An Adventure in American Culture & Values
Studying in the United States of America can be a wonderful learning experience. Both in and out of the classroom you will learn and practice the English language. You will also learn much about American life and its sometimes confusing culture.
As you prepare to come to the U.S., it may help to know something about the values that shape U.S. Americans’ attitudes and behaviors. As you consider these values it is important to remember that:
- U.S. society is made up of a diversity of ethnic groups and cultures that have helped shape American values;
- Some individuals and groups have a set of respected values that are quite different from those of mainstream America;
- People’s attitudes and behavior are based on their values.
Some Major U.S. American Values
Individuality: U.S. Americans are encouraged at an early age to be independent and to develop their own goals in life. They are encouraged to not depend (too much) on others including their friends, teachers and parents. They are rewarded when they try harder to reach their goals.
Privacy: U.S. Americans like their privacy and enjoy spending time alone. Foreign visitors will find U.S. American homes and offices open, but what is inside the American mind is considered to be private. To ask the question “What is on your mind?” may be considered by some to be intrusive.
Equality: U.S. Americans uphold the ideal that everyone “is created equal” and has the same rights. This includes women as well as men of all ethnic and cultural groups living in the U.S. There are even laws that protect this “right to equality” in its various forms.
The general lack of deference to people in authority is one example of equality. Titles, such as “sir” and “madam” are seldom used. Managers, directors, presidents and even university instructors are often addressed by their first or given name.
Time: U.S. Americans take pride in making the best use of their time. In the business world, “time is money”. Being “on time” for class, an appointment, or for dinner with your host family is important. U.S. Americans apologize if they are late. Some instructors give demerits to students who are late to class, and students at most universities have institutional permission to leave the classroom if their instructor is 10 or 15 minutes late.
Informality: The U.S. American lifestyle is generally casual. You will see students going to class in shorts and t-shirts. Male instructors seldom wear a tie and some may even wear blue jeans. Female instructors often wear slacks along with comfortable walking shoes.
Greetings and farewells are usually short, informal and friendly. Students may greet each other with “hi”, “how are you”? and “what’s up”? The farewell can be as brief as: “See you”, “take it easy”, or, “come by some time” (although they generally don’t really mean it). Friendships are also casual, as Americans seem to easily develop and end friendships.
Achievement & Hard Work/Play: The foreign visitor is often impressed at how achievement oriented Americans are and how hard they both work and play. A competitive spirit is often the motivating factor to work harder. Americans often compete with themselves as well as others. They feel good when they “beat their own record” in an athletic event or other types of competition. Americans seem to always be “on the go”, because sitting quietly doing nothing seems like a waste of time.
Direct & Assertive: U.S. Americans try to work out their differences face-to-face and without a mediator. They are encouraged to speak up and give their opinions. Students are often invited to challenge or disagree with certain points in the lecture. This manner of direct speaking is often interpreted by foreign visitors as rude.
Looking to the Future and to Change: Children are often asked what they want to be “when they grow up”; college students are asked what they will do when they graduate; and professors plan what they will do when they retire.
Change is often equated with progress and holding on to traditions seems to imply old and outdated ways. Even though Americans are recycling more than before many purchased products are designed to have a short life and then be thrown away.
Adjustment & Culture “Shock”
You may notice that these American values are, in some instances, quite different from your own. When you come to the U.S. the reality of these differences will be more evident. You will likely experience culture “shock” as you learn to adjust to the new culture and way of living. This is very normal and requires both time and patience.
Good Wishes for a New Cultural Experience
Your decision to study in the United States will provide you with endless opportunities to learn about a new culture and about yourself as well. You will also have a chance to “educate” U.S. Americans about your own country and cultural values.
Article by Marian Beane, Director, International Student/Scholar Office, UNC Charlotte.