Our next blog in our International House series answers the question: What are Americans like? You probably have some ideas about what people how people in America act, and their values. However, over 330 million people live in the United States, so it is difficult to generalize the whole population.  You may have heard the US referred to as a “melting pot”, where all cultures blend together. That phrase is somewhat misleading, as many immigrant people still celebrate and practice their language and culture.  

In this blog, we will give you a general overview of how Americans interact, the values many Americans hold, and some social norms you should be aware of as an International Student studying in the United States. Each region, state, and person is different in their own way, so please keep that in mind as you read this blog! 

Regions of the United States 

America is broken up into 50 individual states, across over 9,629,000 kilometers (3,717,000 miles). Each state is known for its different culture and stereotypes, and some people can be very passionate about what state they are from! The US is made up of several different regions, including the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and the West. Each region is known for its unique weather and landscape, so you will want to research that before your school search! For example, the Southwest is known for its deserts and cacti. But you won’t find that in the lush, forest-filled Northwest! 

Each region also experiences seasons differently, so you should consider that as part of your search as well. If you were hoping to see snow in the winter, you should avoid the warmer areas of the US, such as the Southeast which rarely gets snow! 

Each region also has its own culture- ever heard of “Southern Hospitality”? You will want to research the local customs, holidays, politics, and slang of the areas you will visit. This will help you understand the people you may interact with better. 

United States, geographic regions, colored political map. Five regions, according to their geographic position on the continent. Common but unofficial way of referring to regions of the United States.
Hawaii and Alaska, while considered part of the “West”, are located far off of mainland America and have wildly different climates than the rest of the West!

America is an Individualistic Society 

Above all else, Americans consider themselves as individuals first. While there are strong family ties and loyalties to groups, individuality and individual rights are most important. Many Americans believe that only they are the ones who control their success through hard work and determination. This can also make Americans very competitive against others, and themselves. 

If this seems like a selfish attitude, it also leads Americans to have an honest respect for other individuals and an insistence on human equality. 

Americans are Direct Communicators 

Americans tend to be very honest and blunt, rather than “saving face”. Americans will be direct when it comes to sharing their thoughts or opinions. Americans are quick to get to the point and do not spend much time on formal social amenities. This directness encourages Americans to talk over disagreements and to try to patch up misunderstandings themselves, rather than ask a third party to mediate disputes. Businesswoman listening to a podcast on her smart phone

The Informal American Culture 

In general, Americans tend to be fairly informal when it comes to social interactions with others. International students may consider this cross-generation, cross-class informality disrespectful, even rude, but it is a part of US culture. There are exceptions of course ,like: 

  • When speaking with people for the first time 
  • When speaking respectfully to an older person 
  • Job interviews 
  • Authority figures in the military, judicial, or law enforcement systems, such as police officers and judges 
  • Public officials serving in government roles, such as senators, members of Congress, governors, mayors, and members of city councils 
  • Medical professionals, such as doctors, surgeons, dentists, etc 
  • Religious leaders 
  • Teachers and professors 
  • Workplace authority figures, such as managers and supervisors 

In regular conversation, a person may politely correct you if they want to be called something informal. This is non-confrontational and a friendly gesture- many people prefer casual conversation to keep the atmosphere easy-going. 

American Friendships  

In general, Americans can view friendships very differently than other cultures. Some friendships are short-lived, for example, during a part-time job or school project. Other times, friendships can last for many years! Americans also tend to “compartmentalize” friendships, having “work friends”, “family friends”, “school friends”, and so on. You may also notice Americans will smile a lot, which is typically genuine and used to show friendliness.  

You may also notice that Americans will often ask, “How are you?” as a greeting. In other cultures, this question has weight and is a genuine interest in someone’s well-being. In America, this phrase is often polite small talk, akin to the word Hello. Oftentimes a response is not expected, although you may say back, “Good, how are you?”.  

Front view portrait of two happy students talking and walking towards camera in the street

Americans are Curious 

Americans can ask some questions that may to you seem pointless, uninformed, or elementary. Someone you have just met may ask you very personal questions. No impertinence is intended; the questions usually grow out of a genuine interest. 

You should know that in a job interview, there are questions that are illegal to ask on the side of an employer. You can find a list of questions you do not have to legally answer from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

Americans Value Punctuality 

You may have heard the phrase, “time is money”! American time management reflects this phrase, as they keep appointment calendars and live according to schedules. They usually are on time for appointments, or no more than a few minutes late. It is considered rude to show up late to an appointment without notification that you will be arriving late. Professional appointments, such as hair salon appointments or doctors’ offices, may charge a late fee if you do not arrive on time. This can be quite expensive at times, so make sure you communicate with the other party if you are not able to make it well in advance. Common courtesy is to tell the other party if you cannot make an appointment or meeting as soon as you know, to allow for rescheduling if needed.  Happy young smiling hairdresser opening door of beauty salon and inviting customer inside

Americans are Polite 

Americans often use the words “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry” more often than an international person might be used to. Some Americans tend to say, “I’m sorry” in situations where you might not think an apology is necessary, such as brushing against someone on a train or bumping into someone in the hallway. A common response to “I’m sorry” is “no worries” or “it’s okay.”  

Saying “please” when requesting something, and “thank you” when receiving something is also very customary in the US and may be considered rude if you don’t also use these phrases, even amongst close friends or family members.  

If you must interrupt someone who is in conversation or working on a project, you should say, “Excuse me” or, “Sorry to bother you” before speaking.  

US College Classroom Culture 

In general, college classrooms tend to be student-focused. Professors want to see you succeed and enjoy interacting with students. Classrooms operate in many different ways, including lectures, student discussions, presentations, and group projects. This also varies greatly by major, as some majors tend to lean heavily on research or group projects.  

You will be expected to participate in discussions, and it is often part of your grade! Americans value independent thought, and it is okay to disagree politely with your peers. They also value collaboration, and everyone is expected to contribute equally to group projects. However, in exam or testing scenarios, collaboration is considered cheating and can have serious consequences- including expulsion. Your professor will make it clear when you are to be in a group. 

All in all, each university has its unique educational approach, with institutions like WPI emphasizing project-based learning and extensive student involvement in both group and individual projects. Understanding and adapting to the specific dynamics of your university environment will be crucial for academic success and personal growth. Multi-ethnic university students listen attentively to the interesting guest lecturer.While this might seem like a lot of information to take in, it will become second nature over time. Do not expect to master all the subtleties of American culture at first- give yourself time to ease into it. If you find yourself experiencing culture shock along the way, remember that it’s a common experience for international students, and resources like our blog on coping strategies can provide valuable support and guidance. Embrace the journey of learning and growth as you navigate the rich and diverse culture of America!