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The International Student Services office


Cultural Adjustment and Culture Shock

Adjusting to life in another culture can be challenging. At first it might seem rather exciting, but as the excitement wears off, it can become intimidating and at times, frustrating. However, after settling in, most students adjust and become very comfortable in their new surroundings. This section provides helpful information on what you can expect in common situations.

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Sense of Time and Timeliness

The culture in the U.S. is very time-conscious. Americans greatly value punctuality and expect others to be mindful of appointments and agreed-upon meeting times. Generally, plan to be five minutes early for an appointment or meeting. Arriving at the exact meeting time is considered too late. This also applies to your classes and assignment deadlines. Lateness is not tolerated and, in fact, can mean zero credit on an assignment, test, or quiz if you miss the deadline. Work hard to be on time!

Conversation and Communication


International flags hanging from a spiral staircase

A student once said, “I passed someone on the sidewalk and they asked, ‘How are you?’, but they didn’t stop, they just kept walking away…that’s so rude!”   

In America, friendly greetings are very often phrased “Hi! How are you?” It is simply a friendly greeting as they walk by and not an indicator that the person wants to stop and have a long conversation. A proper response would be “I’m doing well, thanks!”

Depth of Conversation

Americans often have simple conversations of basic depth (talking about the weather, something they recently watched, a favorite snack) and that is how they begin to learn about others and decide whether a friendship might develop. Start with concrete facts and information and as you get to know one another, and deeper information about feelings and personality will follow. Learn the art of casual conversation and watch friendships bloom!


Americans are typically very direct. They do not ‘hint’ at things, but will directly state what they think or need. They might not easily pick up on indirect communication either. Be courteous and straightforward when addressing a need or question.

Classroom Communication

The American classroom is an interactive experience. Professors will often ask for student input and are willing to answer questions during the course of the class period. Often, a portion of the student’s grade for a course will be listed as “Participation” and it is dependent on the student offering thoughts and questions in class.

Email Communication

It is important the all students check and read their email daily. When responding via email, it is important to communicate professionally and with respect. Be mindful of how you ‘sound’ in your email, and please proofread for errors before sending!


Individualism and independence are greatly valued in America. Children are raised from a young age to be independent and manage things on their own. Some cultures are collective in their approach considering what is best for the group and not just the individual. Group harmony is not always the primary consideration when making decisions or taking action.


You will see the American flag all over as you travel and live here in the U.S. The National Anthem is played at most sporting events, and there are various holidays throughout the year that show appreciation for our heritage. Americans deeply value the freedom that we have here and they hold great respect for those who fought to defend our country and protect our freedom, as well as those who serve in the military today. It may seem odd, at times, if you are not familiar with the culture. Please understand that the celebration and show of respect is not because Americans look down on other nations, it’s because Americans love their country, a lot!

Developing Friendships

Americans take their time to develop deep friendships, and they are cautious about revealing their deeper feelings and values. They often begin friendships with conversation and at first, it may seem as if you’re talking about nothing of depth or importance. Give it time. Americans are not quick to reveal their emotions but are cautious until they feel it is safe and comfortable. They often want information first to determine if they are comfortable developing a relationship. Americans value friendship and are very loyal. Conversation and time are the two greatest ingredients in developing great friendships.


America offers a lot of fast food options: burgers, fries, and pizza are just a few of the many choices. Take the time to discover the different fresh, healthy options offered in the dining. You can also purchase healthy snacks to keep in your residence hall room — things like fruit, granola, and yogurt are great snack options that will keep you eating healthy!

Personal Space

Personal space varies by culture. Americans appreciate more personal space than other cultures. You might notice that if you stand a bit close, they will back away from you. This is not an indication that they do not like you, but it is an instinctive response. Be mindful that close proximity is not always welcome, but often will relax a bit once the other person gets to know you better. Typically, an arms-length between you and the other person is the comfortable and acceptable amount of space expected. Personal contact is also uncomfortable and unwelcome until a deeper level of friendship is shared.

The Freshman 15

This is a ‘nickname’ for the weight gain that some freshmen experience during their first semester. The food at the dining hall is plentiful and students are welcome to eat as much as they like; however, food choices are important. Make sure you’re eating a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits. Too much of a good thing can be bad, so drink more water than carbonated beverages. Eat more vegetables than dessert. Exercise is important, too! You will be able to stay healthy, reduce your stress, and manage your first year well when you maintain a balance.

Pitching in Money

When a group of students get together to go to the store or go out to eat at a restaurant, it is appropriate that everyone split the cost of gas and reimburse the driver. It’s viewed as being considerate toward the person who owns and drives the car and will ensure that they do not feel others are taking advantage of them. They perhaps may refuse the money, but it is appropriate to offer and be willing to help cover the cost.


Tipping, or paying a gratuity, is expected when going to sit-down restaurants where you have a server, or when you get your haircut or a manicure/pedicure. Many of the people who work in these particular jobs work for reduced wages, so they depend on tips to help them earn enough for the day. Tipping is a way of thanking the server or provider for their good service. Most people will give a gratuity of 15%–20% of the value of the meal or service as a gratuity. For example, if your meal was $10, you would leave $1.50–$2.00 on the table for the server. Here are a few examples of where you might and might not tip:

  • Sit-down restaurant (such as the Cheesecake Factory) - YES
  • McDonalds or Burger King – NO
  • A car wash (only if people dry your car at the end) – YES
  • A drive-through window – NO
  • Taxi driver or valet – YES
  • Bus –NO

If you're confused about tipping, ask a friend!

More information about American culture »