Working & Living in the USA

Cultural Differences

You certainly have heard stories, good or bad, about American people. You also probably have preconceived ideas from having met Americans before or from films and television programs that colour your impression of what Americans are and what they do. However, American society is enormously diverse and complex and cannot be reduced only to a few stories or stereotypes. Important differences exist between geographical regions, between rural and urban areas, and between social classes. In addition, the presence of millions of immigrants who came to the United States from all corners of the world with their own culture and values adds even more variety and flavour to American life.

The characteristics described below represent that image of U.S. society that is thought of as being "typically American."


Probably above everything else, Americans consider themselves as individuals. There are strong family ties and strong loyalties to groups, but individuality and individual rights are most important. If this seems like a selfish attitude, it also leads Americans to an honest respect for other individuals and an insistence on human equality.

Related to this respect for individuality are American traits of independence and self-reliance. From an early age, children are taught to "stand on their own two feet," an idiom meaning to be independent. You may be surprised to learn that most US students choose their own classes, select their own majors, follow their own careers, arrange their own marriages, and so on, instead of adhering to the wishes of their parents.

Honesty and frankness are two more aspects of American individuality, and they are more important to Americans than personal honour or "saving face." Americans may seem blunt at times, and in polite conversations they may bring up topics and issues that you find embarrassing, controversial, or even offensive. Americans are quick to get to the point and do not spend much time on social niceties. This directness encourages Americans to talk over disagreements and to try to patch up misunderstandings themselves, rather than ask a third party to mediate disputes.

Again, "individuality" is the key word when describing Americans, whether it is their personalities or their style of dress. Generally though, Americans like to dress and entertain informally and treat each other in a very informal way, even when there is a great difference in age or social standing. Students and professors often call each other by their first names. International students may consider this informality disrespectful, even rude, but it is part of American culture. Although there are times when Americans are respectful of, and even sentimental about, tradition, in general there is little concern for set social rules.


Americans place a high value on achievement and this leads them to constantly compete against each other. You will find friendly, and not-so-friendly, competition everywhere. The American style of friendly joking or banter, of "getting in the last word," and the quick and witty reply are subtle forms of competition. Although such behaviour is natural to Americans, some international students might find it overbearing and disagreeable.

Americans can also be obsessed with records of achievement in sports, in business, or even in more mundane things. Books and movies, for example, are sometimes judged not so much on quality but on how many copies are sold or on how many dollars of profit are realised. In the university as well, emphasis is placed on achievement, on grades, and on one's grade point average (GPA).

On the other hand, even if Americans are often competitive, they also have a good sense of teamwork and of cooperating with others to achieve a specific goal.

Measuring Success

Americans are often accused of being materialistic and driven to succeed. How much money a person has, how much profit a business deal makes, or how many material goods an individual accumulates is often their definition of success. This goes back to American competitiveness. Most Americans keep some kind of appointment calendar and live according to schedules. They always strive to be on time for appointments. To international students, American students seem to always be in a hurry, and this often makes them appear rude. However, this attitude makes Americans efficient, and they usually are able to get many things done, in part, by following their schedules.

Many Americans, however, do not agree with this definition of success; they enjoy life's simple pleasures and are neither overly ambitious nor aggressive. Many Americans are materially successful and still have time to appreciate the cultural, spiritual, and human aspects of life.

Practical information for Everyday Living

While in the United States, you will have many opportunities to discover more about the country through daily contact with Americans, by exploring all that your area has to offer, and by taking some time to travel to other corners of the United States. You will have to deal with such matters as banking, shopping, postal and telephone services, automobiles and traffic laws, tipping customs, and so on.

Money Matters

US Currency

The basic unit of exchange in the United States is the dollar ($), which is divided into 100 cents (¢). One dollar is commonly written as $1 or $1.00. There are four denominations of commonly used coins: 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, and 25 cents. Americans usually refer to coins, not by their value in cents, but by their names. A one-cent coin is a penny, a five-cent coin is a nickel, a ten-cent coin is a dime, and a 25-cent coin is a quarter. There are also one-dollar coins and half-dollar (50-cent) coins but they are seldom found in circulation.

US paper money (often called bills: for example, a “one dollar bill”) comes in single-bill denominations of one dollar ($1.00), two dollars ($2.00, but these are rare), five dollars ($5.00), ten dollars ($10.00), twenty dollars ($20.00), fifty dollars ($50.00), and one hundred dollars ($100.00). You will immediately notice that, unlike in most other countries, US bills are all the same size and all the same colour. They are differentiated from each other by the number value and with the portrait of a different US historical figure on each denomination.

At first, you may find this confusing and you will need to watch which bills you use carefully. However, you will become accustomed to the currency and will soon be able to differentiate easily between the denominations. US coins also are marked with the coin’s value and each denomination is a different size.

Establishing a Bank Account

One of the first things you should do after you arrive in the United States is establish a bank account. It is not a good idea to carry large sums of cash or to keep it in your room. Most banks have main offices in the centre of a city or town. Smaller offices, called “branches,” are usually found in other parts of a city or town and in the suburbs. Even if your bank does not have a branch nearby, you often can find automated bank machines to serve your needs. Banks generally are open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. On Fridays, many banks stay open a few hours later. Many banks, but not all, are also open on Saturdays, often from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon.

Your community counsellor can suggest which banks are convenient in your local area. Remember that banks are private businesses. They are all different and each one wants to get your business. You should check with several banks to determine which bank offers the best services for your needs. When you are ready to open a bank account, go to the “New Accounts” department at the bank you have chosen. A bank officer will help you to open an account by explaining the different kinds of accounts available and the costs and services of each one. You should plan to open both a savings account and a checking (current) account at the same bank, simply because it will be more convenient for you. For example, if you have a savings account and a checking account in the same bank, you can easily transfer funds from one to the other. Interest rates on savings and checking accounts vary from bank to bank. Investigate and compare various banks and their rates of interests on checking and savings accounts before you decide where to open an account. Internet banks are an alternative option to traditional banks and are another possibility to explore. The best source of information for these will be on the Internet itself.


In the United States, tips (gratuities) are not automatically added to bills, as is customary in some other countries. Even if tipping remains a personal choice, it is usually expected when certain services are provided. You should be aware that the people who commonly receive tips are paid a wage that is lower than those who do not receive tips. They depend upon tips for a significant part, sometimes the majority, of their income. The average tip is usually 15 percent, but it can vary depending on the extent and the quality of the service provided.

Eating Out

The expected tip in a restaurant is 15 or 20 percent in a good restaurant with excellent service. You should leave your tip on the table for the waiter or waitress as you leave. If you pay with a credit card, you can add the tip to the credit card charges before you total the bill. The restaurant then gives that amount in cash to your server. If you sit at a counter in a restaurant, the tip is usually smaller; 10 to 15 percent is sufficient. In a fast-food restaurant, the bill is paid when the food is ordered and no tip is expected. In a cafeteria or a self-service restaurant, you pay the cashier after having chosen your meal and, again, no tip is expected.

  • Taxi Drivers
    It is customary to give 10 to 15 percent of the total fare.
  • Airport and Hotel Porters
    It is customary to give $1.00 for each bag.
  • Barbers, Hairdressers, and Beauticians
    They usually are tipped 10 to 15 percent of the bill.
  • Valet Parking
    The attendant should usually receive $1.00 to $2.00.

Never offer a tip to public officials, police officers, or government employees. This is against the law in the United States. There is no need to tip hotel desk clerks, bus drivers, theatre ushers, salespeople, flight attendants, or gas station attendants.

Health and Wellbeing

Adjusting to Your New Home

When travelling abroad, you have to be ready for extreme or unfamiliar conditions. You might have an upset stomach or other digestive problems in the first few days as your body adapts to the climate and the food. It is even common to catch a cold. You may have trouble adapting to the altitude if you are going to a mountainous area. Even the most seasoned travellers and the fittest athletes have to deal with these problems when they leave their country. These discomforts can, however, be controlled. Here are a few tips to help you adjust:

  • Take it easy for the first few days or a week. Your body will need to rest if it is to adapt to local conditions.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Wash your hands often and do not rub your eyes to avoid coming in contact and being infected with various viruses.
  • Medication for headaches, colds, upset stomach, minor injuries, and other ailments is readily available in the United States. It is not always advisable to bring medication from home into the United States since some restrictions apply. The pharmacist at any drugstore can assist you in finding medication for your needs.
  • If you are going to a warm area, wear a hat on sunny days to avoid sunstroke, use sunscreen to protect your skin against sunburn, and drink a lot of liquids (non-alcoholic and without caffeine) to prevent dehydration.

Personal Safety

Unfortunately, as everywhere else in the world, there is crime in the United States. You should be especially careful until you are familiar with your local community. Every town has unsafe areas, and you should find out where these are as soon as possible. Basic safety rules include the following:

  • In some areas it is not safe to walk alone at night. Always ask someone to accompany you if you are unsure about going somewhere on your own. Some universities offer accompaniment services for people who have to walk home after classes or from the library in the evening. Ask your international student adviser if your university offers such services.
  • Do not carry large amounts of cash with you or wear jewellery of great value.
  • Never accept a ride from a stranger. Do not hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers.
  • Be careful with your purse or wallet, especially in crowded metropolitan areas where there are purse snatchers and pickpockets. Other attractive personal property, such as cameras, stereos, computers, and bicycles, should be locked in a safe place when you are not around. Be careful with your belongings.
  • If a robber threatens you at home or on the street, try not to resist unless you feel that your life is in danger and you must fight or run away. Do not fight back as this might provoke your attacker to cause you harm. Remain calm and observe as much as possible about the robber. Report this crime to the police right away and give your best description of the attacker.

Adjusting to a New Environment

Going as a tourist to a foreign city or country for a short period of time can be fun, but living and studying there for longer than a few months is a completely different experience. You get to know the place and the people on a much deeper level. At the same time, you will have to deal with some physical, mental, and social challenges.

Even though living in a foreign country can sometimes be frustrating, it can also be very rewarding.The majority of people who live and study in the United States for an extended period of time go home feeling positive about their experience and believe that the time spent abroad was beneficial both academically and personally. This chapter contains information that may help ease your transition.

Jet Lag

Depending on your country of origin, one of the first adjustments you will have to face after your arrival in the United States is “jet lag.” Jet lag is the physical shock of your body adjusting to a new time zone. Its intensity will depend upon how many time zones you have crossed during your travel to the United States. While your body is adjusting to a new daily rhythm, you may experience headaches, disorientation, sleeplessness, or sleepiness. Many people find that for every hour of time difference, it takes one day to completely overcome the effects of jet lag. However, you may find that you are through the worst of it in about half that time. After this period of adjustment, you should be able to function normally and follow a regular daily schedule.

There are a number of things you can do to help yourself through the transition:

  • Attempt, as much as possible, to follow the normal eating and sleeping patterns of your new time zone. Resist taking naps in the middle of the day since it will make it more difficult to sleep at night and will only serve to prolong your jet lag. Instead, take a walk, exercise, or plan activities with friends during the day when you find you are tired.
  • Exposure to sunlight or other light during the day can also help your body’s clock to reset.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is the process of adjusting to a new country and a new culture, which may be dramatically different from your own. You no longer see the familiar signs and faces of home. Climate, food, and landscapes, as well as people and their ways all seem strange to you.

If you feel this way, do not panic. Culture shock is a normal reaction. As you become adjusted to US culture and attitudes and begin to know your way around, you will start to adapt to and understand your new surroundings and way of life. International students experience culture shock in varying degrees; some hardly notice it at all, while others find it very difficult to adapt. There are usually four stages of culture shock that you will experience:

The “Honeymoon” Stage

The first few weeks in your new home will be very exciting. Everything will be new and interesting, and you will likely be so busy getting settled in with your new family and your classes that you may hardly notice that you miss home.

Irritability and Hostility

As you begin to realize that you are not on vacation and that this is where you live, you might experience anger and hostility. Sometimes you may feel hostile toward Americans and their way of doing things, and even trivial irritations may cause hostility to flare.

Understanding and Adjustment

In time you will come to better understand your new environment and will find, maybe even unconsciously, that you are adjusting to your new home. You will experience less frequent feelings of hostility and irritability.

Integration and Acceptance

Finally, you will find that you have come to feel that, at least on some level, you consider your host family and your new town, your home. You will have made friends and will feel that your community accepts you just as you have accepted it. The length and intensity of each stage depends upon the individual, but no one escapes it completely. The important thing to remember is that you are not the only one experiencing these feelings. Many others before you have gone through it, and there are others all around you who are dealing with culture shock.

Below are some of the common symptoms of culture shock and some suggestions to help you get over these hurdles.

  • Homesickness
    You miss your homeland, your family, and your friends. You frequently think of home, call or write letters to your family and friends often, and maybe even cry a lot. It is good to keep in contact with home, but do not let this get in the way of meeting new friends and enjoying your new home. Make an effort to meet new people, in class, and in your local community. Find one thing with which you are comfortable - for example, music, food, or an activity - and make this the starting point toward making yourself feel at home in America.
  • Hostility
    Minor irritations make you unusually angry, and you feel life in the United States is the cause of your problem. You feel your expectations have not been met. It takes time to get used to life in a foreign country and many things need to be relearned. Be patient and ask questions when you feel you do not understand. Maybe your expectations were too high or too low, and you need to readjust your perception of what it means to live and study in the United States.
  • Dependence
    You become dependent on fellow nationals, friends, or your community counsellor and feel you cannot achieve anything by yourself. You are scared of doing things by yourself without somebody else’s help or approval. It is good to have people you can depend on for the first few days. However, at the same time, you should gradually take on the challenges and “do it yourself.” It is all right to make mistakes and to learn from them. You should also try to make various types of friends, not just your fellow nationals, to fully take advantage of your American educational experience.
  • Loss of self-confidence
    You feel everything you do is wrong, that nobody understands you, that you have trouble making friends. You start to question the way you dress and think because you are afraid you won’t fit in. If you feel everything you do is wrong, ask for feedback from someone you can trust, such as a friend or your international student adviser. What may be wrong is not how others perceive you, but how you perceive yourself. You should not be worried about the way you look, act, or think. The United States is a very diverse country and Americans are used to people with different looks or ways of behaving. Most important, do not lose your sense of humour.
  • Values shock
    You might find yourself facing situations that are not accepted in your culture and have trouble getting accustomed to them. For example, relationships between men and women, the informality of American life, political or religious attitudes, or the social behaviour of Americans may seem amoral or unacceptable to you. Look for information on the things that surprise you or make you feel uncomfortable, and try to remain flexible, respectful, and open-minded. This can be a great occasion to learn more about topics that might be less popular or taboo in your country. Try to enjoy the new cultural diversity and the various cultural points of view. It might be helpful to talk to someone from the same culture or religion who has been living in the United States for a while to discuss how this person has dealt with values shock.

Methods to Avoid Culture Shock

  • Stay busy.
    When you are bored or lonely, engage in activities, even ones that you may have avoided or considered silly. Call someone from school or another Au Pair to arrange a get-together now. Go to a movie, a concert or just out for coffee.
  • Concentrate on the present.
    Put away the memories of the way things were done back home. People tend to remember only the good things about their home country, especially when comparing to the host country. There are always good and bad things. Look at your surroundings as interesting and different, not better or worse.
  • Talk to your Host Family and friends.
    Sometimes talking about how you feel makes the feeling itself less intense. Be sure to be diplomatic. If you are critical and negative you will alienate people and become isolated from them.
  • Don’t spend all of your free time with other Au Pairs. You will only feed on each other’s dissatisfaction if you spend your time complaining and reminiscing about all the good things you left behind.
  • Make friends.
    The best way to make new friends is to talk to people. Most of the people you meet, especially the students in your classes, will be friendly and interested in meeting you. Just your accent alone will be interesting to them. You may have to make the first move. Don’t wait for others to call you.
  • Join clubs and sports teams.
    Participate in school and community activities. Join a church youth group or volunteer to teach young people a skill that you know and they are trying to learn. These activities will help you make friends with similar interests.
  • Don’t sit in your room corresponding with home.
    This solitary activity, whether it be letter writing, calling, faxing or e-mailing, will not help you overcome your depression and your Host Family and friends won’t know how to interpret your behaviour. If you must write your feelings down, let the correspondence sit for a day or more and re-read it before sending (or better yet, try keeping a journal). The world may look totally different by then.


  1. Extracts from “If you want to study in the United States” Books 1 & 4 U.S. Department of State, Educational Information and Resources Branch.