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Cross Cultural Adjustment and American Values of Behavior

Cross Cultural Adjustment and American Values of Behavior


When students leave home to study, they are beginning a new life, often alone.   Adjustment to a new culture and environment is not accomplished in a few days.

People who enter a new culture almost inevitably suffer from disorientation.   The physical and social environment contains much that is new and hard to understand.  It may take time to learn how to get around New York, do laundry, buy food and other necessities, and become comfortable in the new society.  It is exhausting and difficult to speak in a second language, understand the meanings that lie behind spoken and non-verbal language, and learn new behavior.  The cultural differences encountered and an inability to comprehend them, may produce a pervasive sense of insecurity.

When entering a new culture, a person is separated from the people and circumstances that define one’s role in society and may experience, in varying degrees, a loss of identity. The impact of this disorientation is generally termed “cultural shock.”   Culture shock can manifest itself in a number of ways: headaches, upset stomach, irritability, homesickness and so on.  Eventually it will disappear, except in very rare cases.  Try to remember that culture shock is a normal and “real” experience that most sojourners encounter.  Try find a friend, family member, or someone to talk to about what you are experiencing.  The counseling center runs an international student group where you can go to freely “vent” your frustrations with others who may being experiencing similar discomfort.  You are not alone!!

Some explanation of the various stages of adjustment may be useful.   Not every student will experience all the stages but you may find the following helpful in understanding unusual attitudes and behaviors.  An adjustment cycle chart is as the end of this section.

Honeymoon Period or Initial Euphoria:   Initially you will probably be fascinated and excited by everything new.  Visitors are at first elated to be in a new culture.  At this point, they are more likely to notice the similarities and assume that people are basically alike everywhere.  This stage can last from two weeks to two months, but it inevitably ends.

Irritability and Hostility:   The visitor is immersed in new problems: housing, transportation, eating, language, new friends.  Fatigue may result from continuously trying to comprehend and get used to the foreign language.  As the differences become more apparent, discomfort sets in and students may become irritable, develop various physical ailments, gain or lose weight, withdraw, watch TV rather than study or exhibit other signs of being troubled. 


Initial Adjustment:   As the student begins to better understand lectures and textbooks, passes one or two quizzes and correctly interprets some of the cultural questions that have been so puzzling, there is a gradual - sometimes hardly perceptible - adjustment taking place.  Students may still isolate themselves and devote full time to study, ignoring those areas of life that still prove difficult, or cling to a friend from his own country.  Gradually, things will seem less forbidding and more comfortable and his/her sense of humor returns.

Adaptation:   Students have adapted when they can function well in two cultures, the new one and their own.  They are able to handle with understanding any differences encountered, are at ease with the college and their peers, and can communicate more readily.  In fact, they may find a great deal to enjoy and relations with hosts can deepen and mature.

Return Anxiety:   As studentsnear the completion of their studies and face the prospect of returning home, anxieties can intrude.  Strangely enough, the student who had adjusted best will probably be the one who finds returning most difficult.  Most students realize how much they have changed since leaving home and wonder if it is possible to fit back in.  They will once again be leaving friends and what has become a safe and familiar environment.  These feelings may be compounded by changes that have occurred at home during their absence. 

How to Deal with Culture Shock:

Although culture shock is uncomfortable, it is a normal part of the adjustment process and you need not to be ashamed of it. There are a number of ways to deal with culture shock. Here are some suggestions:

1.Be aware of the symptoms. Once you realize you are experiencing culture shock you can take steps to deal with it.

2. What are the situations which confuse or irritate you the most in the new country?

a. Are you misunderstanding the host people’s treatment of you? Where can you find more information about this aspect of the culture?  Behavior which seems rude to you may not be intended as rude.  Polite customs are different for each culture.  When situations seem senseless remember the hosts may be following social rules unknown to you.  Ask questions about social customs.

b.If you are still bothered by a situation, find ways to minimize the irritation.  Is the situation necessary?  If not you may be able to avoid or minimize involvement.

3.  What do you miss the most which was enjoyable in your home country? Look for ways to meet these desires or replace them with something new.

4. Develop friendships with both Americans and students from your own country.  At times the friendships with culturally different people will seem overtaxing.  That is why it is important to have co-nationals to spend time with also.  This helps you re-energize for interacting cross-culturally.  However, isolation in either group alone causes more adjustment problems.

5.Talk to co-nationals about your stresses and ask how they have dealt with them.

6.Take a course or read a book on cross-cultural communication. Ask hosts questions like, “As I understand it you are saying ... Is that correct?”

7. Continue improving your language proficiency.  Learn the language by using it.  Language is your key to involvement in your new culture.  Even if you can’t speak perfectly, your attempts to communicate in the native language will be appreciated.  Remember, understanding others and making yourself understood in a new language requires more rephrasing, repeating and rechecking than usual.

8. Have a sense of humor.  Allow yourself to see the humor in misunderstandings or embarrassments.  Laughter heals.

9. Exercise and a nutritional diet also help to reduce stress.

10.Remember that some culture shock is a normal part of adjusting to a new country.  However, the more severe symptoms mean the adjustment process is blocked and you need help to move into a more comfortable stage.

.  Remember that thousands of people have come to New York City from other countries and have thrived.

. Keep an open mind.  People here might do or say things that people at home would not do or say.  But the people in New York are acting according to their own set of values, not yours.  Try to find out how they perceive what they are saying and doing, and try not to evaluate their behavior against the standards you would use in your own country.

13. Learn from the experience.  Moving into a new culture can be the most fascinating and educational experience of your life.  It gives you the opportunity to explore an entire new way of living and compare it to your own.  There is no better way to become aware of your own values and attitudes and to broaden your point of view.

14. Visit the Office of International Students or the Counseling Center whenever you wish to talk about your feelings on these issues. 

15. Be aware.  Don’t assume that you know everything about what is happening around you.  Listen and observe carefully, paying special attention to nonverbal cues which give insight into the process of cross-cultural communication.

16. Suspend judgment.  A natural tendency to immediately attach a “good” or “bad” label to all you observe or experience can be a major stumbling block to understanding and participating in a new culture.  Observe and describe, but accept others on their integrity before evaluating.

17. Try to empathize.  To empathize means to put yourself in the other person’s place and to look at the situation from her or his perspective.  This is especially important when cultural differences are involved in the situation.

18. Recognize that anxiety is natural.  Communication and adjustment across cultures is not easy; there is often a stress factor involved in interaction between people from differing cultures.  Openness, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to laugh at one’s mistakes can help you deal productively with anxiety.

19. Be honest.  If you are confused about something or if misunderstandings arise, it is usually best to admit your confusion rather than pretend that everything is all right.

20.  Become involved.  Show your willingness to learn about the people and culture by participating in the daily life of your community.  Seek out opportunities to share yourself and your background with your hosts whenever possible.  Often by seeking to try new things (such as foods) and experiences (such as traditional dances)  you can become more actively involved in the host community life. Adjustment Cycle Chart

Like any other nationality group, Americans vary from individual to individual, and there is so much variance between geographic regionsthat Americans themselves suffer culture shock when they move from one place to another.   It is possible, however, to mention certain characteristics which, in general describe attitudes and practices common among Americans.  Keep in mind that the following remarks are generalizations and that there are many cultural groups in the United States whose values and behavior differ significantly.

Americans generally believe that the ideal person is an autonomous, self-reliant individual.   Most Americans see themselves as separate individuals, not as representatives of a family, community or other group.  They dislike being dependent on other people or having other people be dependent on them.  Some people from other countries view this attitude as selfish; others view it as a healthy freedom from the constraints of ties to family, clan or social class.

Americans are taught that all people are created equal.   Although they continually violate that idea in some aspects of life, in others they adhere to it.  They treat each other in very informal ways, for example, even in the presence of great differences in wealth or social standing.  From the point of view of some people from other cultures, this kind of behavior reflects lack of respect.  From the point of view of others, it reflects a happy lack of concern for social ritual.  Americans, as a rule, generally think nothing about starting a casual conversation with a complete stranger; this is usually meant as a sign of friendliness.  Should strangers smile at you, it is a sign of welcome and acknowledgment of your presence.  It is not necessarily an invitation to speak, nor is it a sign of insincerity when they do not acknowledge your presence.  Americans “talk” with their hands, often touching another person to make a point, to express sympathy, or to be friendly, even in casual conversation with people not well known to them.


Americans are more concerned with honesty than with saving face.   They often discuss topics which may be embarrassing to people in many other cultures.  Americans are taught from birth that “honesty is the best policy” even if the truth “hurts.”  This sometimes requires straddling a very narrow path between openness, which is considered a virtue, and tactlessness, which is not.  In an effort to get directly to the point, Americans tend to take verbal shortcuts and are perfectly comfortable dispensing with background details and polite social conversation.  Americans measure truth by the accuracy of facts rather than by the expression of a feeling or an impression.

Friendships among Americans may be shorter and less intensive than those among people from many other cultures.   Because they are taught to be self-reliant and because they live in a mobile society, Americans tend to compartmentalize their friendships, having friends at work, friends from school, and so on.  It has been said that Americans are very friendly but have a great deal of difficulty forming deep interpersonal commitments.  Deep and lasting friendships do exist, but they take time to grow.   These remarks are not intended to discourage you from attempting to establish friendly relationships with Americans.  In fact, the ease with which people move between different social settings makes getting acquainted easy, and from these casual acquaintances lifetime friendships can develop.  It is important to note, however, that some Americans’ view about friendship might be different from yours, and you should not be discouraged by this difference.  Your  honesty about what you feel about any new friend promotes an open communication and will lead to a better understanding of your respective positions.


Time Consciousness
Americans place considerable value on punctuality.   They tend to organize their activities by means of a schedule.  As a result, they may seem harried, always running from one thing to the next, unable to relax and enjoy themselves.  Since Americans are so time conscious, the pace of life may at first seem very rushed, particularly in New York City.  Being on time is regarded as very important by people on a schedule, and in the United States, most people make a great effort to arrive on time.  It is often considered impolite to arrive even a few minutes late.  If you are unable to keep an appointment, you are expected to call the person to advise him or her that you will be late or unable to arrive at all.

One should arrive at the exact time specified for meals or appointments with professors, doctors, and other professionals.   You may arrive any time between the hours specified for teas, receptions, and cocktail parties.  Plan to arrive a few minutes before the specified time for public meetings, plays, concerts, movies, sports events, classes, church services, and weddings.


“Drop by any time” and “I’ll see you soon” are idioms often used in social settings but seldom meant to be taken literally.   It is wise to telephone ahead of time before visiting someone at home.  If you receive a written invitation to an event that says “RSVP,” you should respond by writing a note or telephoning to let the person who sent the invitation know whether or not you plan to attend.

Never accept an invitation unless you really plan to go.   To refuse, it is enough to say “Thank you for inviting me, but I will not be able to come.”  If, after accepting, you are not able to attend, be sure to tell those expecting you as far in advance as possible that you will not be there.

Although it is not necessarily expected that you give a gift to your host, it is considered polite to do so, especially if you have been invited for a meal.   Flowers, fruit, or a small gift from your country are all appropriate.  A thank you note or telephone call after the visit is also considered polite, and is an appropriate means to express your appreciation for the hospitality.

When you are invited to a meal and there are foods you cannot eat, explain this to your prospective host.   Cultural preferences and religious restrictions on diet are understood and respected.  Your host will appreciate knowing in advance what foods and beverages to prepare that everyone will enjoy.

Because few households have servants, meal time tends to be informal and guests are treated as equals.   It is considered polite for guests to offer to help prepare or clean up after a meal.


Men usually shake hands the first time they meet; women may or may not do so in a purely social setting though they generally do in a business atmosphere.   “How do you do” and “Good morning/afternoon” are formal greetings; “Hello” or simply “Hi” is more common in an informal setting.  Many foreign visitors are at first put off by Americans’ tendency to say “How are you?” or “How ya doin’?” without waiting for a response.  This is a common place greeting, not actually a question.

Titles and First Names

Americans frequently use first names, sometimes even in formal settings.   People of the same age and status always call each other by their first name or even “nicknames.”  An older person whom one does not know well is addressed as Mr., Mrs., Miss., or Ms.  until the individual invites the use of first names.  These titles are used in conjunction with the surname, never the first name.  The title Ms. is displacing Mrs. and Miss and is a handy form of address when the woman’s marital status is unknown.  “Dr.” is used to address people holding medical degrees and Ph.D. Degrees.

What to Wear

You will find that most students dress very casually on campus, and particularly during warm weather, most students dress for comfort rather than fashion.   Since,however, clothing is often considered an expression of one’s personality, there are no “rules” for what to wear to classes, and the individual is free to wear what he or she prefers.

For more formal occasions, e.g., theater, dinner, a sport coat or sweater and ties are more appropriate for a man, and a dress or skirt and blouse for a woman.   If you are invited out and are unsure of what to wear, it is perfectly appropriate and acceptable to ask.

Rarely are service charges included in a bill.   Waiters, waitresses, and taxicab drivers should be tipped approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total bill or fare.  Porters and bellboys should be given one to two dollars for carrying luggage, but desk clerks are not tipped.  Barbers, hairdressers, delivery persons ( but not United States postal workers), and parking lot attendants are tipped one to two dollars.  No tips are given to theater ushers, gas station attendants, airline employees, bus drivers, receptionists, or store clerks.  

attempt to tip customs officials, policeman or other government employees.

American social customs may seem strange to you at first.   Visitors are often surprised at the informality between men and women in the United States.  Couples go out for an evening unchaperoned, to a bar, movie, play or concert.  They may even go to the library for a “study date.” 

In the past, traditionally, men took the initiative in asking women out and paid the expenses incurred during the evening.   This is changing, however, as women assert their rights as individuals by asking out men they would like to be with or get to know.  Whether a man or woman offers the invitation, each may pay his or her own way, or one may pay for both.

Relationships between men and women in the United States may be platonic friendship or strong emotional and physical commitments, or something between the two extremes.   Whatever the nature of the relationship, the most important thing is to be open and honest about your feelings and intentions, to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings or discomfort.


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