Living in the U.S.

Intercultural Communication
American Culture
Guidelines for Practical Situations
Holidays and Celebrations

Intercultural Communication

Living in a community with people from all over the world can be a positive, indifferent, or negative experience, depending on how you want to approach it. We would like to help make your relationships here pleasant and educational rather than tense and unproductive.

Building Understanding

The essential first step to successful intercultural communication is to concentrate on understanding rather than judging the other person. If both parties do this, then any cause for mutual anxiety is eliminated. Both parties are free to know each other rather than worrying about their personal insecurities in dealing with people whose cultures differ from their own.

How do we seek this understanding? Usually, of course, it is by communicating or talking with the other person. When the other person is talking, you are trying to figure out what he/she means by the words he or she chooses and the accompanying behavior. This process is more complex when the other person is different from you. Words will not mean the same things to both of you, since differences in your cultural backgrounds mean that particular words and ideas don't have the same significance for both of you.

Another topic about which cultures teach different assumptions is the concept of the individual. U.S. citizens are taught to admire the "rugged individualist," the strong, self-reliant person who "does his own thing" and relates to other people in an informal, egalitarian way. People from many other cultures consider U.S. citizens to be "too individualistic." They think that Americans tend to be selfish, self-centered, disrespectful of authority and inadequately concerned about the feelings of others. Generally, people who hold this opinion have been raised in cultures where it is expected that the feelings and needs of others must be considered when making any decision.

There are many other important differences in assumptions and values that distinguish various cultures. They are too numerous and complicated to discuss here.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication habits differ from culture to culture, giving rise to distraction if not misunderstanding when representatives of different cultures interact. Non-verbal communication influences many things such as the use of space, or how far from another person you stand when you talk; the use of time, or what constitutes "promptness" and how important it is; and the use of gestures, or how much the hands and arms accompany conversation.

If you are a Latin American, for example, you might decide that North Americans are "cold" because they tend to move away from you when you talk with them, or because they do not touch you when you talk. In fact, they have learned to stand further away from conversational partners than you have, and they have not learned to touch others as a sign of casual friendship.

Communication Skills and Guidelines

Here are some skills you can practice and guidelines you can follow when talking with someone from another culture.

Pay attention. Try to clear your mind of its various preoccupations so you can concentrate on what you and your friend are saying.

Listen carefully. Set your assumptions and values aside and try to hear not just what other people are saying, but what they mean by what they say. You may find that this requires you to ask a lot of questions.

Be complete and explicit. Be ready to explain your point in more than one way, and even to explain why you are trying to make a particular point in the first place.

Ask for verification. After you have spoken, try to get confirmation that you have been understood.

Ask your friend to restate what you have said by saying something like this: "I want to be sure I made myself clear, so would you tell me what you understood me to say?" It does not usually work to ask your friend "Do you understand?" Most people will say "yes" to that question, whether they understand or not.

Do not ask questions that you would not or could not answer yourself. For example, if you could not describe your countrymen's attitude towards women's liberation, do not ask your friend what his countrymen think about it. Following this guideline will help you avoid asking embarrassing or silly questions.

Don't be afraid to ask someone for clarification. When you are, or think you may be, having trouble communicating, talk about the trouble you are having. By using phrases such as "I do not understand that point," or "I am not sure how that relates to what you said before, " or "I do not think I made myself clear," or "let me explain why I am telling you this," you can focus your attention on the process of communication--rather than on the topic you were discussing--and try to clear up any confusion.

Relationships With a Language Barrier

It sometimes happens that people communicating across cultures will have a language barrier. That is, the foreign person's English proficiency is limited, as is the U.S. person's proficiency in the foreign person's language. This naturally inhibits their ability to converse with and understand each other.

Nearly all newly arrived internationals from a non-English speaking country experience some difficulty with local American English during the initial part of their stay. After a few weeks of exposure to the local English vocabulary, internationals "tune in" and are able to speak and understand much more easily.

It does take an extended length of time to develop complete proficiency in a second language, and occasional misunderstandings will probably still occur. Try not to let these misunderstandings keep you from trying to establish relationships with people from another culture.

Try to challenge yourself by making the most of your contact and using the language of your host country environment. Having friends here from your home country speak English and use the language is the best way to learn. Avoid falling into the common problem of speaking and congregating predominantly with fellow country-persons who are here. Practicing the language and experiencing the culture is the best way to learn and become more proficient.

American Culture

Family Life in Other Cultures

You are now living in a community composed of families from around the world. This is an excellent opportunity to observe habits and customs that may be completely new to you. You may find the roles, behaviors and even dress of men and women are quite different from what you are used to. The care and behavior of children varies widely from culture to culture. Many families practice religious customs that may be unknown to you. Different cultures start and end their day at different hours. Their voices may seem much louder or softer than you are used to. Eating habits and choices of food may be unfamiliar.

Amidst the endless variety of possible lifestyles, remember the family is a universal institution no matter what form it takes. Each family unit around the world meets its basic needs in different ways. Using information in this section, you can become better at interacting with a family that may have values and customs that are very new to you.

American Characteristics, Manners, and Customs

It would be impossible to describe all the customs and traditions of the United States in this handbook. However, there are a few major social customs of which you might like to be aware. Social customs are constantly changing in our society; they are especially diverse in a university setting where there are many people representing a variety of ethnic, religious, socio-economic, age, occupational and other types of groups.

We do not expect you to change your own customs or identity!

However, we do hope that a knowledge of our culture will help you to understand it better and make your stay in our country more enjoyable.

In the following material, and generally in this country, the term "Americans" refers to the people living in the U.S. We are not the only Americans. In other contexts "Americans" may mean any of the inhabitants of North or South America.

Individualism

Americans value independence. They generally believe that the ideal person is autonomous and self-reliant. This may mean that they prefer to spend less time with their friends than in other cultures. They often dislike being dependent on other people, or having others depend on them. Other cultures may view this diversity as "selfishness" or as a "healthy freedom" from the constraints of ties to family, clan or social class.

Informality

Americans tolerate a considerable degree of informality in dress, relationships between people and methods of communication. In some cultures this may seem like a "lack of respect." In others it reflects concern for social ritual, confidence and comfort in a friendship or relationship, or a healthy lack of concern for social ritual.

Making Friends

You may find that Americans smile easily and are not hesitant to talk about personal matters. This is not an automatic commitment to friendship. In this mobile society where Americans are taught to be self-reliant, friendships are often transitory and established to meet personal needs within a particular amount of time.

Many Americans have casual relationships that are loosely termed as "friends at work" or "friends at school" and so on. Only a few very close friendships are formed. Friendships are usually the result of repeated interactions between individuals who share similar views and a variety of experiences together. Casual friendships are especially common among college-age students who are trying to establish personal autonomy and are coming into contact with a variety of people representing different values and life-styles.

This is not meant to discourage international students or scholars from attempting to establish friendships with Americans. Most Americans readily accept new people into their social groups. One of the best ways to meet Americans is to go to concerts, sporting events and church activities, or to join a special interest group on campus.

Time Consciousness

"Doing" is very important to Americans and "wasting time" is viewed negatively and discouraged. For business and most meetings involving a group of people, a date or dinner invitation, punctuality is very important. For many other social events, such as large informal parties, time is more flexible.

Many Americans organize their activities according to a schedule. As a result, they always seem to be running around, hurrying to get to their next "appointment." This fast pace of life may be overwhelming for people from other cultures.

Do not feel obligated to maintain the same type of social schedule. However, you will likely be expected to maintain an "American" work or study schedule with reasonable promptness.

Materialism

"Success" in American society may often be marked by the amount of money or the quantity of material goods a person is able to accumulate. Hard work, cleverness, and persistence are valued by some as a means to accumulate material things. Some cultures view this as a "lack of appreciation for spiritual or human things in life." Others may see this outlook as the way to sustain a comparatively high standard of living.

Personal Hygiene

Most Americans are extremely conscious of cleanliness. In general, Americans will spend a great deal of their income on personal care items to keep themselves clean and smelling good.

In order to be considered an accepted friend or member of any age group, similar good personal hygiene is generally expected, appreciated and of value.

Guidelines for Practical Situations

This section provides more specific information about the behavior that Americans usually expect in certain situations.

Meeting Americans

When two people are first introduced there is a ritual greeting. The dialogue is: "How do you do?" "Fine thank you, how are you?" "Fine thanks." After the first meeting, a more formal "Good morning" or "Good afternoon," or a less formal "Hello" or "Hi" followed by, "How are you?" is customary. The answer is usually "Fine," whether or not you are fine.

Men usually shake hands with each other the first time they meet. Men usually do not shake hands with women unless the woman extends her hand first. Women usually do not shake hands with one another.

Americans frequently use first names. This is true even when people first meet. Address people of your own approximate age and status by first name. If the other person is clearly older than you, you should say Mr., Mrs., or Ms. (for both unmarried and married women), and the last name. Unless a faculty member or someone else with a title tells you to use his or her first name, address that person using his or her title and last name. We do not use any titles with first names in this country.

The use of "nicknames" is common among Americans. A nickname is not a person's real name, but rather a name used in place of (either to endear or to simplify) the person's real name. Americans may use a shortened version of your name or use an American name that is similar to yours, if they find your name difficult to pronounce. In doing so, they are giving you a nickname. Being called by a nickname usually indicates that you are viewed with respect and even affection.

Americans are usually quite verbal when they are with one another. Unless they are very close friends, "being quiet" is usually noticed. Long silences are often uncomfortable to Americans. For this reason, Americans may "make small talk" or discuss "trivia." This type of conversation often takes place before any serious conversation.

When Americans talk to one another, they usually establish eye contact and keep a distance of about two feet. It is extremely uncomfortable for most Americans to talk with someone who stands "too close" to them, and you will find them backing away from such a situation. Physical contact, other than shaking hands, connotes sexual attraction or aggressiveness to some Americans.

Visiting Americans

You may receive a verbal or written invitation from an American to visit his or her home. You should always answer a written invitation, especially if it says "R.S.V.P." (Incidentally, "R.S.V.P." means "repondez s'il-vous-plaît, which is French for "respond please"). Do not say that you will attend unless you plan to do so. It is acceptable to ask your host about appropriate clothing.

It is polite to arrive on time for special dinners and parties. If you will be late, call your host as soon as possible to explain.

When you visit an American, especially for dinner, you will be asked what you would like to drink. You do not need to drink an alcoholic beverage. If you have any dietary restrictions you should tell the host at the time you accept the invitation.

It is not necessary to bring a gift, unless it is a special occasion--a birthday, or an important holiday such as Christmas. However, you may always politely ask your host if there is anything you can bring. It is also nice to give a small gift if you are invited as a house guest for an extended visit. When you are invited to someone's home, you should ask if there is anything you can do to help in preparing the meal or cleaning up afterwards.

Most Americans consider it polite for guests to leave one or two hours after dinner unless a special party has been planned or you are asked to stay longer. It is a good idea to write a thank-you note afterwards to express how much you enjoyed the evening. You may also call your host a few days later to express appreciation.

"Potluck" dinners are very common. "Potluck" usually means that each guest or family brings part of the meal. The person organizing the dinner will tell you which part of the meal you are expected to bring. It is fine to bring a typical dish of your country.

Gifts

As a rule, gifts are given only to relatives and close friends. It is acceptable to give a gift to a host or hostess or to someone with whom you have a more casual relationship, but it is not required or even very common to do so. Gifts are not usually given to people in official positions; such a gift may be misinterpreted as a way to gain favor or special treatment. It is acceptable to give teachers a gift of appreciation, but it is better to do so after you have completed the course.

Americans usually give gifts to family and friends at Christmas, birthdays, weddings, graduations, and upon the birth of a child. Gifts are also sometimes given to someone who has moved into a new house or is moving away. Gifts are not expected to be very expensive. More expensive gifts are acceptable between people who are close to one another. It is best to give something which the recipient needs, wants or would enjoy.

It is best to open gifts in the presence of the giver, if possible. A verbal expression of thanks is appropriate. If the gift is opened in the absence of the giver, a thank-you note specifically mentioning the gift should be sent. This is an important custom for most Americans, signifying that you truly like the gift and appreciate the thoughtfulness of the giver.

Contributions and Charities

On occasion, someone may ask you to contribute money for a co-worker because they have had a personal tragedy, a new family addition, or some other special reason. In these situations, it is considered nice to contribute a dollar or two. However, if you do not know the co-worker or do not feel close to them, it is not impolite or rude to refuse a contribution to the fund.

More than once, you may be asked to contribute money to a charity. Most Americans contribute to causes that are similar to their own values and/or interests. All donations, no matter how small, are appreciated by the people that benefit from them. However, do not feel obligated to contribute money every time you are asked. There are literally thousands of charities in America, and some of them may not be legitimate. It may be a good idea to talk to a friend or co-worker, or call the Better Business Bureau for information on a particular charity before giving money to it. This way, you can be sure your contribution will be doing the intended good.

Dating Americans

In the United States, relationships between young unmarried people are informal and involve a broad range of activities and values. Some unmarried couples live together, some maintain one relationship and some date many different people without commitment to one person. This may be confusing for a non-American. An invitation to a dinner, movie, dance, concert, etc. does not imply an emotional attachment, but it does mean that someone's company is enjoyed. Usually "a date" means meeting someone to "do something" which may be planned in advance or agreed upon spontaneously.

In the United States, men still tend to initiate invitations for dates, although many women feel equally comfortable asking or calling someone for a date. In this country, when someone is "asked out"--asked to go on a date-- he or she may politely decline. If he or she declines three or four requests for a date with someone, that person probably does not wish to "go out." It is usually not polite to demand a reason or explanation for a refusal. However, the person being asked "out" may offer one.

Many students do not have much money and may "go dutch," that is, they will share the cost of the entertainment. In a more formal situation, the man is still expected to pay for the transportation and entertainment. However, it is always acceptable to offer to help share the cost.

"Breaking a date" is considered serious for most Americans. If you must break a date, but still wish to meet that person, it is okay to propose a change in plans. It is polite to inform the other person as soon as possible, prior to the planned date or event.

The amount of physical contact between men and women in the United States depends on the affection that two people feel for one another. Americans' opinions differ on this issue according to their personal values and upbringing. A casual hug or holding hands with someone of the opposite sex should not necessarily be interpreted as an invitation to greater intimacy. Misunderstandings may result when members of the opposite sex are from different cultures.

It is hoped individuals will be patient and respect the feelings and social customs of others. Americans value and respect talking honestly and openly about their feelings, whereas people from other cultures might feel uncomfortable doing so. It is also acceptable to say that one does not feel completely comfortable discussing such matters.

Holidays and Celebrations

Holidays in the United States

Americans love holidays. Many Americans use the time to spend time with family and friends. Big parties or picnics are commonplace during these events. Stores abound with decorations and theme items that Americans purchase to "get into the spirit" of the holiday.

The celebration of some holidays takes place on the Monday nearest the date of the event which the holiday commemorates. Many businesses, schools and government offices close to observe legal holidays.

There are six major national legal holidays in the United States: New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Labor Day, and Memorial Day. Not all holidays or "special days" are observed by all Americans. Many are not legal holidays. Some are holidays only for members of certain religions or certain groups of people.

The following is a list of some of the major U.S. holidays

New Year's Eve and New Year's Day (December 31/January 1)

On New Year's Eve, many people attend parties and celebrate. At midnight it is customary to make loud noises and embrace or kiss friends. On New Year's Day, there are special parades and football games on television.

Martin Luther King Day (January 20 or nearest Monday)

Martin Luther King was a great U.S. civil rights leader. He worked for nonviolent solutions to civil rights issues.

Abraham Lincoln's Birthday (February 12 or nearest Monday)

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. He was president during the U.S. Civil War. He is remembered for having issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared slaves to be free. He is also credited with keeping the United States unified.

St. Valentine's Day (February 14)

A day for lovers to exchange cards and/or gifts. Children in primary school usually exchange valentine cards with their classmates. Hearts, flowers and cupids are traditionally used to decorate.

George Washington's Birthday (February 22 or nearest Monday)

George Washington was the first president of the United States.

Ash Wednesday (date varies, 40 days before Easter Sunday)

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day period of penitence and fasting in Christian denominations. On this day, some Christians attend a church service where a small smudge of ointment and ash is placed on their foreheads to symbolize man's ultimate return to dust.

St. Patrick's Day (March 17)

This is a day dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland. Although in Ireland, this is a very serious celebration, in America, it is a more relaxed and casual celebration. Many people wear something green on this day, exchange cards and decorate with the green shamrock symbols. Several bars and restaurants will have special celebrations and serve green-colored beer.

Passover (dates vary in March or April)

Jewish holiday celebrated in commemoration of the Hebrews' liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday (dates vary in March or April)

On Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) and Easter Sunday (date varies, first Sunday after first full moon after vernal equinox). Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is also a celebration of the revival of Spring. Children usually hunt for colored hard-boiled eggs and candies which are hidden by a mythical "Easter Bunny" or "Easter Rabbit."

Mother's Day (the second Sunday in May)

This day honors mothers and grandmothers, step-mothers, and special women who have had special influences on the guidance of our lives. Gifts, cards and/or special attention are given to these women on this day.

Memorial Day (May 30 or nearest Monday)

Memorial Day was created to honor members of the U.S. armed forces who died during the nation's wars. Many people use this holiday to remember lost loved ones, whether they died during a war or not. Many people decorate the graves of deceased relatives with flowers, U.S. flags, or wreaths. Afterwards, there are picnics and barbecue parties with family and friends. Memorial Day signals the "unofficial" beginning of the summer season.

Father's Day (the third Sunday in June)

This day honors fathers and grandfathers, step-fathers, and special men who have had special influences on the guidance of our lives. Father's Day is celebrated in much the same way as Mother's Day.

Independence Day or the Fourth of July (July 4)

Although the Declaration of Independence wasn't actually signed on the 4th of July, this day is set aside as the day to celebrate the United States declaration of independence from Great Britain. Many communities have their own parades and spectacular fireworks displays. Decorations are done in the colors of our flag: red, white and blue. Many Americans have picnics with family and friends.

Labor Day (the first Monday of September)

Labor Day recognizes the workers of America. It signifies the importance of labor and labor organizations to our country. It also signals the end of summer.

Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur (dates vary in September/October)

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement (dates vary in September or October). These are the High Holy Days in the Jewish religion.

Columbus Day (October 12 or nearest Monday)

Commemorates the landing of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus on the shores of North America. This is also a legal holiday.

Halloween (October 31)

Halloween is a children's holiday, originally "All Saint's Eve." It was believed that the dead returned that night to roam the earth as ghosts. In the United States, young children wear costumes and masks on the night of October 31, and people carve faces on pumpkins called "jack-o-lanterns." Black and orange are the colors used for decorations; witches, black cats and ghosts are symbols of this day. Children knock on their neighbors' doors calling out "Trick or Treat." People are expected to give out pieces of candy or fruit. There may be parties at primary schools for young children to celebrate this day.

It is important for young children to be accompanied by parents when trick or treating. It is a good idea to make sure that children are careful about traffic on this night.

A word of caution about Halloween: Although it has not been a major problem in Memphis, on occasion people have attempted to ruin this holiday by giving children unsafe things to eat. Children should be told never to eat their treats until they get home and the treats have been approved by their parents. All candy should be inspected carefully for any signs of tampering (loose wrapping, holes, strange smells, etc.) If you are unsure of the safety of an item, discard it immediately. Any type of homemade treat should be discarded as well, unless you know the item came from someone you trust.

Veterans Day (November 11)

A legal holiday for federal employees commemorating the end of hostilities in World Wars I and II. This day honors veterans of armed services in the United States.

Election Day (first Tuesday in November)

Americans vote for their governing officials on this day. Depending upon the year, elections may be municipal, county, state and/or national.

Thanksgiving (4th Thursday in November)

Americans traditionally enjoy a big meal on this day with family and friends. Thanksgiving Day commemorates the first successful harvest of the Pilgrims in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1621. The Indians and Pilgrims feasted together and gave thanks to God for a good harvest. Thanksgiving dinner usually includes turkey, pumpkin pie, and other foods that the Pilgrims ate on the first Thanksgiving.

Hanukkah (late November or early December)

An eight-day Jewish holiday marking the rededication of the Temple.

Christmas (December 25)

This day began as a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is now a widely celebrated day of feasting and gift-giving. Even before Thanksgiving people begin to buy gifts and decorate both home and public places in preparation for Christmas.

Young children believe that "Santa Claus," a mythical white-bearded man in a red suit, visits the homes of children on the night of December 24 and leaves gifts for them while they sleep. The celebration of Christmas varies greatly in the U.S. according to ethnic and religious backgrounds. Nonetheless, most people decorate a Christmas tree with colored lights and ornaments, open gifts with their family on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and prepare special meals.

The entire "Holiday Season" extends from before Thanksgiving Day to New Year's Day. During this time, businesses and individuals give many parties. Friends reunite to celebrate the season or send Christmas cards to each other. This is generally a very good time to remember those who are very special to us.

Your own holidays

Your own national holidays are very important while you are in the United States. If you would like to observe a special holiday and wish to keep your child home from school, you must notify school officials in advance.

Many Americans are curious about their international friends and would like to learn about your holidays and even participate in them.

Birthdays

In the United States, most Americans celebrate their birthdays. Children and even adults usually have birthday parties where friends help celebrate the occasion. A cake is served with candles to represent each year of the person's life. Most adults, being more sensitive about their age, have only a few candles on their cakes. Family and friends often give cards and small gifts to the person celebrating a birthday.

[Special thanks to Jae Taylor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center for sharing this information.]

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