With the exception of Native Americans, most people living in the US are either immigrants themselves in North America or the descendants of immigrants who have been arriving since the beginning of the 1600's. It is not surprising, therefore, that the US contains many different cultures and ethnic groups. How then can one talk about Americans? With great difficulty! Below are some "generalizations" that may help you better understand the behavior you see and observe.

  • Although generalizations can sometimes be helpful and applicable, they can also be inaccurate and harmful.
  • The characteristics below vary significantly among various individuals, groups, and cultures in the US.
  • Do not assume they describe all Americans.

This section is grouped into the following categories, for your convenience: the "typical" American, Equalities in the US, Friendships, Families & Relationships, and Alcohol, Drugs & Smoking


Americans are generally...

The following are generalizations considered to be typically "American":

  • Individualism
  • Probably the most important thing to understand about Americans is their devotion to "individualism." Since childhood, Americans are encouraged to see themselves as individuals responsible for their own destiny, not as a member of any collective group. In general Americans:

    • Believe the ideal person is autonomous  and self-reliant.
    • Prefer not being dependent on other people or having others dependent on them.
    • Desire personal success, both social and economic
    • Do not consider social & cultural factors as insurmountable barriers to their ability to get ahead. One result of this attitude is the competitiveness of American society.

    Achievement is a dominant motivation in American life and this can lead to not-so-friendly competition. However, Americans also have a good sense of teamwork, cooperating with others toward a common goal.

    • In the school setting, this team spirit is perhaps best exemplified by the popularity of "study groups" whereby students work together on a project or exam preparation.
    • In an academic setting, individualism is evidenced by students working independently on exams, papers, and projects strictly differentiating between information that has been taken from other sources and original thoughts and ideas.
    • Familiarize yourself with the University's Code of Academic Integrity.
  • Privacy
  • Closely associated with the value that Americans place on individualism is the importance they assign to privacy. Americans assume that people "need some time to themselves" or "some time alone" to think about things or recover their energy. Some Americans have difficulty understanding those who always want to be with others or those who dislike being alone.

  • Time Orientation
  • Americans tend to organize their activities by means of schedules. They also place considerable value on puntuality, but different types of activities have different conventions. As a result:

    • They may seem hurried, running from one thing to the next
    • Unable to relax and enjoy themselves.
    • The pace of life may seem very rushed at first.
    • You should arrive at the exact time specified for meals or appointments with professors, doctors, and other professionals.
    • You can arrive anytime between the hours specified for parties, 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.
    • If you are unable to keep an appointment, you should call the person to advise him or her that you will be late or unable to arrive.
    • On-campus, classes begin and should end on time. Coming late may be frowned upon or even prohibited.
  • Directness & Assertiveness
  • Americans are not taught, as in some other countries, to mask their emotional responses. As a result they:

    • Do not think it is improper to display their feelings, at least within limits.
    • Generally consider themselves to be frank, open, and direct in their dealings with other people.
    • Often speak openly and directly to others about things they dislike.
    • Will try to do so in a manner they call "constructive," that is, a manner which the other person will not find offensive or unacceptable.
    • Will often convey their reactions in nonverbal ways like facial expressions, body position, and gestures if they do not speak openly about what is on their minds.

    On-campus, many services and resources are available to help students and staff. Students and staff are expected to take initiative in expressing their needs and directly seeking assistance.

  • Informality
  • The notion of equality leads Americans to be quite informal in their general behaviors and relationships with others. Do not be surprised to find the following:

    • Informality of American speech, especially the common use of the first name, dress, and posture.
    • Informal dress on American campuses AND
    • The informal, egalitarian relationships they may have with professors.
  • Achievement, Action & Work
  • Achievers, people whose lives are centered around efforts to accomplish some physical, measurable thing, receive respect and admiration from many Americans. Generally Americans:

    • Like "action," and devote significant energy to their jobs, other daily responsibilities, and even recreation. 
    • Also tend to believe they should be doing something most of the time.

    You will often hear Americans talk about how busy they are, which often is true, but also is simply expected.

All Men are Created Equal...

This statement was written in America's Declaration of Independence and has a strong ties to US history and cultural identification. But with the diversity of the US comes a duality in these matters. It is possible, in your time here that you will encounter both greater equalities and discriminations:

  • Equality
  • Although there are many differences in social, economic, and educational levels in the US, there is a theme of equality that runs through social relationships. As a result:

    • Americans do not accept a fixed position in society and believe that they can achieve and succeed in life.
    • They tend not to recognize social differences in dealing with people.
    • Americans do not often show deference to people of greater wealth, age, or higher social status.
    • International visitors who hold high social positions sometimes feel that Americans do not treat them with proper respect and deference.
    • On the other hand, Americans find it very confusing to be treated differently because of their status when they visit other countries.

    This is not to say that Americans make no distinctions among themselves as a result of such factors as sex, age, wealth, or social position; they do. But the distinctions are acknowledged in subtle ways: tone of voice, order of speaking, choice of words, or seating arrangement.

  • Women's roles
  • Since the 70's there has been an active feminist movement, or women's liberation movement in the US, which aims to insure that women have equal responsibilities and opportunities to those of men.

    • Although there are still aspects of US society in which women have not yet achieved equality, women play a public and visible role in the political, economic, cultural, and social affairs of this country.
    • Nonetheless, some people may find that American society is more sexist than their own in certain respects.
    • Some international students and scholars have difficulty adjusting to situations in which a woman is in a position of authority because of their experiences in their own countries.
    • American women may appear assertive if judged in another cultural context.
    • In the US, such traits are considered by many to be positive.

    For more information on women's roles in the US, consult:

    Penn Women's Center
    3643 Locust Walk
    Tel: 215-898-8611

  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community
  • The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community is becoming increasingly visible in the US. Although US immigration laws do not currently recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriages or partnerships, other laws are being challenged by both individuals and organizations in an attempt to establish equality in employment, housing, insurance, marriage or partnership, adoption, and more. While much progress has been achieved, there is still a great deal of prejudice and discrimination. In Philadelphia and other US cities and cosmopolitan areas, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population may be more visible and more socially accepted than in some other countries. 

    Penn's policy prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

    For more information, contact:

    Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center at Penn
    3907 Spruce Street 
    Tel: 215-898-5044
    Fax: 215-573-5751
    Email

  • Religion
  • The US is a multicultural society founded on the need for religious tolerance and respect. Organized religious groups of many faiths and denominations can be found at Penn and in the greater Philadelphia area. A list of various places for worship can be found here.

    • You should not hesitate to seek out opportunities to practice your religious beliefs. 
    • If practice of your religious beliefs interferes occasionally with your class or exam schedules, please be sure to bring the matter up to your professor as far in advance as possible.
    • Although the US has a higher rate of Christian church attendance than most other western societies, many Americans are uncomfortable discussing religion.
    • Some may shy away from the topic altogether, while others will want to share their religious views with you.
    • Most people are sincere and straightforward, but some may try to take advantage of you or convert you to their religious beliefs by offering you their friendship.
    • If you begin to feel uncomfortable in such a situation, politely but firmly explain that you are not interested.
  • Prejudice & Discrimination
  • It is important to note that although people in the US are seen as having equal rights, equal social obligations, and equal opportunities to develop their own potential, in reality things are not so equal. This may come as a surprise to some international visitors who perceive the US as a land of opportunity. 

Friends, Family & Relationships...

As you adjust to life here it is useful to cover topics related to friendships, relationships and understanding American families. 

  • Friendliness
  • When people visit the US, they usually notice immediately the friendliness and openness of Americans and the extreme ease of social relationships. Given this impression it is helpful to understand the following:

    • This casual friendliness should not be mistaken for deep or intimate friendships, which are developed over a long period of time.
    • Americans often say, "Hi, how are you?" or "How are you doing?" and then do not wait for a response. This is a polite phrase, not really a question. You can respond by saying "Hi," or "Fine, thanks."
    • You may also hear an American say, "Drop by anytime" or "Let's get together soon." These are friendly expressions, but they may not be meant literally. While they may be sincere, people are busy and do not always follow through on the invitation.
    • It is polite to call someone on the telephone before visiting, unless you live in a dormitory where things are more casual.
    • It is also acceptable to call a new acquaintance to see if she or he would like to go to a campus or community activity with you.

    Casual social life is especially evident in college and universities, because everyone is there for a relatively short period of time to pursue studies or research.

    • The ease of casual relations are sometimes troubling to some international students and scholars who have left their own friends and family at home and are learning to live in a new place.
    • Some international students and scholars are naturally looking for new friends and may sometimes find it very difficult to develop close relationships with Americans because they cannot seem to get beyond a very superficial acquaintance.
  • Friendships
  • Americans use the word "friend" to refer to anyone from an acquaintance to a person they have known for a long time.

    • They often have friendships that revolve around school, work, or sport activities.
    • They also tend to move frequently, and may appear to be unable to form deep friendships or may give them up more easily and with less stress.
    • The key to developing friendships is to participate fully in the activities you enjoy. 
    • If you are uneasy about your English, do not let it keep you from seeking out friendships.
    • Be flexible, and above all, don't be discouraged by a few disappointing experiences you may have.

    With some effort, you will meet Americans, including those who have lived abroad, with some understanding of what you are experiencing, as well as individuals who share your interests, academic and otherwise. 

  • Relationships & Dating
  • Relationships with Your Roommate or Floormate

    For many students there is no better place to make friends than in a college dormitory or residence hall.

    • Be prepared for very open discussions with a floor or unit of students with different accents, different musical tastes, and different standards of behavior.
    • Most relationships developed in the residence halls are very positive. However, occasional roommate or floormate difficulties occur.
    • While you may or may not become friends with your roommate and others, you should try to develop a good relationship.
    • If necessary, your resident advisor or graduate fellow may be able to offer guidance and advice to help you.
    • The residence hall staff members have extensive training and experience in creating and maintaining a positive and harmonious living environment on campus. 

    Dating

    You may be surprised by the informality of relations among men and women in the US.

    • Couples go out alone in the evening to attend a movie, concert, lecture, or party
    • Students may get together for a "study date."
    • Although there may be fewer formal restrictions on relationships in the US than in many other countries, the casual, informal interchange that is observed between friends and colleagues should not be misinterpreted.
    • Some relationships do progress from casual acquaintances to close friendships or intimate romantic relationships, but this can never be assumed.
    • This type of relationship is most likely to develop over time and by the mutual consent and desire on the part of both parties.
  • Families
  • It can be very difficult to be specific about the American family because of the diversity in the US population. There are several different combinations that make up an "immediate" family unit, generally referring to those members within one's household. This can mean (but is not limited to):

    • mother, father, and children
    • single parent with biological or adopted children
    • gay couple with children OR
    • an adult who lives alone and has close friends that share special events and activities.

    For more resources and information for families and children, click here.

Alcohol, Drugs & Smoking...

US laws concerning the sale and consumption of alcohol may seem liberal or restrictive, depending on your national or cultural background. It is important to know the laws regarding alcohol, drugs and smoking as well as understanding the social aspect to these issues. 

  • Laws & Regulations
  • State laws, not federal laws, govern the sale and consumption of alcohol, and not all states have the same regulations.

    • In Pennsylvania, it is illegal to purchase, possess, transport, or consume alcohol, including beer and wine, until you reach the age of 21.
    • In addition to the state laws, Penn has specific guidelines on the use of alcohol (and drugs, and smoking) on campus. Familiarize yourself with the University Alcohol and Drug Policy.
  • Social Expectations
  • While in the US, you will likely attend parties where alcohol is served, or even illegal drugs are being used.

    • If you are encouraged to drink or take drugs against your will, politely, but firmly decline.
    • You should also be aware that conviction of offences involving illegal drugs can lead to your deportation and permanent exclusion from the US.
  • Smoking
  • Do you smoke?

    • In many parts of the US, all public buildings are designated "smoke free," meaning that you cannot smoke in any part of the building.
    • Other buildings may have spaces designated for smokers.
    • Restaurants may have smoking and nonsmoking sections. But all Philadelphia Restuarants, and most bars, are smoke free. Customers typically go outside to smoke during a meal. 
    • If you are a guest in someone's home, room, or apartment, always ask permission before you smoke.
    • Even if you are in your own room or apartment, it is polite to ask your guests if anyone objects to your smoking before you reach for a cigarette.
    • Be prepared to see "No Smoking" signs in most offices, classrooms, and stores.
    • In such cases it is customary to step outside to smoke.