The United States is known for its unique “melting pot” culture which melds customs from people from all over the world. As part of an InterExchange program, 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 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 feelings of isolation and frustration can occur. This is totally normal and is often described as 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 your new environment
- Feeling anxious
- 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 different ways to overcome these feelings. It’s important to recognize you’ll only feel this way for a limited amount of time and that you play a role in how long these feelings last. By overcoming culture shock, you’ll be better able to make the most of your experience in the United States.
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. Here are some common characteristics of American culture:
- 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 may ask about how your day is going or how you are without expecting an answer.
- Americans wait their turn in lines.
- Americans value independent thinking.
- Americans like to joke, smile, and talk.
- Americans are concerned with personal hygiene and cleanliness. It is not unusual for them to bathe once or even twice a day.
Learn More About American Culture
InterExchange Cultural Compass contains lists of things to do in all 50 states as well as InterExchange staff recommendations for our favorite cities, sites, foods, activities, and cultural traditions. Cultural Compass will get you started with discovering the ins-and-outs and hidden gems of the U.S. Explore Cultural Compass with your host employer, new American friends, and other participants on your program and select activities you can do together. Click here to start!
The United States is a dynamic and diverse country. If you plan to take advantage of the opportunity to travel the U.S., InterExchange recommends that you:
- Plan ahead: Have an idea of where you’d like to go and how long you’d like to spend there. Travel in the U.S. can be expensive, so make sure you have enough money to cover your costs.
- Consider traveling with friends: Traveling with friends can be safer, more enjoyable, and more affordable.
- Ask Americans for advice: Talk to your employer and other Americans you meet about interesting travel destinations.
- Stay safe: Use common sense when you travel. If you have an emergency, contact InterExchange for assistance.
You can also read our Travel Resources for Exchange Visitors.
- 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 make 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 try to appreciate the cultural differences you encounter.
- Stay positive: Remember why you wanted to participate in the program in the first place. You came here to learn and experience new things! 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. 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.
- Take Care of Your Health: When you feel stressed, relax 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.
- 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.
If your symptoms persist or are more severe than the symptoms listed, ask your doctor or health care professional for advice, or contact one of the following organizations to find help:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Mental Health America
- NYC Well (for participants in New York City)
Once you become more comfortable, you’ll be able to enjoy your time more and really take part in all the U.S. has to offer.
As always, whenever you need assistance, the Interexchange team is here to provide advice and support.
An Important Note For Non-Native English Speakers:
Always 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. Your English abilities will improve by understanding your mistakes. Everyone will admire you for your willingness and desire to improve.
The worst mistake you can make is to keep silent. Keeping quiet or sticking to your native language can further isolate and alienate you from your surroundings. Because English is 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, and are a great way to overcome culture shock.