About American Culture
The United States is a country of immigrants. Even so, most Americans share some common values. Understanding those values will help you to adjust better and quicker to living and studying in the US.
NOTE: Remember that those are generalizations. Generalizations do not always reflect the values of every American that you will meet.*
Americans value time. Americans are usually on time for meetings and appointments. Being late is rude. You should arrive on time for meals and appointments with professors, doctors, and other professionals. IF you cannot come, you should inform the person and cancel your appointment.
- PERSONAL HYGIENE
Most Americans love to be clean and smell nice. Body odor is considered unpleasant. Make sure you bathe/shower frequently, change your clothes daily, and wear deodorant.
Common American greetings include “Hi,” “Hello,” but also “How are you?” and “How is it going?” You should remember that those are just greetings and not questions about your life. In the same way, “See you later” or “See you soon” are ways of saying good-bye, not appointments or a promise to meet later.
Americans highly value ‘individualism’ or the importance of being your own person. Creativity, honesty, and personal opinions are encouraged. This is also true in the classroom: teachers expect students to be independent and to produce original work.
Americans like their privacy and enjoy spending time alone. Although Americans are a welcoming people, most expect that even friends would call before visiting them at home. Casual, unannounced visits are not common. Call before you visit.
- ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS & DATING
Americans usually date before getting married. When two people go on a ‘date,’ this means that they will do something together: go to a movie, have dinner, go for a walk, go dancing, etc. If you like someone, you may ask that person to go on a date. It is perfectly acceptable to refuse a second date.
NOTE: Dating does NOT mean sex. Despite what you may have seen in US movies, sex does not have to occur during the early stages of a romantic relationship. Sex is a personal decision and each person needs to decide when the right timing is for him or her.
Most people in the U.S. have three names: a given (first) name, a middle name, and a last (family) name. Usually, Americans give their first and last name. For example, “Hello, my name is John Smith.”
In daily life, Americans usually use their first names. It is not disrespectful to address people by their first name. If you are not sure, you should ask how a person prefers to be called.
Official documents usually ask for your family name first. For example, “Smith, John.”
In the U. S., there is no official religion. People can choose to believe whatever they want to and go to any place to worship. As a result, although most Americans identify as Christians, there are many other religions present in the US.
- SOCIAL GATHERINGS
When you get a formal, written invitation, you need to respond. If the invitation says “RSVP,” you must call or email the host and tell him/her if you will be there. If your invitation says, “Regrets only,” you need to reply only if you do not plan to attend.
Student parties are less formal and do not require a response. Many student parties are “BYOB” (bring your own beverage) and you should do so.
Gifts for Hosts: It is not necessary, but it is nice to bring flowers, candy, or a small gift to a dinner host. It is also polite to send a ‘thank you’ note following the party.
Potluck: A ‘pot luck’ invitation means that you need to bring a main dish or a dessert to the party. It is best to ask the host what to bring.
Prices:Usually, prices in stores do NOT include taxes. The actual, final prices will be higher as they will include government taxes that vary from state to state.
Tipping:It is a common practice to tip at restaurants, hotels, hair salons, etc. Usually, the tip is about 10-15% of the actual amount.
*If you have any dietary restriction, it is a good idea to tell your host.
*When you are at a dinner table and are asked if you would like something, answer and do not refuse out of politeness. Say clearly what you desire. It is also acceptable to decline more servings.
*Belching at the table is considered rude.
*If a police car is driving behind you with its lights flashing, you should pull to the side and stop.
*When a police officer approaches your vehicle, do not get out of your car.
*Do not offer the policy officer any money or any other bribes. This is illegal.
*The expression “Freeze!” means “Stop”.
*Anyone arrested by the police has “Miranda rights”. The Miranda rights are:
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
Most Americans believe in their right to have and carry a gun. Foreigners are not allowed to have any guns, so do not attempt to acquire any.
In the U.S., people with disabilities are given assistance so they access buildings and services. In parking lots, for instance, you will often see parking spots designated with a disability sign (usually blue). This means that ONLY people with disabilities who have a special license can park there. Do NOT parkin handicap parking spaces unless you have a disabilities parking permit.
Other Resources & Information
More about American Culture: http://www.livescience.com/28945-american-culture.html
International Student Guide to American Culture: http://www.internationalstudentguidetotheusa.com/articles/culture.htm
Here are some of the main holidays celebrated in the US.
New Year's Day
Welcome the New Year. Parties start the night before (New Year's Eve on 31 December)
3rd Monday in January
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a great American who fought nonviolently for equal civil rights for all Americans.
Celebrate love by exchanging tokens of love (usually cards, candy, flowers, or gifts).
3rd Monday of February
Honor all past American presidents.
Saint Patrick's Day
Celebrate the patron saint of Ireland with parades and parties wearing Irish green.
April Fool’s Day
Play a trick or tell a joke.
Last Monday of May
Remember the men and women who died while serving in the army.
Honor the nation’s birthday - the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
1st Monday in September
Honor the nation’s working people, usually with parades.
2nd Monday in October
Pay tribute to Christopher Columbus and his arrival to the Americas in 1492.
Honor military veterans.
Last Thursday in November
Be thankful and commemorate the dinner shared by the Pilgrims (first settlers of the thirteen colonies) and the Native Americans.
Celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ by exchanging gifts with family and friends.
Adjusting to a New Culture
When a person moves to a new country, it is likely that s/he will experience a ‘culture shock’.
Culture shock is a term that describes the feelings (of surprise, stress, anxiety, confusion, etc.) that a person may experience when living in an entirely different environment.
There are usually three stages of Culture Shock.
- I. The Honeymoon Stage
During this period, you will feel excited and exhilarated. At this stage, moving to a new country seems like an exciting adventure. You feel very positive and excited to taste new foods, meet new people, and experience a new environment.
- II. The Frustration/Rejection Stage
You start getting tired of trying to function in a new language and a new environment. You start missing your usual ways of dealing with school and everyday life. You may feel homesick and start idealizing your life back home. You become very critical of how things are done in the United States. You may get angry at not finding what you expected. Your motivation may diminish and you may want to return to your home earlier.
- III. The Adjustment/Recovery Stage
As time passes, you accept the differences and learn to appreciate your new surroundings. You become more familiar and comfortable with your new life. You regain your self-confidence, establish new friendships, and start enjoying life in the US.
Do not give up!