U.S. Culture & Culture Shock

Remember that adaptation is part of the fun of experiencing a new culture.
Remember that adaptation is part of the fun of experiencing a new culture.
Photo by Jeremy Noble

U.S. Culture

The United States is called a "melting pot": a place where people from countries all over the world come to build their lives and homes. The U.S. is home to people from all different cultures and nationalities. Each group has its own background, customs and values, which form what we call American culture. It is a culture that is continually being reshaped and redefined as more people from other countries immigrate to the U.S., but it is also influenced by the visitors who share information about their cultures when they interact with people who live in this country.

One of the best opportunities you will have over the course of your time in the United States is to learn more about American culture. That's what cultural exchange is all about. 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. Remember that adaptation is part of the fun of experiencing a new culture. It is not always easy, but 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.

Part of the excitement of living in a new culture is learning about how it differs from your own culture. You might compare your values and customs with the new values and customs you observe every day. 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!

We've also created a list of recommended sites and activities for you to enjoy while you're in the U.S. Take a look and discover new places and aspects of American culture.

Characteristics of U.S. Culture

Keep in mind that the following characteristics are generalizations, and as with any country or culture, there are many exceptions and lifestyles that may be quite different.

  • Being on time is important.
  • Americans like their privacy and their own space.
  • Americans can be very direct and honest and might appear rude to people from other cultures.
  • Americans are polite and say "please" and "thank you" a lot.​
  • Americans wait their turn. Everyone is expected to stand in an orderly line (queue), without pushing to be first.
  • Americans may not know much about your country or other cultures.
  • Americans value independent thinking.
  • The role of the mother and father in an American family is more or less equal regarding child care and household responsibilities.
  • There is an emphasis on education and learning for everyone.
  • Americans like to joke, smile and talk. They will try to fill up quiet time with "small talk" about the weather and sports. They like direct eye contact, but they don't like to stand too close to one another or be touched while talking.
  • Nudity is usually not accepted in the home and definitely not in public.
  • Americans are very concerned about personal hygiene and cleanliness; it is not unusual to take one or even two showers a day, and almost everyone uses deodorant.
  • American family life and child-rearing practices are extremely child centered. Children in the United States are encouraged from an early age to express themselves, take responsibility for their actions and help in the house. Parents believe such an upbringing will help children develop confidence and self-esteem.
  • Very few Americans employ household staff. Even guests are expected to make their own beds and offer to help with chores.

Signs of Culture Shock

Culture shock is described as the anxiety, feelings of frustration, alienation and anger that may occur when a person is placed in a new culture. Many of the customs here 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 some feelings of isolation and frustration are totally normal. Participants experience culture shock to varying degrees; some hardly notice it at all, while others can find it very difficult to adapt to their new environment. Many may not attribute their problems to culture shock. Whatever the case may be, understanding these issues and why they happen will help you.

Some common symptoms of culture shock are:

  • You may feel isolated and frustrated.
  • You may become nervous and/or excessively tired.
  • You may sleep a lot, even after you have recovered from jet lag.
  • You may be excessively homesick. It is normal to miss home, family and friends. But if you can think of nothing else, write or call home all the time and perhaps cry a lot, you are probably suffering from culture shock.
  • Due to your discomfort, you may feel resentment toward your new environment or the people around you.
  • You may become dependent upon other participants from your home country. These friendships are important and are extremely supportive. However, if you spend time exclusively with people from your home country, you will miss the experience of interacting with people from the U.S. and other countries. InterExchange separates participants from the same country as often as possible so that they can more fully immerse themselves in English language and U.S. culture and traditions.
  • You may be anxious about your job: "Why does my employer speak so loudly and quickly?" or "Will I be able to repay my parents the money they lent me?" This stress can become overwhelming and cause tension.
  • You may feel reluctant to speak English or associate with people.

How to Cope With Culture Shock

  • Maintain your perspective.
  • Keep an open mind and a sense of humor. People in the U.S. may do or say things people in your home country would not. In order to overcome culture shock you must accept certain aspects of the new culture.
  • Talk to people about how you are feeling. You are not alone and do not have to go through the adjustment by yourself.
  • Stay positive! Remember the time before you came to the U.S., and remind yourself why you wanted to participate in the program.
  • Talk with your friends and your employer. They will be understanding and supportive.
  • Speak English.
  • Make friends with people from other countries.

Take Care of Yourself

Like all rewarding experiences, being a participant in a cultural exchange program is sometimes difficult. Staying healthy and dealing with your stress will help to make your time abroad more fun, and improve your interactions in the workplace. Use these tips to make your days easier:

  • Relax when you feel stressed. Try breathing exercises, yoga or imagine places that make you happy.
  • Keep a journal. This will help you to enjoy the wonderful days, and to get through the more difficult days.
  • Communicate often with your employer. If you are feeling frustrated, see what you can change about the situation.
  • Talk with other participants. You can support and encourage each other.
  • If you have had a hard day, spend some quiet time without television or other distractions. Listen to music. Take a shower. Read a book. Exercise. Take a walk.
  • Get plenty of sleep. If you are tired, you are more likely to get frustrated and sick.
  • Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water and exercise regularly so that you have the energy needed to make the most of each day.
  • Take vitamins to stay healthy.
  • Wash your hands often. This will help you avoid getting sick.
  • When you do get sick, be careful with cold medicine. Many cold medicines will make you very sleepy, which will make your work more difficult. Make sure any medicine you take while you are working is "non-drowsy." This means it will not make you sleepy.
  • Think about the things you enjoy about the U.S. or plans you've made to travel during your 30-day grace period.

Important Note for Non-Native English Speakers

You should always try to speak in English during your program. You may be uncomfortable with your skills and even feel embarrassed, but you will quickly notice that people will correct your mistakes in a positive way. Your English abilities will improve through your mistakes. Everyone will appreciate your willingness and desire to improve.

The worst mistake you can make is to keep silent. If you don't speak, your employer may think you are incapable of performing your job. You must be able to communicate. Practice and repetition are the only ways you will improve your English skills.

If you don't speak English and only speak in your native tongue, it will be harder to get to know people who cannot speak your native language. Because English is being spoken by everyone around you, 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.

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