There are so many aspects to any one culture that it is difficult to describe what a specific culture is like in only a few words. Most people living in the US are either immigrants themselves or descendants of immigrants who have been arriving since the beginning of the 1600's. It is not surprising, therefore, that the US contains many different cultures and ethnic groups. How then can one talk about "Americans?" When people try to describe Americans, they are often referring to the behaviors, values, and ideas of the white middle class, since historically people in this group have held the most prominent positions and have exerted the greatest amount of influence on the predominant ideals of society. Not all Americans are white or middle class, nor do they necessarily agree with white middle class values, but these values are widely evident in the US. To help you understand better the behavior you may observe in the United States, some characteristics of American culture are described below. But bear in mind that not everyone in this culture will display these traits.
Americans usually think of nature as something that can be altered, conquered, and controlled for people's comfort and use, for example, to minimize the effects of fierce weather conditions. In contrast, many cultures accept nature as a force greater than people and as something to which people must adapt, not something they can or should change and control.
Most people in this country accept change as an inevitable part of life. Non-western people tend to look upon their traditions as a guide to the future. Americans are more inclined to make decisions based on the anticipated or desired immediate future. Achievement, positive change, and progress are all seen as the result of effort, hard work, and the control of nature and one's destiny or future.
Americans generally believe that people should strive to be autonomous and self-reliant. Most Americans see themselves as separate individuals, more than members of a nation, family or community. They dislike being dependent on other people or having others dependent on them. Some people from other countries view this attitude as "self-centeredness;" others may view it as a healthy freedom from constraints imposed by family, clan, or social class. Members of a traditional society are more likely to regard their role in life as unavoidable and seldom to be questioned or changed. Social and cultural factors may be viewed simply as barriers that need to be overcome in order for them to get ahead. A result of this attitude is the competitiveness of American life. Achievement is a dominant motivation in American culture.
Americans tend to want to win other people over to their way of thinking and are likely to judge other societies in terms of the US Americans often think that other countries should follow their example and adopt their way of doing things; they tend to think that their way is the best, despite the many serious social and environmental problems in the US. Other cultures are often evaluated as better or worse than this one, rather than simply different.
Americans place considerable value on punctuality. Because they tend to organize their activities by means of schedules, they may seem harried, always running from one thing to the next and unable to relax and enjoy themselves. Since Americans are so time conscious, the pace of life may seem very hectic. Being on time is regarded as very important, and in the US most people make an effort to arrive on time. Not all Americans are punctual, but almost everyone is conscious of time. Different types of activities have different conventions. One should arrive at the exact time specified for meals, and for appointments with professors, doctors, and other professionals. You can arrive any time between the hours specified for parties, receptions, and cocktail parties. Plan to arrive a few minutes before the specified time for public meetings, plays, concerts, movies, sports events, classes, church services, and weddings. If you are unable to keep an appointment, it is expected that you inform the other party that you will be late or unable to arrive.
Americans consider activity to be a good thing; thus, the expressions "keeping busy" and "keeping on the move." Rather than simply getting together with friends to spend time together, Americans frequently will plan a particular activity so that there is a focus to the time spent with friends. People in other cultures often comment on this American emphasis on "doing."
It is common for Americans to make a distinction between friends in their work or professional world and friends in their social world. Although Americans are friendly with their colleagues, they usually do not develop deeper relationships with them outside the office. Americans also tend to be rather formal with customers, clients, and professional colleagues. In a meeting for example, they may exchange brief greetings with each other but then want to concentrate immediately on the business at hand. Therefore they may have difficulties functioning in cultures where you must cultivate a social relationship with someone first before they can transact business. It can be frustrating for Americans to have to develop a social relationship over some period of time before talking about more serious matters.
Although there are many differences in social, economic, and educational levels, a notion of equality runs through social relationships in the United States. Because Americans emphasize individual merit rather than a fixed social position and believe that anyone with industry can achieve and succeed in life, they tend not to recognize certain social differences when interacting with each other. For example, Americans do not often show deference to people of greater wealth, greater age, or higher social status. Visitors from other cultures who hold high positions sometimes feel that Americans do not treat them with proper respect and deference. On the other hand, when visiting other countries Americans may find it confusing to be treated as someone of a distinctly higher or lower status because of the way people in that culture perceive them. In the US, there is generally an attempt to equalize the relationship between two people and to avoid calling attention to rank and authority. Americans call each other by their first names much sooner and more often than people in most other countries. In the U.S., people are seen as having equal rights, equal social obligations, and equal opportunities to develop their own potential, even though in reality things are not always so equal.
There exists in all societies people with rigid, preconceived notions about other people, ideas, or customs different from their own; the US is no exception. One of the most serious of these attitudes is racial prejudice, or racism. Many international students coming to the US are shocked to find racism in many places and situations. Even though they may have read about cases of racism in the US, they are still dismayed when they experience it for themselves. Some Americans recognize that racial prejudice is a problem in the US, but progress in changing attitudes is, unfortunately, slow.
There is a strong feminist movement in the US which aims to ensure that women have responsibilities and opportunities equal to those that men have. Although there are still many aspects of society in which women have not yet achieved this equality, women play a fairly public and visible role in this country and have more responsibility and authority than they do in many other countries. At the same time, some people may find that American society is more sexist than their own in certain respects. You may find that the dress and behavior of women here are quite different from those in your country. Some male international students have difficulty adjusting to circumstances in which a woman is in a position of authority because such situations do not occur in their own country. They need to be sensitive to this difference in women's roles. What some people consider the "proper" role for women is considered by others to reflect sexism or male chauvinism.
Because Americans feel that they can and should control their own environment, they also feel that any problem can be analyzed, discussed, and eventually solved. In some societies people can think of a national problem in terms of a hundred or more years. Americans do not think in such a long-range fashion. They want to solve problems as quickly as possible, and they have difficulty accepting the idea that some problems may not have solutions.
This approach to problems sometimes leads to confrontations that are shocking to people from other cultures. When faced with a problem, Americans like to get the facts, talk to the necessary people, and make some plan of action. If the problem is interpersonal-a problem between two people-an American is likely to talk directly to the other person about the issue, in an effort to reach an understanding. If the two people involved cannot solve the problem, they may go to a third person such as a counselor, adviser or mutual friend, who can act as an arbitrator. The idea is still to confront the situation directly and try to solve the interpersonal problem. This direct approach to people sometimes leads to difficulties for Americans when dealing with people who come from cultures where such directness is considered offensive or insulting.
Americans are generally very concerned with personal hygiene, and it is not unusual for them to take a bath every day, change their clothes every day, and wash their hair several times a week. Americans tend to find natural body odors unpleasant. In addition to frequent bathing, they use perfume, cologne, and deodorants on a regular basis. Occasionally a person may be shunned by Americans and not realize that it is because they find body odor offensive. Frequent bathing and the use of chemical deodorants, perfumes, and soaps may not be necessary for one's health, but they may have an effect on a person's social relationships in the US.
Different people have different ideas of who they would call a friend. In the US, "a friend" could mean anyone from a mere acquaintance to a life-long intimate, and the friend's company may depend on a particular activity. Americans have friendships that revolve around work, political activity, volunteer activities, special interests, etc., and different groups of friends may never meet one another. An American may have many friendships on a casual, occasional basis, but only a few deep, meaningful friendships that would last throughout life. People from other cultures sometimes see the large number of casual relationships that Americans have as their reluctance to become deeply involved with others. In some circumstances when a person in another culture would turn to a friend for help or support, an American may turn to a professional such as a counselor, because they feel they would be burdening friends with their problems.
When people visit the United States, they usually notice immediately the friendliness and openness of Americans and the extreme ease of social relationships. This casual friendliness should not be mistaken for deep or intimate friendships which are developed over a long period of time. Americans live in a mobile society and tend to move frequently; they therefore tend to be able to form friendships and give up friendships much more easily and less stressfully than people in many other cultures. Casual social life is especially evident in colleges and universities, because everyone is there for a relatively short period of time.
These easy or casual relations are sometimes troubling to international students. They have left their own friends and family at home and are learning to live in a new place. They naturally are looking for new friends, and they sometimes find it very difficult to develop close relationships with Americans, because they cannot seem to get beyond a very superficial acquaintance with them. Occasionally it may be easier to relate to other international students who may have the same problems in developing friendships with Americans. In American culture casual, often temporary friendships are easily developed, but it is much more difficult to develop close, deep relationships. By contrast, in many other cultures, there are fewer casual friendships and people are much less open and friendly toward strangers. But once people have become friends, it is relatively easier to develop closer relationships. Some people coming to the U.S. get frustrated and give up making American friends, choosing only to have friends among other international students here. Others have said that they have been able to become good friends with Americans but that it took repeated efforts and perseverance.
As you meet more Americans and start to become aware of the individual characteristics of different people, you will find that, just as for your own culture and country, there are exceptions to any generalization about the culture and the people here. Nonetheless, the characteristics described here are a starting place for you to begin to understand Americans and American culture.
As you read these questions, think about your own country and the life that you led there before you came to the United States. How would you respond to the following situations and questions?
In all these situations, you may well turn to those people near you whom you know, trust, like, and who provide you with companionship. These are people who are concerned about you. This group of people-family members, friends, teachers, other people you may know-are the people to whom you turn in times of need and to whom you can express your true emotions. These people, who form your support network, may also turn to you for support, help and companionship. Networks form slowly; they are an important part of our lives. We need these people around us, just as they need us around them.
When you leave your culture and enter a new one, as you have done in coming to the US, you leave your support network behind. It exists-the people are still there-but because of distance it is more difficult to turn to them for companionship, affection, help, and support when you need them. You can write, telephone, and perhaps even visit them, but they are not constantly near you and are not part of your daily life in this country.
When students first come to this country to study, they frequently feel somewhat lost and lonely because they have left their support network at home but do not yet have one here. At home, you may have had daily contact with people in your support network, such as family and friends. Sometimes you may want to ask someone's opinion about a matter; you may need some support when you are in a difficult situation, you may want to tell someone about something that is bothering you, or you may just want to chat. You need people here to whom you can turn for support and companionship, people with whom you can discuss your life, your problems, and your feelings. If you do not develop such ties in this country, you may find yourself very isolated and homesick.
How one develops a new support network is very much an individual matter. You may feel a natural rapport with other students from your country, and they will certainly be able to understand you and help you in some ways that others cannot. You will also have the opportunity to meet students from the United States and from around the world, and you may develop some good friendships in that way. If you join a student organization, or attend activities on campus, you may meet people who will become friends of yours and will become part of your support network. In the US many people are willing to go outside their own families and close friends when they develop a support network. For example, there might be a professor they respect who is willing to discuss various matters with them. Americans will sometimes consult a counselor to discuss personal problems, professional issues, or important decisions they must make. Other people may turn to their religious leader or to a chaplain on the university campus. Many Americans are willing to consult professionals such as these because they are trusted as "experts" in certain matters or objective observers.
Cornell University, like most universities in the US, has counselors available to talk confidentially with students about their concerns. International student advisers sometimes serve the same function; they are willing to talk with international students about anything of concern. Many international students who have chosen to consult these counselors have found the discussions to be helpful. At home, you had a circle of people around you-people with whom you shared your life and people whose life you shared. Now that you are in this country, you need to develop a new circle of people with whom you can share this sort of relationship. By developing close relationships like these, you will be able to share your experiences and feelings, and receive help and support from them. You, in turn, can give them help and support when they need it.
People are products of their cultures and environments. As you grew up, you learned values, attitudes, customs, one or more languages, and other aspects of the culture that surrounded you. The characteristics of that culture have shaped you as a person. Leaving your home and going to a different country and culture is a challenging, stimulating, and sometimes difficult process. You not only leave family and friends, but familiar foods, climate, customs, attitudes, and language as well. In a new environment, you must adjust to many new and different things all at the same time. Living abroad can be an exciting and satisfying experience, but it takes much effort, patience, and perseverance on your part.
Cultural adjustment is the process that people go through when they leave one culture and go to live in another. The cycle of emotions that people experience when going through cultural adjustment differs with each individual and therefore cannot be described precisely for each person. The chart below shows the adjustment cycle which many people have experienced in going to new countries; it may help you understand your reactions to living in the United States. Remember that this chart and the stage descriptions are a general outline, and while some people may experience the cycle as it is shown, others may find that one stage is more pronounced than another or that they do not seem to pass through all the stages.
STAGE 1. When you found out that you were coming to Ithaca and began preparing for your trip to the US, you were undoubtedly excited about living and studying in a new and different place. Perhaps you also felt some fear and anxiety since you did not know what to expect. At this point you probably had an overall good feeling about what was happening and a heightened interest in the experience.
STAGE 2. Soon after your arrival here, you will probably begin to find that many aspects of life in the U.S. are different from life in your own country and culture. You will find differences in the educational system, food, dress, language, accents, idioms, values, customs, climate, architecture, transportation, etc. Facing so many new things at the same time can be difficult, and people react to the situation in different ways. These reactions have sometimes been called "culture shock," which refers to the sudden realization that you have many new things to learn and new situations to adjust to.
Culture shock can be characterized by frustration at the difficulty in learning so many new things all at once, and disappointment that adjustments must be made. Sometimes people feel that they will never adjust to living here, that they do not like the things they see, and that perhaps it was a mistake to travel so far from family, friends, and familiar surroundings. This leads to a psychological low point, a negative feeling about what is happening.
As newcomers begin to make the first adjustments-registering for classes, beginning their studies, meeting a few other students, finding housing and settling in, learning how to get around the university-they may start to feel that they can get along after all and that maybe their frustrations at the beginning are now over. They feel better about being here, have fun with their new friends and classmates, and begin to enjoy their classes. In general they are experiencing another high point.