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Culture & Etiquette

If you visited U.S.A. for the first time, you will experience a lot of cultural differences.  America is very diverse society. So, it can be a really interesting experience to live in the United States. Below are two articles about American Culture for international Students from " The International Student Guide to the United States of America". 

Learning About U.S.
American Culture and Values

Studying in the United States of America can be a wonderful learning experience. Both in and out of the classroom you will learn and practice the English language. You will also learn much about American life and its sometimes confusing culture.

As you prepare to come to the U.S., it may help to know something about the values that shape U.S. Americans’ attitudes and behaviors. As you consider these values it is important to remember that: 1) U.S. society is made up of a diversity of ethnic groups and cultures that have helped shape American values; 2) Some individuals and groups have a set of respected values that are quite different from those of mainstream America; 3) People’s attitudes and behavior are based on their values.

Individuality: U.S. Americans are encouraged at an early age to be independent and to develop their own goals in life. They are encouraged to not depend (too much) on others including their friends, teachers and parents. They are rewarded when they try harder to reach their goals.

Privacy: U.S. Americans like their privacy and enjoy spending time alone. Foreign visitors will find U.S. American homes and offices open, but what is inside the American mind is considered to be private. To ask the question “What is on your mind?” may be considered by some to be intrusive.

Equality: U.S. Americans uphold the ideal that everyone “is created equal” and has the same rights. This includes women as well as men of all ethnic and cultural groups living in the U.S. There are even laws that protect this “right to equality” in its various forms.

The general lack of deference to people in authority is one example of equality. Titles, such as “sir” and “madam” are seldom used. Managers, directors, presidents and even university instructors are often addressed by their first or given name.

Time: U.S. Americans take pride in making the best use of their time. In the business world, “time is money”. Being “on time” for class, an appointment, or for dinner with your host family is important. U.S. Americans apologize if they are late. Some instructors give demerits to students who are late to class, and students at most universities have institutional permission to leave the classroom if their instructor is 10 or 15 minutes late.

Informality. The U.S. American lifestyle is generally casual. You will see students going to class in shorts and t-shirts. Male instructors seldom wear a tie and some may even wear blue jeans. Female instructors often wear slacks along with comfortable walking shoes.

Greetings and farewells are usually short, informal and friendly. Students may greet each other with “hi”, “how are you”? and “what’s up”? The farewell can be as brief as: “See you”, “take it easy”, or, “come by some time” (although they generally don’t really mean it). Friendships are also casual, as Americans seem to easily develop and end friendships.

Achievement & hard work/play. The foreign visitor is often impressed at how achievement oriented Americans are and how hard they both work and play. A competitive spirit is often the motivating factor to work harder. Americans often compete with themselves as well as others. They feel good when they “beat their own record” in an athletic event or other types of competition. Americans seem to always be “on the go”, because sitting quietly doing nothing seems like a waste of time.

Working in teams is also an integral part of the MBA learning environment. For students unused to asserting their opinions in a group, teamwork may be another challenging aspect of MBA life; however, over time you will gain confidence and new skills. The keys to success in the interactive MBA learning environment are openness to new ideas, willingness to work hard, and increasing facility in English.

Direct & assertive: U.S. Americans try to work out their differences face-to-face and without a mediator. They are encouraged to speak up and give their opinions. Students are often invited to challenge or disagree with certain points in the lecture. This manner of direct speaking is often interpreted by foreign visitors as rude.

Looking to the Future and to change: Children are often asked what they want to be “when they grow up”; college students are asked what they will do when they graduate; and professors plan what they will do when they retire.

Change is often equated with progress and holding on to traditions seems to imply old and outdated ways. Even though Americans are recycling more than before many purchased products are designed to have a short life and then be thrown away.

You may notice that these American values are, in some instances, quite different from your own. When you come to the U.S. the reality of these differences will be more evident. You will likely experience culture “shock” as you learn to adjust to the new culture and way of living. This is very normal and requires both time and patience.

Your decision to study in the United States will provide you with endless opportunities to learn about a new culture and about yourself as well.

You will also have a chance to “educate” U.S. Americans about your own country and cultural values. I welcome you to the United States and wish you well as you enter into a new adventure in your personal and professional life.

These suggestions may help make your first days in the U.S. a little easier. They may also help to speed up the “cultural adjustment” process.

  1. Speak English as much as possible. Find an American roommate or study mate, and participate in the university’s host family program.

  2. Ask people to speak more slowly and write down what they say.

  3. Discuss any problems in your studies with your professors.

  4. If you feel lonely or homesick talk to someone (a counselor, teacher, or friend) and then do something nice for yourself that day.

  5. Take advantage of opportunities to tell others about your country and family. U.S. Americans are sometimes shy and won’t ask.

  6. Keep a smile handy to help you feel better and others too.


 Thomas Grouling, PhD of Drake University

If you asked Americans what the cultural values in the U.S. are you might get different answers or some core beliefs. In a society as highly diverse as the United States, there is likely to be a multitude of answers.

American culture has been enriched by the values and belief systems of almost all parts of the world. Consequently, it is impossible to be comprehensive. Despite that, I will try by discussing a few selected values which I believe are at the core of the American value system.

   The one value that nearly every American would agree upon is individual freedom. Whether you call it individual freedom, individualism, or independence, it is the cornerstone of American values. It involves every aspect of our society.

The concept of an individual’s having control over his/her own destiny influenced the type of government that was established here, and individual rights are guaranteed in the United States Constitution . 

These rights are so protected in our judicial system that, even though Americans may complain that criminals sometimes “get away with murder,” most people believe it is better to keep these rights than to imprison one person who is innocent.

Our economic  may be dominated by large corporations, but the majority of American businesses are small, or mid-sized, and many are owned by an individual or a family. It is part of the “American dream” to “be your own boss,” and being an entrepreneur is one of the most appealing ways to improve one’s economic future.

Education is often regarded as the key to opportunity, including financial security. Americans take a active approach to learning, outside the classroom through internships, extracurricular activities, and the like is often considered as important as what is learned in the classroom. Lifelong learning is valued which results in many adult and continuing education programs.

Americans have many choices. In school they decide their major field of study, perhaps with or without their parents’ influence, and students even get to select some of their courses. 

Americans believe that a person should “be all that he/she can be” originates from our Protestant heritage. Since the majority of the early settlers were Protestant, they believed that they had a responsibility to improve themselves, to be the best they could be, to develop their talents, and to help their neighbors. These convictions have not only influenced our educational system, but are often reflected in U.S. foreign policy. What some might consider meddling in other people’s affairs, others believe is fulfilling a moral obligation.

Another aspect of American society  is the family. The family structure (parents and children) is so foreign to most cultures in the world that it is often misunderstood. The main purpose of the American family is to bring about the happiness of each individual family member. The traditional family values do include love and respect for parents, as well as all members of the family.

However, the emphasis on the individual and his/her right to happiness can be confusing. It allows children to disagree, even argue with their parents. While in most other cultures such action would be a sign of disrespect and a lack of love, that is not the case in the United States. It is simply a part of developing one’s independence.

Many foreign students are welcomed by host families, who invite them into their homes for dinner or to join in family activities. Frequently the students are told to “make themselves at home” and, at times, may appear to be “left alone.”

It certainly is nice to be treated as an honored guest in someone’s home, but one of the highest compliments that an American can give a foreign guest is to treat them like a member of the family, which means to give them the “freedom of the house” to do what they want, to “raid the refrigerator” on their own, or to have some quiet time alone.

Privacy is also important to Americans. The notion of individual privacy may make it difficult to make friends. Because Americans respect one’s privacy, they may not go much beyond a friendly “hello.” Ironically, it is usually the foreigner who must be more assertive if a friendship is to develop.

Early settlers had to be self-sufficient which forced them to be inventive. Their success gave them an optimism about the future, a belief that problems could be solved. This positive spirit enables Americans to take risks in areas where others might only dream, resulting in tremendous advances in technology, health and science.

The American frontier created our heroes: the self-reliant, strong-willed, confident individual who preferred action to words and always tried to treat others fairly. Many of these characteristics are represented by the myth of the American cowboy. We can even look to “future” centuries and admire similar qualities in the heroes of the Star Trek and Star Wars movie series.

In addition to such basic American values as individual freedom, self-reliance, equality of opportunity, hard work, material wealth, and competition, we see a trend toward conservation with an emphasis on recycling and preserving the environment. Also there is a greater sensitivity to cooperation on a more global scale.

No matter what changes the next century brings or whether you agree with American values, the opportunity to study in the United States and to observe Americans first-hand is an experience well worth the effort.

Be careful not to be ethnocentric, but to evaluate a culture by its own standards. Be aware that you’ll help shape American attitudes, just as they will influence you. I wish you success in this grand adventure.


Bruno Ribeiro from Brazil
video interview