The following was taken from Georgia Tech's web page on International Student Handbook (with slight editing - i.e. any information specific to Georgia Tech (or just plain boring) was removed). If you're a citizen of the United States, it may reveal more about you than you ever knew! Or not.
  • Individualism

    Americans value independence. They generally believe that the ideal person is autonomous and self-reliant. This may mean that they prefer to spend less time with their friends than in other cultures. They often dislike being dependent on other people, or having others dependent on them. Other cultures may view this as "selfishness" or as a healthy freedom from the constraints of ties to family, clan or social class.

  • Informality

    Americans tolerate a considerable degree of informality in dress, relationships between people and methods of communication. In some cultures this may reflect a "lack of respect" and in others it reflects a healthy lack of concern for social ritual.

  • Making Friends

    You may find that American students smile easily and are not hesitant to talk, but this is not an automatic commitment to friendship. In this mobile society where Americans are taught to be self-reliant, friendships are often transitory and established to meet personal needs at a certain time. Many Americans have "friends at work," "friends at school," and so on, but only a few very close friendships. These friendships are usually the result of repeated interactions between individuals who find they share similar views and a variety of experiences together. Casual friendships are especially common among college-age students who are trying to establish personal autonomy and are coming into contact with a variety of people representing different values and life-styles.

    This is not meant to discourage international students from attempting to establish friendships with Americans. Most Americans readily accept new people into their social groups. One of the best ways to meet Americans is to go to concerts, sporting events and church activities, or to join a special interest group on campus.

  • The American Concept of Time

    In the U.S., it is the custom to appear at the exact time set for an appointment or a social engagement. For example, if you are invited to a dinner at 6:30 p.m., the host and hostess expect you to arrive at that time. When you are late, your hosts may be annoyed, even angry.

    For business, for most meetings involving a group of people, for a date or for a dinner invitation, punctuality is very important. For many other social events, such as large informal parties, time is more flexible.

    Many Americans organize their activities according to a schedule. As a result, they always seem to be running around, hurrying to get to their next "appointment." This fast pace of life may be overwhelming for many people from other cultures.

  • Writing Numbers

    In the United States, the number seven is written 7, [without a bar through the middle]. Many people get confused when they see 7 [with a bar] and interpret it to mean capital "f". While in America it is better to get in the habit of writing 7 without the bar.

  • Writing Dates

    In writing dates, always (unless specified otherwise) write out the month (January 11, 1986) or get in the habit of writing the month first, the day second, and the year last. When you write 11-1-86 to mean January 11, 1986, Americans will interpret it to mean November 1, 1986.

  • The American Obsession with Personal Cleanliness

    Americans have a saying, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." Most Americans are very conscious of body odors and may seem fanatic about taking showers, brushing their teeth, washing their hair, and using many types of toiletries - such as deodorant, perfume and after-shave lotion - in excess. Most Americans shower, use deodorant, and change clothes daily. Americans are also very particular about the cleanliness of their homes, especially the bathroom.

  • Guidelines for Practical Situations

    This section provides more specific information about the behavior that Americans usually expect in certain situations.

    • Meeting Americans

      When two people are first introduced, there is a ritual greeting. The dialogue is: "How do you do?" "Fine, thank you. How are you?" "Fine, thanks." After the first meeting, a more formal "Good morning," or "Good afternoon," or a less formal "Hello" or "Hi" followed by "How are you?" is customary. The answer is usually "Fine," whether or not you are fine.

      Men usually shake hands with each other the first time they meet. Men usually do not shake hands with women unless the woman extends her hand first. Women may sometimes shake hands with one another.

      Americans frequently use first names. This is true even when people first meet. Address people of your own approximate age and status by first name. If the other person is clearly older than you, you should say Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. (for both unmarried and married women), and the last name. Unless a faculty member or someone else with a title tells you to use his or her first name, address that person using his or her title and last name. Titles are not used with first names in the U.S.; i.e. "Dr. Bob".

      The use of "nicknames" is very common among Americans. A nickname is not the person's real name but a name given to the person because of a physical characteristic, a behavior pattern, etc. Americans may shorten your name if they find it difficult to pronounce. Being called by a nickname is not usually uncomplimentary. Instead, it may indicate that you are viewed with respect and even affection.

      Americans are usually very verbal when they are with one another. Unless they are very close friends, "being quiet" is usually noticed. Long silences are usually uncomfortable to Americans. For this reason, Americans often "make small talk" or discuss "trivia." This type of conversation usually takes place before any serious conversation. This means that they will initially discuss things as the weather, sports and classes.

      When Americans talk to one another they usually establish eye contact and keep a distance of about two feet. It is extremely uncomfortable for most Americans to talk with someone who stands "too close" to them and you will find them backing away from such a situation. Physical contact, other than shaking hands, for most Americans connotes sexual attraction or aggressiveness and this is usually not done.

    • Visiting Americans

      You may receive a verbal or written invitation from an American to visit his or her home. You should always answer a written invitation, especially if it says "R.S.V.P." Do not say that you will attend unless you plan to do so. It is acceptable to ask your host about appropriate clothing.

      It is important to arrive on time for special dinners and parties. If you will be late, call your host to explain. When you visit an American, especially for dinner, you will be asked what you would like to drink. You do not need to drink an alcoholic beverage.

      If you have any dietary restrictions you should tell the host at the time you accept the invitation.

      It is not necessary to bring a gift, unless it is a special occasion - a birthday or an important holiday, like Christmas. However, you may always politely ask your host if there is anything you can bring. It is also nice to give a small gift if you are invited as a house guest for an extended visit. When you are invited to someone's home, you may always ask if there is anything you may do to help in preparing the meal or cleaning up afterwards.

      Most Americans consider it polite for guests to leave one or two hours after dinner unless a special party has been planned or you are asked to stay longer. It is a good idea to write a thank-you note expressing how much you enjoyed the evening. This is a very formal way to express thanks. You may also call the person or say something when you see them again.

      "Pot luck" dinners are very common in the university setting. This usually means that each guest or family brings part of the meal. The person organizing the dinner will tell you what part of the meal you are expected to bring. It is fine to bring a typical dish of your country.

      Among university students there are often many parties. These usually begin late at night, often after 9:00 p.m., and continue for several hours. These are very informal and it is not as important to be on time or to dress formally. Most students will wear jeans to these parties. You should ask the person having the party if there is something you should bring; American students usually like to drink beer and eat "munchies" - potato chips, corn chips, pretzels, etc. You may just be asked to "pitch in when the hat comes around," meaning that your host has bought the refreshments but expects the guests to contribute a few dollars when they come to the party.

    • Gifts

      As a rule, gifts are given only to relatives and close friends. It is acceptable to give a gift to a host or hostess or to someone with whom you have a more casual or friendly relationship, but it is not required or even very common to do so. Gifts are not usually given to people in official positions; such a gift may be misinterpreted as a way to gain favor or special treatment. It is acceptable to give teachers a gift to show your appreciation, but it is better to do so after you have completed the course.

      Americans usally give gifts to family and friends at Christmas, birthdays, weddings, graduations and child-births. Gifts are also sometimes given to someone who has moved into a new house or is moving away. Greeting cards are given to acquaintances who are not close friends.

      Gifts are not expected to be very expensive. More expensive gifts are acceptable between people who are close to one another. We usually give something which the recipient needs, wants or would enjoy.

      Americans usually open gifts in the presence of the giver. A verbal expression of thanks is appropriate. If the gift is opened in the absence of the giver, a thank-you note specifically mentioning the gift should be sent. This is an important custom for most Americans, signifying that you truly like the gift.

    • Time Schedules

      In general, you can telephone Americans between 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. without awakening them. Most Americans, especially families, do not like to be disturbed during the evening meal, anywhere between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.

    • Tipping

      Tips are not usually added to the bill in restaurants by your waiter/waitress. Nevertheless, they are expected and needed by employees who rely on them for a large part of their income. In restaurants, if the service is satisfactory, it is customary to leave a tip which is 10 to 15 percent of the total amount of the bill. You may leave this in cash on the table before you leave or add it onto the bill if you charge it. Tips may be larger, for example, 20 percent, in larger cities or more expensive restaurants or for exceptionally good service. They are not expected in "fast food" restaurants or cafeterias. Other acceptable places to tip include hairdressers and barbers (15 percent), taxi drivers (15 percent), coat room attendants in restaurants and theaters (25 cents) and bellboys in hotels and luggage carriers in airports and train stations (50 to 75 cents per piece of luggage carried).

    • Dating Americans

      In the United States, relationships between young unmarried people are informal and involve a broad range of activities and values. Some unmarried couples live together, some maintain one relationship, and some date many different people without commitment to one person. This may be confusing for a non-American.

      An invitation to a dinner, movie, dance, concert, etc. may not imply an emotional attachment, but it does mean that someone's company is enjoyed. Usually "a date" means getting together with someone to "do something" which may be planned in advance or agreed upon spontaneously - for example, a cup of coffee after class.

      In the United States, men still tend to initiate invitations for dates, although many women are beginning to feel equally comfortable asking or calling someone for a date. In this country, when someone is "asked out" - to go on a date - he or she may politely decline. If he or she declines three or four requests for a date with someone, that person probably does not wish to "go out." It is usually not polite to demand a reason or explanation for a refusal. However, the person may offer one.

      Many students do not have much money and may "go Dutch," that is, they will share the cost of the entertainment. In a more formal situation, the man is still expected to pay for the transportation and entertainment. However, it is acceptable for the woman to offer to help share the cost.

      "Breaking a date" is very serious for most Americans. A change in plans for a date (re-scheduling it for another time) is not as big a problem as actually no longer wishing to go on a date. It is polite to inform the other person as soon as possible if you are absolutely unable to go.

      The amount of physical contact between men and women in the United States depends on the amount of affection that two people feel for one another. Americans differ in this according to their personal values and in many cases, their upbringing. Misunderstandings may result when members of the opposite sex are from different cultures. It is hoped that both individuals will be patient and respect the other's feelings and social customs. Some Americans value and respect talking honestly and openly about their feelings, whereas others are unable to do so. In our culture the greatest amount of touch in public usually occurs only between men and women. There is less of this between female friends and very little between men. As a result, a casual hug or holding hands with someone of the opposite sex should not necessarily be interpreted as an invitation to greater intimacy.

    • The Pattern of Adjustment to American Society

      Many students arrive in the U.S. exhausted. The stress of preparing forms and applications, awaiting permissions, making financial plans, and leaving home and family behind for an indefinite period has probably meant several months of concentrated effort. Add to that a long international flight, jet lag, and the strain of speaking and listening in English, ever fearful of misunderstanding, and it can be understood that students frequently need several days to rest, observe, and listen. After arrival in the U.S., the student's pattern of adjustment to American society may go through five stages:

      • Arrival fascination. The student who has recovered from his initial exhaustion is soon very busy with registration, interviews, orientation to the campus, tours, parties, and getting acquainted with people in his immediate surroundings. He is caught up in the excitement of the experience and is beginning to find his place on campus and in the community.
      • Culture shock. Following immediately on the heels of the initial excitement is the frustration with college bureaucracy and the weariness of speaking and listening to English every day. Sleep patterns may be disrupted; the student may suffer indigestion and be unable to eat; he may refuse to talk and protest at not being able to understand anyone. The student may sleep all day and watch TV instead of studying. Study habits may fail entirely.
      • Adjustment/isolation. This phase occurs after a few days (or a few weeks) of culture shock when the student can understand lectures and textbooks somewhat better and has passed one or two quizzes. He makes a few friends and learns to manage the size and complexity of the campus. The student may then isolate himself and devote full time to studies, ignoring areas of life that are difficult. Sometimes problems with the English language tend to isolate the student further and he may cling to a friend (or friends) who speaks the same native language. At either the culture shock or adjustment/isolation stage, the student may become very critical of all things American; Americans may find it difficult to communicate with him.
      • Adjustment/acceptance. This is realized when the student finally feels at ease with the college and with peer groups and can handle the language well. Then he will be anxious to learn more about U.S. society and the significance of daily events, and he will want to travel around the country. He will be better able to handle with understanding any differences with friends; relations with Americans can deepen and mature.
      • Return anxiety. As the student nears completion of his studies and return home draws closer, anxieties begin to intrude. It is difficult to leave new friends, a safe and familiar environment, and comfortable patterns of living. The student may realize how much he has changed since leaving home and wonder if it is possible to fit in again. This feeling may be compounded if the student is aware of changes in his own country and culture which have occurred during his stay here.

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