Cultural Customs in the U.S.

Learn about Culture Shock and adapting to U.S. customs and culture to make the most of your time working and traveling in the United States.

Adjusting to American Culture

One of the best opportunities you will have during your time in the United States is to learn about American culture. The American way of life may be very different from your own, and that difference is part of your cultural exchange experience. Your time in the U.S. is designed to be a great learning opportunity, so take advantage of it!

You will discover new things about Americans every day, and as a result you may decide to change some of your behaviors in order to adapt. Adaptation is not always easy, but it’s also important to remember that you are temporarily in the United States for a new learning experience; you will be returning to your familiar lifestyle afterward, so it’s important to be flexible about making changes to how you do things. The key to a successful program is to stay positive and explore all the opportunities given to you.

Read more about Adjusting to a New Culture from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Cultural Differences

Some American customs may seem strange to people from other countries, but knowing about them may help you better adapt during your stay in the U.S.

  • Being on time is important.
  • Americans like privacy and personal space.
  • Americans can be very direct and honest, even though it may seem rude to people from another culture.
  • Americans ask about how your day is going without expecting an answer.
  • Americans wait their turn in lines.
  • Americans value independent thinking.
  • Americans like to joke, smile and talk.
  • Americans are very concerned with personal hygiene and cleanliness. It is not unusual for them to bathe one or even two times a day.

Feeling a little overwhelmed, tense and anxious by a new culture is a normal experience known as “culture shock.” If these emotions are affecting your everyday life and interfering with your work and social life, you may want to ask for help. Browse our recommendations for recognizing and dealing with culture shock during your time in the United States.

Tips for Participants

Adapting to American culture is important, but InterExchange programs also provide an opportunity to share your own culture when interacting or working with Americans. As a cultural ambassador of your country, sharing details about life at home is also a good way to start a conversation about cultural exchange, and it is also a good way to build up self-confidence by speaking about a topic you know plenty about – your home! Plus, intercultural skills are important assets in the workplace and in our globalized world, and will be an advantage to you in the future.

Here are some tips on how to share your own experiences with co-workers and friends:

  • Share information about your favorite foods, sports, music and books. Then get recommendations from your co-workers and friends about their favorite parts of U.S. culture.
  • Tell co-workers and friends about any special holidays from your home country.
  • Show photos of your family, home and favorite spots from your home country or any other travels.
  • Volunteer to learn more about your local community, American values, and it’s a good opportunity to meet new people and discuss your own culture! The Cultural Compass guide includes volunteering resources for each state to help you get started.
  • Browse our posts on Community Involvement to see how other international participants have interacted with Americans and shared their own cultures.
  • Practice English as often as you can before you arrive and during your time here. Strong language skills will help ease your worries about communicating in the United States.
  • Many Americans are happy to discuss current events, but it’s best to avoid controversial topics in the workplace and with people you have just met, including topics related to personal values, religion, money and politics.
  • Avoid being overly critical of differences between your culture and the U.S. Life would be boring if we were all the same!
  • Downloading language apps before arriving at a new place can be helpful for translating signs and menu items in a different language.

Culture Shock

The United States has a unique “melting pot” culture that combines customs from people from all over the world. As an InterExchange program participant, you’ll have one of the best opportunities to experience American culture by living and working in the U.S. and interacting with many different types of people. Many U.S. customs may seem odd or uncomfortably different from those of your home country. Being in a new and unfamiliar place can be challenging even for the experienced traveler, and feelings of isolation and frustration can occur. This is totally normal and is often described as culture shock.

Signs of Culture Shock

  • Feeling excessively homesick, resentful, tired, anxious, or isolated
  • Sleeping a lot
  • Writing or calling home very frequently
  • Crying a lot
  • Feeling resentful toward the new environment
  • Feeling anxious about your new job
  • Feeling reluctant to associate with new people or to speak English

Culture shock can happen suddenly, and it can make enjoying your new situation much more difficult. If you find yourself feeling out of place or sad, try to determine what the cultural differences are that are making you feel this way and consider a few different ways to overcome these feelings. It’s important to recognize that you’ll only feel this way for a limited amount of time and that you play a big role in how long it lasts. By overcoming culture shock, you’ll be better able to make the most of your experience in the United States.

Coping With Culture Shock

  • Keep an open mind and a sense of humor. While people in the U.S. may do or say things that people in your home country would not, that doesn’t mean they’re strange or unapproachable. Americans like to talk, laugh and makes jokes. Talk with your friends and your employer. They will be understanding and supportive. Try to make friends with other Americans as well as people from other countries. Try new things and take the cultural differences in stride.
  • Stay positive! Remember why you wanted to participate in the program in the first place. You came here to learn and experience life in the United States. This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity, so put yourself out there. Try to speak English as much as possible. It might be difficult at first, but with regular practice you will learn more.
  • Take care of your health. Relax when you feel stressed by listening to music, taking a long walk, reading a book, or enjoying a hot shower. Get plenty of sleep. Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Take vitamins to stay healthy, and wash your hands often. Consider writing in a journal to remember the best experiences and work through the difficult ones.
  • Speak English during your program. You may be uncomfortable with your skills and even feel embarrassed, but you will quickly notice that people will be patient and positive when correcting your mistakes, and your English abilities will improve by understanding these mistakes. Everyone will admire you for your willingness and desire to improve. As you learn, you will become more confident about interacting with your surroundings. Everything will get easier with time and practice. A new world of possibilities and experiences will open up for you. And because everyone around you speaks English, speaking English will enable you to make friends with people from many cultures. These friendships are some of the most rewarding elements of the program, and are a great way to overcome culture shock.
  • Don’t keep silent if you need help. Talk to someone. When you’re feeling the stress of culture shock, it often helps to talk about these feelings. A friend, co-worker, colleague or InterExchange staff member can help ease your worries just by listening. Keeping quiet or sticking to your native language can further isolate and alienate you from your surroundings.

If your symptoms persist or are more severe than the symptoms listed, ask your doctor or health care professional for advice to address your concerns.

As always, whenever you need assistance, the InterExchange team is here to provide advice and support.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation