• What are Americans Like
    • What are Americans Like

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.


  • 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.

    Many Americans believe that the ideal person is an autonomous, self-reliant individual. They generally do not prefer being dependent on other people or having others dependent on them. Americans have a desire for personal success, both social and economic, and many do not consider social and 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. 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.

    Americans also place considerable value on punctuality. Different types of activities have different conventions. 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 and Assertiveness
  • Americans are not taught, as in some other countries, to mask their emotional responses. They do not think it is improper to display their feelings, at least within limits. They generally consider themselves to be frank, open, and direct in their dealings with other people. They often speak openly and directly to others about things they dislike. They 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. If they do not speak openly about what is on their minds, they will often convey their reactions in nonverbal ways like facial expressions, body position, and gestures.

    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.

  • 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. In part because 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.

    One implication of this is that 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.

  • Informality
  • The notion of equality leads Americans to be quite informal in their general behaviors and relationships with others. The informality of American speech, especially the common use of the first name, dress, and posture can be quite shocking to some international students and scholars. Many international students and staff comment on informal dress on American campuses and the informal, egalitarian relationships they may have with professors.

  • Achievement, Action, and 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.  Americans 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.

  • 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 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

  • Friendliness
  • When people visit the US, they usually notice immediately the friendliness and openness of Americans and the extreme ease of social relationships. This casual friendliness should not be mistaken for deep or intimate friendships, which are developed over a long period of time.

    In the US, people 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. They naturally are 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 and Relationships
  • To Americans the word, "friend," can be used to refer to anyone from an acquaintance to a person they have known for a long time. Americans often have friendships that revolve around school, work, or sport activities. Americans 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 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.

    These 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 mother, father, and children. But other families you meet may be composed of a 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.

  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community
  • The lesbian, gay, and bisexual, and transgender community is becoming increasingly visible in the US, as neighbors, friends, and colleagues, as well as in the news, movies, and television programs. 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. 

    The University of Pennsylvania'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: center@dolphin.upenn.edu

  • Religions
  • The US is a multicultural society founded on the need for religious tolerance and respect. You should not hesitate to seek out opportunities to practice your religious beliefs. 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 in the Penn web site at http://www.upenn.edu/campus/religion.php.

    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.

  • Alcohol, Drugs, and Smoking
  • US laws concerning the sale and consumption of alcohol may seem liberal or restrictive, depending on your national or cultural background. 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: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/alcohol/policy2.php.

    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.

    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. 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 and to step outside to smoke.

  • Prejudice and Discrimination
  • 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. 

    Remember that these are "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 in this section vary significantly among various individuals, groups, and cultures in the US.  Do not assume they describe all Americans.