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Social Customs
Social Customs

Many of the social and behavioral aspects of everyday life vary greatly from country to country. Some students might find it initially difficult to understand the way Americans behave and what they really mean to say when they use certain phrases. It is difficult to generalize about U.S. social customs, but the following practices are fairly standard.
  • "How do you do," "Good morning," "Good afternoon," and "Good evening" are formal greetings; usually people will usually simply say "Hi" or "Hello."
  • Upon meeting each other for the first time, men always shake hands, firmly. Women often shake hands with people they meet, but it is not universal. Upon leaving, Americans will usually say "Good-bye" or simply "Bye." More expressive salutations include "Have a nice day," "Nice to see you," or "See you later."
  • Good friends, family members, or people in a romantic relationship might give each other a hug or even kiss upon meeting one another. This kind of greeting is reserved only for people who know each other very well and share a very close relationship.
  • Remember that social customs might vary in different parts of the country and between younger and older people.
Use of Names
  • First names are more readily used in the United States than in other countries. It is almost always acceptable to use the first name of someone of approximately your same age or younger as soon as you meet the person.
  • You should say "Mr." (for men) or "Ms." (for women) and the person's last name when talking to people in positions of authority, your professors, or your elders, unless they ask you to call them by their first name.
  • Some American women prefer to be called "Ms." (pronounced "mizz") rather than "Miss" or "Mrs." This is a neutral form of address that can be used for married and unmarried women and can be useful if you do not know the marital status of the woman you are talking or writing to.
  • It is not the custom in the United States to use "Mr.," "Mrs.," "Miss," or "Ms." with a first or given name. For example, if you meet someone whose name is Larry Jones, you would say "Mr. Jones" and not "Mr. Larry."
  • The use of nicknames is fairly common in the United States. Being called by a nickname is not uncomplimentary if done in good taste, and is often considered as a sign of acceptance and affection.
  • Do not be shy to ask people how they would like you to call them and to say what you would like them to call you. This will make introductions easier.
Friendliness and Friendships

Americans are reputed to be friendly people. It is not uncommon for Americans to be informal and casual, even with perfect strangers. When in the United States, do not be surprised if somebody you do not know says "Hi!" to you for no reason. However, there is a difference between friendliness and friendships. As in any culture, it takes time for friendships and close relationships to form.

Americans' friendships tend to be shorter and more casual than friendships among people from some other cultures. It is not uncommon for Americans to have only one close friendship during their lifetime and to consider other friends to be merely social acquaintances. This attitude probably has something to do with American mobility and the fact that Americans do not like to be dependent on other people. They tend to compartmentalize friendships, having "friends at work," "friends on the basketball team," and "family friends," for example. Here are some other characteristics of Americans' behavior in social situations:
  • Americans might refer to acquaintances or people they meet in class as "friends." However, there are different levels of friendship, and even if they call these people friends, they do not always have close emotional ties to them.
  • In the United States, people often will ask, "How are you?" or "How are you doing?" when you meet them. These are usually polite phrases more than personal questions, and they do not always expect an honest answer. If you are well acquainted with this person, you might say how you truly are feeling. If not, the accepted response is usually "Fine, thank you. How are you?" even if you are not feeling very well.
  • Americans often communicate with touch, by putting a hand on somebody's shoulder to express warmth of feeling, by giving a nudge to express humor, or a pat on the back to express reassurance. Often they will hug when meeting. These friendly gestures are common and should not be interpreted as intrusive or disrespectful.
  • Even if Americans tend to touch each other more often than in some other cultures, they usually maintain a relatively large physical distance between one another during conversations or social meetings. Everybody has a different "comfort zone" around them; do not be offended if an American takes a step back as you approach him or her in a conversation.
  • Men and women often have long-term platonic relationships, which can surprise some foreign visitors. People of the opposite sex might go to the movies, a restaurant, a concert, or other event together without ever being romantically involved.
  • Americans generally enjoy welcoming people into their homes and are pleased if you accept their hospitality. Do not hesitate or feel uncomfortable to accept invitations, even if you cannot reciprocate — they know you are away from home and will not expect you to do so.
  • Participating in campus life is a good way to make friends. Every university offers various organizations, committees, sports clubs, academic societies, religious groups, and other activities where everyone with an interest can take part.
As in any culture, it takes time to make good friends. Just be patient, try to meet as many people as possible, and with time you may form friendships while in the United States that could last a lifetime.

Because the United States is a highly active society, full of movement and change, people always seem to be on the go. In this highly charged atmosphere, Americans can sometimes seem brusque or impatient. They want to get to know you as quickly as possible and then move on to something else. Sometimes, early on, they will ask you questions that you may feel are very personal. No insult is intended; the questions usually grow out of their genuine interest or curiosity and their impatience to get to the heart of the matter. And the same goes for you. If you do not understand certain American behavior or you want to know more about what makes Americans "tick," do not hesitate to ask them questions about themselves. Americans are usually eager to explain all about their country or anything American in which you might be interested. So much so in fact, that you may become tired of listening. Americans also tend to be uncomfortable with silence during a conversation. They would rather talk about the weather or the latest sports scores, for example, than deal with silence.

On the other hand, do not expect Americans to be knowledgeable about international geography or world affairs unless something directly involves the United States. Because the United States is geographically distant from many other nations, some Americans tend not to be aware of what goes on in other parts of the world.

Social Invitations
  • Americans tend to be very polite people. This is often expressed in conversations. It is common for an American to end a conversation by saying: "Let's get together sometime," "Come by for a visit when you have a chance," or "Let's meet for coffee." However, these invitations are usually not intended to be taken literally. An invitation is not firm unless a time and place is set.
  • If you have accepted an invitation or if a meeting has been set, Americans usually expect you to arrive at the agreed location at the right time. It is considered impolite to accept an invitation and not show up or to arrive more than 10 to 20 minutes late. Americans tend to be quite punctual. If you have to cancel an appointment or know that you will not be able to be on time, you should call your friend or host to cancel or reschedule.
  • If you are invited to a person's home for a party or dinner, it would be a good idea to ask if this will be a formal, semiformal, or casual occasion, since the way you dress can be considered important for certain events.
  • When formally invited to someone's home, it is considerate to bring a gift to your host. Common gifts are a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, or flowers. No gift is expected when friends visit each other casually.
  • Thank your host or hostess when you leave. It is considerate to send a thank you note as well or to telephone your thanks the following day.
Dating and Relationships

For many international students, American dating and relationship rituals can be one of the most difficult things to understand. Unlike many other cultures, American culture does not have an accepted pattern of behavior that regulates romantic relationships. While not universally true, you may find the following general comments useful.
  • Men and women generally treat each other as equals and in an informal, casual way. There is often friendly teasing between men and women.
  • Traditionally, men ask women on dates, but it is considered acceptable for a woman to ask a man out.
  • Expenses on a date are sometimes paid by one person or sometimes split between the two. The man will usually offer to pay but will usually not protest if the woman offers to pay in part.
  • Going on a date in American society is to express the desire to get to know the other person better. It does not assume any kind of sexual involvement. It is unacceptable — and in some cases even criminal — to impose one's sexual desires on another person. Make sure you respect the other person's wishes and, likewise, make sure you are not forced to do something you do not want to do.
  • Homosexual relationships, even if not widespread, are commonplace in the United States. While many people are still uncomfortable with gays (homosexual men) or lesbians (homosexual women), it is usually not accepted to discriminate or make derogatory comments against them. If you are gay or lesbian, you will be able to find organizations, newspapers, and magazines targeted to you in most American cities and on some university campuses. If you are not homosexual and somebody of the same sex expresses an interest, do not be offended; just decline politely.
  • Remember that every situation is different and must be approached with consideration for the other person's standards, values, and sensitivities. Remember as well that HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases are present in the United States, and you should always take the necessary precautions to protect yourself from infection.
"I was an MBA student in the USA and I lived in the university's coed dormitory. In my culture, usually, if a woman talks to a man, it is a sign of romantic interest. Therefore, in the first few days of school, I found it strange that so many women were talking to me and I was under the impression that some women on my dormitory floor were interested in me. To return their politeness, I would buy them flowers or offer small gifts, as is done in my country. However, I was quite surprised to see that these same women now seemed uncomfortable around me. One was even quite offended and told me to leave her alone. Eventually I talked to the residence adviser on my floor to see what I was doing wrong, and he explained to me the way men and women usually interact in the USA. I was quite relieved to hear that nothing was wrong with me, but rather with the way I was interpreting my conversations with women. Even though I did not find the love of my life while I was in the USA, I still made many good female friends afterwards with whom I still maintain contact."
— Nawuma, Republic of Togo

Personal Hygiene

Every culture has accepted standards when it comes to personal hygiene. Foreign visitors should therefore be aware of what Americans consider appropriate and proper hygiene practices. For some, American standards might seem exaggerated, unnatural, or even offensive. However, if you want to fit in more easily, you will want to adopt the practices that prevail in the United States, even though doing so might not be easy. Here are a few tips and suggestions:
  • As a general rule, Americans usually consider that the odors that the human body naturally produces — the odors of perspiration or breath, for example — are unpleasant. Americans usually wash with soap at least once a day to control body odors and brush their teeth with toothpaste at least in the morning and evening. In addition, they use underarm deodorant/antiperspirant to control perspiration odors, and they wash their hair as often as necessary to keep it from becoming oily.
  • While the practice is not universal, many people use perfume, cologne, mouthwash, and other scented products to give themselves an odor that others will presumably find pleasant. However, Americans generally do not like others to use "too much" of a scented product. Too much means that the smell is discernible from more than a meter or two away.
  • Most American women, though not all, shave the hair from their underarms and their lower legs. Women also wear varying amounts of makeup on their faces. The amount of makeup considered acceptable is based solely on personal tastes and preferences. However, some women do not shave their body hair or wear any makeup at all, and they still fit in, without problem, in American society. It is a matter of personal choice.
  • Clothing should not emit bodily odors. The American practice is to wash clothing that has taken on the smell of the wearer's perspiration before it is worn again.
  • The basic idea is that you should be clean. Makeup, perfume, and cologne are not necessary for social acceptance, but cleanliness is definitely expected.
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