Adjusting to the U.S.

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Cultural Adjustment

Introduction to culture shock:

Culture shock is a physical and psychological reaction to cultural differences. The shock comes from changes to your everyday routine when encountering these differences. You may feel that everything is too difficult (communicating, making friends, getting around, etc.). You should understand that almost everyone who moves to another country will experience some degree of culture shock. For some, it may be very mild and for others, very severe. It is a natural process, and nothing to be ashamed of. The below sections indicate the stages of culture shock that you may experience, tips for recognizing the symptoms, and strategies for addressing culture shock.

Understanding the cultural adjustment curve:
Pre-departure anxiety: This phase describes the preparatory period before traveling. It is what you go through in your home country before you leave for the US You will probably experience a gradual increase in your emotional excitement level. This phase ends as you leave home.
“The Honeymoon”: Just like with many new relationships, the first reaction to a new culture is often euphoric. You will experience a lot of changes in emotions. Americans may have different cultural patterns from what you are used to. The differences in scenery, food, language, or dialect are exhilarating!
Initial Culture Shock: This is where the excitement of differences can often quickly turn to frustration with differences. For many, the shock can come at the first meal with the lack of familiar foods. For others, it comes at the realization that speaking a second language all day is exhausting.
Also, it’s frustrating to be able to communicate at the level of a seven-year-old. For others, the initial shock is from many things, including the lack of familiar faces and cultural cues.
Surface Adjustment: This occurs once you are settled into a new routine. Maybe you have successfully registered and made it to your classes. Maybe your host family situation is becoming more comfortable. Perhaps you have met some people from the host country that seem like they will become good friends.
Deep culture Shock: Here, the deeper differences between cultures are experienced and the novelty of the differences is gone. There may be unresolved conflicts of cultural differences in the classroom, with the host family, or with friends.

Physical Symptoms of Culture Shock:

  • Fear of physical contact with the host national
  • Health and safety are over-stressed
  • Absent-minded, far away stare
  • Food from home is craved
  • Use of alcohol/drugs
  • Work declines in quality
  • Unsuccessful performance of basic daily tasks
  • Fatigue

Psychological Symptoms of Culture Shock:

  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Frustration and disorientation
  • Loneliness and sense of isolation
  • Rejection of others from host country
  • Hostility toward host country
  • Excessive fear of being robbed, cheated, or injured
  • Misinterpretation of other’s gestures and body language
  • Self doubt
  • Aggressive attitude
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling of helplessness and despondence
  • Feeling of being rejected
Adaptation and Adjustment: Depending on the length of your stay, you may not have time to fully develop skills for adaptation and adjustment. Do not fear, because this experience will help you when you encounter future intercultural challenges. Adjusting and adapting to a new culture requires the ability to know yourself well and to know the ways of the culture and its expectations of you. Success is challenging, but rewarding!
Reentry Shock: This begins when you arrive home. Almost everyone is very excited and expects it to be easy. Unfortunately the changes you have gone through are so great that the expectations of easily adapting to life in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Accra, Nicosia, Bombay – anywhere your home might be – is very difficult and you will go through these phases again – generally very quickly and much more intensely. 

Is there anything I can do about culture shock?  
Yes, there are many strategies for coping with culture shock. Remember that many skilled travelers experience it. Knowing you are not alone can be very helpful when you are thousands of miles from your family and friends who know you are competent, fun, and an all around great person! If you really feel overwhelmed by stress, please contact an advisor in the International Students Services office or a counselor in the Student Counseling Services, so that they may help you through this difficult time.

Tips on getting over culture shock
Try to avoid isolation- talk to your friends, your host family or others about what you are feeling. Remember, these are normal reactions to stress and are nothing to be ashamed of. Get involved in student organizations.
  • Keep in touch with home. E-mail or call your family to keep them up-to-date on what is happening to you and what you are experiencing.
  • Keep your sense of humor. Try to laugh off situations that are confusing.
  • Try to withhold judgment on something until you understand it.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask people about situations you do not understand.
  • Take care of your health; exercise, and eat well.
  • Do things you enjoy doing: paint, play music, etc.
  • Seek support from family, friends, academic advisors, or the ISS office.

Cultural Differences in the Classroom

In many cultures, there is a great difference in status between students and professors. Students show their respect for their professors by listening quietly. They do not question what the professor says. In United States, it is quite acceptable for students to ask questions and to engage in discussions with the professor. This is not disrespectful. In fact, professors view participation in class discussions as a sign of interest in the subject matter. 

Things to note: 

  •  If you have a problem with the material presented in class, do not hesitate to see the professor during office hours and ask for help. Even if you do not have a problem, it is a good idea to drop in and talk to your professor. It gives both of you a chance to get to know each other. 
  •  Your professor will specify “due dates” for various assignments. These dates are quite firm, and you must hand in  your assignment by that date in order to get full credit. If you know that you cannot meet a deadline for an important reason, contact your professor ahead of time and try to work out an arrangement that is mutually agreeable. 
  • The most important thing you can do to improve your level of success in the classroom is to improve your English skills. Your English will not improve if the only people you talk to outside the classroom speak your native language. You have to speak to Americans whenever possible, watch television, listen to the radio, and read newspapers and magazines. Interacting with US culture will greatly enhance your ability to understand your colleagues and professors on the academic level.

The following values greatly affect the American academic environment: 

1. Active classroom participation is expected.
2. Time pressure is high, and time management is an important skill to develop.
3. Critical thinking must be developed.
4. Independent thinking is highly valued.
5. Presenting ideas articulately in class is expected.
6. Assignments (reading, writing, homework, tests) are numerous.
7. Competition is a normal part of most students’ thinking.
8. Achievement and hard work are highly valued: the finished product is most important.
9. Equality – all students should be treated equally.
10. Informality is normal.
11. Direct and straightforward communication is expected.
12. Friendship is usually based on doing things in common – sports, studying etc.
13. Combining theory and practice - the practical application of ideas is emphasized.
14. Problem – solving orientation – “If it’s broken, we ought to be able to fix it.”
15. The scientific method and the use of logical proof are emphasized academically. 

U.S. Cultural Values and Beliefs


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.

Work Orientation

Americans place a high value on hard work; they judge people by how hard they work and how task oriented they are. 

Achievement Orientation

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.  

Personal Space

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.

Social Invitations

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. 

Personal Hygiene

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.

Appropriate Dress 

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
you need.

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.


U.S. Social Customs


U.S. students are very informal. This can be seen through their clothing, which 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. People are often only introduced by first names when they meet. You will also notice that this informality is expressed in 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.


U.S. college students view their college years as a time for socializing as well as a time for studying. Therefore, they see many situations to make friends and often express a friendly manner, by smiling, saying “hello” or “howdy,” and chatting. Despite this outward friendliness, U.S. citizens do not make close friends quickly, and generally only have three or four intimate friends and many acquaintances. Do not feel unwelcome if a U.S. citizen is slow to show you deep friendship; this is something that may take more time than you are used to. You may also find that U.S. undergraduate students have more time to develop close friendships than U.S. graduate students.
Although we do not physically touch each other as much as people from other countries do, we are also a hug and a touch oriented society. Therefore, do not be surprised if new acquaintances touch your arm, shoulder, or back in greeting or saying good-bye. You will also see what you consider to be private expressions of affection carried out in public: for example, kissing, holding hands, or hugging.


A “date” occurs when a man and a woman make a special appointment to meet and share an activity together. All cultures have “acceptable” and “unacceptable” procedures concerning this type of male-female relationship. As you know, even within your own culture, these vary from region to region and, to some extent, are based on personal preference. This is also true in the U.S. Here, both men and women initiate dates, men more frequently than women. Even among U.S. citizens, there is controversy about who should pay the expenses of the date. Most U.S. citizens still assume it will be the male, even if the female initiates the date. Women should not assume this is true, however, and still be prepared to pay at least one half of the cost of the date. Most men will appreciate this gesture, even if they insist on paying the full bill themselves. It would be wise to clarify this ahead of time if you want to share the costs of the date equally. This is called “Dutch dating” or “going Dutch”.
When someone asks you out on a date in the U.S., it will almost always be a verbal invitation for which you will be expected to make an immediate response. Take special note of the time for the date because U.S. citizens who say they will meet you at 8:00 p.m. will expect you to meet them at 8:00 p.m., not 8:30 or 9:00. It is considered quite rude to be late for a pre-arranged date. As a first date with a U.S. citizen, it is not unusual for two people to meet for a soda just to talk, go to a movie, go out to dinner, go to a sporting event, go dancing, or many other similar activities. You should ask about how formally or informally you should dress for a date if you are not sure.
Although many U.S. TV shows and movies might suggest otherwise, it is not true that going out for an evening with a U.S. citizen will lead to a sexual encounter. Although this type of offer may be extended, you should always be guided in your answer by your own moral convictions and several important facts. First, the possibility of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, especially the fatal disease, AIDS, from a sexual encounter is a reality. If you do have intercourse, be sure that the male partner wears a condom, but be aware that this does not offer full protection from contracting the non-curable AIDS virus. Second, be aware of the age of your sexual partner, having intercourse with someone under the age of 18, even with that individual’s consent, can later be tried in court as statutory rape.


It is not unusual for professors or other campus employees and families in the community to invite international students to participate in social activities and family gatherings. Never feel obligated to accept this type of invitation if it makes you feel uncomfortable or if you are unable to do so because of schedule conflicts. It is considered very rude in the U.S. to accept an invitation and then not go to the event. U.S. citizens will expect you to tell them if you cannot attend and will appreciate knowing this. If you accept an invitation and later discover that you cannot attend, always call your host and let them know what has happened. Remember to arrive for the activity at the time stated in the invitation, not earlier and not more than about 15 minutes later.
If someone invites you to a dinner at their home, always feel comfortable in telling them about special dietary restrictions if you cannot eat certain foods. Your host will appreciate knowing this in advance, as many people in the U.S. have special diets that they must follow. Your host will be very embarrassed if foods are prepared which you cannot eat.


People in the U.S.A. often draw conclusions about others based on their physical appearance, clothing, and general hygiene. Remember, we are TV watchers. On television, you will notice an emphasis on commercials which sell cleaning and personal hygiene products. It is also true that U.S. consumers spend hundreds of dollars a year on clothing detergents, soaps, perfumes, shampoos, deodorants, powders, toothpastes, and mouthwashes advertised on TV. This has helped to make us conscious of our cleanliness and appearance to an almost fanatic degree; we sometimes bathe more than once a day and are very conscious of how we look and what message that sends to those around us. Because of this emphasis, U.S. citizens react negatively to those who do not bathe regularly, use deodorants and mouthwashes, or keep their clothing clean and tidy.