International Studies Education
Adjusting to Life in the U.S.
Note: The following sections are designed to assist you with your transition, but it is important to keep in mind that these are generalizations.
By electing to study abroad, you have taken a bold step to immerse yourself in a different culture for the purpose of learning. This adventurous and courageous act sets you apart from other students who may never explore the world around them and the energy and enthusiasm required to get you this far are qualities that will help you be a successful student. The initial thrill of international study, however, may wane if unfamiliar cultural systems, customs, and languages begin to overwhelm you. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “culture shock.” The best defense against culture shock is an understanding of the circumstances that create it and a general understanding of the new cultural environment you are about to enter.
What is "Culture Shock?"
Cultures are made up of various spoken and unspoken rules. A student who wishes to learn about another cultural system can read about the history of a country, study its political structure, or become acquainted with the national religious practices. These aspects of culture are often clearly stated and accessible to visitors. Other aspects of culture are less clearly articulated.
When we are home, there are many different cultural cues that we unconsciously experience and respond to. For example, when you are in your home country, you seldom consider how to greet a friend or how to behave in a classroom. These are all things that a person does easily while at home. Cultural cues govern these simple acts. People assimilate their cultural cues throughout their lives until certain behavior becomes “automatic.” When familiar cultural cues no longer apply and unfamiliar ones begin to threaten security and confidence, culture shock may result.
Culture shock is the feeling of being out of place in an unfamiliar environment. The initial excitement of moving to a new country often subsides when different cultural expectations challenge you to attend to daily responses and behaviors previously taken for granted. The potential stress of dealing with these persistent challenges can result in feelings of hostility and frustration with your host country as well as a profound longing for home. If you are a person who has already exhibited the courage and sense of adventure required of embracing international study, overcoming culture shock can be a cultural and personal educational opportunity particularly suited to your sense of adventure.
Americans value individualism. European immigrants who rejected the religion, politics, and economics of their home cultures established a new American culture in the early 1600s. As a result, early American culture evolved out of a commitment to individual desire and rebellion against authority. This commitment to individual religious and political beliefs was so powerful that it resulted in the colonization of a continent that was already inhabited by Native Americans. American colonizers who believed they were culturally superior to their home countries and to Native American culture felt justified in leaving home and country and colonizing the “New World.”
Individualism and the American Family
America’s early history established a commitment to individualism, aggressive capitalist development, and rebellion against authority and remnants of this cultural philosophy remain today. Americans’ commitment to individualism results in less family cohesiveness than you may be accustomed to in your own life. Many American households only include the “nuclear family,” the parents and children. When children become adults, the cultural expectation is that they will move out and establish their own nuclear family.
In America, elderly parents seldom live with their grown children and often live in senior citizen communities or, if they require medical attention, in nursing homes. This cultural difference can seem quite strange to international students whose cultures assert the importance of caring for elderly family members. Regardless of this fractured family structure, many Americans are devoted to their nuclear and extended families even though they may not reside together.
Many American families are “blended families” with stepparents and stepsiblings and so a cultural tradition has evolved of welcoming family and non-family members equally, especially around American holidays. Most Americans families who live separate daily lives regard holidays as important family gatherings. For this reason, you will find that your American friends will probably become concerned if they discover you have no plans to “go home” for the holidays and will likely extend invitations for you to join their family celebrations. Holiday celebrations often have lots of food and celebrating so take advantage of the invitations!
Individualism and the American College Environment
Dedicated American students tend to be competitive and driven. American students tend to take on a lot of work and tend to be involved with many different academic, extra-curricular, and social activities. You may find this frenetic pace a bit overwhelming (so do many Americans!). The focus on individual achievement results in the culturally conditioned drive to achieve as much as possible in as many areas as possible with the hope of enhancing personal growth and occupational prospects. The drive to earn money is powerful, and as a result you will see that many students do what they can to make themselves more marketable in the American workforce.
American students’ strong sense of individualism is also apparent in the classroom. Students assert their opinions and question professors easily and vigorously. This is the result of both the American commitment to the sovereignty of individual opinion and a tradition of challenging authority. International students may find this behavior aggressive and disrespectful, which at times it may be, but it is important to understand the underlying cultural drive to be heard. Questioning authority and trusting individual perceptions of reality are particular points of pride in American society and when employed wisely enhance the classroom environment with the free and respectful exchange of ideas.
Another aspect of the classroom that some international students may find jarring is informality. Students and professors alike tend to dress and behave casually with one another. In classrooms, it is not unusual for people to speak without raising their hands, to address the professor by his or her first name, to debate with classmates or the professor, or to eat and drink in class. Professors tend to make it clear by example or by explicit statement, the level of formality they expect in a classroom. If you are uncertain, ask your professor what classroom behavior he or she expects.
Tips for Adjusting to U.S. Classroom Culture
- Don’t be shy. Speak in class as much as possible. In some countries, it is best to sit quietly while the professor speaks. This is not the style in the United States. Here, students are expected to speak during class.
- If you don’t understand part of the lecture, ask the professor to clarify.
- If the professor asks the entire class a question and you know the answer, raise your hand and answer the question.
- Don’t worry if you are not a native English speaker! American students are increasingly accustomed to hearing fellow students speak with foreign accents.
- If you are not comfortable asking questions during class, make sure to ask the professor your questions immediately after class or during the professor’s Office Hours*.
- Participate in classroom discussions and ask follow-up questions. These are important to doing well in classes.
- Make sure to attend all your classes regularly.
* Office Hours:
Definition: A time when the professor is in his/her office and available to answer students’ individual questions about lectures, assignments, or exams. If you cannot attend a certain professor’s office hours because of a class conflict, ask the professor for an individual appointment time.
Greetings & Conversation
Meeting new people can be exciting and at times stressful, particularly in a new environment where many others already have established friendships. Of course the best way to start a friendship is to say “hello” to a stranger. In America, people tend to greet each other by saying “Hi,” “Hello,” or “How are you?” “How are you?” is an expression used as a greeting and not usually used as a question. If someone keeps moving past you as they say “How are you?”, they mean it as “Hello.” If an acquaintance stops walking to chat with you and then asks “How are you?”, they usually expect a short, positive answer. The typical response is, “Fine.” This may seem impersonal, but it has become a part of the American cultural greeting practice between strangers and acquaintances.
American men usually shake hands when they meet someone for the first time. Some American women will also shake hands with men or women they first meet, but as this is a fairly new cultural convention in America, Americans tend to wait for the woman to offer her hand first. Unlike many countries, it is uncommon for Americans, especially American men, to hug or kiss each other when they greet one another. You may notice, however, that men who are particularly close friends may greet each other with vigorous, backslapping hugs from time to time.
When Americans speak to each other, they tend to maintain a conversational distance of about three feet from one another. Americans often feel uncomfortable with someone who stands too close to them, even if the person is a close friend. Despite this seemingly distant behavior, you may find that Americans you have just met will ask you intimate questions. The questions Americans may ask of you usually come out of a genuine curiosity about you and your culture, with which they may be totally unfamiliar. Trust your instincts about whether a person is being curious or intrusive and remember you can politely refuse to answer anything that makes you uncomfortable without compromising a new friendship.
Tips for Adjusting to a New Cultural Environment
- Be open-minded.
- Have a sense of humor.
- Communicate your feelings and thoughts with others.
- Be curious about your new environment.
- Be tolerant of other cultural beliefs.
- Be positive.
- Maintain a strong sense of self.
If you are having trouble adjusting to life in the U.S., please let someone know. Jen Mintzer in the International Studies Education Office (BMB 114A) can be contacted readily by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 610-358-4547.