Adjusting to Life in the United States America



Coping With Cultural Differences

Culture shock is not quite as shocking or as sudden as most people anticipate. It is the process of adjusting and settling into a new environment, whether it’s a new school, home, job or country. It takes time and energy, and affects the mind and body. It is part of the process of learning a new culture that is called “cultural adaptation.” Always remember that culture shock is a normal process and everyone goes through it at one point or the other.


Some surprises always await you when you arrive in a new environment. People may walk and talk more quickly, traffic patterns may be different and confusing, and buildings may look different than expected. Such differences are easy to see and quickly learned. The manner in which classes are taught, registration for courses, and other procedures may seem strange at first. You may become homesick, just missing everyone you had said “good bye” to when leaving your country. We do understand. The Office of International Programs (OIP) is the best place to go for help with such matters. At the OIP, we attempt to ease your adjustment to the country and the Gardner-Webb community; however, that feeling of ease and comfort may take time to achieve depending on the individual.


Gradually, as you become more involved in Student Activities on campus and get to know the people around you, the culture shock will begin to decrease. Our advice to you will be, “Get involved in GWU activities as quickly as possible and keep an open mind.” This attitude will help you make friends easily. While you are trying to make friends and adapt to the American culture, it is important for you to retain your cultural identity.


Few tips to ease the adjustment process:


1. Listen and Observe

Observe the way people interact. Pay attention to the way people speak and act – this includes observation of verbal as well as non-verbal communication, namely gestures and actions.


2. Ask Questions

If you do not understand what is going on, or what is expected of you, do not hesitate to ask questions and clarify your doubts. Most people will gladly help you out.


3. Slangs

If you do not understand people’s slang or accent, politely ask them to repeat what they have said.


4. Keep an Open Mind

You may see a lot of things that are done differently in the U.S. as compared to your home country. Do not assume that what is different is automatically bad. Try to understand the locally prevalent values and attitudes.


5. Curiosity and Openness

It is good to be curious and want to know more about the culture of the place that you have come to. Try to learn more about the traditions and values upheld. Similarly, if people ask you about your culture, be open and honest. This builds up trust and confidence between you and others.


6. Handling Confusion and Frustration

It is common to feel confused and frustrated when in a new place. Do not be overly concerned about it. As you get used to the place, the confusion and frustration will subside and you will begin to feel like you belong.


7. Become Involved

Try and become involved in student groups or organizations. This will help you to meet people with similar interests and hobbies. It will be an opportunity for you to discover new talents.


Schedule Etiquette

Americans tend to be very time conscious and place high value on promptness. If you are going to be more than ten minutes late for an appointment or meeting, you should telephone ahead to let the other party know.


Individualism and Privacy

The most important thing to understand about Americans is their devotion to individualism. From childhood, they have been trained to consider themselves as separate individuals who are responsible for their own situations in life and their own destinies. They have not been trained to see themselves as members of a close-knit, tightly interdependent family, religious group, ethnicity, nation, or other collectivity.


Closely associated with the value they place on individualism is the importance Americans assign to privacy. Americans assume that people need some time to themselves or some time alone to think about things or recover their spent psychological energy. Americans have great difficulty understanding foreigners who always want to be with another person, or who dislike being alone.


Directedness and Assertiveness

Americans generally consider themselves to be frank, open, and direct in their dealings with other people. Americans will often speak openly and directly to others about things they dislike. They will try to do so in a manner they call "constructive," that is, a manner which the other person will not find offensive or unacceptable. If they do not speak openly about what is on their minds, they will often convey their reactions in nonverbal ways (without words), through facial expressions, body positions, and gestures.


Americans are not taught that they should mask their emotional responses. Their words, the tone of their voices or their facial expressions will usually reveal when they are feeling angry, unhappy, confused, or happy and content. They do not think it improper to display these feelings, at least within limits. They are much less concerned with avoiding embarrassment to themselves or others than most cultures. To Americans, being honest is usually more important than preserving harmony in interpersonal relationships.



Friendship and Dating

While many Americans are fairly open and warm people who are quick to make new acquaintances, their mobility and sense of individualism mean that their relationships are often casual and informal. This is not to say that Americans take friendship lightly. It just means that while Americans know a lot of people, their lasting friendships are often few.


Comparatively, women in the United States are generally less inhibited than women from other countries. They are not usually shy with Americans or international visitors. Their relaxed and more independent attitude may be misunderstood by people whose native culture is more restrictive of women’s activities. It is not unusual, for example, for unmarried women to live by themselves, to share living space with other single women, or to go to public places unescorted.


Education and Classroom Etiquette

In many cultures, there is a great difference in status between students and professors. Students show their respect for their professors by listening quietly. They do not question what the professor says. In the United States, it is quite acceptable for students to ask questions and to engage in discussions with the professor. This is not disrespectful. In fact, professors view participation in class discussions as a sign of interest in the subject matter.


During the first class meeting, your professors will inform you of their office hours and when and how they can be reached. If you have a problem with the material presented in class, do not hesitate to see the professor during office hours and ask for help. Even if you do not have a problem, it is a good idea to drop in and talk to your professor. It gives both of you a chance to get to know each other. This may be particularly important if you have trouble understanding the professor, or he/she has trouble understanding you. Often, all it takes is a little time to get used to the other person’s style of speaking.


At the time of the first class meeting, your professor will specify “due dates” for various assignments. These dates are quite firm, and you must hand in your assignment by that date in order to get full credit. If you know that you cannot meet a deadline for an important reason, contact your professor before the deadline and try to work out an arrangement that is mutually agreeable.


One thing you need to know about studying in the U.S. is that speaking and learning in English will be exhausting and frustrating, particularly in the beginning. Sometimes, international students have to spend much more time than their American counterparts to complete the same assignments. This can lead to stress and a feeling of inferiority. The most important thing you can do to improve your level of success in the classroom is to improve your English skills. Your English will not improve if the only people you talk to outside the classroom speak your native language. You should speak to Americans whenever possible, watch television, listen to the radio and read newspapers and magazines. Interacting with U.S. culture will greatly enhance your ability to understand your colleagues and professors on the academic level. The more proficient your English becomes, the more successful you will be in the classroom.


If you are feeling pressure, you have to take the initiative and ask for help. You must ask to join study groups or ask professors questions. No one will approach you to ask if there is anything you do not understand. However, classmates and professors are usually willing to help if they know you are having problems. Be prepared to do whatever it takes to help yourself. Remember how much effort it took to get the opportunity to study at Gardner-Webb University, and then put twice as much effort into your work to make the most of your stay here. Feel free to visit the Office of International Programs in Tucker Student Center, Room 332 to speak with the Assistant Director of International Programs.


***Smoking is not permitted in University classrooms, buildings or anywhere on campus.


Academic Integrity / Plagiarism

Students are expected to do their own work in class, during exams and on assignments. Passing in another person’s work as yours is considered a violation of the University’s policy on academic integrity. To allow someone else to pass your work as his or hers is another version of the same offense and is punishable in the same manner.


Since the charge of plagiarism is serious, it is important for you to know how to work with other peoples’ ideas responsibly. It is important to cite sources of information whenever you use other peoples’ materials as references, whether printed or otherwise. If you are not sure as to how you should cite these references, ask your professor for his or her style of citation.


Plagiarism should not be confused with honest sharing of ideas. Writers get advice from different sources including friends and colleagues. In recognition of such contributions, you may want to acknowledge those people who have taken time to share their thoughts with you, in the acknowledgement page of your book or thesis. With this, you’ll be thanking them and also acknowledging their contributions.


Personal Hygiene

People in the United States usually bathe or shower at least once a day and put on fresh, clean clothing and deodorant after each shower or bath. To be clean and neat is more desirable than to have a wardrobe of expensive clothing.


If you are invited to an event you should ask your host/hostess or another person about appropriate dress from the occasion. If you are going to someone’s home or to speak to a group, your national dress is usually appropriate or appreciated. You may be asked a lot of questions about the garments of your national dress, since dress is a good conversation topic.



In the United States it is customary and expected to tip your service providers as a way to show appreciation for their service. It should be kept in mind that tips are a way of expressing satisfaction and are given because many people, including servers and bartenders, do not make as much money as other employees because their pay is to be supplemented with the tips they make. Larger tips should be left for those who provide extraordinarily good service; smaller tips or no tip at all should be left when service is poor. All percentages are out of the entire price of what you are buying.


Waiter/Waitress in a Restaurant15-20% of total bill
Food Delivery Driver15-20% of total bill
Bartender15-20% of total bill
Taxi Driver15% of total bill
Hair Dresser15% of total bill


***You should never tip police officers, physicians, government or University employees. It may be interpreted as a bribe, which is illegal. You do not tip bus drivers, theatre ushers, museum guides, salespeople, employees at fast food restaurants, or hotel clerks.