Living in a foreign country is challenging, but also a great learning experience. By learning to understand and navigate the culture of another country, we become more open-minded and accepting individuals. While you are here in the United States, consider cross-cultural learning an important aspect of your education.
If you come from a cultural background that differs greatly from that of the United States, the behavior of Americans may be very strange, annoying, or even upsetting to you at first. Following is a guide to American cultural traits and values which will help you to understand the meanings and intentions of the things Americans say and do.
Americans have a very high regard for those who are self-sufficient. It is an important aspect of American culture. However, you will also find that Americans are very willing to help someone in need– they will just expect you to ask for help before they do so. It will rarely be assumed that you need help if you don’t ask for it.
Attention to Time
Americans tend to dislike the idea of wasting time. For many Americans, each part of the day has a purpose and free time is often lacking. They can also seem quite obsessed with being on time (although many Americans are often late). Being late for an appointment with an American can be taken as a personal offence because it indicates disrespect.
Independence is a very strong cultural value in the U.S. Young people look forward to moving out of their parent’s home so they can be independent from them, and parents generally want them to do so. Parents feel that teaching their child independence is an important part of their upbringing and is considered a positive thing.
America’s history of racism and segregation has largely been replaced with the idea of “equal opportunity”. Most Americans feel that each person should have the same opportunities regardless of race, gender, or religion. The notion of equality extends to Americans’ general disregard for social or economic status. Being wealthy or having connections to powerful people does not automatically command respect from Americans, and it will generally not entitle a person to special treatment or privileges.
Newcomers to the United States are often shocked by the informality of Americans. People dress very casually, call superiors by their first names, and eat just about anywhere. This is related to Americans’ idea of equality. If we are all social equals, then we can be informal in just about any situation.
Directness and Openness
Americans often say exactly what they think, even if the information is unpleasant or bad news. In some cultures this is considered rude. However, Americans feel that acting any other way would be dishonest or even disrespectful. Americans often find it confusing when visitors from other cultures do not say exactly what they want, think, or need.
Privacy and Personal Space
Americans covet their own personal space, and generally do not like that space to be invaded. They find it uncomfortable when others stand too close, and will unconsciously move away. In addition, Americans have a strong sense of privacy, and feel everyone is entitled to that. They do not like to be asked their age, weight, or salary. Conversations about personal family matters, political opinions, or religion are reserved for later stages of friendship.
American Social Customs
Everywhere you go in the world, social customs are different. What is polite in one country can be considered rude in another. Here is a guide to American social customs. You will probably find a lot of differences and similarities with your own culture.
Out in Public
Friendship with Americans
American spend their lives moving frequently to new cities, new jobs, and new activities. For this reason, Americans tend to be very friendly– they will start conversations with fellow passengers on the bus, invite a new acquaintance to lunch or a birthday party, or smile and say hello to strangers they pass in the street. Americans find it easy to make casual friends. This habit has helped them adapt to the many changes that occur during their lifetimes.
However this also means that Americans don’t have a lot of life-long friends. Children don’t keep the same classmates throughout their school years. Neighbors and family members move away. There are fewer opportunities to form deep friendships. Americans treasure the close friends they do make. But it can be difficult for a new acquaintances to move into this level of friendship.
This aspect of American culture can be confusing and frustrating for visitors from cultures that value a very tight friendship network. Actions that Americans may consider to be causal friendliness can be interpreted as a sign of deeper friendship by others.
Dealing with Culture Shock
The Adjustment Process in a New Culture
Understanding the cultural adjustment process can help you in coping with the often intense feelings that you may experience as you begin your life in the U.S. Each stage in the process is characterized by “symptoms” or outward signs typifying certain kinds of behavior.
1. “Honeymoon” period: Initially, many people are fascinated and excited by everything new. The visitor is elated to be in a new culture.
2. “Culture Shock”: The individual is immersed in new problems: housing, transportation, shopping, and language. Mental fatigue results from continuous straining to comprehend the new language.
3. Initial Adjustment: Everyday activities such as housing and shopping are no longer major problems. Although the visitor may not yet be fluent in the language spoken, basic ideas and feelings in the second language can be expressed.
4. Mental Isolation: Individuals have been away from their family and friends for a long period of time and may feel lonely. Many still feel they cannot express themselves as well as they can in their native language. Frustration and sometimes a loss of self-confidence result.
5. Acceptance and Integration: A routine (e.g., work, business, or school) has been established. The visitor has accepted the habits, customs, foods, and characteristics of the people in the new culture. The visitor feels comfortable with friends, associates, and the language of the country.
[Note: This cycle may repeat itself throughout your stay in a new culture. AND these feelings are normal. Note also that upon returning home you may experience some of these same feelings as you did when you first arrived in the new culture. This is called “reverse culture shock”.]
The following are some tips to help you deal with culture shock: