Life and Customs in the U.S.

About American Culture
In adjusting to any new culture, it is helpful to have some knowledge of the culture. Even though the U.S. population is made up of many different ethnic groups, and that fact is one of the defining characteristics of the United States, it is still possible to talk about some shared “mainstream” values. The following explanation of these values may help you to know who Americans are. It may help you to tell whether puzzling American behavior is due to cultural conflict or individual differences. A discussion of cultural values is not about being right or wrong; it is about different ways of doing things. Remember that these are generalizations; sometimes they will be relevant, sometimes they will not. The information provided here is an adaptation by Harvard University of Appendix 5 of NAFSA’s International Student Handbook: A Guide to University Study in the USA; and also of the Yale University OISS Handbook for International Students and Scholars.

Individualism and Privacy
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Americans is their devotion to individualism. From an early age, children are trained to be independent and responsible for their own futures. Such training may sometimes lead to a seeming lack of respect for parents in particular and older people in general. Along with valuing individualism is a need for privacy, for time alone. Privacy often begins at an early age, with children sleeping in separate rooms from their parents and even giving each child a separate bedroom (if parents can afford it). Although Americans are welcoming people, most expect even friends to phone first before dropping in at their homes. Casual unannounced visits are less common than in some other cultures.

The idea of equality leads Americans to be fairly informal in their behavior and in their relationships with others. You will see such informality in dress, language (particularly in use of first names and slang), posture, and classroom activities like eating in class, asking many questions and making comments, etc. Invitations may be very casual and often are not written.

You may have heard the expression “Time is money.” Strange as it sounds, that is how Americans view time, as a limited resource to be saved or spent for useful purposes. Americans may get impatient with lines that move slowly in supermarkets, banks, etc. particularly if the checkout person or bank teller is taking time to chat with a customer. In practical terms, this means that Americans will usually be on time for meetings and engagements and will keep a schedule of their activities and expect others to do the same. You should arrive on time for meals and appointments with professors, doctors, and other professionals. You can arrive anytime between the hours specified for informal parties and receptions. If you are unable to keep an appointment, you should call the person to say that you will be late or unable to get there. In meetings and professional encounters being organized is highly valued, whereas “wasting time” in “idle” conversation is not.

Achievement, Action, Work, and Materialism
By definition, achievers whose lives are mainly concerned with accomplishments that can be measured, are admired by Americans. Doing something is very important; even in leisure pursuits. Americans are very active in contrast to others who enjoy sitting and talking. The ideals of action and accomplishment prevail. Because of this, Americans tend to be identified by their work. When meeting new acquaintances, the first question you may be asked is likely to be: “What do you do?” instead of any questions about your family or your background.

Directness and Assertiveness
Americans generally consider themselves to be very frank and direct in their dealings with others. When talking to someone about something they don’t like about a person’s behavior, they may call it “constructive” criticism. Most Americans do not think it is necessary to disguise their feelings; even if their words are not open, facial expressions may be revealing. Being honest is often seen to be more important than preserving harmony in interpersonal relationships. Being assertive in expressing opinions or making requests is considered acceptable, and even necessary (remember
the importance of individualism), but being too “pushy” or aggressive is not. Distinguishing the fine line between the two is difficult even for Americans.

Adjusting to a New Culture
The following information is available to assist students, scholars and their family members in adjusting to living in America.

Culture Shock
Culture shock is a term used to describe the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, confusion, etc.) felt when people have to operate within an entirely different cultural or social environment, such as a foreign country. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating the new culture, causing difficulty in knowing what is appropriate and what is not. As a new student or scholar at Fermilab, you may find adjusting to a different educational system, culture and in some cases language to be more challenging than you expected. The following information may be helpful. A pattern of cultural adjustment often occurs over a period of several weeks or months. There are usually three phases in Culture Shock.

Phase I – The Honeymoon
During this initial period, you may feel excited and exhilarated. For some, however, the novelty soon wears off.

Phase II – The Rejection
You may miss your usual ways of dealing with school or work, social relationships, and everyday life. You may find yourself studying for hours longer than your classmates and colleagues because of language differences. If English is not your first language, speaking and listening to English every day and trying to understand how things are done here may feel like an overwhelming effort. You may feel homesick and may idealize your life back home while being highly critical of life in the United States. Feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, or even depressed is not uncommon. You may experience minor health problems and/or disruptions in sleeping and eating patterns. Your motivation may diminish, and you may feel like withdrawing from your new friends. This is a natural reaction to living in a new culture. You may contemplate going home early before completing your degree or research. You may be angry at not finding what you had expected. Helping a spouse and children adjust to life in the United States may pose an additional challenge.

Phase III – The Recovery
It is important to understand that as time passes you will be better able to enjoy your new surroundings. Feelings and attitudes about being at Fermilab and in the United States will improve although you may never get to the high level experienced during the first phase. You may become more relaxed, regain your self-confidence, and enjoy life in the United States. A more balanced view of life at Fermilab and the United States will develop. Misunderstandings and mistakes which in the earlier phases of culture adjustment would have become major obstacles will be more easily understood and resolved.

Ways to Diminish Feelings of Culture Shock
Recognize what is happening and realize that these reactions are very common. If you are here with your spouse and family it is important to acknowledge your feelings to one another. Reach out to friends and others for help instead of withdrawing, even though it may be difficult. In certain cultures, it is not acceptable to share your problems with people outside the family. Here, however, students and scholars are faced with obstacles unlike those they have faced back home. The family support system upon which you relied at home is not easy to replace. At Fermilab, there is the additional stress of trying to succeed in a different system. Get together with students and scholars from your home country. It can be a big help to speak your own language, to share a meal from home or have a cup of coffee and talk about adjusting to living in the United States.

Contact a cultural club to meet students or scholars from your own country and/or other countries. Get out and discover some of the attractions in the Greater Boston area. Sitting inside and doing nothing when you are feeling depressed can make you feel even more isolated. There are always events happening on the Fermilab campus and the neighboring communities. Athletic activities or other kinds of exercise such as taking walks may also be helpful.

Getting Help
If you feel you need more help, please contact the Fermilab’s Employee/Users Assistance Program (services provided through Employee Resource Systems, Inc.), which provides comprehensive and effective online, telephone, and face-to-face services for employees, household members, Users at the Lab and anyone covered under employees’ health insurance benefits. Some areas the EAP can help with include:

  • Work/Life balance
  • Emotional wellness
  • Marital/relationship issues
  • Family issues
  • Communication skills
  • Care for Aging Parents
  • Stress management
  • Alcohol and drug issues
  • Work-related issues
  • Grief issues
  • Financial and legal concerns
Username: Fermilab
Password: eap