SUSI: Your Cross-Cultural Experience

Understanding Culture

“Culture.” One definition of culture is the values, attitudes, beliefs and ideas that a group of people hold in common. Culture is not only museums, traditional dress, or folk dances. Rather, these things are reflections of values of the people who built them or do them. They show something about the beliefs or ideas of the people of that country.

American Culture

**Keep in mind that America is a big, diverse country.  Everything that is stated below is a generalization about American culture.  Preferences and behaviors vary widely across regions, communities and personalities.**

You may have never met an American before, but you may already have a specific image in your mind of how an American looks or what an American likes and doesn’t like. You may know from movies how American men and women typically act. It is important to remember that U.S. life and culture as portrayed in the movies and on television usually does not resemble "real life." When you arrive in the U.S. you will see very quickly which of these generalizations are accurate and which are over-simplified stereotypes. Your experience in the U.S. will be much more rewarding if you keep an open mind and come ready to change your perception of “the typical American.”

Independence. Independence is a strong American value. The culture is focused on the individual rather than the group or family. As a result, Americans tend to appear to be less dependent on others and generally respect individuals who are autonomous and self-reliant. Americans see themselves primarily as separate individuals and only secondarily as representatives of a family, community or other larger group. Some actually dislike being dependent on other people, or having others dependent on them. People from other cultures may view this as selfishness. Others may view it as freedom from the constraints of ties to family, clan, or social class.

Independent effort and achievement are valued. In school and at home American students are expected to speak up and contribute to discussions and ask questions if they do not understand something. They are expected to take the initiative in learning.

Informality. By and large, Americans are casual in their everyday encounters, even in more formal settings. Americans tend to dress casually, especially in Seattle, and interact with one another relatively equally, even across different positions of status, like professor and student or adults and children. Even though Americans use less formal or ritual communication than that found in many other cultures, they are not oblivious to age differences or social standing. There are subtle differences in vocabulary and manner between the people involved. For example, an American is less likely to use slang or obscenities when speaking to a person who is older or whose social standing is higher.  There are also differences within the U.S., Seattle is a more casual city, whereas Washington D.C. is more formal.

Friendliness. Compared to many parts of the world, people in the United States tend to be friendly, including to people they do not know well. Americans may strike up a conversation with a stranger on the bus or in a class. People may say, “Let’s get together” without meaning anything specific. “How are you?” is often said as a greeting rather than as a question leading to conversation. Despite the tendency to strike up casual conversations, these conversations usually stick to simple topics such as the traffic or the weather; people tend to avoid talking about "sensitive" subjects such as politics, religion, or money with people they do not know well.

Despite a culture of friendliness, becoming a real friend takes time. Many Americans socialize with many people without being close to them. Socializing may be related to a shared interest—such as going to films or playing a sport together. Close relationships, with a stronger commitment and sharing of emotions, often develop over time from shared experiences and a growing sense of enjoying each other’s company.

Communication. Communication among Americans is generally direct. People tend to say what they think. Direct eye contact is the norm, and it is taken as a sign of sincerity. Americans are expected to say what they want and feel comfortable expressing their opinions and desires to their hosts, teachers and friends.

Being assertive and standing up for one’s beliefs is also valued. However, the United States is not a culture of negotiating. When people say “no” they mean it and do not expect repeated requests or bargaining.

Americans who do not know each other well often tend to use restrained gestures and avoid touching each other. Men and women shake hands with each other when they are first introduced, but rarely shake after that. When walking and talking, most people stay about 30 inches (75 cm) apart—about an arm’s length. An American who feels his or her personal space has been invaded will back up or pull his or her head away. The desire for space is cultural; it does not indicate dislike. Of course the U.S. has many ethnic minorities for whom these generalizations are not necessarily the norm.

Time. Americans place considerable value on punctuality. In the United States, people are expected to be on time for class, meetings and appointments. In social situations, there is more flexibility. Being even 5 minutes late usually requires a quick apology. Being more than 15 or 20 minutes late requires a phone call to inform the person who is waiting. Arriving early is rarely a problem.

People in the United States are very aware of cleanliness, germs, odors, and dirt. Most Americans take a shower or bath and wash their hair everyday. They change clothes everyday and wash clothes after 2 or 3 wearings. Americans are highly conscious of body odors and use many products to eliminate them, particularly deodorants for underarms and mouthwash.

Your Own Culture

When you travel you will bring your own cultural perspectives, values and behaviors with you.  The more you acknowledge and understand what aspects of your own personality, behaviors, values and judgments are personal and which are cultural the better prepared you will be to recognize and understand the cultural differences that you will encounter in the United States.

You have some opinions and ideas that are uniquely your own. But many of your attitudes, values, and beliefs are generally the same as those of your family, your community, and your fellow citizens. You learned to think the way you do because you were taught to do so. So were all other people in your community. But not all the people in the world think the same way. Because your friends and neighbors may have the same views and opinions that you do, you may not realize that other people may have different ideas about fundamental values or perceptions.

Acceptance. It is important to appreciate and accept the fact that everyone has his or her own way of looking at the world. It is also important to be able to notice differences without saying one view is right and one is wrong, and to not to let your own attitudes and values prevent you from enjoying the different life around you in the U.S. You will be the person moving into a new environment. Adjusting to it is necessary to have a successful experience.

Keep in mind as well that while many people in the U.S. are very globally aware, you will likely encounter many others who may never have had an opportunity to meet someone from your part of the world. They may ask unexpected questions about where you are from. Be patient with people's curiosity and remember that this is an important opportunity to educate people about your country and culture.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is the term that has been given to the disorientation that any individual can experience when living, even for a brief time, in a foreign place. Living among people who hold different values, communicate in different ways, or relate to others in ways that are unfamiliar is both exciting and challenging.  Learning to live and function in a different culture is a process that you will experience and adjust to individually.

Many aspects of American society will be different from what you are used to and what you expect. There will be differences in language, climate, food, religion, dress, family life, social values and way of living. Some things you may like immediately, other things you may find unpleasant. It is unlikely that you will describe what you are feeling as "culture shock." It is possible that you will experience feelings of loneliness, anxiety, confusion, anger or sadness. This is a natural reaction to the new surroundings and radical change in lifestyle. These feelings will come and go, and some days will be better than others.

Culture shock happens to everyone. When you experience culture shock, do not think that you have failed or that you cannot be a good program participant. However, you do need to talk about it or write down how you feel. FIUTS staff know about culture shock and may be able to help you understand your feelings.

How to deal with culture shock

Remind yourself that everyone gets culture shock in some way.

Try to decide what particular things are bothering you, no matter how small.

Analyze the differences between your values and ideas and those of the people with whom you are living in the United States. Which ones are in conflict?

Find the humor in some of the difficulties. Being able to laugh at some of your mistakes is healthy.

Take good care of yourself; get lots of sleep, eat healthy food and try to do some exercise or sport each day, even if it is just taking a walk.

Recognize that you are adjusting to new things every day and be patient with yourself.

Allow yourself to do something comfortable and familiar to help yourself feel better.

Remember that if you are struggling, or if there is something about the local culture that you don't understand, you can always talk to the FIUTS staff! We have lived and worked all over the world and are very familiar with the experience of transitioning to life in a new culture. We are always happy to listen to your concerns and answer your questions.