US Culture Guide For Exchange Students
Is America like what you’ve seen on TV?
Many students come to the United States expecting the United States to be like MTV, or Survivor, or another television show that’s been exported to his or her country.
Some of that is what America is like. But, some of it is exaggerated, or only represents one aspect of American life.
As a whole, Americans love food. U.S. consumers spend millions of dollars every year on purchasing food ingredients or prepared foods. Food accompanies the majority of events, gatherings, parties and even meetings in the United States. It often gives people something to do and can help to eliminate awkwardness in social gatherings. From ball games to board meetings, food has a place at them all.
The U.S. has released a Federal Food Guide Pyramid to help Americans make healthy choices when selecting what to eat. However, most Americans do not meet the requirements set forth by these dietary guidelines. The daily intake of fats and sugars often exceed the recommendations while the fruit, vegetable, dairy, whole grain and lean meat intake generally falls below the recommended amount.
To see the U.S. Pyramid and review the recommendations, you may go online at www.mypyramid.gov.
The dictionary defines customs as traditions or habits for the particular way people behave in a situation. Every culture has customs unique to it. While we could never attempt to cover all American customs on one page, this will give you a brief summary of some of the U.S. customs you might encounter in day-to-day interactions while living in the United States.
When meeting someone for the first time, men and women both usually shake hands. Only close friends exchange hugs and/or kisses, although men seldom do more than shake hands with other men. Americans usually exchange names by means of introduction; either first name only, or first and last name. Everyone expects you to call them by their first name unless they specify otherwise.
Americans acquaintances have a very casual manner for the most part. They consider “Hey,” “How’s it going?” and “What’s up?” equal to “Hello.” They don’t necessarily expect an answer, so don’t take exception if they move on without your having replied. Expected replies include saying the same phrase back to them or just a smile and wave.
Answering the phone:
Most Americans answer the phone by saying “Hello?” The caller then identifies him/herself and asks to speak to the person they have called. Businesses answer the phone with the name of the business, sometimes followed by the name of the person answering the phone.
Most homes, as well as businesses use answering machines to take their calls when unavailable. To leave a message, state your name clearly and leave a brief message and your phone number.
Americans enjoy eating out at restaurants. Particularly on weekends, you may have to wait for a table at popular restaurants, during normal meal times. Patrons give their names and the number of people in their party and wait for the host/hostess to call them when a suitable table has become available. All restaurants accept cash and many accept credit cards as payment for the meal.
In the United States, restaurants do not typically add a service charge to your food bill. However, pay attention when you eat out with a large party as many restaurants automatically add a 15% gratuity to serve a group of more than six people. Otherwise, servers expect about a 15% tip for the total bill; you can reduce that to 10% for poor service and increase it to about 20% for excellent service. Other occupations that expect a tip include hairdressers, hotel porters, parking valets and bartenders. You should never tip government employees, police officers or physicians; they will consider it as an attempt to bribe them.
Americans smoke much less than Europeans and/or Asians. Generally, you cannot smoke indoors, except in some bars, clubs and restaurants. The restaurants that do allow smoking, only allow it in certain designated areas. Even outdoors, if with someone else, you should always ask if they mind you smoking before lighting a cigarette. Legally, you cannot purchase tobacco or smoke in the U.S. until you have turned 18 years old and the law requires store clerks to ask for identification that proves your age.
Legally, no one under the age of 21 can purchase or consume alcohol in the United States. The law requires establishments that sell alcohol to verify proof of age before making the transaction, whether in a restaurant, bar or store.
If you hear a siren while driving in the United States, first locate the source. If you discover that the emergency vehicle is coming toward you from ahead or behind, you should pull to the side of the road until the emergency vehicle has passed.
Most states in the U.S. charge a sales tax on tangible personal property including items like clothes, food and books as well as services. The amount will vary depending on the state, but usually comes to 5-7% of the total cost of the item. Make sure you have enough money to cover not only the ticketed price, but the additional tax as well.
Americans put far more emphasis on time and promptness than most other countries. Buses, trains, classes, appointments and meetings run according to a predetermined schedule. Running late shows disrespect for someone else’s time.
Most Americans shower daily, wear clean clothes and use deodorant, soap and perfume/cologne regularly. Women shave the hair from their legs and under their arms, and men shave their faces daily.
While the U.S. does not specifically designate any days as “national holidays,” the federal government recognizes 10 days each year when they give their employees a day off work and don’t transact business. We generally observe U.S. holidays on the Monday closest to the actual date of the holiday to create a three-day weekend, with the exception of New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, which we celebrate on whatever date the specific holiday falls. (For example, we always celebrate Christmas on December 25 th, regardless of what day of the week it falls.) The other five holidays the federal government observes include Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Columbus Day.
Most states and large private businesses follow the same basic guidelines as the federal government in establishing their employment holidays. However, many businesses actually enjoy more productivity on holidays than non-holidays because others don’t go to work. To take advantage of this situation, many retail establishments promote sales and specials to draw consumers who have the day off.
Many people refer to the time from Thanksgiving through New Year’s as the “holiday season” since Thanksgiving, Winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Day all fall in that time period and many seasonal parties occur during that time frame.
While the dictionary defines the term art as the expressive arrangement of elements within a medium, or creative/imaginative activity and the works that result from them, that would include such art forms as music, performance and writing. This section however focuses specifically on visual art like painting, photography, sculpture and printmaking.
The United States has some top quality art museums and displays covering a broad range of styles and mediums. While certain cities like Chicago, Santa Fe and New York may have reputations for famous galleries, artists and museums, smaller towns and communities have also taken advantage of people’s appreciation for art by incorporating local artist’s work and galleries into their downtowns to showcase even more styles, talents and variety.
American Art Styles
American art styles vary as much as Americans do. A brief description of several of the most common styles follows:
Abstract: This type of art does not depict the world as seen through the natural eye, but seeks to express emotions through color and shapes.
Animation/Comics: This art form creates a sequence of cartoon drawings to tell a story.
Expressionism: Rather than making a painting look exactly like what it represents, expressionist artists try to express their feelings about they paint.
Fantasy: This category of art relies on imagination to depict creatures, worlds and environments that do not actually exist.
Impressionism: Impressionists use bold colors and sparse detail to portray a scene as if the observer just glanced at it quickly.
Native American: Created by the Native American Indians, this type of art reflects not only their culture, but their harmonious relationship with nature and their strong beliefs in family ties and unity.
Pop Art: Short for Popular Art, this style of art gets its inspiration from advertising and popular entertainment and uses bold, brash colors.
Post-Impressionism: While these artists still use the same bold colors, distinctive brushstrokes and real-life subject matter as the impressionists, they tend to distort or emphasize geometric forms and don’t always use natural colors.
Primitivism: This style of art looks like a child’s work with simple lines and two-dimensional subjects.
Realism: Artists who use this art form seek to portray things exactly as they appear in real life.
Surrealism: Based on dreams, these paintings portray familiar objects in strange or mysterious ways with the intent of causing the viewer to look at things in a different way and perhaps change their perspective.
Clothing in America used to follow British and French fashion, imitating the trendy designers located an ocean away. However, since the 20 th century, Americans have developed a unique sense of style and spawned their own line up of imitators in every corner of the globe.
Like the casual contemporary Americans who design them, clothes from the U.S. creatively reflect the distinctively American lifestyle stereotyped around the world. American design tends toward simplicity and confidence and it extends beyond clothing to accessories, health, skin care and fitness. So many outside events and trends influence fashion, including psychology, media, family values, mass production, technology and social class. Fashion in the U.S. holds a direct link to American identity and experience.
You will probably discover that very few occasions in the U.S. require a specific style of clothing. Most Americans dress to their own level of comfort and style. You could attend the symphony and find patrons dressed in a wide variety of clothing styles that range from tuxedos and evening gowns to jeans and tennis shoes. Many businesses in America have gone to a “business casual” style that does not require jackets, ties and suits, but simply requires a neat, professional look without the formality.
A “black tie” event does still require formal evening attire; a dinner jacket with matching trousers and a tie for the men (often a tuxedo), and a cocktail dress or evening gown for the women. Most people still dress up smartly for a wedding or funeral, but even many churches have resorted to a more casual style of dress for Sunday worship services.
Popular Clothing Styles
Popular clothing fashions in the U.S. tend to change from decade to decade. While the current look may favor specific trends, jeans and T-shirts never go out of style and most Americans left to their own devices, dress to their own level of comfort and style.
However, the media plays a huge role in what Americans adopt as the most popular items of clothing. Fans copy the styles of their favorite performers from the world of music, the stage or the movies. Bare midriffs, mini skirts, bell-bottom pants, hoodies and saggy, baggy jeans all made their way to popular status due in large part to the celebrities that wear them.
Some of the most popular looks over the last 10 years have included, grunge, preppy, western, Goth, punk, designer, Bohemian, vintage, hip-hop, emo and camouflage. Since most people cannot keep up with current fashion trends without revising their wardrobe annually, they tend to choose a style they like and modify it according to the latest styles. Certain styles continue with specific groups in spite of the fact that the fashion world has moved on to another look. For example, a sub-group of American culture continues to model their style after the hippie fashions that dominated the 60s.
To keep up with the most popular clothing styles of the day, you can spend a day window shopping at the local mall. Stores dress their mannequins in the latest look as they try to entice shoppers in to purchase their clothing. You will notice that store displays tend to stay almost a whole season ahead, selling summer fashions by spring, fall fashions by summer and winter clothing in the fall. The best time to purchase contemporary fashions comes when retailers need to move clothes off the racks to make room for the trendy clothes of the next season. For instance, summer fashions will go on sale and continually reduce in price the further into summer it gets.
What internal values and attitudes do Americans hold about work? The “traditional” work ethic that values job commitment and achievement has a strong foundation in the United States, a country where you can be born dirt poor and die filthy rich. These self-made men and women demonstrate that hard work can pay off. The message children hear loud and clear in most homes in America communicates the importance of having a job and earning a paycheck.
But you will also hear plenty of criticism and complaints about having to go to work. People take less psychological pleasure from their roles at work than they used to. Modern day employees often see work as the means to an end or a necessary evil. Jobs still play a significant role in people’s lives, providing for food, clothing and shelter, as well as significance and self esteem. In the U.S., people often feel defined by their jobs as identity is closely tied to the work role. So, whether because of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, Americans value what having a job can mean to them.
The opportunities that abound in the U.S. and the fact that people can largely pick and choose where to work might often seem taken for granted by Americans. But ultimately, most seem to realize the advantages they have in the employment arena as compared to other countries of the world. So, while they may not like their job, they usually have a sense of gratitude that they can earn money and spend it as they choose for the most part.
You will find older generations objecting to the younger one’s tendency to get away with as little as possible. They fear that laziness, instant gratification and technology will replace the values of honesty, integrity and industriousness; that getting the job done has replaced doing your best.
Animals have existed in American culture for hundreds of years. The development of pets as companions reflects changes that have occurred over time in this country. With the transition from an agriculturally oriented community to a consumer society, the need for working animals has decreased. In addition, the rise of a culture that values kindness to animals has promoted these creatures to status symbols, objects of beauty and hobbies, as well as companions.
Americans tend to think of pets as part of the family. They provide them with food, shelter, exercise, attention and medical care. They take pets very seriously. People have made businesses out of pets by creating such enterprises as pet cemeteries, pet grooming services, dog parks, entire stores devoted to pet supplies, “pet-sitting” services to care for people’s pets while they travel or work and even “dog walking” services for those who can’t find the time or energy to exercise their canines.
Most businesses do not allow pets inside unless they have specific duties, like assisting the blind. Hotels and motels generally specify their rules about whether or not they allow pets in their rooms; the higher class the hotel, the less likely they allow them. Occasionally however, you will find a store or establishment that welcomes pets because the owners favor them or because they offer pet supplies.
For those who walk their dogs in the park or along the streets of their neighborhood, the law requires that the owners collect any waste they discharge along the way and dispose of it properly.
Humane societies across the country house and feed stray animals found within the city limits, offering them for adoption to the community at large. Many people obtain their pets from these shelters to help them avoid extermination and support the city in its efforts to keep the streets free of homeless animals.
Americans earn an average of 14 vacation days per year from their employers. However, most people associate the term vacation with actually going somewhere away from home for at least several days, not just taking time off work. While some families take short little vacations throughout the year, others save up their time and take one big vacation. Some of the common activities people engage in during their vacations include camping, visiting a resort or national landmark, visiting friends or relatives, catching up on home projects or going skiing.
Literature includes poetry, drama, essays, fiction and other printed information. It provides a window into a culture, period or language. Reading the literature of a particular era or people can impart great insight into the social, physical, political and moral customs of the day.
While born out of English literature, American literature has now established its own unique characteristics and reputation. Many American authors, both past and present have gained international renown for their literary works.
Due to its vast size and population, (third in the world in both categories) the United States does not fit neatly into any one description. Americans often divide the country into regions to help characterize geographic, cultural, economic and historical variations. As with any arbitrary delineation, the boundaries for these regions can break down differently based upon who draws them.
Some of the more popular regional labels include Deep South, East Coast, Gulf Coast, Mid-Atlantic States, Midwest, Mountain States, New England, Northeast, Northwest, Pacific Coast, Southeast, Southwest, Upper Midwest, West and West Coast.
While each of these distinctions has its own criterion, we have put together a broad summary of five major areas of the U.S. most often grouped together as regions; the Northeast, South, Midwest, Southwest and West.
Regular network television broadcasting began in the US in 1946 and television became common in American homes by the mid-1950s. These days, most American homes have at least one TV but many households have two or more.
Television shows have always had great cultural significance in America. People bond over their favorite shows and will discuss what’s going on with their favorite characters or debate the direction of the plot. New styles and catch phrases often originate from TV shows, like the “Rachel hairdo” of the mid-90s (Friends), or the common use of the phrase “is that your final answer” (Who Wants to be a Millionaire).
Network television can be watched for free, all you need is an antenna. The networks are NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, The CW, and PBS (the actual channel varies by city). Some local channels are also available for free.
If you want more channels, and don’t mind paying around $50 per month, you can order cable, Dish Network, or DirectTV. This will give you access to specialty programming such as, lifestyle (Lifetime, Oxygen), family friendly (ABC Family, the DisneyChannel), music (MTV, VH1), sports (ESPN, the NFL Network), news (CNN, FoxNews), and movie (AMC, FX) channels.
Since humor relies heavily on cultural association and a host of other variables including geographical location, maturity, education level and context, it often does not translate into other languages and cultures with the same perspective. People from different cultures often consider different things funny.
More open than humor in many other countries, American humor tends to rely on observation and slapstick. Since the U.S. never had a monarchy or system of nobility, their humor regarding class systems focuses more on stereotypes based on race, gender or social standing. In order to understand this type of comedy, you have to observe and relate to the object of the humor.
In the U.S. literature, cartoons, comics, television, radio and comedy shows all express humor in different ways. Literature can comment on humorous situations in a narrative or first hand manner; cartoons and comics rely on artistic humor paired with brief amusing comments that elaborate on the visual comedy; first radio and now television market situation comedies (sit-coms) to help us laugh at ourselves in everyday situations; comedians build routines around specific topics that poke fun at or exaggerate stereotypes and daily life.
Comedy can often address delicate subjects and make people think due to the manner in which the material is presented. However, poking fun at specific objects and stereotypes can also create tension and build walls of misunderstanding.
Some famous American comedians include Steve Allen, George Burns, Art Carney, Johnny Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Lewis, Steve Martin, Walter Matthau, Dennis Miller, Eddie Murphy, Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams.
We can define etiquette as a code that governs the expectations of social behavior; in other words, what manners and actions people expect from us in social situations. Conforming to the accepted standards of behavior can communicate respect and appreciation. Likewise, when we fail to comply with accepted standards of behavior, we run the risk of hurting feelings, or causing embarrassment, disgrace and/or misunderstandings.
What one culture considers polite, another might deem rude because accepted standards of behavior develop differently in various cultures. Knowing the expectations can help you avoid awkwardness in your interactions with Americans.
Being On Time
Americans are much more time-conscious (aware of time) than people from most other cultures. If someone invites you for 6 p.m., he or she expects you to be there at that time or a few minutes after that time. This is true for any appointment or meeting, whether it is a business meeting or social event. One exception is a casual party or “open house,” in which case guests may arrive at any time after the event starts.
If you must be late, call the individual to let him or her know what time you expect to arrive.
Men generally shake hands upon meeting; women rarely do. When a man meets a woman, he usually waits for her to reach out her hand first if she desires to shake hands.
Waiting In Line
In the United States, waiting in line tends to follow the democratic principles this country was founded on. Theoretically, every person, regardless of status or station, has the same right to the services offered at any establishment. People from other countries and cultures sometimes comment about how orderly lines in the U.S. progress. Whether waiting for your turn to order at a fast food restaurant, taking turns at a stop sign, waiting to purchase tickets or waiting to get into an establishment, Americans generally follow the “first-come-first-serve” rule.
It should not come as a surprise if you decide to eat at a popular restaurant one evening and find that the hostess estimates the wait for a table at 30-45 minutes. According to accepted procedure, you submit your name and wait for a summons to the table prepared for you within that time frame.
While considered a fast-paced and immediate-gratification culture, the sheer number of people in the U.S. guarantees that sometimes you will have to wait. Relax and make the most of the time by reading, studying or striking up a conversation with someone near you—the time will pass more quickly.
Being A Gentleman
- When walking along a city street with a woman, walk to her left, closest to the street. If in an unsafe neighborhood, walk on the building side.
- When entering an elevator in the company of a woman, go first to clear the way. When exiting, the person closest to the door goes first, regardless of gender and holds the door open for others to exit.
- Go in front of the woman when walking down stairs.
- If sharing an umbrella, the taller of the two should hold it.
- Take off ANY hat indoors.
- In a theater, allow a woman to walk ahead of you into a row.
- In a restaurant, you lead the way if you are the host. IF the woman is the host, she leads the way.
- If a female companion is carrying a heavy package and your hands are free, offer to carry it.
- Walk around to the passenger side to open the car door for your female companion. After parking the car, walk around and open the door for a female companion.
- When using public transportation, defer to older persons, male or female. If is not necessary to give up your seat to an able-bodied woman, but it is almost always appreciated.
- Rise when a woman enters or leaves a room, or when she gets up and returns to the table.
- If you are a woman’s dinner guest, relax and be her guest. Her invitation implies that she will pay the tab and she should be allowed to do so without great controversy.
- Hang up a woman’s coat for her.
- Serve a woman first, before serving yourself.
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US Culture Guide For Exchange Students
Many students come to the United States expecting the United States to be like MTV.
The fast-paced lifestyle in this country may overwhelm your friend.
US Visa Information
If you are coming mostly as a tourist, but want to take a short course of study, you may be able to do so on a visitor visa.
Taking The TOEFL
According to some sources, over 6,000 institutions rely on TOEFL scores as part of their admissions process.
Choosing A School In the US
The United States has more than 3,000 colleges and universities and you may find yourself overwhelmed by all the options.
Preparing to Go Abroad
You eagerly search the Web for all sorts of information about the country you will live in.
What Does It Mean to Be an Exchange Student?
Being selected as an exchange student singles you out among your peers.
What You Should Expect from an Exchange Program
The number of exchange programs for secondary school students has grown dramatically in the past twenty years.
What You Need to Know about Culture
It includes the way you automatically react to stories, events, other people, or situations that you face.