American Culture & Social Life
Here you will find a brief guide to American culture and customs. Because the United States is so varied in its geography, ethnic backgrounds, and traditions, it is not possible to comment on every aspect of the culture or to say there is one acceptable or prominent set of social rules.
It is important to note that some people you meet will be more informed and accepting of cultural differences than others. Many people will be curious about your home culture and will ask numerous questions about the language, society, history, religion, and traditions of your country.
Due to the friendly nature of most Americans, they are quick to use first names. Although this may make those who are accustomed to a more formal social environment somewhat uncomfortable, it is the norm for American culture. Formal titles (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Fr., Sr., Dr., etc.) are used together with the person's family name and should be used if you are speaking with the elderly or people in authority. They may later ask you to use their first name.
Punctuality is highly valued in the U.S. and is considered a sign of respect toward the person whom you are to meet. Punctuality for private parties and casual events is more flexible; however, always inform the host of a dinner or formal occasion if you will be late or must cancel. Students are expected to be on time for class and appointments with instructors. Your grade may be affected if you are late multiple times.
Many instructors and administrators welcome personal interactions with individual students. Students are encouraged to ask questions and express their opinions in the classroom. Observe the American students' actions to identify what is acceptable behavior.
Politeness and patience will serve you well in the United States. This includes remembering to say "please" and "thank you". This common form of respect is not reserved for those in a position of authority, but for each and every person that you meet in a store, on the street, in class, or in an office. If you need a favor or have a simple request, saying "please" will be much more effective than if you are simply demanding. Provided that you are kind, the person with whom you are speaking will likely return your kindness.
Americans prefer to maintain about 18 inches (46cm) of space between themselves and the person with whom they are speaking. This personal space is very important and, if limited, the individual may become uncomfortable.
Typically, Americans do not hug or kiss an acquaintance upon greeting, but rather shake hands or nod their heads. They also do not touch while speaking, although a brief touch on the arm or shoulder might indicate sympathy or concern to someone they know well. Once a friendship has developed, women may greet each other with a hug or embrace.
Privacy and personal possessions are important to Americans. People work hard to have a car, house, clothes, and other belongings. Be sure to ask how someone feels about sharing his or her space and belongings.
Formal dress is seldom worn on university campuses. Students typically wear jeans, shorts, skirts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and sweaters. For class presentations, job interviews, and other occasions, students may be asked to dress more formally. When attending a special event, you should ask the host of the event about appropriate attire.
The formality of meals in the U.S. varies considerably. To be safe, follow the lead of the host and other American guests. Here are some general etiquette guidelines:
- It is not polite to pick up the plate from which you are eating.
- Food is generally eaten in small bites.
- Do not slurp soup or beverages.
- It is polite to converse during a meal unless you are attending a lecture or a toast is being made.
- Always chew with your mouth closed.
- Wait until everybody is seated at the table before you start eating.
Language The English Language can be difficult to learn. Speaking, reading, writing, and using grammar in another language is challenging.
One area of the English language that can be especially difficult for non-native speakers is the use of idioms. Idioms are a group of words that have a figurative meaning that is separate from the literal meaning. For example, take the phrase, "It is raining cats and dogs." When somebody says this they do not mean cats and dogs are falling from the sky! What they are actually saying is, "It is raining heavily."
For a list of commonly used idioms in the English language click here!
Degrees of Friendship
Americans are generally very friendly people. They will often say, "Hi, how are you?" or "How is it going?" but do not wait for you to respond. These are friendly expressions, which are not always a question but rather another version of "hello". If an American seems friendly, it does not necessarily mean than he/she has developed a friendship (a close relationship) with you. As is probably true in your culture, friendships are developed over a period of time. Although Americans may refer to classmates as "friends," often they are acquaintances rather than true friends. Finding true friends will take time, however, it is well worth the effort.
Dating and Sexual Relationships
A "date" is simply an agreement to meet at a certain time and place and to spend some time together. You should not interpret or expect a date to be anything more. It is common that someone you have met only briefly will ask you on a date. Generally, the male will pay for the date; however, many (especially students) "go Dutch," where each pays for him or herself.
In the U.S., dating is more casual and informal than in other cultures. Relationships between men and women of college age range from friendship to a strong emotional and physical relationship. As your friendships develop beyond acquaintance, you may not always understand what your partner expects of you. Be honest regarding your concerns and feelings as that can avoid misunderstandings and even greater discomfort. If your date appears interested in a sexual relationship and you are not, it is very important that you say "no" clearly. And if someone is saying "no" to you, listen. Unwanted sexual attention is a very serious matter in the U.S.; do not mistake an American's friendliness for promiscuity.
Depending on where you come from, attitudes about homosexuality may seem very permissive or rather restrictive. While gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people are generally much more able to live openly in the United States than in previous generations, you may still find people who do not accept different sexual orientations. As with most large American cities, there is a vibrant GLBT community in St. Louis.
If you are in doubt about correct behavior, talk with American friends, your Resident Advisor, an international student advisor, or someone you trust.
Practicing Your Religion
The United States is a multicultural society founded on tolerance and mutual respect; you should not hesitate to seek out opportunities to practice your religious beliefs. Organized religious groups of many denominations can be found at SLU, and others exist in the surrounding community.
Although America has a higher rate of church attendance than most other western societies, many Americans may be uncomfortable discussing religion. Others will want to share their religious views with you. Most people are sincere and straightforward, but some may try to take advantage of you or convert you to their religious beliefs by offering you their friendship. If you begin to feel uncomfortable in such a situation, politely but firmly explain that you are not interested.
Alcohol and Smoking
In the United States, it is illegal for any person under the age of 21 to purchase, attempt to purchase, or be in possession of alcohol or other intoxicating substances. Therefore, no alcoholic beverage may be served or sold to anyone under 21 years of age. Students must present two forms of valid photo identification in order to purchase alcohol. Students found presenting false identification or taking other steps to acquire alcohol as a minor will be subject to disciplinary sanction.
Smoking is prohibited within all non-residential, University-owned and -leased buildings and on all university grounds. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, restrooms, lunch/break rooms, private offices, workstations, hallways, waiting rooms, conference rooms, and vestibules.
Portions taken from "International Student and Scholar Services Handbook" from Office of International Student and Scholar Services, University of Missouri-St. Louis.