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U.S. Culture & Culture Shock

Below is some information that could help ease some of the shock of studying at a U.S. university.

When living in a new country, you will quickly realize that each society has different values that guide its residents. Americans assume all people hold the same belief system as they do and may have a difficult time understanding your culture’s values and belief system. Below, is a list of the most important American values that can help you adapt.

*Remember the information below is typically what you will encounter but each individual person you meet is different.

Culture Shock

  • Culture Shock

    Most people traveling outside of their own countries experience a level of culture shock – the process of adjusting to a new country and new culture. Even people who have lived in numerous countries experience culture shock every time they go to a new place. Given time, culture shock will lessen. Learn More

Individualism

One of the most important aspects of American culture is the sense of individuality each person holds. As children, Americans are taught that each person is unique, with their own ideals, goals, hopes, and desires. Once an American begins their degree at a university, their family may or may not assist the student. American students who get too much help from their parents may be viewed negatively by their peers. This is in direct contrast with much of the world where children learn to put the family’s needs and goals ahead of their own. American students may not understand why international students are concerned with their parents’ opinion or will follow the family’s decision rather than the student’s own desires.

Sense of Time

‘Time is money.’ ‘Don’t waste my time.’ These are some of the phrases international students and scholars may hear when working with American students and faculty. Americans value time and want to use it wisely. Most Americans rely on their schedules, calendars, and daily planners to help them organize their day (Americans also value organized people). Americans also want you to respect their time by contacting them if you’ll be late and responding to emails quickly.

One way Americans try to conquer time is by becoming more efficient. Americans value email to communicate since you can email numerous people in a short period of time, fast food restaurants are common, the Internet provides access to time saving tools, and smart phone apps are popular. Americans may seem ‘rushed’ when really they are trying to ‘use time wisely’ to ensure they can achieve their goals.

Equality and Informality

Americans learn that ‘all men are created equal’ from a very young age and most strive to achieve this for all genders, races, and ages. There are many instances where Americans do not treat each other as equals but other times it is very apparent. Americans tend to be very informal regardless of age or social standing. Many international students and scholars often overlook how Americans show respect. Americans demonstrate respect by their tone of voice, order of speaking, and seating arrangements, among others.

At a university, you will see this type of informality in the way students dress (sweatshirts, sneakers) for class and in how they address their professor (commonly by first name). When you first meet someone older than you, you should use their title, ‘Mr.,’ ‘Ms.,’ or ‘Professor’ until you hear otherwise. Listen to what the other students do. When in doubt, ask! No one will be offended. Some American women prefer to be called 'Ms' (pronounced 'mizz') rather than 'Miss' or 'Mrs.' When in doubt, use ‘Ms.’

Materialism

Americans can often be overly concerned with success and acquiring material goods and money since it demonstrates to others that the individual is hard working, persistent, and has achieved their goals. International students and scholars may believe that Americans are ungrateful for family or spiritual life but this is untrue since a sense success fulfils many of the values Americans cherish and allows Americans to spend more time with family.

Communication Style

The American communication style is a result of the value system (individualism, sense of time, equality, efficiency, etc.) prevalent throughout the country. Americans are generally direct and go straight to the point of the conversation, which can often cause international students or scholars difficulty or embarrassment because you are unfamiliar with it.

For example, an American might say, “Can you research this for our paper?” A non-American might say, “I once knew a student who was excellent at researching this topic. You are a lot like that student.” Either sentence means the same thing but the American speaker directly asks you to do something while the non-American implies what he or she wants you do to. The American version illustrates the speaker’s sense of time and efficiency by getting to the point.

Furthermore, Americans typically do not want to discuss personal matters (with strangers) or controversial topics (with anyone) and prefer to engage in ‘small talk’ with the topics being weather, sports, movies, or television. Topics to avoid in small talk are: religion, politics, sex, etc. as they tend to make people very uncomfortable. Many international visitors assume that Americans are not capable of discussing difficult subjects but this is incorrect; most just prefer to avoid conflict amongst each other. When Americans argue, most do so as if it were a normal conversation (for example, most people will not yell). In contrast, many Americans believe international visitors are ‘loud’ and ‘argumentative’ and will be alarmed and may attempt to intervene when it is just a regular conversation.

In a typical conversation between Americans, no one will dominate the conversation as each person is expected to take turns (demonstrating the value of equality in U.S. society).