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The next several months spent here in Savannah will probably be some of the most exciting and fun-filled of your life. For most people, the time spent at a university is one of freedom, experimentation and exploration. Once you get into the "real world," the responsibilities you face will make you long for the easy college life. Yes, it's true that college is not all fun and games. Your chemistry professor will not accept a lab book that is late because you decided to 'explore' all the night clubs on River Street. However, if you plan your time carefully and make sure to keep yourself informed of all the activities taking place on our campus and in the surrounding community, you will soon find yourself with a huge choice of diverse opportunities just waiting to be sampled. But wait! Not so fast! You wouldn't jump into a swimming pool without seeing how deep it was, would you? Well, in the same way, you shouldn't dive into your experiences here at Armstrong without knowing a little bit about American society. Even though you may have met two other students from your home country at an ISO meeting, remember that you are still in a new country and it will take a little while for you to understand everything about it. The next section will help you make that adjustment. It will explain some of the things that are important to Americans and how they view themselves.
The great advantage of living in a consumer society is that the consumer has many rights, and in any reputable store, the customer's complaints are always listened to. If you feel that you have been treated badly or been sold unsatisfactory merchandise, do not hesitate to complain. As a safeguard against any problems, before buying anything, be sure that the store has a return policy. The most basic piece of advice still applies though: always examine the merchandise you are about to buy quite carefully. Take extra care in discount stores and flea markets, since the chance of getting a good bargain must be balanced with the fact that returning unsatisfactory goods is virtually impossible. Although rare, it is not unlikely that someone may deliberately try to sell you goods of poor quality.
One of the things that always impress many people from other countries is the abundance of consumer goods. In general, Americans spend more and have more than any other nation. All around you, there will be an incredible amount of special offers and discounts advertised and it will be very tempting to just buy and buy. Credit is very easy to obtain and students are inundated with what may seem to be specially sent offers to purchase magazine subscriptions,dvds and compact discs and to apply for all kinds of credit cards. Be very careful if you decide to take up any of these offers. Read all the fine print very carefully before you make any decisions. The same goes for buying goods on sale or as part of a special offer.
Pace of Life and Time Consciousness
One of the first things you will notice from the time you arrive is that Americans always seem to be rushing. For them, time is of the essence, and as a result, it is extremely important for them not to be late for appointments and meetings. In order to function effectively in an American community and build a good reputation, you must be punctual for all appointments. Make every effort to arrive at prearranged meeting places at the time agreed upon by everyone in the group.
Success in American society is often measured in monetary terms. A rich person is viewed as being successful, so some Americans display expensive items in an attempt to appear successful. The fast pace of life in the United States and the emphasis placed on 'winning' and being successful can make this a very exhausting environment for those who are from nations where life is more relaxed. Simply realize that American cultural values are not your cultural values. You do not necessarily have to adopt these values while you are here.
Questions such as "Where do you work?," and "What are you studying?" are common and quite acceptable in America. These are questions that allow Americans to get to know each other. Direct questions about money, age and sex are normally considered unacceptable, as are trying to ascertain a person's views on politics or religion. Paradoxically, many Americans will volunteer much information about themselves with no prompting from you, but too many questions will be viewed as being "nosey."
Americans normally have a wide circle of acquaintances. They will refer to these people as friends even if the relationship is a quite new or casual one. Often they will say, "Hello, how are you?", and ask if you are enjoying school, your stay in the country or simply the weather. Americans may appear to form friendships very quickly and easily. However, because the United States is such a mobile society, they tend to avoid deep involvement. Friendship is viewed as something much more casual than in many other cultures. Of course, you will make friends with Americans, but the relationship may be much more casual than expected.
All individuals you meet should be and will expect to be treated with consideration and courtesy. Americans expect that all people accept other individuals regardless of sex, race, occupation, handicap or religion. Women play an active role in the United States and are considered equal to men in status and therefore deserve the same respect.
Use of Names and Titles
In informal introductions, first names are used and people shake hands. Out of respect for another person or a person of different social status, the title of "Mr." for a man and "Ms." for a woman is used. Most American men and women will shake hands with people to whom they are introduced in both formal and informal situations. Often, the title of one's position is used when addressing a person, such as a president, dean or professor.
Relationships between men and women in the U.S. are very informal compared to other cultures, and there is a great deal of interaction between the sexes. This informality should not be misunderstood. Simply accepting an invitation to go out does not indicate an interest in further meetings, nor that sexual involvement is implied. Honesty and sensitivity are the best guides to help you through any romantic situations which may present themselves.
In the U.S., a person is generally seen as a separate individual rather than as a representative of a particular family, community or group. Individuals are encouraged to be independent and self-reliant. This entails not only acting without first consulting others, but also being ready to voice an opinion on a wide variety of subjects. Someone who does not wish to share his or her opinion with a group is seen as being a "whimp," someone who is too timid. Even with older people and superiors, American students will be just as outspoken as when they are with their peers. Another result of this trait is that people carry out their daily activities with very little reference to others, as long as they believe that their actions will not result in anyone being harmed.
In an academic setting, and no doubt in other settings as well, parties provide an opportunity to meet other people— classmates, teachers, advisors, deans, fellow residents of a housing unit, neighbors, influential community members or prospective employers. In fact, a party may be also called a "mixer" if it is for the express purpose of enabling people to meet others. From these various people, party-goers can obtain useful information about a town, a campus or a living or academic unit, and they can hear other people's perspectives on the student or scholar situation. They might meet other individuals with whom longer lasting, more rewarding relationships can evolve. This can be helpful in the student's pursuit of professional goals.
Sometimes students worry about "losing their culture" if they become too well adapted to the host culture. Don't worry. It is virtually impossible to lose the culture in which you were raised. In fact, learning about the new culture often increases your appreciation for and understanding of your culture. Don't resist the opportunity to become bicultural, able to function competently in two cultural environments.
Just as culture shock derives from the accumulation of cultural clashes, so an accumulation of small successes can lead to more effective interactions within the new culture. As you increase your ability to manage and understand the new social system, practices that recently seemed so strange will become less puzzling. Eventually you will adapt sufficiently to do your best in your studies and social life and to relax and fully enjoy the experience. And you will recover your sense of humor!
Personal & Academic Adjustment to American Society
It is difficult to provide an accurate guide to American social relations and customs because various situations may require different responses. Americans are encouraged to be involved in the community, to express opinions and to "question the system." This can make it difficult to understand what social customs are observed and can make it perplexing to find a comfortable way to act and live in the American environment.
Americans place much emphasis on individuality and personal identity. This is expressed by informality in appearance, interpersonal relationships and methods of communication. Such informality can give the impression that Americans are promiscuous. This is not true, although in some situations the behavior or dress of individuals may exhibit poor taste. As long as one does not infringe on the rights of others, he or she is permitted a great deal of flexibility in personal expression.
The level of physical contact used by Americans differs from most countries. Generally, people shake hands when meeting regardless of gender or age. People also allow about an arm's length for personal space when talking or standing in line. Additionally, people do wait in line. If you decide to "cut" in before someone else it is considered rude and disrespectful to others. Personal space differs in dating relationships and family relationships. In such instances, people are usually comfortable with less personal space. Most often people shake hands when meeting and greeting another person. Sometimes close friends will give each other a hug or kiss on the cheek. To verbally greet one another, people say, "Hello, how are you?" and you generally give a response of "Fine, thanks. How are you?"
Hygiene is also very important to Americans. Many kinds of soaps, lotions, toothpastes, mouth washes, breath fresheners, deodorants, anti-perspirants, perfumes and colognes are available in nearly every type of store. Americans shower and brush their teeth at least once per day and often repeat the process a second or third time prior to going out for the evening or after physical activities. The odor of perspiration or "sweat" and foul mouth odors are offensive to Americans and people generally take steps to eradicate any body odors. For more information on this topic read through the Health and Wellness brochure.
Americans are curious about many things and may ask you many questions. Some of the questions may appear ridiculous, uninformed and elementary, but try to be patient in answering them. You may be the first foreign national of a particular country whom they have met, and they probably have little understanding of life in your country. Most Americans are sincerely interested in learning more about you and your culture.
It is sometimes difficult for international students to understand how Americans form and maintain friendships. In this mobile society, friendships may be transitory and are often established to meet personal needs in a particular situation. The casualness of friendship patterns in the United States allows people to move freely into new social groups. These groups usually form around work, school, shared interests or places of residence. Most Americans readily welcome new people into their social groups. Americans have many interests and engage in a variety of activities so the warmth expressed in one meeting, while genuine and sincere, may be confined to that occasion. Close friendships are the result of repeated interactions between individuals as they identify similarities in point of view and share a variety of experiences.
It is possible that some American family customs will annoy you because they are very different from your own. To help you enjoy your visit more, try to discover what in the two cultures is behind the differences in customs.
It is extremely difficult to be specific about the American family because of the many regional, religious and national backgrounds that are found in the U.S. There are several different combinations of people that may make up a family unit. The family you meet may be composed of a mother, father and children, but other families you meet may be composed of a single parent with children, two or more professional persons who live together, a husband and wife with no children at home or no children at all, or an adult who lives alone and has close friends that share special times and activities. In many families, both the husband and wife are employed away from home. Few American families have servants. At most, they may have someone to stay with their children (a "babysitter") while they are away, or someone to do weekly cleaning or yard work as it is needed.
Household responsibilities are often shared among family members, including children. One's sex does not necessarily determine family responsibilities. Jobs that were once performed mainly by women (such as cooking and cleaning) and those once performed mainly by men (such as taking care of the car and yard) are often done by either sex. Traditional patterns are still followed in some families. American families often share more than household duties. For example, husbands and wives may share in making decisions and in taking responsibility for other family members. The opinions of children are often asked for and accepted, and children are often included in entertaining.
The individuality and autonomy so valued by Americans has extended into the family setting to the extent that law enforces individual rights within the family. It is now illegal, for example, for an individual to use physical force on another even though that person may be his/her spouse or child. What was formerly considered "discipline" or exercise of authority within the family is now a matter for official intervention. Neighbors may report such instances to the police. In addition, professionals such as teachers and doctors are required to report suspected instances of physical abuse to the authorities.
Dealing with Homesickness
Talk to an older friend or family member who understands what you are feeling. However, it's a good idea to limit phone calls. It may help to hang up pictures from home or bring items from home that you enjoy. Becoming familiar with your new surroundings may also help you deal with homesickness. While you're exploring, invite others to explore with you. Planning your travel arrangements ahead of time and setting your return date may also be helpful.