US Culture

International students have many questions about culture in the USA. It is good to ask questions; don’t be shy to ask!

Click the tabs below to read topics about US culture.

A handshake is a traditional and respectful greeting when meeting someone new. Sometimes friends will greet each other with a hug. Remember Americans’ preference of personal space- the area around a person where he/she feels comfortable. If you are just meeting a person, or do not know them well, the standard measure of distance to stand is about 4 to 8 feet (1.2 m – 2.4 m) apart. With a friend the distance can be closer. This space implies a closer personal relationship. Although Americans frequently address each other by first names rather than family names, at first meeting it is best to use a person’s title (Doctor, Professor, Mister, Miss, etc.) unless invited to do otherwise.

Spoken English may sound very fast to you. If you have trouble understanding a person, ask him/her to slow down or repeat what he/she said. There are a number of spoken dialects in the United States. Americans, particularly students, use a great deal of “slang,” which is trendy, culturally oriented, or informal way of speech. Learning some slang will help you understand American culture better, and bond with our friends, roommates, and classmates.

Being open and direct in expressing your desires, preferences, and feelings, or in discussing issues, events, and most ideas is considered proper in the United States. However, most Americans are generally hesitant to discuss religion, political beliefs, age, weight, or salary.

Americans are particularly sensitive about their physical appearance. It is VERY rude to tell a person that he/she is overweight or fat.

Americans put great emphasis on being “on time.” It is important to be on time to classes, social events, public events, and appointments. If you must miss an appointment or if you will be late, it is polite to notify the person you were supposed to meet to cancel or delay the meeting. In American culture, it is considered rude to interrupt someone when they are doing something. It is better to let an American know you have arrived and then politely wait until he/she has finished what he/she is doing.

Americans may have a few very close friends, but they also have many less intense social relationships with people. Americans tend to have many “friends” – people with whom they have work, class, social, or romantic relationships.

Student dress is casual at Saint Mary’s. It is common to see students going to class in sweatpants or jeans and a T-shirt. However, you should wear whatever makes you feel most confident and comfortable; you should not change your dress to “fit in.” When giving a presentation in front of a class, it is common practice to wear business casual or formal clothing. Americans will often mask natural body odors with deodorants and perfumes; however excessive use of perfumes can be equally offensive to anyone who is allergic to them.

Americans place high value on achievement and success, and this leads them to compete with each other. You will encounter both friendly and not-so-friendly competition. Although competing is natural to many Americans, they also have a good sense of “teamwork” – cooperating with others toward a common goal.

Americans are generally very curious. American education encourages inquisitiveness and asking many questions. Try to be patient when an American asks you a question about your country, even if the question seems ridiculous. This is your chance to educate them about your culture. You will also learn a great deal about the United States by asking questions yourself.

People of different race, religious beliefs, and national origins have full, legal, equal rights. Saint Mary’s will not tolerate racial or religious insults or jokes. Please consult the Student Handbook.

Most Americans do not keep large amounts of cash with them or in their homes. Americans prefer to keep their money in the bank where it is much safer.

Don’t forget the tip! If you eat at a restaurant or get your hair cut, remember to tip the waiter or hairdresser, as tips are not included in the bill. The traditional amount to tip is 15% – 20% tip of the total cost.

Answers to these topics are excerpted and adapted from:

Social Relations in the United States, Margaret D. Pusch, University of Pittsburgh, the Asian Student Orientation Handbook, 1977-78.