Getting Along With Americans

Adjusting to a New Culture

When people move to a different setting, they must make certain adjustments or adaptations to their usual behavior and attitudes. It is instructive to observe one's reactions to being in a new culture, and to compare these reactions with those of other people from different countries. The observations can result in increased self-understanding and help one to gain insights into the various factors that have made the person what he is. If you are able to keep the perspective of someone who is observing himself or herself while undergoing an unusual experience, you will be able to prevent yourself from becoming extremely anxious or depressed, and can learn more from the intercultural experience he/she is having.


Culture Shock

Some new students experience "culture shock" when they first arrive. "Culture shock" is the name given to the feeling of disorientation and confusion that often occurs when a person leaves a familiar setting and moves to an unfamiliar place. The climate and terrain, the language, customs, food, and the culture are different. It is harder to convey your feelings and personality in a different language than your native one. You may feel lonely and may have doubts about your decision to come here. Signs of culture shock include interruptions in normal sleep patterns, anxiety, frustration, and excessive anger over minor irritations. It is common to become dependent on fellow nationals who are also in the in the same situation and have the same language and customs. Here are some ideas which may help students who are experiencing culture shock:

Maintain Perspective

You should remember that thousands of persons who have come to Gainesville and the University of Florida from other countries have survived!

Evaluate Expectations

Your reactions to the United States and Gainesville are the product of the way things are here and the way you expected them to be.

Keep an Open Mind

People in the United States and in Gainesville may do or say things that people at home would not do or say. It is important to realize that people here are acting according to their own set of values, not according to your values from your country.

Avoid Being Judgmental

Try to avoid evaluating or judging their behavior according to standards of your country. This may make it easier for you to adapt to your new environment. Visit the ISS. A discussion with one of the international student counselors can help you to get a useful perspective on culture shock and its learning and personal growth possibilities.

Learn from the Experience

Moving into a new culture can be a fascinating educational experience. It gives you the opportunity to explore a new way of living, and compare it to your own. There is no better way to become aware of your own values and attitudes, and to broaden your point of view.

Improve your American English

The better you can express yourself, the easier everything will be. Realize that you as an international student will often be treated as a stereotype. Foreigners anywhere are, at first, treated as representatives of groups to which they are perceived to belong, and not as individuals. On many occasions, you may be referred to as a "foreign student" or "a student from country X." You are thus identified by the country you come from. The ways Americans may respond to you will depend on their own experiences with people from your country. It is important that you realize that their comments do not have anything to do with you personally. Contact students from your home country who have already been here for some time. They will be able to explain to you (in your own language) procedures which may seem unfamiliar. Please contact the ISS if you do not know anyone from your home country, and they will help find someone.

Understand Your Status

Realize how the status of your role here compares to the status to which you are accustomed in your home country. Each society attaches different importance to individual roles or positions in the society. In many countries, the role of "university student" or "professor" is given more respect or "status" than it is in America. If this is the case, it can be difficult to adjust to having a lower social status in this country than you are accustomed to having in your own country. It is helpful to recognize that you are not being downgraded as a person, but that you happen to be in a society where less value is attached to being a student than may be the case in your home country. People here may understand little about your culture, and may therefore misunderstand you and your behavior. They may assume that limited English proficiency is a lack of intelligence, rather than understanding that English is not your native language. Here are a few questions that international students might want to think about: How do Americans make friends? How is respect shown? How do family members interact? What is the relationship between males and females in different situations? What are the dating patterns? How do people spend their leisure time? How do they deal with conflicts and disagreements? What do they talk about, when and with whom? How often do they "take turns" during a conversation?


Thinking about Going Home

After first arriving in America, it is natural to spend time thinking about the new country and your reactions to it. However, it is helpful to try to keep in mind, that you will be going home after finishing your degree. It is advisable to remember that you will change while you are here. You will learn new ideas, adopt new attitudes, and behave in new ways. At the same time, things will be changing in your home country. Family members, friends, and professional colleagues will have experiences that you will not share, and they also will develop new ideas, attitudes, and ways of behaving. Social, political, and economic situations may change also. This means that when you return home, things will not be as you remembered before you left. You will need to adjust to a "new" culture again. This readjustment will be easier if you prepare yourself before you actually go back home. Try to keep your expectations realistic, try not to pass judgment on people and situations you will encounter after going home. You may experience culture shock again upon returning home.


Notable Characteristics of Americans

The American society is the most culturally diverse society in the world. Even with this diversity, it is possible, in general, to describe attitudes and practices that are common among Americans. The following remarks are only generalizations. Individuals who are exceptions to any or all of them do exist.


Most Americans see themselves as separate individuals, and only secondly as representatives of a family, community, or other group. They dislike being dependent on other people, or having others depend on them. Some people from other countries may view this attitude as selfish or self-centered. Others may view it as a healthy freedom from the constraints of ties to family, social class, or clan.


Americans are taught that "all men are created equal." While they may violate the principle in some aspects of life, in other aspects they adhere to it. They treat each other in very informal ways, even in the presence of great differences of age or social standing. From the point of view of people from other cultures, this type of behavior may reflect lack of respect. From the point of view of Americans, it shows a healthy lack of concern for social ritual.

Limited Friendships

People from other cultures may view friendships among Americans as superficial. Because they are taught to be self-reliant and live in a highly mobile society, Americans tend to avoid deep involvement with many other people. Furthermore, Americans tend to "compartmentalize" their friendships, having their "friends at work," "friends at school," a "tennis friend," and so on. This is sometimes viewed by foreigners as an "inability to be friends." Here it is seen as a normal way to retain personal happiness in a mobile, ever-changing society.

Time consciousness

Americans place considerable value on punctuality. They tend to organize their activities by means of schedules. As a result they may seem to be in a hurry, always running from one thing to the next, and not able to relax and enjoy themselves. Foreign observers sometimes see this as being "ruled by the clock." In this country it is a way of assuring that things get done.


"Success" in American society is often measured by the amount of money, status, or the quantity of material goods a person is able to accumulate. Some cultures see this as lack of appreciation for the spiritual or human things in life.


Conversations with Americans

Another way of describing differences between people from diverse cultural backgrounds, besides comparing their values, is comparing their styles of communication. When people with different communication styles interact, they often misjudge or misunderstand each other. It is helpful if you as an international visitor know something about the communication style of Americans and the way it differs from your own communication style. With that knowledge, the foreigners will be better able to understand what is happening when they are dealing with the local people, and will know some of the ways in which the latter are likely to misunderstand or misjudge them. Generalizations (subject to exceptions) are made about the ways Americans communicate. In casual conversation (what they call "small talk"), Americans prefer to talk about the weather, jobs, sports, people they both know, classes, or past experiences, especially ones they have in common. Some Americans do not discuss politics or religion, at least not with people they do not know well, because politics and religion are considered controversial topics. Students at universities, however, discuss these subjects often. Sex, bodily functions, and perceived personal inadequacies are considered to be very personal topics, and are likely to be discussed only between people who know each other very well. Many misjudgments and misunderstandings can arise from interactions between people who have different communication styles. Here are some examples: Foreign visitors in the U.S. might think that they hear little but "small talk" among Americans. They may arrive at the conclusion that Americans are not intellectually capable of anything more than small talk about subjects such as the weather, sports, teachers or their own social lives. Many people who regard argument as a favored form of interaction reach the conclusion that Americans are intellectually inferior. Americans may be alarmed by vigorous arguing, with raised voices and use of gestures. They may expect violence, or at least long-lasting anger, to follow from loud disagreements. They may perceive as anger what you consider normal communication. Embarrassment or unease almost always results when someone raises a discussion topic that the other person thinks is inappropriate for the particular setting or relationship.


Guidelines for Interacting with Americans

Men usually shake hands with each other the first time they meet. Men usually do not shake hands with women unless the woman extends her hand first. Women do not usually shake hands with each other. A university setting is usually very informal. Students who meet one another will normally not shake hands at all. A student could shake hands with a professor or staff person if introduced, but not usually with a fellow student.

American names

American names generally have three parts: the first (or given) name, the middle name or initial, and the last (family) name. In most cases, the first name appears first, then the middle name or initial (if used), and finally the last name. First names are used in the U.S. more frequently than elsewhere. People may call each other by their first names immediately after they have met. When deciding whether to call people by their first name of not, the following general rules apply: Address people of your approximate age and status by first name. This would apply to fellow students and neighbors. If the other person is clearly older than you, you should use Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. and the last name. For example, you would address Marlon Brando as "Mr. Brando." If the older person asks you to use his or her first name, do so. The older person will probably address you by your first name from the beginning. "Ms." (pronounced "Mizz") is increasingly used for both unmarried and married females. If a student is not certain whether or not a woman is married, "Miss" or "Ms." is the appropriate term to use. If the other person has a title such as "Ambassador," "Doctor," or "Dean," use that title and the last name. For example, you would address Senator Edward Kennedy as "Senator Kennedy." Any faculty member can be addressed as "Doctor," whether he holds the rank of assistant professor, associate professor or full professor. Again, the other person might ask you to address him by his first name, and you should abide by that wish. Americans do not use a title followed by a first name. For example, you would not address Elizabeth Taylor as "Miss Elizabeth" but as "Miss Taylor" or, if she asked you to, as "Elizabeth." If you are in doubt about what to call a person, ask the person, "What name shall I call you?" Americans will sometimes be confused about what to call you. If you see that person does not know what to call you, tell him, "You can call me _________." Sometimes it is helpful to pronounce your name syllable by syllable. Americans' ready use of first names may make it appear to you that they are oblivious to differences in age and social status, but they are not. There are subtle differences in vocabulary and manner, depending upon the relationship between the people involved. For example, an American is less likely to use slang or obscenities when speaking to a person who is older, whose social standing is higher, and/or whom he does not know well.

Ritual greetings

When two people are first introduced, the dialogue normally goes something like: "How do you do?" "Fine, thank you. How are you?" "Fine, thanks." After the first meeting, there are two kinds of greetings. The more formal is "Good Morning," "Good afternoon," or "Good Evening." The less formal is simply "Hello" or just "Hi." You may simply say "Good Morning," "Hi," or whatever is said to you, in response. Any of these greetings may be followed by "How are you?" To this one should answer "Fine, thank you," whether you are fine or not! These ritual greetings are much shorter than those to which people from many other countries are accustomed. People from countries where ritual greetings are more elaborate may have a negative reaction to the American custom, thinking that it reflects coolness and lack of concern for other people. This is not the case! The American casual parting remark "See you later," means "goodbye," and does not mean that the person saying it has a specific intention to see you later.

Visiting Americans

You will probably have opportunities to visit an American home. The invitation may come from your major professor or through someone you have met in a class, or elsewhere. The following paragraphs give a general idea of the behavior that is appropriate in such situations. Your prospective host will either phone you, speak to you in person, or send you a written invitation. An arrangement made by telephone is expected to be kept, even if it is made far in advance of the actual event. A written invitation will include the date, time, place, and a description of the occasion. If at the bottom of the invitation it says, "R.S.V.P." ("Respondez-vous s'il vous plait"), you should notify the host whether or not you plan to be present. If it says "Regrets Only," you should notify the host only if you do not plan to be present. It is polite to notify your hostess of any last minute change of plans, and of any dietary restrictions you have. In the United States you should never say that you accept an invitation unless you truly intend to do so. If you do not know what clothing could be appropriate to wear for the occasion, simply ask: "What should I wear?" If you are not sure, ask the host or hostess to describe the type of outfit appropriate. Sometimes "casual" dress can mean a different style of dress to different people. The time of day also can determine what is considered appropriate dress.


Punctuality is usually essential, especially if you have been invited for a meal or for a cocktail party. You may be thought inconsiderate and impolite if you do not arrive at the appointed hour. Again, it is a very good idea to notify your hostess if you will be more than 15 minutes late. Upon arrival, you may find that there is a cocktail hour before dinner. During this period hors-d'oeuvres (small appetizers, usually with crackers) and cocktails are served. You will usually be asked what type of drink you would prefer, alcoholic or non-alcoholic. If you would prefer a non-alcoholic beverage and none is offered, it is acceptable to ask your host for one. It is considered polite to say, "No, thank you" if you do not want something being offered. At the dinner table, if there is any question of proper manners, simply follow the example of your hostess. If you have any dietary restrictions, you should inform your hostess of them at the time you accept the invitation, not when you arrive. If you wish to bring a gift, a bouquet of flowers or a box of candy is always appropriate. Always bring a small gift when you are invited as a houseguest for an extended visit, like a weekend. Unless a special party has been planned, it is polite to leave your host's home from one to two hours after dinner is completed. If it is very late when you finish dinner, leave within an hour. If you are asked to stay longer, feel free to do so. It is considered good manners to write a thank-you note or call your host or hostess after each occasion. Many Americans consider thank-you notes too formal. They prefer to call on the telephone to thank the host for the invitation. Whether calling or writing your host or hostess, you should do so within 24-48 hours after the party. These informal visits are for the pleasure of both the guests and the hosts. If the host or hostess is preparing the meal, it is polite to ask if you can help with any preparations. Guests should offer their help in cleaning up after dinner. Your host or hostess will tell you whether he/she needs extra help or not. Always abide by his/her wishes.


In different societies there are different customs concerning the giving of gifts. Sometimes a person will give a gift when the other person does not expect to receive one. Here are some general ideas about gift giving customs in the U.S. Knowing them can help avoid awkward situations. To whom are gifts given? As a rule, gifts are given to relatives and close friends. They are sometimes given to people with whom one has a casual but friendly type of relationship, such as a host or hostess. Gifts are not usually given to teachers or others who hold an official position. The offering of gifts in these situations is sometimes interpreted as an effort, possibly improper, to gain favorable treatment from that person. Cards, rather than gifts, are given to acquaintances who are not close friends. This is especially true at Christmas, when it is common for people to send a card to most of their acquaintances and business or school colleagues. What gifts are appropriate? Generally, an effort is made to select a gift that the giver knows or supposes is one the recipient needs, wants or would enjoy. It is not expected that people on limited budgets will spend large among on gifts. Expensive gifts may be expected only when the people involved have a very close relationship with each other. How are gifts acknowledged? If a gift is opened in the presence of the giver (as is often done), a verbal expression of thanks is appropriate. If a gift is opened in the absence of a giver, a thank-you note should be sent. The note should make specific mention of the particular gift that has been sent.

Time schedules

It is appropriate to contact individuals or businesses at certain accepted times. Below are general guidelines:

  • Individuals and families. In general, you may telephone individuals or families between 9:00am and 9:00pm. Students generally keep later hours. It is not appropriate to contact people during meal times. Americans eat breakfast shortly after arising, a small meal or sandwich called "lunch" at or near noon, and large meal called "dinner" or "supper" sometime between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The meal schedule may vary on Sundays, when all meals may be taken later and the large meal may be in the afternoon rather than in the evening.
  • Business hours. University business hours are usually 8:00 a. m. to5.00 p. m., Monday through Friday. Most offices at the University remain open during the lunch hour. Most city businesses open at 9:00 a. m. Closing hours vary; some businesses close at 5:00 p. m or 5:30 p. m. Establishments in the malls will open at 10:00 a. m. and close at 9:00 p. m. Most businesses may open for shorter hours on weekends. Some stores are open 24 hours, and are advertised this way. All businesses should have their hours posted on their storefronts.


Tips, or service charges, are not added to the bill in U.S. hotels or restaurants. Nevertheless, tips are often expected and needed by employees. Tips are given for some services rendered, such as a shoeshine. It is customary to tip the waiter or waitress in a restaurant at least 10 per cent of the amount of the check, and from 15 to 20 percent if you receive good service. You do not have to tip in self-service cafeterias, but it is customary to leave a small tip if a server assists you. You do not tip in "fast food" establishments. In a hotel, the bellboy who assists you to your room with your luggage expects at least one dollar for his services. Taxi drivers expect a tip of 10 to 15 per cent of the fare. Hairdressers customarily get a tip of 10 to 15 percent of the total bill. Generally, if others tip, you should too. Self-service businesses generally do not have tipping.


Campus Terminology and Slang

Americans speak a colorful, idiomatic English that may bear little resemblance to the language you studied in school. Even a native English speaker might be confused by the combination of slang, technical words, and academic terms that characterize campus conversation. Don't use profanity. A typical University of Florida conversation might sound something like this: "I'm really bummed out. The Prof. gave a pop quiz in psych and I flunked. It'll put my GPA in the cellar. If my old man ever finds out, he'll cut off the bucks. The speaker's friend might reply, sympathetically, "That's the pits. You'd better hit the books. It's almost dead week." This conversation, if translated into textbook English, would go something like this: "I'm very discouraged. The professor gave a surprise test in psychology class and I failed. This will lower my grade point average. If my father learns of this, he will refuse to give me more money for school." The friend replies, "That's terrible. You had better study. The semester is almost over." Here are a few of the academic terms and slang expressions you will hear around the University of Florida campus:

"ace": To earn a grade of "A". "I'll ace the course."

"bummer": An unpleasant experience. "That movie was a bummer."

"burned out": Exhausted and lacking enthusiasm. "After exams, I felt totally burned out."

"bucks": Dollars. "You can save a couple of bucks by buying something on sale."

"college": A division of the University where a group of related academic departments are administered as a unit by a dean. "The University of Florida colleges are Agriculture, Architecture, Business Administration, Dentistry, Education, Engineering, Fine Arts, Forest Sciences and Conservation, Health Related Professions, Journalism and Communications, Law, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Physical Education, and Veterinary Medicine."

"cram": Frantic effort to learn neglected lessons right before a test. "I crammed all night for the exam."

"Dead Week": The week before final examinations. "Professors are not permitted to give unannounced tests or papers during Dead Week."

"drop-add": The process of withdrawing from some courses and adding others to your class schedule during the first few days of the semester. "I decided to drop calculus and add statistics."

"exam": An examination or test. "We've got an exam tomorrow."

"feedback": Response or reaction. "That experiment has been very controversial. There's going to be a lot of negative feedback on it."

"finals": Final examinations given at the end of the semester. "Are you ready for finals?"

"flunk": To fail a test or subject. "I flunked English."

"frisbee": A round, flat object caught and thrown as a recreational activity. "His dog can catch a frisbee as well as he can."

"Greeks": Members of fraternities and sororities. "The Greeks sit together at football games."

"Gators": The nickname of the school's athletic teams and U.F. students generally. The alligator, or "Gator," is the school mascot. "Go Gators!"

"guts": Courage. "It takes guts to register for 18 credit hours."

"Hit the books": To study. "I can't go tonight. I've got to hit the books."

"Homecoming": A University festival held in October. Many alumni return to the University for this event. "Are you going to the Homecoming Parade?"

"I.D.": Identification card. "You'll need to show your student I.D. to see the game."

"Incomplete": An "I" notation on your academic record in place of a grade if you are unable to complete the class requirements and need more time to finish. It becomes an "E" (or failing grade, the same as an "F") if you don't complete the work by the following semester. "I had to ask the professor for an incomplete."

"into": Intense enthusiasm for something. "He's really into chess."

"jerk": An obnoxious person. "He's a real jerk."

"jock": An athlete. "Some jocks at U.F. are on Olympic teams."

"mall": Usually a large shopping complex, enclosed under a roof. "I'm going to the Oaks Mall."

"mid-term": An examination given in the middle of the semester. "Mid-terms are next week."

"on the ball": Alert, quick to respond. "You must be on the ball if you're in that class!"

"petition": The process of making a formal request for a change in some academic regulations applied to you. "I had to petition to drop that class."

"Plaza": The park in front of the campus libraries, which is called the "Plaza of the Americas." "I'm going to eat lunch on the Plaza."

"quiz": A short test. "She gives us a quiz every week."

"red tape": Bureaucratic delay and paperwork. "There is so much red tape involved in withdrawing from a class!'

"rip off": To steal or cheat. "Someone ripped off his bike."

"ROTC": Reserve Officer Training Corps. (Pronounced Rot-see). "He has a ROTC scholarship."

"seminar": A small class involving discussion among the students and the teacher. Also a brief course. "That was an interesting seminar."

"take-out": To order food from a restaurant, but pick it up and take it home rather than dining in the restaurant. (Almost the same as "to go")

"term paper": A research report written for a class. "I must write two term papers for this class."

"to go": To order fast food and take it "to go", instead of eating it in the restaurant.

"withdraw": To voluntarily resign from the University or from some particular course. "I became ill and was in the hospital and lost so many days of class that I decided to withdraw."