As a new student entering the U.S., you are leaving behind everything you consider normal and familiar. You are expected to adjust to and function quickly in new surroundings which are culturally, educationally, and socially different. This can lead to a sense of disorientation, confusion, and frustration. This “culture shock” is a normal, temporary part of the process of adapting to a new environment. It is usual for these feelings to diminish over time. So, be patient. Give yourself the time to adapt. Talk to the international student advisor about any specific challenges you are experiencing. She has assisted many new students and can provide helpful suggestions. Most international students make a successful transition and by the end of the first semester, they have begun to feel truly “at home” at Hiram.
Acquainting yourself in advance with social and cultural differences you will encounter in the U.S. is a very important part of the process. It will help you to build successful relationships with Americans—in and out of the classroom. What follows are some common American mores and customs most students encounter.
Individualism and Privacy
Americans value individualism. They have been trained and educated since birth to consider themselves as separate individuals responsible for their own lives and destinies. Most Americans have not been socialized to see themselves as members of a close-knit, collective group such as a tightly interdependent family, religious group, tribe, or nation.
Closely associated with the value placed on individualism is the importance assigned to privacy. Americans assume that people need some time to themselves or some time alone to reflect. They may have difficulty understanding students from cultures where individuals are less comfortable being alone and always prefer the company of others.
Greetings and Good-byes
Americans often use the greeting, “Hi! What’s up?” or “Hey! How’s it going?” The typical response is “Fine.” or a brief variation of this response. Americans do not expect to hear the details of your health, your day, or your personal problems. (for example: “I’m feeling really terrible. I had a big test last week and I was very sad about the grade… and my boyfriend / girlfriend was angry with me…”). Even if an American is having a terrible day, that person will usually answer, “Fine” or “OK.” It is thought to be impolite to take too much of the other person’s time with an extended answer and it is considered too personal to discuss private situations with another unless the two people are close friends.
“Hi! What’s up?” or “Hey! How’s it going?” are greetings meant to be said in passing. In the American culture, continuing to walk while sharing such a greeting is not considered rude. As the encounter is impromptu and unscheduled, the person you meet may be on their way to an appointment, class, job or other time-sensitive function, so there is no expectation that there will be a lengthy conversation.
If you do stop for a chat, Americans usually end such a conversation with “Let’s get together sometime.” or “I’ll call you later!” This does not mean that the person will actually call you soon or make a date to meet you. It is a polite way to finish the conversation and say to the other person “It was nice talking to you. I look forward to seeing you again in the future.”
Many international students interpret these interactions as rude and uncaring when the opposite is true. By their custom, Americans are being pleasant and polite.
Directness and Assertiveness
Americans consider themselves to be frank and open in their dealings with others. They speak openly and directly about things they dislike. Most will try to do so in a constructive way (a manner which the other person will not find offensive or unacceptable).
When Americans do not speak openly about what is on their minds, they often convey their reactions in nonverbal ways through facial expressions, body posture, and/or gestures. Americans are not taught to mask (hide) their emotional responses. Words, tone of voice or facial expressions usually reveal when they feel anger, joy, confusion, or sorrow. Except on rare occasions, it is not considered improper to display these feelings.
Because Americans do not hide their emotions and are generally more direct and open than people from most other countries, they are much less concerned than other cultures with avoiding embarrassment to themselves or others. To Americans, being honest is usually more important than preserving harmony in interpersonal relationships.
A favorite American saying is, “Time is money.” Time is extremely important and being punctual is highly valued in American culture. If you have a class, meeting, party, or family invitation, it is considered very rude to not arrive on time.
Generally, most Americans arrive 5-10 minutes before the class, meeting, or invitation time. Five (5) minutes late is considered rude, but forgivable. Ten to fifteen (15) minutes late requires a clear reason and apology to the other person. Fifteen (15) minutes or more (+) is considered extremely rude. If you are going to be late, it is considered polite to call and apologize to the person. This is acceptable because the other person now knows ‘why’ you are not there.
In some cultures, it is thought to be good or proper to arrive to an appointment 30-45 minutes late. However, in the U.S., most people have several pre-scheduled appointments throughout the day and evening. If you are late, they may be unable to see you and you may have to re-schedule your appointment for another day and time.
While you are in the U.S., we encourage you to meet and spend time with Americans and their families. The following suggestions will help you respond appropriately and feel more comfortable when you are invited to join family activities.
The invitation is usually for you only unless your host specifically invites you to bring your family or friends. Bringing your own guests without your host’s permission is considered impolite.
You may receive a verbal or written invitation. A verbal invitation can be answered on the spot or you may ask for time to consult your calendar for a possible schedule conflict before you give a response. A written invitation will include the date, time, place, and description of the occasion. You should respond promptly to any invitation, but a especially a written invitation if it says R.S.V.P (Repondez, s’il vous plait; French for ‘please reply’) at the bottom. You may respond by telephone or by letter. Never accept an invitation unless you really plan to attend. If you must decline an invitation, it is enough to say, “Thank you for the invitation, but I am unable to attend.” If an unavoidable problem makes it necessary for you to change plans after accepting an invitation, be certain to tell the host as soon as possible before the time you are expected. Make sure you have directions and know how long it will take to travel to where the event is being held.
When accepting an invitation for a meal, be sure to tell your host if there is anything you cannot eat due to religious or health restrictions. This courtesy will help the host to plan for food and beverages that everyone can enjoy. If you cannot eat something that is being served, pass the dish on without comment or refuse politely with “No thank you.” A lengthy explanation is not required. If you enjoy a particular dish, you may request a second serving if there is food left on the table and each person has had an opportunity for a first serving.
Americans put a great deal of emphasis on personal cleanliness. The standard of personal cleanliness that a person maintains determines (to a large extent) how he or she is accepted in society. Most Americans are very sensitive to the smells or odors of the human body—sometimes their own, but especially someone else’s. For this reason, most Americans bathe once a day and sometimes more during hot weather or after strenuous exercise. They use deodorants and antiperspirants, and they wash their clothes frequently. Most Americans are also very concerned about having clean hair and fresh breath.
Friendship and Dating
Many Americans are fairly open and warm people who find it easy to make new friends. However, their mobility and sense of individualism cause their relationships to often be casual and informal. This is not to say Americans take friendship lightly. It just means that while Americans know a lot of people, their lasting friendships are often few in number.
Women in the U.S. are, comparatively, less inhibited than women from other countries. In the U.S., it is not unusual, for example, for unmarried women to live by themselves, to share living space with other single women, or to go to public spaces unescorted. Men and women are often friends and interact with each other as equal individuals. It is not always assumed that a man and a woman who spend time together are romantically involved.
Dating is a rather informal process in the U.S. It is not uncommon for men or women to ask each other out on a date. However, the relaxed and more independent attitude of women in the U.S. sometimes lead to inaccurate assumptions about women in the U.S. by those whose native culture is more restrictive of women’s activities.
The best way to become more familiar and understanding of American culture and its many aspects is to observe people and how they interact with each other in different situations. It is also appropriate to ask close friends or advisors about situations that seem different or confusing to you.