American Culture

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Applying to IHOPU as an international student is also, in one sense, an application to learn about American culture. Here is some basic information about common American customs and values to help you out. Stop by and visit with the International Student Services staff any time you have questions or experiences to share. The office is in the main administration area.

Common American Values

Below are some of the values American people tend to share. Understanding these values helps to explain American customs, which are detailed further down this page.

Bear in mind that not all Americans share these values; there are many subcultures in America. Americans, like all human beings, appreciate being considered as individuals, not stereotypes.

Friendliness, Openness, and Informality

  • Americans tend to be friendly and to value openness. They may not immediately form deep relationships or share personal issues, but they still value friendliness toward people they meet. They communicate this by making eye contact and smiling; sometimes they may shake your hand, but handshakes tend to communicate formality to Americans; they are more common in business and other professional settings than they are in social settings.
  • Smiling at someone is understood to be a nonverbal “Hello.”
  • Americans do not commonly wait to be introduced; they present themselves to you without formal introduction by someone else.
  • Informality is an important American value; for some it is almost on the level of a virtue. Americans usually equate informality with kindness and good intentions.
  • This warmth and friendliness is a sign of respect and goodwill, but not necessarily an invitation to become close friends. Americans tend to be slow in forming friendships, even though they initially communicate openness. They are not being “fake” or trying to mislead you; they are just being polite.
  • Most Americans will immediately call you by your first/given name unless you are in a professional setting. This is their way of communicating that they like you; formality is often viewed as indicating discomfort, disapproval, or distance in your relationship. If you are very formal with them, they may think you are being cold or unfriendly, rather than respectful.
  • Americans tend to communicate informally. In work-related situations, they feel free to email and call you repeatedly if they have not heard back from you within a day or two. They do not mean this to pressure you; it is a normal, informal reminder that they need to hear from you. In conversation, they may not formally open or close their communication with you; they may just walk up to you, chat for a little while, and then walk off or turn to someone else, without any clear closure. They are not being rude; they are being informal. Americans like the idea that their relationships and conversations are ongoing and can be interrupted or renewed at need. You may also find that your young American friends interrupt you and each other frequently without any intended offense.
  • Americans are generally very busy, and so they eat “on the go,” meaning they eat throughout the day, while working, traveling, or talking. This is not considered rude or inappropriate. They may offer to share their food with you if it is something easily shared, but it is not considered thoughtless or rude if they do not offer, especially if it is around a meal time.
  • Although Americans value friendliness, they are not likely to make eye contact or smile when walking past you unless you know each other well. In rural areas, however, or in smaller circles, such as Christian communities, people are more likely to say hello or smile.

Freedom, Independence, and Equality

  • Americans tend to value freedom in all forms: political freedom, religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom to determine their own future, freedom to choose their own schedule, etc.
  • The equality of all human beings, regardless of ethnicity, gender, economic status, religion, etc., is also a very important value to Americans. One of the highest forms of respect an American can show to another person is to communicate that they see them as an equal.
  • These common values are rooted in the history of the foundation of America as a country as well as in the civil rights movement and emancipation of African Americans, Native Americans, women, etc.
  • You may find that Americans can be very emotional about threats they perceive to their freedom. They may also be offended if they feel that someone looks down on them, especially if it is for something they have no control over, such as their ethnicity or ancestry.
  • The informality of many Americans is connected to their value of equality. In general, Americans consider it respectful to treat and speak to others as their equals. While in the eyes of people from some other cultures, this behavior may seem rude and presumptuous, it is considered polite and kind by Americans.
  • This value of equality means that it is not always immediately obvious from a person’s appearance whether they are wealthy or influential. Most Americans dress very similarly; usually in blue jeans if they are not in a formal setting. The difference between a poor American wearing jeans and a rich American wearing jeans, is likely only to be in the price they paid for the jeans and what type of store they purchased them from. You may also notice that most Americans buy the same technology, regardless of economic status.

Patriotism

  • Americans tend to be patriotic. This patriotism is an expression of pride in the American value system and political structure rather than in any one ethnicity. Many Americans consider the US to be the best country in the world and will be surprised if you do not agree. This is mainly because they usually value democracy and consider the American form of democracy the best. The desire of many Americans to see democracy spread to other countries is an expression of good will. Typically, they do not mean any offense to your country; in fact, they mean well.
  • Many American Christians connect their patriotism with their faith, because of the Judeo-Christian influences on democracy in its American form. If you disagree with some of the expressions of American patriotism in the church, remember to show respect to individual people because this patriotism is a part of their culture and they mean well by it.
  • It may seem ironic, but while Americans tend to be very patriotic, they also tend to take great interest and pride in their ethnic backgrounds. Do not be surprised if an American tells you they are Scottish, Dutch, Korean, etc., but has perhaps never even been to Scotland, the Netherlands, Korea, etc., and is not a citizen either. They mean that they identify with these countries because of their ancestry. In some cases, they may not be far removed from the generation that emigrated to America, but in other cases, their family may have lived in America for hundreds of years. Many Americans take pride in their background and will be confused and hurt if you argue with them about the validity of their statements. If they say they are of the same ethnicity as you, this is their way of expressing your equality with them—one of the highest ways they can honor you. It would be rude to contradict them.

Having Fun and Enjoying Life

  • Americans tend to place a lot of emphasis on enjoying life.
  • When referencing their activities, hobbies, and jobs, Americans will often highlight how much enjoyment they experience or explain their choice to stop doing something by telling you that they did not enjoy it.
  • Americans commonly devote a large amount of their free time to entertainment and enjoying life. They view this as the necessary reward for working hard during their work hours.
  • When they get together with family and friends, their interactions often center on sources of entertainment they have in common. This may be watching TV shows, sporting events, and movies, or playing video games, but it may just as often be playing sports, enjoying the outdoors, or dining out.
  • Be prepared to find that your new American friends require time to relax and enjoy time alone as well as with others.
  • You will find that many Americans communicate primarily through humor; sometimes jokes are made, but more often, this is expressed in ready laughter and in lighthearted conversation. Americans tend to value being able to amuse and entertain others, especially through informal storytelling.

Privacy and Personal Space

  • Americans usually value time alone every day.
  • They reserve the right to keep personal information (such as their age, income, marital status, etc.) to themselves and dislike invasions of their personal space without clear invitation.
  • This value is reflected in the average American home, where people have their own bedrooms or study rooms, or do not share a bedroom with more than one person.
  • The amount of personal space people expect can be compared to an imaginary bubble around their bodies. Americans are usually very uncomfortable if someone stands closer than an arm’s length from them; if sharing seating such as a bench or couch, Americans expect you to leave at least a hand span of space between you and them. If you observe Americans crossing these invisible boundaries, it is because of an especially close relationship such as a romantic or parent-child relationship—or sometimes just an extremely crowded room.

Comfortable and Convenient Living

  • The number of personal belongings Americans typically own can be shocking to some visitors from other cultures. These numerous possessions may indicate the relative wealth of America as a nation, but they do not always indicate wealth on an individual basis. Even Americans living in poverty typically have many possessions, but their possessions are usually of a much lower quality or value.
  • One reason why Americans tend to accumulate many material goods is the shared value of a comfortable and convenient style of life. Some will sacrifice appearances, formality, money, or even utility in favor of a more comfortable or convenient option.
  • One of the most positive ways in which this value is expressed is in concern for the comfort of others. You may find that your new American friends express a lot of concern if they believe you may be uncomfortable or inconvenienced by something.

Bigger is Better

  • In general, Americans value bigger versions of things, whether cars, houses, businesses, or ministries.
  • They are often eager to expand or upgrade to the next level/size.
  • This value corresponds in part to the amount of space Americans often enjoy—the US is a very large geographical area and not as densely populated as many other countries. There is usually plenty of space and opportunity for bigger possessions and ventures.

Innovation, Hard Work, and Entrepreneurism

  • Americans highly value creative, innovative solutions. In their pursuit of efficiency and success, they are usually willing to take risks and try new things.
  • They are comfortable questioning the way things have been done in the past because they view it as necessary to improvement.
  • They are comfortable with people having different opinions. In academic settings, students are expected to think for themselves and are permitted to come to new conclusions, even if different from those of the teacher, as long as they can provide coherent reasons for their point of view and do so in a respectful way.
  • They also value hard work. This is expressed in the common American belief that anyone can “make it big”—become successful—if they work hard enough. Wealth is viewed by many as the reward of hard work and entrepreneurism. You may hear Americans describe someone they admire as a “self-made man”—or woman—by which they mean that the person earned their success by showing initiative and self-reliance.
  • Connected to this value of creativity and hard work is the value of competition and self-confidence. Competition is commonly assumed to be good and healthy. While Americans expect people to compete in a civil way, they do not view displays of confidence, initiative, or even aggressiveness as negatively as people of some other cultures would.

Hygiene

  • Personal hygiene is considered very important. Most Americans shower daily or at least several times a week. They change clothing frequently, even if that means doing laundry often. They also wear some form of deodorizer at all times and will freshen their breath, whether by brushing their teeth, chewing gum, mints, or using mouthwash. Most Americans do not take kindly to situations in which they have to smell another person’s natural body odor.
  • Most Americans use a clean utensil to get more food; they will not use a fork, spoon, etc., that has entered their mouths to help themselves to a public dish. If dipping a food item into a sauce or dip of some kind, it is considered rude and unhygienic to dip anything already bitten into the sauce or dip.
  • It may seem ironic considering their concern with hygiene, but Americans eat many foods by hand, especially pizza, sandwiches,  breads, and some desserts.

Immediate Family over Extended Family

  • Unlike many cultures of the world, Americans place much more emphasis on their immediate family than they do on their extended family.
  • A person’s immediate family is considered, when a child, to be their parents and siblings. If they marry or commit to a partner when they reach adulthood, the immediate family extends to include the spouse/partner and their parents and siblings; however, once an American establishes their own home and has children, their spouse/partner and children are considered the most important. Parents and siblings move to the background.
  • It is usually expected that adult children live independently of their parents.
  • There are far fewer obligations expected of grown children toward their parents than in some other cultures. Americans tend to believe in staying in contact with their parents and helping them make life decisions when they advance in age, but it is not usually expected that adult children would take in their elderly parents (although it often happens). It is much more common for them to visit their parents in special facilities for the elderly. This may strike some people as callous, but to the average American, it is normal—another expression of the value of self-reliance and independence. Most elderly Americans choose to live on their own for as long as they can.

American customs

Appropriate Physical Touch

  • It is common for Americans to give a quick, light hug to someone they know. This is true across genders. The important thing is to make sure you do not hug someone for more than a few seconds. If you are unsure of the closeness of your relationship, giving a side hug by briefly putting your arm around their shoulder is considered the least personal type of embrace.
  • Some Americans, but by no means all, hug new acquaintances. It is best to avoid this unless you observe that most people in your particular environment do this.
  • Do not place your hand on someone else (e.g., their shoulder or arm) or hold someone’s hand (even in a handshake) for more than a few seconds. It could be considered inappropriate or uncomfortable.
  • Americans usually only hold hands with their young children or their romantic partner. Do not hold the hand of a friend of the same gender as yourself. While this is normal behavior for friends of the same gender in some cultures, it is not normal in America and will make your new friends extremely uncomfortable.
  • In some cultures it is common to greet others with one or more brief kisses to the cheek, but this is not a normal part of American culture.

What to Do in Social Settings

  • Politeness is communicated through adding words of consideration and explanation, and through much smiling, rather than through special verb tenses, pronouns, or suffixes. Adding phrases like “If you wouldn’t mind—”, “Would you be so kind as to—?” “Excuse me, but would you—?” and “I’m sorry, but would you please—?” to your requests expresses politeness. To answer a request politely, say, “I would be happy to,” rather than just saying, “Yes.”
  • In professional, educational, and intellectual circles, it is common to address people by their last name, preceded by “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Miss,” “Ms.,” or “Sir.,” “Professor,” or “Dr.” This is not universally applied, so you would be wise to take your cue from the forms of address you hear used around you. However, it is better to err on the side of formality if you are uncertain. People will invite you to call them by their first name if they want you to.
  • Questions such as “How are you?” and “What’s up?” are just friendlier versions of “Hello.” You are not expected to give a long or detailed answer. Most people will simply reply, “Good, how are you?” A true inquiry into your welfare would be worded slightly differently as “How have you been?” “How are you doing?” or “What have you been up to?”
  • Expressions such as, “We should get coffee sometime,” are a way of communicating appreciation of you as a person; they are not a firm plan until they ask you specific questions about arranging a date and time.
  • Make eye contact, including those of important people; if you do not, Americans may be suspicious, thinking you are trying to hide your thoughts, or they may be concerned about you.
  • Read about how to respect the personal space Americans tend to require under “American Customs,” above.

Invitations to a Meal or Party at Someone’s Home

  • If you receive an invitation to someone’s home for a meal, it is considered polite to ask if you may bring something. The host may not accept, but if they do, they will likely suggest that you bring a salad, a dessert, or drinks. It is fine to buy ready-made dishes. If they insist that you do not need to bring anything, they mean it; you do not. You also do not need to bring a gift.
  • In most American homes, breakfast is eaten soon after waking in the morning, lunch is eaten around noon, and dinner (sometimes called supper) is eaten around 5 or 6pm.
  • Your host will expect you to be on time. If you have to arrive late, call them to explain.
  • If the invitation is to a party or some kind of social gathering involving other guests, do not be surprised if guests come and go. American parties and social gatherings are typically very informal unless the invitation includes a note about formal or semi-formal attire. Many parties are described as an “open house,” meaning guests can stop by at any time. At a party, it is normal for people to arrive late and leave early. There may not be a specific time set when the party is over. You can take your cue from the other guests.
  • When you arrive, ask your host whether they would like you to remove your shoes. Most of the time, they expect you to remove your shoes, but asking removes any doubt.
  • During the meal, you can decline a dish by saying, “No thank you,” without necessarily giving offense, but if you decline a majority of the dishes, you will probably hurt the feelings of the host.
  • During the meal, your host will probably offer you second or even third helpings. It is fine to accept; in fact, it is polite to accept a small second helping of at least one dish if you can. If the host instructs everyone to “help themselves,” you may do so. Just be careful to use a utensil that has not entered anyone’s mouth. You should also compliment the host on the food.
  • If the host starts to clear dishes away to the kitchen, you can help, unless you are expressly told not to, but do not clear dishes before the host begins to. If you would like to help wash dishes, ask first, unless you have become good friends and this is not the first time you have been at their home for a meal.
  • Your host will probably offer you coffee or tea after the meal. You are not obligated to accept, but you are most welcome to. If you are uncertain what to ask for, you can ask your host what they are having and say that you would like the same.
  • Do not wait for your host to signal that it is time for you to leave. American hosts will rarely say something to their guests unless they have another obligation, in which case they will mention it to you and probably apologize for it. When you are ready to leave, simply say, “I think I should get going.” If appropriate, you can mention that you are tired or that you have work to do, etc. They may press you to stay longer, but you do not have to linger. If you do decide to stay longer, do not stay for more than about one hour unless there are other guests still present.
  • It is expected that you return the invitation to a meal if you have your own home. If you are a young, single person who does not have a home to accommodate a return invitation, this will be understood by your friends.
  • If you do return the invitation, it is expected that the public areas of your home (e.g., living room, dining room, and bathroom) be clean and tidy. Once you become close friends, you can relax the amount of cleaning you do.

Overnight Stays at Someone’s Home

  • If someone invites you to stay at their home, it is expected that you thank them with a handwritten card or note at the end of your stay. It is also common to give your host a gift, such as a bouquet of flowers, fine chocolate, or perhaps a food or cultural item from your home culture, although you will not necessarily give offense by not doing this, especially if it is not the first time you have stayed with them. In some circles, it would be appropriate to give a bottle of wine, but this is not the case in the general Christian community.
  • In most cases, your host will provide you with meals. But be prepared to arrange your meals yourself in the event that they do not offer.
  • During your stay, if you are busy and have outside obligations, make sure that you spend some time with your host. If they ask you to share one or more meals with them, accept if you can. In most cases it would hurt the feelings of the host if you do not spend any time with them. If you are both busy, you can ask them what would be a good time to “catch up.”
  • Do not spend all of your time in their home alone in your room. However, you should also allow them time to get things done without you.
  • It is appropriate to ask them what time they typically go to bed, so you can respect that.
  • At the end of your stay, it is considered polite for you to leave your sleeping area neat and clean. You can offer to strip the bedding and gather up your towels for them.

Typical Ways to Build Friendships

  • When you meet an American you would like to befriend, a typical first gesture would be to invite them to join you and other friends for an activity, such as watching a movie, playing a sport, or going out for a meal.
  • If you have already spent time casually talking together, you could also ask them if they would like to “grab a meal,” or “get coffee sometime.” In American culture, coffee shops function as a public meeting place. You should know that until you ask them about a specific day and time, they will not necessarily consider it a fixed plan. There is no strict rule about whether or not you can offer to pay for their meal or drink. It is not expected, but if you offer, they may accept.
  • If you go out for coffee or a meal with someone, you can say, “We should do this again,” but, in general, you should not try to arrange a specific time until several days or more have passed, unless they initiate it, the opportunity presents itself in a natural way, or you get to know each other better.
  • If the person is of the opposite gender and you are interested in them romantically, it is expected that the man offer to pay for the drink or meal. If a man offers to pick up a woman to go eat or drink something and then pays, the woman will probably wonder if the man is interested in her. This does not mean a man should not offer, but he should be aware that he might be giving her this impression. If you are concerned to indicate to the other person that you do not consider yourself to be on a date, one way to show this is to pay for yourself if you are the woman, or not offer to pay for the woman’s food/drink if you are the man.
  • If you are trying to befriend a family rather than an individual, it is normal to invite the family to your home for a meal (see above for more info on sharing a meal in a home). But if they are a single person, it may be better to wait until you have spent time with them in a group or very public setting before you invite them to your home.
  • Keep in mind that most Americans have a busy schedule. Until you have become very close friends with them, they will not expect to spend more than an hour and a half to two hours with you (longer if you are having a meal at your home).
  • In many cultures, preserving relationships and enjoying events are far more important than keeping to a schedule and achieving goals. In others, including American culture, relationships and events are still important, but usually enjoyed on a schedule and sometimes temporarily set aside to achieve a professional or educational goal. Do not be surprised if your American friends postpone time with you for meetings and work.
  • Americans usually expect events to start and end on time. This is partly because most Americans are on a tight schedule; it does not mean that they do not value spending time with you.
  • Americans are generally warm and friendly, but they will not necessarily share personal experiences and private thoughts with you until your friendship has deepened; some may never share very much, yet will still consider you a good friend if you enjoy activities together.

Important American Holidays

  • The most important holidays to the average American are Christmas (December 25; Christmas Eve is also commonly celebrated) and Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November). Americans observe other holidays, but these are by far the most anticipated and celebrated.
  • While Christmas is connected to Christianity and some people attach religious significance to Thanksgiving as well, these holidays are observed by Americans of all religious expressions.
  • Most Americans spend them with their immediate family members, but it is not uncommon to include some extended family and friends.
  • Both involve sharing meals, but Christmas also includes the exchange of gifts among immediate family members and close friends. Most people associate certain special dishes with these meals (e.g., turkey is usually served at a Thanksgiving meal), but traditions vary by family.
  • You may find that some of your American friends are very sad if they cannot find a way to be with family for these holidays. They will also probably be concerned if you do not have plans for celebrating these holidays. Most Americans would agree that no one should be alone for Christmas or Thanksgiving.
  • New Year’s Eve is celebrated as well. Americans refer to the period of time spanning Thanksgiving Day to New Year’s Day collectively as “the holidays,” or “the holiday season.” This period is marked by numerous parties. On New Year’s Eve, many Americans stay up “to see the new year in.” This holiday is known for its heavy drinking, although you may not experience this if you are in Christian circles.
  • After Christmas and Thanksgiving, the holiday most celebrated is the fourth of July, or Independence Day. This is because Americans tend to be patriotic. Related patriotic holidays are Memorial Day (last Monday of May), and Labor Day (first Monday of September). Most will celebrate these summer holidays with some kind of outdoor meal, such as a barbecue.
  • Another very important annual event for many Americans is the Superbowl, the American football championship; it takes place at the end of January/beginning of February. Certain foods are associated with this sporting event, and people will attend parties to watch the events on television whether they are interested in the sport or not because they enjoy the food and socializing.
  • Beyond these important American holidays, others of some importance are Halloween (October 31), Easter (date is moveable and falls between 22 March and 25 April), and Valentine’s Day (February 14).