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Adapting to the Culture


Culture Shock

"Culture shock" is the feeling of disorientation or confusion that occurs when a person leaves a familiar place and moves to any unfamiliar one. Coming to Newark from another country, no doubt you have encountered many new things, from the architecture to the landscape, from the taste of the food to the behavior of the people. Your English might not serve you as well as you expected it would. You might not be able to convey your full personality in English, with the result that you think other people are seeing you as a child. Your family and friends are far away. You may feel confused, unsure of yourself, and you may have some doubts about the wisdom of your decision to come here.

Moving to a new place that may be very different from your home involves many changes that can affect your health and sense of well-being. Cultural adjustment is a process of growing accustomed to a new culture and becoming comfortable here. During the initial months you may experience health-related effects of cultural adjustment, including interruption of your sleeping or eating patterns, depression, stress, and loneliness. These emotional disturbances can lead to physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, heart palpitations, and altered menstrual periods.

People experience culture shock in varying degrees. Those who are most affected by it tend to become nervous and unusually tired. They want to sleep a lot and write many letters home. They may feel frustrated and hostile toward their host country. They may get excessively angry about minor irritations. It is not unusual for them to become very dependent on fellow nationals in the new country. All these feelings make it difficult to deal or communicate with the residents of the host country and to use their language.

Different people react differently to culture shock. Some become depressed, while others are stimulated by the new experiences open to them. Here are some ideas that might be helpful:

Who Am I?

This question sometimes becomes acute when an international student comes to America. For some, of course, there is no problem. The international students who stay in the U.S. just long enough to get a degree, for instance, may never care to question themselves in relation to American society. But those who come for an indefinite stay, or who plan to remain here for several years, generally must come to terms with what is often referred to an "identity crisis."

Usually, students who come to America to study are fortunate: they are well-educated, capable people with established personal identities. International students have a choice: they can become primarily "Americanized," retaining only vestiges of their home culture; they can remain nationals to the core, staying in their own national group without ever making an effort to relate to the culture of the United States; or they can fit somewhere in between these two extremes. People choose the alternative which suits them.

Still, there is another way to view the question of identity that is, in some ways, more satisfactory than any of these. It really isn't necessary to identify solely with one nation or another. To say that you are a national of some country does not say everything about you. Part of your personality transcends your country of birth and owes nothing to it. Most people find that traveling and living in foreign lands reduces their identification with their home country without necessarily reducing their affection for it. It is true that people never see their own homeland more clearly than from a distance. Foreign experience gives you insight and helps you understand things you took for granted before. Inevitably, this leads to questioning of some earlier beliefs and practices as you build up your own personal body of opinion. In short, if handled constructively, the identity crisis need not be a crisis at all, but rather a step toward greater self-awareness.

It is not always easy to make the adjustment so smoothly, however; a number of factors can get in the way. For example, in your own home country there may be more ways to achieve high status apart from personal achievement than there are in the United States. This is true for Americans in their home country, too, but it is even more significant for students who come from overseas. They lose not only the "borrowed status" (from family political power, money, or a place in the intellectual community) they enjoyed at home, but also most of the eminence they attained through their own efforts. In the U.S. they become another member of a hurrying multitude. You may have been featured in the local papers many times back home, and your surname may be very well known; but in the United States chances are most people won't even pronounce it right.

This can be very frustrating, but it is important to realize that most U.S. students coming to college also must "start over" in an unknown, previously untested environment. Because Americans value a democratic concept of merit based on accomplishment, they judge by personality traits, work habits, achievement, and self-respect. The best advice is to be secure in your sense of who and what you are. In the process of adjusting to living in the United States, don't lose sight of the many good qualities of your own culture. Your presence on this campus is important to the NJIT community because you bring your individual personality, your unique experience and knowledge, and your cultural heritage to the university.

American Values And Behavior

Like any other nationality group, Americans vary from individual to individual, and there is so much variance between geographic regions that Americans themselves suffer culture shock when they move from one place to another; it is possible, however, to mention certain characteristics which, in general, describe attitudes and practices common among Americans. Keep in mind that the following remarks are generalizations and that there are many cultural groups in the United States whose values and behavior differ significantly.


Americans generally believe that the ideal person is an autonomous, self-reliant individual. Most Americans see themselves as separate individuals, not as representatives of a family, community or other group. They dislike being dependent on other people or having others dependent on them. Some people from other countries view this attitude as selfishness; others view it as a healthy freedom from the constraints of ties to family, clan, or social class.


Americans are taught that all people are created equal. Although they continually violate that idea in some aspects of life, in others they adhere to it. They treat each other in very informal ways, for example, even in the presence of great differences in age or social standing. From the point of view of some people from other cultures, this kind of behavior reflects lack of respect. From the point of view of others, it reflects a happy lack of concern for the social ritual. Americans, as a rule, generally think nothing about starting a casual conversation with a complete stranger; this is usually meant as a sign of friendliness. Should strangers smile at you, it is a sign of welcome and acknowledgment of your presence. It is not necessarily an invitation to speak, nor is it a sign of insincerity when they do not acknowledge your presence. Americans also "talk" with their hands, often touching another person to make a point, to express sympathy, or to be friendly, even in casual conversation with people not well known to them.


Americans are more concerned with honesty than with saving face. They often discuss topics which may be embarrassing to people in many other cultures. Americans are taught from birth that "honesty is the best policy" even if "the truth hurts." This sometimes requires straddling a very narrow path between openness, which is considered a virtue, and tactlessness, which is not. In an effort to get directly to the point, Americans tend to take verbal shortcuts and are perfectly comfortable dispensing with background details and polite social conversation. Americans measure truth by the accuracy of facts rather than by the expression of a feeling or an impression.


Friendships among Americans may be shorter and less intensive than those among people from many other cultures. Because they are taught to be self-reliant and because they live in a mobile society, Americans tend to compartmentalize their friendships, having their friends at work, friends from school, and so on. It has been said that Americans are very friendly but have a great deal of difficulty forming deep interpersonal commitments. Deep and lasting friendships do exist, but they take time to grow. These remarks are not intended to discourage you from attempting to establish friendly relationships with Americans. In fact, the ease with which people move between different social settings makes getting acquainted easy, and from these casual acquaintances lifetime friendships can develop. It is important to note, however, that some Americans' ideas about friendship might be different from yours, and you should not be discouraged by this difference. Your honesty about what you feel about any one friend promotes an open communication and will lead to a better understanding of your respective positions.

Time Consciousness

Americans place considerable value on punctuality. They tend to organize their activities by means of a schedule. As a result, they may seem harried, always running from one thing to the next, unable to relax and enjoy themselves. Since Americans are so time conscious, the pace of life may at first seem very rushed. Being on time is regarded as very important by people on a schedule, and in the United States most people make a great effort to arrive on time. It is often considered impolite to arrive even a few minutes late. If you are unable to keep an appointment, you are expected to call the person to advise him or her that you will be late or unable to arrive at all.

One should arrive at the exact time specified for meals or appointments with professors, doctors, and other professionals. You can arrive any time between the hours specified for teas, 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.


"Drop in any time" and "come see me soon" are idioms often used in social settings but seldom meant to be taken literally. It is wise to telephone ahead of time before visiting someone at home. If you receive a written invitation to an event that says "RSVP," you should respond by writing a note or telephoning to let the person who sent the invitation know whether or not you plan to attend.

Never accept an invitation unless you really plan to go. To refuse, it is enough to say, "Thank you for inviting me, but I will not be able to come." If, after accepting, you are unable to attend, be sure to tell those expecting you as far in advance as possible that you will not be there.

Although it is not necessarily expected that you give a gift to your host, it is considered polite to do so, especially if you have been invited for a meal. Flowers, fruit, or a small gift from your country are all appropriate. A thank-you note or telephone call after the visit is also considered polite, and is an appropriate means to express your appreciation for the hospitality.

When you are invited to a meal and there are foods you cannot eat, explain this to your prospective host. Cultural preferences and religious restrictions on diet are understood and respected. Your host will appreciate knowing in advance what foods and beverages to prepare that everyone will enjoy.

It is considered polite for guests to offer to help prepare or clean up after a meal.


Men usually shake hands the first time they meet; women may or may not do so in a purely social setting though they generally do in a business atmosphere. "How do you do" and "Good morning/afternoon" are formal greetings; "Hello" or simply "Hi" is more common in an informal setting. Many foreign visitors are at first put off by Americans' tendency to say, "How are you?" or "How ya doin'?" without waiting for a response. This is a commonplace greeting, not actually a question.

Titles and First Names

Americans frequently use first names, sometimes even in formal settings. People of the same age and status always call each other by their first names or even "nicknames." An older person whom one does not know well is addressed as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. until the individual invites the use of first names. These titles are used in conjunction with the surname, never the first name. The title Ms. is displacing Mrs. and Miss and is a handy form of address when the woman's marital status is unknown. "Dr." is used to address people holding medical degrees and, in some settings, those holding Ph.D. degrees.

What to Wear?

You will find that most students dress very casually on campus, and, particularly during warm weather, most students dress for comfort rather than fashion. Since, however, clothing is often considered an expression of one's personality, there are no "rules" for what to wear to classes, and the individual is free to wear what he or she prefers.

For more formal occasions, e.g., theater, dinner, a sport coat or sweater and tie are more appropriate for a man, and a dress or skirt and blouse for a woman. If you are invited out and are unsure of what to wear, it is perfectly appropriate and acceptable to ask.


Rarely are service charges included in a bill. Waiters, waitresses, and taxicab drivers should be tipped approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total bill or fare. Porters and bellboys should be given one to two dollars for carrying luggage, but desk clerks are not tipped. Barbers, hairdressers, delivery persons (but not U.S. postal workers), and parking lot attendants are tipped one to two dollars. No tips are given to theater ushers, gas station attendants, airline employees, bus drivers, receptionists, or store clerks. Never attempt to tip customs officials, policemen, or other government employees.


American social customs may seem strange to you at first. Visitors are often surprised at the informality between men and women in the United States. Couples go out for an evening unchaperoned, to a bar, movie, play or concert. They may even go to the library for a "study date."

In the past, traditionally, men took the initiative in asking women out and paid the expenses incurred during the evening. This is changing, however, as women assert their rights as individuals by asking out men they would like to be with or get to know. Whether a man or woman offers the invitation, each may pay his or her own way, or one may pay for both.

Relationships between men and women in the United States may be platonic friendships or strong emotional and physical commitments, or something between the two extremes. Whatever the nature of the relationship, the most important thing is to be open and honest about your feelings and intentions, to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings or discomfort.

Dating does not presume a sexual involvement or a long-term emotional commitment; in practical terms, a date implies nothing more than an agreement to meet at a specified time and place for a specified purpose. The Hollywood image of American mores and sexuality is often misleading to visitors from other countries, since American films often depict serious sexual relationships developing from a very brief friendship or dating relationship. In addition, Americans' tendency to speak freely and use sexual references in conversation can lead to further misunderstandings. Although some Americans may have less fear in becoming sexually involved than do individuals in many other cultures, it is also true that every individual is respected for his or her own personal values regarding dating, sex, and relationships. Do not interpret open sexual language as a sign of permissiveness or sexual interest.

Acquaintance Rape

In recent years, universities throughout the United States have begun to pay close attention to "acquaintance rape." Acquaintance rape is rape in which the assailant and the victim know each other; it is forced, manipulated or coerced sexual intercourse by a friend or acquaintance. Unfortunately, acquaintance rape is a growing phenomenon on American college campuses. Because it is sometimes difficult for men and women to understand each other's interests and emotions in a friendly or dating relationship, it is extremely important that both partners communicate their feelings very clearly to each other. Men must accept a woman's decision if she says she is not interested in sexual intercourse, and women must be assertive and communicate with absolute clarity their limits. If you are concerned about acquaintance rape and want to know more, speak with your international student adviser or attend one of the many campus programs on the subject.


Americans are taught to speak and write clearly and simply, but they do not always practice what they preach. On college campuses, where experts spend a great deal of time talking to other experts, technical words, or jargon, slip into their vocabulary. With a little practice, you will be able to detect "academese" when you hear it. Like other people in the world, Americans have developed certain peculiarities in their everyday language. As a university student, you are sure to encounter certain colloquialisms and "slang" terms which could not have been predicted by an English language textbook or teacher. Such words are often unique to a certain group of people and are forever changing.

You will hear slang in virtually every conversation you have while in the United States and will occasionally find that the same word has different meanings in different contexts. For this reason you should never hesitate to ask for clarification of expressions with which you are unfamiliar. Americans enjoy helping non-native speakers become familiar with the oddities of the language, and many friendships have begun with a shared good-natured laugh over a misused or misunderstood slang idiom.

The Unspoken Language

Verbal messages are only a small part of communication. Were this not the case, silent films with such stars as Charlie Chaplin could never have achieved the success and popularity that they did.

Misunderstandings between persons of different cultures are often a result of lack of comprehension of non-verbal signs and symbols, such as facial expressions, gestures, postures, and intonations that accompany most verbal interactions. These are so automatic that we forget how they might mean different things in different cultures.

It would never occur to an American, for instance, that handing someone something with the right hand may be more acceptable than with the left, yet in some societies it is offensive to hand someone something with the left hand. Nor would it occur to the American woman that looking directly at a man could be interpreted as bold, flirtatious, or disrespectful. To her it signals directness and honesty. The actual distance maintained between people while they talk varies from culture to culture (about 21 inches for North Americans), but it is not consciously thought about. In the American culture when a person arrives late for class, for example, it is expected that the student would come in quietly, take a seat, and join in at whatever point the discussion has evolved to. In many other cultures, it is necessary to obtain permission from the instructor to enter and be part of the class, and the instructor might begin the lecture all over again.

To avoid misunderstandings, keep in mind the possibility that the unspoken language which you exchange with people from other cultures may not say what it says in your culture. If the words and gestures of the Americans with whom you are conversing seem to disagree, you might minimize your confusion by listening only to the words, or by telling the individual you are getting a mixed message.

Asking Questions

To become more aware of Americans and their culture, do not hesitate to ask questions about customs, practices, or values. Not only will questions help to reduce confusion or prevent misunderstandings, but they also help us to learn from you about your culture. In the United States, people respect someone who expresses concern or curiosity. Asking for assistance or an explanation is not considered to be a sign of weakness.

Examples of American Slang

The following expressions may give you an idea of the types of expressions you may be hearing for the first time after your arrival in the United States.

Awesome: amazing, fantastic.

Barbecue (Bar-B-Que/BBQ): an outdoor party that features meat with spicy sauce cooked over an open fire.

Beat around the bush: to be evasive; not to speak openly about something.

Big deal: sarcastic term to play down or belittle what someone has done.

Biggie: something that is very important.

Blow it: to do badly, e.g., "I really blew that exam."

Bogus: inferior quality; phoney.

Boonies: the countryside, far from the city.

Break the ice: to get acquainted, to make an awkward social situation comfortable.

Broke: to be without money.

Bummer: bad or sad situation; also bummed, bummed out: feeling very bad.

Burbs: diminutive of suburbs, residential area outside of the city.

Chill out: to slow down, to relax.

Cold feet, to have: to be nervous; to be uncertain about doing something.

Come again?: "Please repeat what you just said."

Come off it: to stop what you are doing or saying.

Cool: (adj.) term denoting approval for something or someone.

Cool it: to slow down; to relax.

Cop out: (v.) to quit; deny responsibility for; (n.) an excuse.

Couch potato: person who spends all leisure time watching television.

Cram: to study frantically just before a test; also eat a lot, to stuff yourself.

Crash: to sleep or stay temporarily at someone's place; also to go to a party uninvited.

Cut it out, knock it off: a request or command to stop doing something.

Date: (v.) to go out with another person; (n.) the person with whom you go.

Down to earth: practical, straightforward; simple and honest.

Drag: (n.) boring or unpleasant thing, (adj.) not much fun.

Drive a hard bargain: to hold out for the best terms in a trade.

Drop in, drop by: to visit unexpectedly.

Drop off: to deliver to designated location.

Drop out: (n.) someone who didn't graduate from school; (v.) to quit before completing a goal.

Dutch treat, go Dutch: each person pays for his/her own food or entertainment.

Fat chance: very little chance.

Fed up: sick of; disgusted with or tired of something.

Fishy: suspicious; "There's something fishy about his story."

Flunk: to fail an exam or a course.

Freak, freak out: to show great emotion, positive or negative.

Funky: a term denoting approval, often used to describe items of clothing or design.

Get it together, get one's act together: to get organized.

Get on one's nerves: to cause irritation.

Get with it: to conform with the situation; make the necessary adjustment; also to "get with the program."

Give me a call, call me: "Telephone me."

Go for it: to take an active part in something, try to achieve some specific goal.

Greeks: members of fraternities or sororities.

Gross: term denoting something crude and extremely unpleasant.

Had it: to reach a limit of tolerance; "I've had it!"

Hang around: to wait, doing nothing in particular.

Hang in there: "Don't give up"; "Keep trying."

Hang on: in reference to the telephone, "Do not hang up the receiver. I'll be back"; also "Keep trying."

Hang out: (v.) to spend time relaxing, not working or doing anything in particular; (n.) a place in which to spend leisure time.

Hang-ups: inhibitions or worries about things.

Hassle: (n.) trouble, difficulty; "Catching the 7:00 a.m. bus every morning is a hassle;" (v.) "Don't hassle me."

Have it in for someone: to have a deliberate intention to cause trouble for another.

Have it made: to be assured of success.

Put one's foot in one's mouth: to say something for which you are embarrassed.

Hit it off: become friends.

In a bad way: the situation is getting very bad.

In a big way: very much, a term to show emphasis as in, "he was hurting in a big way."

In your dreams: not possible; "It'll never happen."

Keep in touch: to phone or write occasionally.

Keep your fingers crossed: a good luck gesture or expression.

Know one's stuff: to be knowledgeable in a certain subject.

Lay off: to stop bothering or nagging.

Make ends meet: to budget within one's income.

Mess around: to play, relax.

No way: a response to a suggestion of something that is wrong or that one does not wish to do.

Off the wall: crazy.

On me: "I'll pay," also, "I'll pick up the tab [pay]."

Out of it: not adjusted to the rest of the group, not fitting in; dazed.

Out of sight: exclamation of approval.

Peeved: irritated; disgusted.

Pot luck: dinner where each person brings something to eat.

Psyched: mentally prepared.

Pull an all-nighter: stay up all night studying

Pull strings: to use personal influence to achieve an objective.

Rain check: a deferred acceptance of an invitation with a promise to accept at a later date; "I can't make it this Sunday but I'll take a rain check."

Uptight: nervous.

What's up?: "What is new?" "What is happening?" Often used as a greeting in very informal settings.


This text was extracted from the Passport To Rutgers, available on-line.

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