Culture in the USA

This section will give you an overview of expectations and behavior commonly viewed as “American.” For better or for worse, life in the United States is very fast-paced, mobile, and commercialized and emphasizes convenience. When encountering new people or new ideas, it is acceptable to agree to disagree, meaning that you respect another person’s right to have different ideas, beliefs or customs, but recognize that these may not be suitable for you. Reviewing this section will decrease the confusion you may feel due to cultural differences.

U.S. Cultural Values

Time orientation: To Americans, time is valuable and must be used carefully and productively. Americans expect promptness or “being on time” in both academic and social settings. It is acceptable and appreciated to show up 5-10 minutes early for appointments.

Work orientation: Americans place a high value on hard work; they judge people by how hard they work and how task oriented they are. Some believe that people achieve results on the basis of how hard they work.

Achievement orientation: A very high value is placed on a person’s accomplishments and productivity. Individuals evaluate themselves and are evaluated by others in terms of their achievements and accomplishments.

Individualism: American culture places more emphasis on individual freedom and an individual's responsibility to manage their own lives, make their own decisions and accomplish their own goals rather than as a group.

Direct communication and problem solving: A strong value is placed on direct and straightforward communication. When problems arise between individuals, Americans prefer to discuss them openly and solve them. Americans may say “yes” or “no” to questions even if the answer might hurt someone’s feelings.

Pragmatism: Americans are very practical and like ideas that are seen as “useful.” This goes together with the orientation toward work and achievement. You must be able to relate “theory” to “practice.”

Professors: The relationship between students and professors is usually open and informal. While you must respect your professor’s authority, there is much less of a defined hierarchy in the United States. Most professors like to have students to talk directly to them about any questions they have, and to resolve them quickly.

First names and titles: In general, people in the United States are very informal about titles and status. This can make addressing professors and staff very confusing for international students and scholars. Do you call a professor by a title such as “Dr. Brown,” or do you call him or her by first name such as “Judith,” as you may hear other students do? Sometimes it’s one way, and sometimes it’s another, so it is difficult to tell when each is appropriate. It is best when dealing with professors and teaching assistants to use their titles -”Professor, Doctor, Mr., or Ms.” - unless they tell you otherwise. Often people will tell you when you first meet what they would like to be called. You may also ask them how they would like to be addressed. It is most important to remember that informality is not an indication of disrespect. It is more an indication of mutual respect, equality, and a willingness to engage in open dialogue.

Invitations: You may be invited to an American home, especially during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. If you receive an invitation for something you do not want to do, you may say, "No thank you." But if you say "Yes," then you must go. To accept an invitation and not go is considered very rude. However, if there is an emergency, you should telephone your host family as far ahead as possible. It is very important that you be on time. If you are invited to dinner at someone's home and you are late, your host family may be offended and might not invite you again. It is not necessary to take a gift. However, if you really want to take something, a few flowers, a small box of candy, or an inexpensive souvenir from your country would be appropriate. It is not appropriate to give money. You may be offered a cocktail before dinner or wine with your meal. While it is good to conform to American customs, it is also important to keep your own values. If you do not drink alcohol or eat certain foods because of your religious beliefs, you should explain this to your host or hostess.

Personal hygiene: Hygiene is very important to Americans. It is their habit to take a shower or bathe once a day and to wash their hair at least every other day. Americans like to smell good! After bathing, Americans always use deodorant/antiperspirant. This is especially important during warm weather or if they play sports and exercise. Using deodorant should become a daily habit with you too. Any type of body odor is considered offensive. Using strong perfumes or colognes is not acceptable in place of bathing or deodorant. Also, to avoid bad smells in shoes or sneakers, try using talc or powder inside your shoes, or on your feet. It helps to prevent fungus/bacteria growth and keeps your shoes smelling fresh. Although no one really enjoys doing the laundry, in American culture it is considered important to wash your clothes after wearing them once or twice. Even though they may "look" clean, body smells are retained in the fabric of the clothing. Using laundry detergent for washing and fabric softener in the dryer will make certain your clothes are in good condition to wear. We are all aware that coffee, cigarettes, garlic, and onions produce mouth odors. Americans feel that bad breath is undesirable, so they brush their teeth after meals or chew gum after drinking coffee and smoking. Visiting a dentist twice a year also helps prevent tooth decay and keeps the mouth healthy. By understanding differences in personal hygiene and taking action not to offend anyone, your interactions with Americans and classmates from other cultures should be pleasant ones!

Culture Shock: Culture shock is defined by a sense of confusion and uncertainty, sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation. In other words, culture shock is the impact you may feel when you enter a culture that is unfamiliar to you.

To explain it further, here’s what you should be aware about culture shock :

I can’t live without … The list of things "they don't have here" seems to have been designed with you personally in mind. Bad enough in itself, this list normally results in a second list—of the things you can't do here—and taken together these lists can make you very unhappy and frustrated. The lists are different in different places and for different international students; it may be a favorite food, a spice you can't cook without, books in your native language, an appliance you can't live without, or a favorite sport or pastime. Learning to get by without these requires you to make scores of tiny adjustments every day, and while most people manage to cope well enough—finding substitutes or getting cherished items from loved ones back home—the frustration and inconvenience of doing without take their toll.

I don’t know anyone here ... Another reality of being in a new country is not knowing anyone. For the first few weeks after your arrival you will be interacting with people you don't know or don't know very well. There's nothing bad about this, of course—part of the adventure of being an international student is meeting new people—but it takes much more energy and effort than interacting with people you already know and who know you.

I miss home ... A related problem is being so far away from family and friends. There's the homesickness, genuinely missing close friends and loved ones, and there's also the matter of not having the support and encouragement such people offer us during difficult times.

Overcoming culture shock

Know it will happen. Part of the shock of culture shock is not expecting it, which causes you to react more strongly when it happens. Knowing these experiences are coming doesn't mean you won't get homesick or feel the heat, but awareness at least reduces the emotional impact.

Try to stay healthy and get plenty of rest. Try also to do those things you normally do to unwind and relax, those things that “lift your spirits.”

Go out, see people, do things. As things starts to happen and you start feeling acclimated, you're likely to find out that other people are having at least some of the same reactions to living here that you are.

Make “local” friends. By having American friends you can talk to, you are able to ask them questions about what you do not understand, including slang terms in English that you are not yet familiar with.

Don't be too hard on yourself. We're not talking here about getting the hang of one or two new paradigms; it's a whole new world. And whole new worlds can take some time to get used to.

You don’t have to like or accept everything. You should not hesitate to draw the line when it comes to certain local behaviors, to admit that there will be things about the local culture that you may never be able to accept, as well as never try to force yourself to accept behaviors that violate your fundamental or religious values. In addition, you don’t have to openly embrace all local behavior no matter how strange or offensive, but you should not reject behaviors before you have understood them.

Teach people about your culture. Just because you're the one entering the new culture doesn't mean you should be the one doing all the learning. Take the opportunity to explain to new friends (Americans or other international students) about your culture; they may know little about it. Invite them over for traditional dishes from your culture, or show them how you celebrate your holidays.

Be patient! Many international students experience culture shock in some way while they are here. Just recognize the problem and give yourself time to get over it. If you need to, keep reminding yourself that this is not permanent.

Becoming culturally effective does not mean becoming a local; it means trying to see the world the way the locals do and trying to imagine how they see you. Understanding the new culture and finding a way to live comfortably within it while keeping true to the parts of your culture that you value, will help you overcome culture shock.

Common American measurement units

Federal holidays and celebrations in the U.S.

Western Michigan University calendars

What is Daylight Saving Time?
The main purpose of Daylight Saving Time (called "Summer Time" many places in the world) is to make better use of daylight. Note that it is Daylight Saving (singular) Time, NOT Daylight SavingS Time. We are saving daylight, so it is singular and not plural.


(1) Part of this section was extracted and/or adapted from the book The Art of Crossing Cultures, Second Edition, by Craig Storti, Intercultural Press, 2001. Accessed through Books24x7, Inc.