ORIENTATION TO AMERICAN CULTURAL VALUES
Your name is a very important part of you. You should not change your name or “Americanize” it to make it easier for others to remember. Americans can learn to say your name properly, if not perfectly. They may even be proud to learn how to pronounce it.
Your name belongs to you, and you should expect others to learn how to say it, but be patient: help your new friends learn to say your name.
Americans see time as limited. They put great emphasis on being “on time”. It is important to be on time to classes, social events, public events, and appointments. Americans generally feel that time spent waiting is wasted and will resent having to wait. If you must miss an appointment or if you will be late, it is polite to telephone the person you were supposed to meet to cancel or delay your meeting.
Americans also generally prefer to complete one task before beginning another task. Americans resent it when people ask them to do more than one thing at a time. 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 or she has finished what he/she is doing.
Although in some places the atmosphere is quite formal, in others, it is very informal. Treating guests informally is not being rude, but rather a way of taking you into the intimate circle of family and friends. For Americans, being asked to “help yourself”, or to serve yourself, is a great honor. Although Americans frequently address each other by given rather than family names, at first meeting, it is best to use a person’s title (Doctor, Professor, Mister, or Missus) unless invited to do otherwise. Typically in the South, it is very common to address older people as “Sir” (for a man) or “Ma’am” (for a woman).
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, unless he/she is a very close friend.
It is important for you to be direct and honest with Americans in expressing your opinion, feelings, and preferences. If you feel uncomfortable about something you are asked to do, make your feelings known. For example, if you are asked to speak in front of a large group and would prefer not to do so, it is polite to decline the invitation to speak.
Americans place high value on achievement and success, and this leads them to compete with each other. You will find 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.
Americans are taught from childhood that “all people are equal”. This is called “egalitarianism”, and is a high social value. There are many “equal rights” movements among minorities. In general, Americans try to treat women and men, members of different racial and ethnic groups, and heterosexuals and homosexuals equally.
American society is very “pluralistic”. No other country in the world has so many different kinds of people living together in relative peace. Americans are very proud of the diversity of people who live here. It has been very difficult for Americans of different backgrounds to learn to tolerate each other and to live together peacefully.
However, like all societies, the United States has many people with rigid and prejudicial ideas about people, food, customs, and proper ways of living. For example, the role of women in the United States is changing. Women’s movements aim to insure that women have opportunities equal to those of men. Women play a very visible role in this country. You will find women business leaders, police officers, professors, and political leaders. Most people believe that one day the United States will have a woman president.
People of different race, religious beliefs, and national origins have full, legal, equal rights. Most members of the academic community will not tolerate racial or religious insults or jokes. In the university environment, racial or religious insults could get you into trouble.
One other note: in many large and small cities in the United States, you may well encounter homosexuals, and some homosexuals will be very open about their lives. Gays (homosexual men) and Lesbians (homosexual women) are everywhere. Many Americans believe that homosexuals have equal rights as well, and many Americans are tolerant: insulting or abusing homosexuals is considered rude, and can also get you into serious trouble in the academic environment. If you have questions or concerns about homosexuality, you should ask a trusted counselor or advisor.
Americans are very concerned with personal hygiene. Most Americans take frequent baths or showers, typically washing their hair every day. Americans use many types of toiletries, deodorants and perfumes. Americans also change their clothes every day. Americans find natural body odors very unpleasant. Although frequent bathing and use of chemical deodorants, soaps and perfumes may not seem necessary to you, adhering to local customs will have a positive effect on your social relationships here in the United States.
Friendships among Americans tend to be different than those among people from some other cultures. Americans may have a few very close friends, but they also develop many less intense social relationships with people. Americans tend to have many “friends” – people with whom they have work, class, social, or sexual relationships. The American concept of friendship is difficult to understand. Many international students feel some frustration in their attempts at forming and maintaining friendships with Americans. This is not meant to discourage you from making friends with Americans, it is only intended to make you aware that behavior between American friends might be different from what you would expect.
Public Displays of Affection (PDAs)
In normal situations, Americans tend to avoid “Public Displays of Affection”, or “PDAs” between friends of the same or different sex. In general, Americans do not hug or hold hands with their friends in public areas unless it is some special occasion. PDAs may lead to lead Americans to misunderstand the nature of your friendship when in public. In private, Americans may hug or hold hands with their friends.
Romantic partners may show PDA’s, but only within limits: hand holding and short kisses in public are OK, but prolonged kissing and other activities are considered offensive, and even strangers may ask them to stop.
Romantic relationships may seem very different from your own country. Dating is acceptable between people, and is usually arranged with an informal invitation from a man, although it is increasingly acceptable for a woman to give the invitation. Accepting or offering a “date” does not necessarily mean that you are interested in marriage, or a serious or sexual relationship. People often get together to go to movies or to dinner to have a good time and to get to know someone. Most Americans will date many people and regard them as friends.
In the United States, marriage normally happens only after a person has had several romantic relationships. Only the two people in the relationship can make decisions about carrying the relationship further: family members – including parents – have very little influence in any marriage decisions.
Sexual relationships are common when two people become romantically involved. Sexual relationships can be very difficult – and dangerous. You should take time to think, and get advice from a trusted counselor or advisor before beginning a sexual relationship.
Language and Dialects
Spoken English may sound very fast to you. If you have trouble understanding a person, ask them to slow down or repeat what they said. Do not hesitate to ask questions.
There are a number of spoken dialects in the United States. In Atlanta, you may hear people speaking with two or more dialects. The most common dialects are “Black English” (also called Ebonics), spoken by African Americans, and “Piedmont English”, spoken generally by white people. Both dialects can be difficult to understand, but with patience, communication is possible, and very rewarding.
Americans who are not used to communicating with international students may behave strangely. Particularly, they may speak louder, move their arms and hands quickly, and in fact seem “angry”. This is not the case. Remember, Americans are very inquisitive, and are often eager to learn about your country and culture. Speaking loudly and moving the body is a natural human reaction to misunderstanding.
Americans, particularly students, use a great deal of “slang,” which is a trendy, culturally oriented, or informal way of speech. Often, slang cannot be understood without an explanation. If you don’t understand a word or phrase, ask what it means and how it is used. Most Americans will be amused by your attempt to understand, and will happily help you.
Americans often abbreviate words. For example: Georgia Perimeter College is often referred to as “GPC”, Biology is referred to as “Bio”, and English as Second Language is referred to as “ESL”.