American Culture

Life in the U.S. & at UD

American Culture

American culture can be greatly attributed to the nature of the country's development. Relatively youthful in its history, most Americans descend from immigrants from all over the world who have been building the country for the past 400 years. While their cultures, religions and values may have been different, their reasons for coming to America were and continue to be very similar. For this reason, American culture is extremely unique, driven by the desire for progression, the value of hard work, and a strong sense of individualism. It is a culture that must be strong to tie together such a diverse group of people.

The explanations below are generalizations, and may not apply to everyone you meet. Rather, they should give you an idea of what drives the behaviors and attitudes you may find as you peruse your own goals in American culture.

Click on a subject below for more details.

Americans are taught from a very young age that they are individuals. They are encouraged to set individual goals, dreams, and pursue an individual lifestyle. While Americans tend to value friendship and family, they are encouraged to make their own decisions and be self-reliant. In fact, it is sometimes seen as a weakness if one is unable to make decisions for his or herself, or if one cannot survive on his or her own. For this reason, it is not uncommon for young adults to "leave the nest" or leave home as early at 17 or 18 years old.

The concept of individualism is also responsible for how Americans see work and how they attribute ownership of ideas. To Americans and others from individualistic societies, an idea, a spoken phrase or a novel invention is the "property" of he or she who thought, spoke or invented something. While individuals make contributions to their fields of study and their workplaces, this contribution cannot be replicated without giving credit to the original owner. As a student or scholar in the American culture, you are also expected to produce your own ideas, thoughts and creations. Plagiarism is the act of taking or using an individual's thoughts, work or inventions and treating them as your own. To avoid plagiarism, it is important that you give credit to the individual person who created the thought or phrase you are referencing in your original work. If someone uses something of yours, they must reference or "cite" you, too.

The line between collaboration, group study, and even getting feedback on a paper and plagiarism can be confusing. If you would like more information on academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism, consult the University of Delaware's Office of Student Conduct and review this great reference guide about academic integrity.

Americans value time. This is due in large part to their sense of urgency. Americans tend to feel that "every second counts," for every minute that passes is another opportunity for progress and moving forward. If a meeting starts 15 minutes late, most Americans will feel like they lost or "wasted" that time. While in some cultures it is natural to be "late," in American culture, people who are tardy regularly are seen as unprepared, careless, and disrespectful of others.

Sometimes things happen and you will be late, or you may have to miss an appointment, a date or a meeting. It is seen as respectful to let others know in advance if you think you might be late. Also, don't be surprised if someone says this to you! By letting the other person know that you will be late, you give them an opportunity to do something else with the time they would have spent waiting for you. Others generally don't care why you are running late, so don't waste time getting into details unless you are asked.

If "something has come up," here are some things you can say:

  • "I am running a little late, I will be there in ___minutes/hours etc."
  • "I am not going to be able to make it today. Can we reschedule?"

At the University, it is very important that classes begin on time, since those meetings cannot be rescheduled. Therefore, you may find that professors are not as receptive to the statements above. In fact, you may find that some professors will lock the classroom door after the class begins. Because time is so important, most professors will address this in the syllabus on the very first day of class.

Just as time is important to Americans, hard work is also highly valued. You will often hear people talk about how busy they are and what kinds of things they are doing. This is because Americans generally feel like they have to fill every day with some kind of activity, whether it is work or recreation. Americans can get bored very easily if they are not busy, and tend to identify people who do not actively engage in activities as lazy. Many Americans have a hard time balancing work and recreation, and begin to feel that every moment should be spent doing work or being productive.

Americans, especially in the Northeast, tend to be more direct or assertive. If they need something, or if they dislike something, Americans are taught to express themselves in a polite, but direct way in the proper environment. This is partially due to Americans' feelings about time and productivity. Most Americans get very annoyed when people are indirect about something they need or feel. If they are not able to speak out directly about something, they tend to convey their feelings through non-verbal behaviors. As a student or scholar in the American culture, you are expected to seek assistance if you need it. Opinions and "constructive" criticism are also welcomed. If you are not sure about the proper venue at which to express yourself, contact CGPS.

Most research suggests that worldwide, verbal communication (the actual words we speak) only accounts for about 10% of the message we convey when we communicate. In addition to words, there are several non-verbal communicators we use consciously or subconsciously to convey our meaning, and our inner feelings and attitudes. Recognizing non-verbal behaviors is important in understanding the meaning of others, as well as conveying your own meaning. The area of non-verbal communication is vastly researched, but the information below will help you understand some basic gestures and generalization about certain non-verbal cues you are likely to encounter in the U.S.

While non-verbal behavior can lead to confusing communication, it is important to remember that you can always ask for clarification. It is not uncommon for people to seek reassurance if they feel that the person's behavior conflicts with the words they are speaking. For example, if you are having a bad day, you might say "I'm fine," when your body language is clearly exclaiming that you are not well.

Tone of Voice

Your tone can help you to punctuate feelings (I can't stand pizza!), can turn a statement into a question (We are meeting here later?), and can even cause someone to interpret your statements as sarcastic or mocking (Yeah, right...). Most of the time the tone of what we say matches with the gestures and facial expressions we make.

Personal Space

In some cultures, it is appropriate to get very close to someone if you are having a conversation, even with someone you do not know. Americans value personal space, and how you use space can act as a kind of non-verbal communicator. Here is a brief explanation of the types of space you should consider. Each example corresponds with a measurement indicative of the space between you and another person:

  • Intimate space - less than a foot. This space is shared with those we are emotionally close with, and can include embracing and touching. Communication should require no more than a whisper. Generally if you enter into someone else's intimate space, you receive a non-verbal gesture that either tells you it is ok, or it is not ok. If you see someone back up, put their hand or arm up to block you, or move their head back away from you, this is an indication that you are too close and the person does not like it. If the person smiles or begins to move into your intimate space as well, your action can be perceived as welcomed. Be aware that moving into someone's personal space is often seen as threatening and some people will be immediately defensive.
  • Social space - 3-12 feet, or at a minimum of arm's length. This is a comfortable range to have a discussion or hold a meeting. This is also an appropriate amount of space to interact with people who serve you, like receptionists, bankers, and grocery clerks. Most of our interactions with people occur in this space.
  • Public space - over 12 feet. Imagine you are in a park, having a picnic, or choosing a seat at the movies. If space is bountiful, you should pick a space more than about 12 feet away from someone else. To sit any closer might be perceived as uncomfortable to another person.

Gestures and Posture (Body Language)

Gestures and posture, or body language can speak very loudly. Here are how some gestures and postures can be perceived:

  • Crossed arms - Defensive
  • Crossed legs while standing - Closed off to what someone is saying
  • Standing with hands on your hips - Ready and in control, or aggressive
  • Hand covering mouth - Trying to hide emotions
  • Hand touching face - Can indicate lying or insecurity
  • Clenched fist - Aggression
  • Thumbs up or Thumbs down - Approval or disapproval, respectively
  • Open posture - Chest, shoulders and hips out and exposed indicates friendliness and openness
  • Closed posture - Hunched forward, legs and arms crossed, indicates hostility, unfriendliness and anxiety
  • Head or chin down - Can indicate subservience, insecurity or depression
  • Head or chin up - Indicates confidence and control

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are typically made up of the combination of messages sent by your mouth behavior and your eye behavior. Some people try to control their facial expressions to conceal their actual feelings, but this can be tough.

Eyes
Direct eye contact is a sign of attentiveness, though prolonged direct eye contact can be considered threatening, especially if the facial expression is not welcoming or friendly. Staring is inappropriate. If you are interested in someone, you can politely introduce yourself and start a conversation. Staring directly at someone with no intention of speaking with them is seen as extremely threatening and strange. You will most likely get a bad reaction if someone sees you staring at them. No eye contact or wavering eye contact can be a sign that someone is lying or is inattentive. Rapid or frequent blinking is a sign that someone is distressed or uncomfortable, and often lying.

Mouth
Lip biting is a sign of nervousness. Smiles can be misleading as well. We often say that you actually smile with your eyes and not your mouth. In fact, your eyes and mouth are usually consistent in the message they are sending. If there is inconsistency, you can usually read the person's true feelings in the eyes. For example, a "real" smile causes the eyes to squint. Fake or social smiles (if someone is just smiling to be polite) are usually tense, not as wide, may not show teeth, and the eyes may not squint, or may show a completely different emotion (such as anger, disbelief, or rapid blinking). Do not be surprised if you see many Americans smiling just to be polite.

 

What is a right?

A right is a moral or legal entitlement; it is something no one should legally or morally take away from you. In America, we have personal rights and legal rights.

What is a violation?

Just because these rights shouldn't be taken away does not always mean they are never taken anyway. When someone takes your rights away they are violating you.

Americans value personal rights. They tend to see everyone as equal individuals, regardless of skin color, gender, or ethnic background (see equality below). Here is a short list of some of your most important personal rights:

  • You have the right to make your own decisions about your mind, body and life. This includes:
    • Who you date and love (regardless of gender or color)
    • Medical decisions that affect your body (such as surgeries, medication and other medical care)
    • Where you go to school and what you choose to study or research
  • You have the right to say "no"
  • You have the right to defer your response
    • You don't have to make a decision right away if it affects your life, mind or body
  • You have the right to privacy and confidentiality in a counseling setting

 

What is a responsibility?

A responsibility is something you should do or not do. We also have social responsibilities and legal responsibilities.

Rights are impossible to maintain without a balanced set of responsibilities. These responsibilities essentially ensure that you are protecting other individuals' personal rights.

  • Respect others' decisions, including when they say “no.”
  • Do not push or coerce someone into doing something that they do not want to do. If you feel that someone is putting him or herself in danger, call 911 immediately.
  • If you see someone treating someone else with disrespect, if you witness someone's rights being violated, or you are worried that someone may be a danger to his or herself, you must tell someone who can help. Call 911 or contact a support service on or off campus immediately. Americans call this bystander intervention. Examples might be:
    • You notice that a friend seems distressed and unusually dejected
    • Someone tells you they are contemplating suicide, murder, violence, or rape
    • You witness someone forcing themselves on someone else in a sexual way, and the victim seems to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • If someone is unable to make an educated decision because they are mentally incapacitated (because they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol), you should not put them in a situation where they must make a decision about their life, mind or body. You must wait until the person is sober until they can make a decision like this. Decisions like these include:
    • Asking for consent (permission) to have sex with someone
    • Giving someone more drugs or alcohol to ingest
    • Encouraging someone to get a tattoo or body piercing
    • Encouraging someone to spend money lavishly
  • You must give others the opportunity to think about decisions that affect their life, mind and body; you must not force someone to make a decision quickly.

In general, Americans see themselves as equal members of society. Women, men, and people of all races and religious affiliations are granted the same legal and personal rights, and must uphold the same legal and social responsibilities. Also, while Americans do sometimes feel distinctions among themselves with regard to socioeconomic class (wealth), and age, it is not common for people to treat others differently with regard to class or age. Americans of all classes and ages sit together, shop together, and speak with each other using the same tone of voice. Due to this equal treatment, some international visitors or scholars may feel that they are not properly respected by Americans. You should understand that Americans value people as equal members or society, and it is not typical to give people preferential treatment on the basis of wealth or age.
In some instances, Americans will show special kindness toward older people and women. For example, it is also not uncommon to see a man opening doors or offering his seat to a woman or an older person. This type of kindness is not expected by most Americans, but it is welcomed as a polite gesture.

While Americans tend to abide by the personal and social rights, responsibilities and tendencies outlined, in reality this is not always the case. There are still stereotypes, discrimination, and preferential treatments among groups of people in America. The aforementioned are generalizations about most Americans, and for the most part you will find that they are true; however, as American culture changes, it takes time for everyone to "get on board." American culture has changed dramatically even in the past 50 years, and not everyone adjusts so quickly to change.

If you have questions about something you see or hear, or wish to seek guidance, support, or need a friendly person to talk to, contact:

The Office of Equity and Inclusion 
The Center for Global Programs & Services 

Alcohol

The legal age for buying, transporting and consuming alcohol in the U.S. is 21. Even if you are legally old enough to drink alcohol in your own country, you must be 21 to drink or buy alcohol in America. In Delaware, it is even illegal for you to be inside a liquor store if you are not 21.

Drugs

Drug use appears in many forms in American culture. While there are legal drugs, even these could be harmful if used improperly. The best advice to remember is that you should follow the guidelines on over the counter and prescription drugs, and never take anything else. If you are at a party and you are offered drugs, you should politely but assertively decline. You may see Americans using special drugs to "focus" or study harder, but remember that without a prescription and a doctor's approval, this type of drug use is very dangerous. If you feel that you are having trouble focusing, if you feel depressed, or otherwise need assistance, seek the advice of a counselor or doctor.

In addition to these guidelines regulations, the University of Delaware has policies on alcohol and drugs on campus

Smoking

Smoking tobacco is permitted in the U.S. if you are over 18, but you will find that more and more public and private spaces prohibit smoking, especially indoors. If a location prohibits smoking, there is usually a designated area for smokers so you should find out where that location is before you partake. Never assume that smoking is permitted, especially in someone's home. In general, smoking is not permitted indoors anywhere, even in most restaurants and bars. Because smoking is so uncommon anymore, it is polite to ask your guests if anyone objects before you smoke, even if you are in your own personal space. 

In an effort to promote a healthy campus, the University of Delaware prohibits the use of all tobacco products on University property. This is explained furtner in the University of Delaware policy on smoking on campus

Friendship is important to Americans. You will find that many Americans have a wide variety of people they communicate, work, and spend time with. Americans are likely to be liberal with the term "friend," and may use the term to describe someone they just met, a colleague or classmate, or someone they have known for their whole life. It is important to remember that many Americans, because of the individualistic nature, see friends as part of their own domain, and may seem to give up friendships with less stress than you are used to. This is a normal part of American life. As your interests and lifestyle change, your circle of friends will change too.

Do not be hesitant to make friends with Americans, and do not be put off by a few bad experiences. While Americans tend to have many acquaintances who they call "friends," the number of close friendships any individual has is usually much smaller. Give your relationships and friendships time to evolve! Most Americans are happy to meet new people, especially if you share common interests. In seeking new friends, simply do the activities that you enjoy and make friends with those around you; you should never feel pressured to do something you feel is wrong just to make friends.

You may find that rules in America about social dating are more laid back than in your culture. It is typical for Americans to start dating at a young age, and typically this type of dating includes going places together and labeling the other person as a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend." In fact, you may hear Americans colloquially talk about "going out" with someone. There is no understanding that dating relationships must last for a long time, that they must include physical interaction or that they will end in marriage. These relationships are, in most cases, not arranged by others but rather evolve from friendships or social networks. It is understood that two people who are "dating" or "going out" do so with each other, exclusively; however, it is important that you talk to your dating partner about engagements with others. In America, the degree to which a dating couple is committed varies heavily on the relationship and communication is extremely important. In general, the longer a dating couple has been together, the more of a sense of exclusivity there is. While some dating relationships can become very serious, it happens through mutual consent and desire of both parties. You should never force someone into a serious relationship, and there is no understanding that you should feel forced into a serious physical or emotional commitment.

In American culture, people are expected to make their own decisions. Making big decisions that can affect one's life can be a daunting task, and American's generally look to advisors for help. Advisors are not expected to make decisions on behalf of individuals, and you should not feel pressured to make a decision simply because an advisor wants you to; however, there are exceptions so use your judgment. Typically if the advisor has an area of expertise (for example your academic advisor, or your immigration advisor) you can trust that the information coming from that person in that area is valid.

The Home

Family is important to Americans, and the family dynamic can be very complex. Due to the individualistic nature of American culture, most young adults leave their parents' house and build their own small family unit. Typically, this home consists of parents and children. Sometimes, a grandparent or additional extended family member may live in the house, but generally generations of families and multiple families do not cohabitate. The concept of "home" can also be intangible. To Americans, home may also refer to a larger place where they grew up, or wherever the family might be. You will hear idioms like "Home is where the heart is" and "Home for the Holidays" (even if they are not returning to the physical house where they grew up.)


Types of Families

You will encounter many different kinds of families in the U.S. Some are single-parent homes, where one parent is raising a child or children. In others, both parents raise the children together in one house. Some couples are married and some are not, even if they have children. Because divorce is fairly common, many children have two homes, one with each parent. Sometimes these divorced parents also have new spouses and additional children.


Attitudes about Family

As complex and diverged as they may be, Americans still value family. Holidays are important to Americans because they are times when families tend to come together from all over the country. As people advance in age, in some cultures they are cared for by immediate family in the same home. In American culture, it is normal for people to find a nursing home to take care of their old or sick relatives. This gesture is not seen as disrespectful or unloving by the young or the old family member. Instead, there is an understanding that the facility can take better care of the sick or old individual than the busy, working young person can.

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ISSS Disclaimer: The information contained on this web site is provided as a service to international students, faculty, staff, employees, and administrators at the University of Delaware, and does not constitute legal advice on any immigration, tax, or other matter. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided herein should be used as a substitute for the advice of official counsel. For assistance on your immigration status, we encourage you to contact an ISS advisor for specific guidance at oiss@udel.edu.