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Leaving for US? Adjusting to American culture
Dr Arun Vakil
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August 08, 2007

We've seen US television serials and the films from Hollywood. We've heard the latest club music coming from North America.

But are they authentic representations of American society?

According to former US students, it's a mistake to assume you understand US culture because of your extensive exposure to American media. Instead, do thorough research on the internet and form your own opinion.

Let's look at some introductory material to keep in mind when discussing the United States.


While great importance is placed on equality in American culture, women and men do not have equal standing yet. It is still true that American women make less money than their male counterparts and have fewer economic and educational opportunities.

However, compared to women in most other countries, American women enjoy great flexibility of choices and options, rights and privileges. American women are becoming more assertive and are trying new "non-traditional" roles all the time.

You may find that American women will say hello, make eye contact on the street, or touch in a friendly way. None of these actions imply desire for sexual contact, but are simply considered friendly gestures. Some adult females like to be referred to as "women," not "ladies" or "girls."

It is not unusual for women to ask men out for a date or to offer to pay. It is also quite acceptable for men to pay for the date. Accepting and going out on a date, especially when the man pays, does not mean that the woman intends on intimate involvement. Sometimes American couples will go on a date and each pay his or her own way.


Because Americans are informal and value equality, they use first names more than elsewhere. Sometimes people of different ages, wealth and status address each other by first name. If you are not certain how to address someone, ask them what they like to be called.

Americans frequently use Mr. or Ms. in addressing a stranger. Professors will usually indicate if they wish to be addressed by first name, "Professor" or "Doctor". Certain professionals (Ambassador, President, Senator, Dean) are addressed by titles and the last name.

Time consciousness

Americans attach great importance to punctuality. The organisation of activities is based on schedules and deadlines. Consequently, it is considered quite rude to be late. For a meeting or appointment, you should arrive exactly on time or a few minutes early.

If there is a receptionist present in an office where the meeting is scheduled to take place, always let the receptionist know you have arrived. Allow that person to alert the party with whom you are meeting to your presence.

For a dinner party, ten minutes late is forgivable. For a large cocktail party or social event, you may sometimes be up to 30 minutes late without offending your host. It's best not to take a chance so you should try to arrive on time. Should you realise that you will be late for a meeting or engagement, call in advance and let the people you are meeting know.

Communication style

It is always best to avoid stereotyping people, but some generalisations are possible and not so objectionable, as long as we keep in mind their "generalising" nature:


For Americans, the ideal person is an independent, self-reliant individual. This is why they see themselves as individuals rather than group members. They dislike being dependent on others or having others dependent on them. Some foreigners regard this attitude as selfishness, others as freedom.


Many international students have remarked that Americans seem superficial in forming friendships compared to people in their home countries. Because the American society is very mobile and transient, Americans are taught to be self-reliant and avoid deep involvement with others. This leads to friendships that are shorter and less intensive than in other cultures.

Americans are very quick to say hello, look a stranger in the eye or smile at someone on the street. These gestures are simply polite, and shouldn't be seen as an invitation to form a long-lasting friendship. However, we should not infer that Americans are incapable of loving or caring deeply. Most of them have a few really close friends whom they take a long time to get to know, and whom they value and keep in touch with for their entire lives.

Student speaks

"A new topic, concept or idea is covered in every class. It is highly unusual of professors to repeat something they have already dealt with (although they will gladly do it for you in their office hours). Therefore it is of utmost importance, I think, to pay attention in class and take notes. My background hadn't prepared me for such a system. I was more used to a system where we -- both teachers and students -- didn't mind going over a topic several times until most students were comfortable with it. So if you are from such a background yourself, then it might seem impossible, in the beginning, to catch up with such a crazy pace. But eventually you'll get it, don't worry!"

Important documents

It is a good idea to keep your passport in a safe place at all times during your stay. Upon your arrival, you will be asked to bring your passport into the office of the International Student Advisor to have the visa, informational page and the I-94 Form and visa copied for your file. This is a precautionary measure to insure that, in the event that your passport is lost or stolen, the required information is readily available.

The International Student Identity Card (ISIC) and the International Student Exchange Card (ISE) are identity cards which give you discounts in various places.  To qualify for these cards you usually have to be aged between 12 and 26 years and must be a student.  For more information visit and

Some of the discounts offered through these cards is over 50% and you save on hotels, buses, trains and so on.  Some of these cards also offer free insurance when you purchase the card.  It's worth your while to check these cards out. Most of these cards cost as little as Rs 200.

Useful websites

Some of the most useful web sites recommended for US-bound Indian students are:

Dr Arun Vakil is the author of the book, 'Gateway to America' and is an expert on US visas and immigration. He can be contaced at

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