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Understanding American Culture Tips for Acclimating to US Daily Life

By Arona Maskil
Below is a list of a few notable differences between Americans and people from other countries. Understanding these basic differences will enable you to better adapt to your new culture in the US.

Demeanor - Americans are much more assertive than most international visitors. They use words as tools to express their opinions and to accomplish goals. The United States is a rather individualistic society, with less social pressure to conform. As a result, you will need to become more assertive and to speak out on your own behalf. Take the initiative and volunteer information that will be of interest. In an interview, talk about your goals and accomplishments. An American idiom expresses this requirement succinctly: If you don’t toot your own horn, who will?


Accordingly, Americans begin a discussion with a focus on accomplishments and concrete facts, and later proceed to the abstract. You should begin any conversation or proposal with the most important information. Be direct, and reserve small talk for later.


Eye contact is also important. It is not a sign of disrespect, but instead an indication of openness, honesty and enthusiasm.


Personal Space - The average personal distance varies from culture to culture. Americans tend to require more personal space than in other cultures. If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are “in their face” and will try to back away. Try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may lead to discomfort. Touching is a bit too intimate for casual acquaintances. Don’t put your arm around their shoulder, touch their face, or hold their hand. Shaking hands when you initially meet or part is acceptable, but this is only momentary.


Getting along with Americans
Friendships, Relationships, Sexual Harassment

Friendships between Americans tend to be shorter and less intense than those between people from many other cultures, because Americans are taught to be self-reliant and live in a very mobile society. Friendships are “compartmentalized” with “friends at work,” or "friends at school.”  Americans often seem very friendly, even when you first meet them. This friendliness does not always mean that the person is looking for a deeper relationship. Many Americans are pleasant and professional, but indirect and hide their true emotions/feelings. Being polite is important in this culture, and sometimes they may keep being nice to you even if they do not wish to pursue a deeper friendship.


Approaching another person with a positive attitude will get you further than aggressiveness, which is usually not tolerated. It is best at times to be smart and not right, even if you are sure that the other person is wrong. Keep your smile up even when you are upset, otherwise you will be perceived as being combative. Pleasant but direct words at the right time and place can save misunderstandings and improve relations. Remember that people do not say what they feel because they do not want to hurt you, or because they may try to alleviate a stressful situation.


Relationships are usually formed when a foreign student takes initiative in meeting U.S. students either by participating in social or educational programs, picnics, parties, or athletic activities or by joining organizations that are based on common interests, (chess, sailing, folk dancing) and by volunteering to help in organizations that rely on volunteer assistance.


The following are some guidelines to practical situations.

Shaking hands:  Shaking hands is considered polite when you first meet someone.  In informal situations, such as a campus party, peers may simply say hello and nod or wave.  A handshake tends to be more formal.   In general Americans avoid physical contact with strangers.  A pat on the back or a hand on someone’s shoulder is usually reserved for close friends.


Names and Titles: American names generally have three parts: first name, middle name or initial and last name. In most cases the first name appears first, then the middle initial and then the last name.

On many forms and applications, though, the last name is listed first, followed by a comma and then the first and middle initial.


First names are usually used with people of your own age and status. If the other person is clearly older than you, you should use Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms., and the last name.


If the other person has a title such as “Ambassador” or “Dean” use that title and the last name.

Any faculty member can be addressed as “Professor,” whether he or she holds the rank of assistant professor, associate professor, or full professor. You can ask your instructors how they prefer to be addressed.


Americans do not use a title followed by a first name. For example you would not address Elizabeth Taylor as Ms. Elizabeth but as Ms. Taylor.


Using nicknames is fairly common among Americans. If your name is long and difficult to pronounce, your peers might give you a nickname that could be a shorter version of your own name. Being called by a nickname is not usually considered an insult.


Gift Giving: If you are invited to a wedding, baby shower, bar mitzvah, or other celebration, it is expected that you will bring a gift. If you plan on giving cash, the amount depends on the closeness of your relationship to the host.


For a wedding, the bride will have “registered” at one or two local department stores, indicating the items and styling she prefers. You can buy the couple a gift that isn’t listed, but most people buy something listed on the registry. If you buy an item listed on the registry, be sure to tell the store that you are doing this, so that the couple doesn’t receive duplicate gifts. For a baby shower, bring a gift appropriate for a newborn baby. For a bar mitzvah gifts tend to be more formal in nature.


If you wish to give a gift when you leave to return to your home country, the best gift is something that is unique to your country. Possibilities include a book about your country, an inexpensive handicraft or piece of art, or something else that reflects your culture.


If you owe a debt of deep gratitude to an American host family, a common way of repaying it is to take the family to a form of entertainment, such as baseball, basketball, or hockey game, the ballet, or to a good restaurant.


Dining: Most Americans eat three meals during the day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast begins between 7:00 am and 8:00 am, lunch between noon to 1:30 pm, and dinner between 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm. On Sundays “brunch” is a combination of breakfast and lunch, typically beginning at 11:00 am. Breakfast and lunch tend to be light meals, with only one course. Dinner is the main meal.


Tipping -The words “tip” and “gratuity” are used interchangeably, with “gratuity” having a slightly more formal connotation. Restaurants do not include a service charge in the bill, so you should tip the waiter 15% of the total bill. If service was slow or particularly bad, some Americans will tip only 10%. Likewise, if service was particularly good, it is appropriate to tip 20%.


Taxi drivers expect to get a tip equal to 15% of the total fare. If the driver was especially helpful or got you to your destination more quickly than you expected, give a 20% tip.


Hotel bellhops expect a $1 tip for helping you with your bags. If you order room service, the gratuity is included in the bill. Coat checkroom attendants expect $1 per coat. Hairdressers and barbers expect a tip of 15% of the bill. Valet parking attendants expect a $1 tip.


Business Clothing -Proper business attire is extremely important in the US. If you dress inappropriately for an interview, for example, your chances of getting the position will be significantly reduced. Men should have at least one suit, consisting of a formal jacket and conservative tie with a white button-down shirt. Dark suit colors, such as navy blue, black, or dark gray, are the best. Women’s clothing is more difficult to describe. The goal is to achieve a conservative and professional look. Straight lines and dark colors are preferred.


Punctuality is an important trait to acquire. If you arrive late to an appointment, it will reflect badly on you. Try to arrive on time, or even a little early. If you know that you will be arriving late, you should telephone ahead of time to let them know of the delay.


Sexual Harassment - This is a very serious topic on campus and in the workplace. Sexual Harassment consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other physical or verbal behavior of a sexual nature. If you feel that you are being sexually harassed it is important that you tell someone.




Editorial provided by Arona Maskil, Director, EdcuationUSA center in Tel Aviv, Israel.