements' – Jon Story Nov 3 '14 at 15:43
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    +1! Your insight about it being an invitation to talk about it is very good. I'd also add that it may also be a way that some people thank someone for a favor... Say you invite a visitor out to lunch: they might say, "Hey, when you're in Washington, give me a call and we can have lunch", as a way of expressing thanks, via a (vague) offer to reciprocate. I won't do this kind of thing myself, but some do. Some people also use it to express a desire that they know probably won't happen. They'd like to have dinner with you some time, but don't see it actually happening. Annoying. – Wayne Nov 3 '14 at 15:50
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    Conventions vary amongst speakers of English. I find this sort of coding annoying and wasn't brought up to understand it, so it is quite a struggle. – Francis Davey Nov 3 '14 at 17:09
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    Whenever I encounter one of these 'pre-invitations' and I'm genuinely interested in following up to seek an actual invitation I like to warn people: "That's an interesting idea - I'm actually going on taking you up on that!" – stackdump Nov 4 '14 at 0:50
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To me, the key is the specificity of the invitation. The vaguest, of course, say "some time" - this is a bright light signalling that it is not a real invitation. "We should do lunch some time" means absolutely nothing at all. Similarly claims to "owe you" a beer or a coffee do not constitute an offer to deliver that item, nor an invitation to go, now or in the near future, to a place that sells that item. They are just things you say. It is possible the person who made that statement may later say "hey, let's go get that beer I owe you" which is both a genuine invitation and clarity that you're not paying. But until they do, the general statement of gratitude is not connected to an invitation.

In contrast, "We should have lunch if you come to my city" is a genuine invitation, subject to the person's availability when you happen to come to their city. You take them up on it by telling them "I'm coming to your city from the 11th to the 15th - any chance we can get together for that lunch?" They may well reply that they can't make it this time but maybe next time - and they might even mean it. However, statements about what "we should do" when you visit their city are not supposed to make you change your plans - if you reply immediately with "great idea, I can be there Dec 3rd" you are going to freak the person out a little. Instead, wait a few days, then say that you've decided to go to that city for your own reasons (that is, not on their account or because of what they said) and would love to include seeing them as part of your visit. The freaked out response is because they don't want to be responsible for you making an intercity visit, not because they don't want to have lunch with you. (I know, they just added an extra incentive for you to visit the city; thy should be flattered that you reply "that settles it, I am visiting that city right away!" but instead, they feel overly responsible for the entire visit, which is uncomfortable.)

The even more specific "we should have lunch next week" is a genuine invitation. You reply to that with "great idea, does Tuesday work for you?" or something similar. If you can't do it that week, but want to do it, you should have a substitute suggestion. Perhaps "I'm offsite all day every day next week and can't do lunches, but I could do breakfast if it was downtown, or dinner." Or "Next week is jammed solid, but can we lock down the following Monday so we can for sure do it then?" If you reply with a reason not to do it next week, and no specific substitute date, it will mean that you don't actually want to do it.

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There are several factors that come into play here.

Some cultures have a significant amount of politeness as a social lubricant. Even when it doesn't mean you should, it is still said. A classic example of this is Japan's politeness (though this is simplifying a very large concept). There is an entire school of sociology called politeness theory.

Setting politeness aside, there is the different contexts that different cultures have. The wikipedia article goes a bit more into this at High- and low-context cultures. Other references on this High-context and Low-context Culture Styles from the College of Marin, and Context of Cultures: High and Low from University of the Pacific.

Most of the United States is a low context culture (the southern united states can be high(er) context). The example in Wikipedia is the stereotypical Texan saying lots with a prolonged silence while the New Yorker says something more precisely. The low context culture doesn't use as much understood social norms as part of the communication. People within a rural setting will likely be higher context than those in urban settings of the same culture. The stereotypical low context culture is that of the Germans and Swiss with the very precise wording and intent, while east asian cultures are the stereotypical high context cultures.

There is an art piece I saw a number of years ago that puts this into some other context for a Chinese born woman who lived in Germany from age 14 on titled East Meets West by Yang Liu (amazon). A number of these info graphics touch on the context differences between the cultures. For example, one on opinions - though I've also seen it written as 'complexity of self-expression' (Germany is blue, China is red):

Opinions

Realize that this is meant as an art/infographic project meant to foster some amount of discussion and thought as to what it means and what the artist was trying to communicate.

With invitations, there are other factors at play here. The example given in the question of "we should have lunch some time" to "about next monday at 1pm" is a switch from the higher context social rituals to one that is now something more firm and commitment based. That transition can be jarring. The classic approach would probably be to give some time between the invitation (it is sincere) to the planning to reduce the switch from one type of communication pattern to another.

So yes, there is an intent to allow for a follow through on the invitation, though not right at that time.

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In my experience, if an American says "you should visit me in DC", they mean it.

I'm an American myself, born and raised, and this has been my experience for over thirty years. However, I'm from rural New York, and now I live in rural California. In both of these areas, invitations like this are taken to be real. Considering how many upvotes the opposing answers have gotten, I'm wondering now if this is a city/rural cultural divide.

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    I'm an American who grew up in small-town California and lived most of my life in big cities in California. I think this is not even a rural-vs-urban thing but just an individual thing. Some people have 700 facebook friends and do air kisses. Others are gruff and plain-spoken. – Ben Crowell Nov 4 '14 at 0:16
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    You've seen Americans do air kisses? – Joe Nov 4 '14 at 0:16
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    Yes, but often with a sense of irony. – Ben Crowell Nov 4 '14 at 0:29
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    @BenCrowell irony, doesn't that mean "made slightly out of iron"? :) – jwenting Nov 4 '14 at 12:57
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    @ThorstenS., you might be surprised what rural occupations are like in some parts of the US. Only a small portion of people around here are ranchers, since a few ranchers take up most of the land. The rest are people who work all sorts of different jobs. – Joe Nov 4 '14 at 19:20
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As an American, I have never managed to figure this out. To take some examples from the other answers, I've heard people say things like "You should visit us in DC some time" or "I'll owe you a beer" and later found out in some cases that it meant nothing, whereas in other cases they were completely serious.

So the only reasonable answer I can offer is that you can't know, at least not with certainty. It is true to some extent that, as the other answers are saying, a more specific offer is more likely to be genuine, but still you can't be sure.

On the bright side, many of the Americans who say things without meaning them also like to socialize. If someone makes you an insincere offer and you actually follow up on it, in many cases they will actually be interested. And if they really don't want to do it, you will be able to tell from their behavior: either they will tell you "no" directly, or they will repeatedly cancel or reschedule the plans.

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    When I say something like "we should do lunch," I do mean it, but I'm also acknowledging that my personal calendar is often jam packed and it won't be easy to find a time. I was just looking to have lunch with a friend I hadn't seen in a few months and by the third email we had ruled out all possible dates in November. Sigh. On the other hand, I have certainly had friends tell me I should come visit and when I later reached out I quickly got the idea I wouldn't be seeing much of them on my visit. – Michael Mathews Nov 5 '14 at 9:48
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    "On the bright side, many of the Americans who say things without meaning them also like to socialize." Agreed. In part, these psuedo-invitations are a true invitation to keep the relationship alive. In the question, the poster said they "immediately" followed up. If instead you follow up a week/month/whatever later (thus keeping the relationship alive over a longer time) you may also get better results (i.e. you may actually get together). – Matthew Flaschen Dec 25 '14 at 5:49
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It's confusing and, as an American, just as frustrating to me. People seem to want to look good, helpful, kind, caring, etc...when they're really not so much. They're essentially blowhards most often...braggarts, big and "gracious".

My advice? Wait for them to REALLY make a big deal out of it...embellish and get truly involved, instead of offering a rather off-hand comment. More details, more true enthusiasm, etc. Times, dates, places, etc. And I wouldn't accept "well, just call me..." That's likely to end in being put off.

I've only gotten real results when the conversation and comments continue and get more detailed and "enthusiastic". Off-hand comments are just that--their hot air blowing in the wind. And "sometime" is often really a euphemism for "probably never", I wasn't really serious, I just wanted to seem friendly and generous.

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To a greater extent than is true of other cultures, American expressions are "indicative" rather than "firm." That is that you should treat them as "tendencies," not promises.

If an American talks about getting together for lunch "sometime," s/he means a "random" time. So the correct response is not to suggest a definite time, but ask something like "when is a good time?" You might get a response like "sometime next year" in which case, you might say, "May I call you a year from now?" Or the response might be "oh, any time." In which case "May I call you in a year?" is still a good phrase because it's somewhat indefinite.

The American has expressed a preference for you over some other people, not an absolute desire to see you again. That means that you have "some chance" to see them again, but it's not a "sure thing." The American has reserved the right to prefer someone else over you at any given time.

protected by mindcorrosive Nov 5 '14 at 9:58

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