Americans are often very informal in both their dress and their interactions with others. Students’ dress will often consist of a T-shirt, jeans or shorts, and tennis shoes. Books are most often carried in a backpack rather than a briefcase. You will also notice that this informality is also expressed in some class behavior. It is not unusual to see students enter class late, eat and drink in class, put feet up on empty chairs, or even talk quietly during a lecture. In general, these actions are not considered overly rude unless they are continuously distracting; then an apology is necessary.
People frequently call each other by their first names, and are often introduced only by first names when they meet, which should not be seen as a lack of respect. It’s more an indication of mutual respect, equality, and a willingness to engage in open dialogue and intellectual exchange. You may call persons your own age and your colleagues by their first names. It is best, however, to address professors and older persons with their title (Dr., Professor, Mr., Mrs., or Ms.) unless they ask you to do otherwise.
Despite their informality in other aspects of life, Americans are very concerned about time. For them, time is valuable and must be used carefully and productively. Punctuality is very important and it is considered rude to be late. Classes, meetings, and appointments generally start within a few minutes of their set time. If you know you are going to be late for an appointment you should call prior to the appointment time and give an explanation.
Americans place a high value on hard work; they judge people by how hard they work and how task oriented they are.
A very high value is placed on a person’s accomplishments and productivity. Individuals evaluate themselves and are evaluated by others in terms of their achievements and accomplishments.
Americans view themselves primarily as individuals with the freedom and responsibility to manage their own lives, make their own decisions, and accomplish their own goals. In this culture, people are not comfortable being obligated to or dependent on others.
Unlike many other cultures, Americans tend to stand about two or three feet apart when talking to one another and often feel crowded when closer. If a person feels uncomfortable he or she may move away to create more distance. This should not be seen as a sign of rudeness as they are just re-establishing their personal space. Americans also like to make eye contact when talking to each other.
Directness and Assertiveness
Americans generally are frank, open, and direct in their dealings with other people. They often speak directly and openly to others about things they dislike. If they do not speak openly about what is on their minds, they will often convey their reactions in nonverbal ways (without words, but through facial expressions, body positions, and gestures). Americans are not taught, as people in many Asian countries are, that they should guard their emotional responses. Their words, the tone of their voice, or their facial expressions will usually reveal when they are feeling – angry, unhappy, confused, or happy and content.
When meeting someone for the first time, Americans usually shake hands and say “Hi,” “Pleased to meet you” or “How do you do?” When greeting someone you are already acquainted with, you may smile or wave. A common greeting is “How are you?” The usual response to this question is “I’m fine, thanks.” The person asking generally does not expect a detailed response. Similarly, phrases such as
“See you later” are just ways of saying goodbye and do not imply an invitation. In the Southern US, it is very common to smile and say “hello” to someone in passing, even if you do not know the person.
While you are here, we hope that you will meet and spend time with Americans and their families. These suggestions may help you feel more comfortable when you are invited out.
Things to Note:
- The invitation is usually for you only unless your hosts specifically invite your family or friends. Bringing guests of your own without asking your host’s permission is considered impolite.
- The written invitation will include the date, time, place, and description of the occasion. You should always answer a written invitation, especially if it says R.S.V.P. (Please respond). You may respond by telephone or by letter: prompt notice is appreciated.
- Never accept an invitation unless you really plan to go. If you must decline an invitation, it is enough to say, “Thank you for the invitation, but I am unable to attend”. If an unavoidable problem makes it necessary for you to change plans, be certain to tell the host as soon as possible before the time when you are expected.
- Make sure you get directions to the place where the event will be held.
- You are not expected to bring a gift, but if you wish to show your appreciation, flowers or other small items are appropriate.
- If someone invites you to a dinner at their home, it is acceptable to inform them if you cannot eat certain foods. Your host will appreciate knowing this in advance, as many people in the US have special diets that they must follow. Your host will be very embarrassed if foods are prepared which you cannot eat.
While Americans are very casual in their dress they are preoccupied with looking and smelling good, as well as making sure that items are “bacteria free”. They use many varieties of soap, deodorant, and perfumes. You will also notice that stores are filled with items to lend pleasant smells to the homes, clothes, etc., while also killing bacteria. For some visitors to the US, this huge variety of artificial smells used simultaneously may be overwhelming. In addition, US citizens might react negatively to those who do not follow these same practices or who do not bathe regularly, use deodorants and/or mouthwashes, or regularly wash their clothing. Also recognize that not all Americans follow the practices described above, although the majorities do.
In the United States one’s way of dressing is expected to suit the circumstance:
- As students, dressing casually (jeans, shorts, shirt, t-shirt) is acceptable.
- In the workplace or other professional settings, follow the norms of that particular place.
- Professional attire for men generally requires dress slacks, shirt and tie, or a suit. For women it may require a suit (with slacks or skirt), dress, or skirt and blouse.
- Be observant of what others are wearing or ask a supervisor before wearing casual clothes.
- Also note that because people are dressed casually doesn’t mean it’s an informal environment or that supervisors or professors are to be treated as equals.
Dealing with Organizations
We have all experienced frustration in dealing with organizations. This frustration is often worse in a foreign country. When it is combined with common misperceptions that many international students have about the roles and status of office personnel in their host country, there can be serious misunderstandings. This can lead to anger, hurt feelings, and even greater difficulties in getting what
The following guidelines can be followed to get things done within organizations:
- First, be respectful of all employees. In the United States, secretaries and receptionists are important people. They often have power to make decisions, and they often have the information you need.
- Second, remember that in the United States, rules really are followed, and procedures are not often negotiable.
• Arguing or demanding to see someone “in charge” will not lead to success.
• It is more effective to explain exactly what you need and what kind of problem you have been having, and ask, “what do I do now?” or “Is there someone who could help me?”
• Even though employees usually can’t “bend the rules”; if you are calm and professional, they are more likely to put a little extra energy into helping you solve a problem.
- Third, if you follow procedures and instructions carefully, a lot of time and energy can be saved.
• In the US, many things are done over the phone or through the mail, making a personal visit unnecessary.
• Take the names and phone numbers of people you talk to, in case some delay or complication does arise and you need further help.