Students will sometimes ask us this question: what’s the most important thing to know about the United States?
To some extent, the answer to this question will differ depending on where in the U.S. a student ends up living and studying. The United States is a big country, and there are definite regional differences. This is one of the (many) things we want exchange students coming to the U.S. to learn — that we are not just one single group of people who are all the same just because we share a particular citizenship.
There are some general things, however, that students can keep in mind which will help them to adjust to life in their host family and host community.
Politeness in ordinary conversation
Saying “please” and “thank you,” especially to adults, is important. This can feel strange if you come from a culture or community where appreciation may be implied and you don’t have to say this often.
Directness and “honesty”
Americans consider themselves to be “direct.” There are different degrees of “directness,” however. The graphic below, created by Erin Meyer, a professor at the global business school INSEAD, shows cultural differences in two key categories — degree of “directness” or being “confrontational” in normal everyday life and degree of emotional expressiveness. (Her 2015 Harvard Business Review article, Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da, is worth reading for anyone who deals with other cultures in either a personal or professional setting.)
Here in the U.S., we tend to mix some of that directness with the ordinary everyday politeness mentioned above; according to Erin Meyer, the U.S. is somewhere towards the middle of the different characteristics. We’ve heard students from expressive and “talkative” cultures say that Americans get to the point too quickly; we’ve also had students from “direct” cultures tell us that Americans never get to the point at all! This combination can be confusing to students from other cultures as they try to figure out what, exactly, does someone mean when they say something.
Here’s an example (and a hint…). When your U.S. host mom or dad asks, “Could you take out the garbage?,” that generally means “take out the garbage” (and sooner rather than later!). Students who are used to a more direct culture often interpret this language as meaning they have a choice. In return, those students tend to speak in a way that may come across as demanding rather than requesting. Those students might announce, “I am going out to see friends,” rather than phrasing it as a question: “Would it be OK if I went out to see my friends?” The question format would be preferred in many U.S. homes.
Small talk and social conversation
Social conversations are those in which one talks about what’s going on in the community, what movie is showing at the local theater, which teacher is annoying and which one is just fun to have a class with, and even the weather. Many students find these conversations difficult. “Why does the cashier at the grocery store ask me how I am doing?” asked one of my Austrian students last year. “Why would she care how my day is going? She doesn’t know me and I don’t know her.”
School system differences
U.S. high schools are quite different from schools in many other countries. High school students in the U.S. change classrooms for every class. Students usually receive grades not only on exams at the end of the term, but also on in-between quizzes, class participation, and homework assignments that must be turned in. Some of this may also apply at the college level. At both the high school and college level, teachers are more approachable than in many countries (although that doesn’t mean you call them by their first name). Students ask teachers questions, visit teachers during office hours before or after school, and generally are encouraged to have a dialogue with teachers.
Sports, music, and art activities are a key element of school life
In U.S. schools, students become involved in many activities beyond traditional academics, activities that in many countries have no connection to the school system. Some U.S. states and schools may have limits on activities in which exchange students can participate. But if it’s possible, participating in a sport, music, or art activity at your school is an excellent way to become part of the school and host community.
Sports are also a part of everyday life. Almost everyone will have a favorite sports team. This could be a nearby professional team (football, soccer, baseball, basketball), or it might be a college team. Rivalries exist between neighboring high schools, college teams within the state, and with professional teams in nearby cities. Here in Oregon, for example, we have a long-standing rivalry between the yellow-and-green University of Oregon Ducks and the orange-and-black Oregon State University Beavers. You’re either one or the other. On days when the two teams play each other, neighborhoods come alive with team colors plastered in windows, on flags and banners, and on cars. We also are quite proud of our professional soccer team, the Portland Timbers, who, of course, are better than the Seattle Sounders. (Darn straight!)
Wherever you are going, you will find “your” team — not just your new favorite sports team, but also your host family team, your school friends and teachers team, and your program’s support team. Enjoy the experience!
Our Finnish students on exchange here have to remind themselves to say “please” and “thank you” in conversation. Our Swedish student last year was shocked that he was expected to be in class on time and every day. In Sweden, they have a much more open system in the schools, apparently, and are expected to keep themselves accountable as far as attendance. It’s all so fascinating!
Oh, and many of our students from Europe (especially Finland) are surprised at our custom of saying “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” without really wanting a detailed answer. That does seem odd, come to think of it.
Attendance is something we have to remind the students every year, especially the European students. It’s so common for host parents to contact us asking what to do about their student who is late every day, or who wants to stay home simply because she stayed up late the night before. It’s not just the students who have to get used to our system — it’s host parents, too, who need to understand that it’s not because their students are trying to avoid school or don’t care. Once you understand that, it’s a little easier to communicate to the students what they need to do.