5 Aspects of U.S. Culture the International Student Needs to Know

5 Aspects of U.S. Culture the International Student Needs to Know

Oftentimes an advanced student will feel fairly comfortable with the English language but still have concerns with understanding and fitting in with American culture.

For example, at a recent tutoring session with a student from Germany, in a conference room at his worksite, he discussed how he was having a hard time getting used to American work and communication patterns: in Germany, for example, if a supervisor asked an employee to do something, generally he would just do it; here it tends to get discussed for a long time and debated before anyone does anything—or it doesn’t get done at all. Similarly, an excessive amount of time is spent—or wasted, depending on your viewpoint—in meetings. Both of these phenomena can probably be traced to our very founding as a nation—our uneasy relationship with authority and unwillingness to “just do” anything because someone in authority says so as well as our history of self-governance, which relies on meetings (and may actually come to us from Native Americans and their tribal councils). These can certainly be positive traits although they have negatives, such as wasting time, as my student mentioned. In addition, they are habits and values that can be hard to get used to although they can be learned. Finally, these observations do not, of course, apply to all Americans but rather to the culture in general, but students should learn something about different aspects of U.S. culture to understand and function within it.

Aspects of U.S. for ESL Students to Learn

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    Americans tend to emphasize the value of time more than other cultures. This can be seen in the prevalence of clocks and watches, for example. “What time is it?” is a question taught early on in foreign language and ESL classes. Lateness of more than ten minutes to an appointment generally requires some sort of explanation and apology. We even speak of time in terms of money: “to spend time,” “to waste time,” “to save time,” and even “time is money.” On one memorable occasional in an ESL class, all of my students seemed to be shuffling in about a quarter of an hour late, much to my irritation. I finally treated the class to a diatribe on the value Americans placed on time, that being consistently late would lower the grades and get them fired from jobs, lose them friendships, and so on. One student finally spoke up: “What time do you think this class begins, Professor?” It was only then that I remembered that the class began at twenty minutes after the hour, not on the hour, so actually the students, who were showing more awareness of time than I was in this case, were early, not late. However, although I was wrong about the start time of that particular class, I was right about the value attached to time in general.

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    Americans tend to be more sensitive about space than many people; the notorious “three foot bubble,” describing social distance in the U.S., being fairly accurate. This is a large country which has at least a heritage of wide open spaces, and that has affected the people living here. There is even a well-known phrase, “I need some space,” or “Give me some space,” which means roughly “Leave me alone,” or “I need privacy,” but can be taken almost literally to mean “space” in the sense of an implied separation and distance from the addressee.

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    Americans also put a great value on work, and the country has been recognized by the U.N. as one of the most productive in the world. An economic depression becomes a real physical one to many individuals who find themselves out of work. This value of work probably goes back to the Puritan heritage of the country and their work ethic, the belief that hard work made one a good and valuable person. Most people in the U.S. have probably been affected by this prevalent value, no matter what their personal heritage, either by embracing it or rebelling against it.

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    Americans are among the worst savers and biggest spenders in the world; it is no consequence that our national debt is now in the trillions of dollars. This gets enacted a the personal level as well: people routinely spend more than they have through use of credit cards. ESL students should remember that their American friends who seem to have a luxurious lifestyle and to be able to buy whatever they want may very well be doing this on credit and to not adopt this behavior or encourage the friend in it.

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    Friendships can be difficult to make and maintain in the U.S. for some of the reasons discussed here: the work ethic and resultant lack of time as well as the need for “space” and fear of intimacy that perhaps does not exist in many cultures. Much of American literature addresses in some way this theme of the difficulty of achieving intimacy, from The Great Gatsby to The Catcher in the Rye, reflecting the nation’s anxiety. Still, once others can get past initial barriers, Americans are capable of strong friendship ties although they may seem initially difficult to get to know.

No culture, of course, can be reduced to a couple of observations in a few pages.

However, by being introduced to a few American norms and values regarding time, relationships, and money, for example, ESL students can begin to understand the culture better, and understanding leads to fitting in better, if only for the small time that the student attends college in the U.S.

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