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American Culture for International Students

a family sits at a dining table and eats a holiday meal


International students sometimes are confused by American culture, especially if their understanding of American culture is based on American films and a few boisterous tourists. This guide provides international students with an introduction to the most important cultural differences between the U.S. and other countries.

A good rule of thumb is to observe other students, especially American students, to see the type of clothing they wear and how they behave. When in doubt, it is best to be more polite and formal.


Personal space: Each culture has a different notion of personal space. If you intrude into someone’s personal space, you will make them feel uncomfortable, unless you are a very close friend. Americans tend to require more personal space than people from other cultures, especially India and Japan. If you approach Americans too closely, they will back away from you.

If you touch them, it will intimate them. Do not touch their face or put your arm around their shoulder. It is ok to shake hands when you first meet, but only for a brief period of time.

Titles: Unless you are told otherwise, address college faculty with their title and last name, such as “Professor Smith” or “Doctor Smith.” It is considered rude to address faculty by first name, unless they give permission first. It is usually OK to refer to other students by first name. Titles are Mr. (Mister) for men, Mrs. (Misses) for married women and Ms. (Miss) for unmarried women. These days some women prefer to be addressed as Ms. (pronounced Miz) regardless of their marital status. When providing your full name, list the given name first and the family name last.

Clothing: In a formal setting, such as a five-star restaurant, business meetings, the opera, weddings and religious events, men should wear a suit, including a jacket, tie and a button-down shirt. The jacket should be in a dark color, such as navy blue, black or dark gray. Matching pants are recommended. The shirt should be white. The tie should be in conservative colors and patterns. The belt should be the same color as the shoes. Business casual might permit a polo shirt or a sweater. In an informal setting, such as at athletic events or in the classroom, a t-shirt and jeans are ok.

In the Classroom

Clothing: Students tend to wear casual clothing in the classroom. Faculty usually wear more formal clothing.

Assertiveness: International students might need to be more assertive and direct in classroom discussions. Make eye contact when you are speaking.

Collaboration: Read the syllabus carefully with regard to collaboration. In some classes, collaboration might be considered cheating. If you are unsure what is appropriate, ask the professor or a graduate teaching assistant.

Copying: Copying the work of other people is not permitted. Plagiarism is considered a serious violation of college rules. Likewise, substituting a different person on admissions tests and English language proficiency tests is not allowed. 

Xenophobia: Fear of people from other countries is a growing problem in the U.S. It is not as common on college campuses. You will find that people on college campuses are more welcoming than people in the general population. Most colleges have an international student advisor who can answer your questions and help you with problems when they occur.


Intonation patterns: When international students speak English, sometimes their intonation patterns are different than the intonation patterns to which Americans are accustomed. The rhythm and stress can be much different. It can sometimes be difficult for Americans to understand international students as a result. Slowing down or otherwise changing the tempo with which you are speaking may help.

Contacting people: It is OK to send email at any time, but don’t expect an immediate response. Do not call people on the telephone after 9 p.m. or before 9 a.m.

Gestures: When pointing at objects, use your index finger. Do not make a fist with the middle finger extended, as this is an insult. It also is impolite to point at people. Don’t pick your nose, floss your teeth or chew your fingernails in public. Shaking your head up and down means yes and side-to-side means no.

Social Visits and Dining

Informal gatherings: Spontaneous invitations to informal gatherings are common. If invited to dinner at someone’s home, as opposed to a restaurant, it is OK to bring a small gift, such as a bottle of wine or a fruit basket. Do not bring roses or candy, as that might suggest intimacy (men give roses to women on a date to be romantic).

Formal occasions: Invitations to formal occasions, such as a wedding, will usually involve a written invitation. If the invitation asks for you to RSVP, the hosts are asking you to let them know whether or not you intend to attend the event. Formal attire will usually be required. Gifts might be expected. It is not uncommon for the bride and groom to have a wedding registry with one or two department stores, where they have picked out items that they need or want. Guests who use the registry don’t have to worry about accidentally buying the couple the same present as another guest.

Dining: Do not speak with your mouth full of food. Chew with your mouth closed. Do not slurp your soup, as that is considered rude. At a formal dinner, use the outermost utensils on the left and right side of the plate first. The utensils at the top of the plate are for desert.

Smoking: Smoking is banned in all public buildings and near building entrances. Smoking has become socially unacceptable in the U.S. because of the health risks. Smoking is not allowed on airplanes, busses, cars or trolleys in the U.S. Do not smoke near children. Do not smoke in someone’s home without permission. Intentionally blowing smoke in someone’s face is offensive and might be grounds for arrest in some cities. Stores cannot sell tobacco to anybody under age 18 and must ask for a government-issued photo ID for anyone under age 27.

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