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American Culture 101

UC is a diverse campus, with students, faculty, and staff from many parts of the world. For people of any age and background, being in a new country combines a sense of excitement and anticipation with some fears, loneliness, and doubts. People often have many questions about how things are done in their new surroundings. The UC Counseling Center offers this information to address questions, concerns, and misunderstandings that affect many students and scholars new to life in the United States.

What Is Culture?

Culture is a pattern of beliefs, values, and behaviors shared by groups of people. Cultural differences among groups can be sources of interest, pleasure, and growth (learning about new and different languages, music, foods, and social customs). Differences, however, can also lead to confusion about how to behave in different situations and the meaning of others’ behaviors. Understanding some common cultural patterns in the United States can ease the transition and help students and scholars (and family members here with them) feel more at ease and a part of things. Understanding another culture does not mean, however, that a person must abandon his or her own ways.

Informal and Friendly

By and large, Americans are casual in their everyday encounters, even in more formal settings. Americans tend to dress casually, relate relatively equally across different positions of status, like: professor and student, adults and children, older adults and younger ones. Although social class certainly exists in the United States, based on money, education, and occupation, most people don’t act as if they are unequal. Race, however, is a sensitive subject in many parts of life in this country, and there is sometimes discrimination against people according to skin color—with darker skinned people receiving poorer treatment at times. Unfair treatment because of race, religion, ethnic background, and the like is illegal in many situations such as housing and employment.

People in the United States are friendly, even to people they do not know well. Americans may strike up a conversation with a stranger on the bus or in a class. They may even share rather personal information with acquaintances they do not know well or ask personal questions. The questions reflect curiosity and interest, but they do not have to be answered. It is acceptable to change the subject politely. 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 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 and feeling confident about the other person.

Communication among people 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. 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. Making many repeated efforts is seen negatively as badgering.

Etiquette

Even an informal culture has rules—unwritten expectations—about what is "normal" or proper. Use of time and space are very culturally determined habits. In the United States, people are expected to be on time for class, business appointments, and social activities. 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. This is especially important for jobs. The person waiting may want to reschedule rather than wait further.

Americans like to keep some physical space between people. When walking and talking, most people stay about 3 feet apart—about an arm’s length. If someone comes into that "comfort zone," the other party usually will move back. The desire for space is cultural; it does not indicate dislike.

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 bodily odors and use many products to eliminate them, particularly deodorants for underarms and mouthwash.

Independence

Independence is a strong American value. The culture is focused on the individual rather than the group, including the family. Self-reliance and self-expression are usually seen as more important than harmonious relationships. This focus on the individual, however, can lead to isolation that is seen as normal. Independent effort and achievement are valued. Students are expected to speak up and contribute to discussions, ask questions if they do not understand, and visit the professor or teaching assistant during office hours for extra help. They’re expected to take the initiative in learning. Unless clearly described as group projects by the professor, assignments are expected to be completed by the individual.

Counseling at UC

Getting used to a new culture can be challenging. The Counseling Center at the University of Cincinnati provides a wide range of assistance, including for cultural adjustment, to all students. No concern is too small or too large for us to help you. If we can’t be of service, we will help you find the right place for the information or assistance you need.