Individualism, Freedom, Competitiveness, and Privacy
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.
The individual that Americans idealize prefers an atmosphere of freedom, where neither the government nor any other external force or agency dictates what the individual does. For Americans, the idea of individual freedom has strong, positive connotations.
Competitiveness pervades the society. It is obvious in the attention given to athletic events and to star athletes, who are praised for being “real competitors.” It is also obvious in schools and extracurricular activities for children, where games and contests are assumed to be desirable and beneficial. Competitiveness is less obvious when it is in the minds of people who are persistently comparing themselves with others.
Closely associated with the value Americans place on individualism is the importance of privacy. Americans assume that most people “need some time to themselves” or “some time alone” to think about things or recover their spent psychological energy. Americans also assume that people have their “private thoughts” that might never be shared with anyone.
Americans are distinctive in the degree to which they believe in the ideal, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Although they sometimes violate the ideal in their daily lives, Americans have a deep faith that in some fundamental way all people are of equal value, that no one is born superior to anyone else.
Americans 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 some people from other cultures, this kind of behavior reflects “lack of respect.” From point of view of others, it reflects a healthy lack of concern for social ritual.
The Future, Change, and Progress
Americans are generally less concerned about history and traditions; they look ahead. They have the idea that what happens in the future is within their control, or at least subject to their influence. The mature, sensible person, they think, sets goals for the future and works systematically toward them. Desirable changes in the future can be produced by the progress of working towards these goals.
Goodness of Humanity
The future cannot be better if people in general are not fundamentally good and improvable. Americans assume that human nature is basically good.
Americans place considerable value on punctuality. They tend to organize their activities by means of schedules. As a result they may sometimes seem hurried, always running from one thing to the next, and not able to relax and enjoy themselves. Foreign observers sometimes see this as being “ruled by the clock.” Other times they see it as a helpful way of assuring that things get done.
Achievement, Action, Work, and Materialism
Expression like “he’s a hard worker,” or “you have done a great job” convey the admiration for taking action and achievement. Hard workers and achievements are admired not just on the job, but in other aspects of life as well.
Regardless of income, Americans tend to spend money rather freely on material goods. Americans are often criticized for being so “materialistic,” so concerned with acquiring possessions. For Americans, though, this materialistic bent is natural and proper.
Directness and Assertiveness
Americans usually assume that conflicts or disagreements are best settled by means of forthright discussions among the people involved. The word assertiveness is the adjective Americans commonly use to describe the person who plainly and directly expresses feelings and requests.
What It Is
"Culture shock" is the name given to a feeling of disorientation or confusion that often occurs when a person leaves a familiar place and moves to an unfamiliar one. Coming to Iowa City from another country, you will encounter a multitude of new things. Perhaps more importantly, culture shock is often defined as “the loss of things that are familiar,” such as family, friends, foods, customs and even values. Cultural adjustment is a normal process, despite the fact that the person experiencing it may feel their experiences and feelings are anything but normal.
Some people are more affected by culture shock than others. People experiencing culture shock tend to become nervous and unusually tired. They often become frustrated with themselves and others. Many people experiencing culture shock feel overwhelmed and confused. These feelings are almost always temporary and are simply one stage of the process of adjustment.
Coping With Culture Shock
Different people react differently to culture shock. Some become depressed, or even physically ill. It helps to maintain your perspective. Try to remember that thousands of people have come to Iowa City from other countries and have survived (even when they arrived in the cold of winter). In The Whole World Guide to Culture Learning (1994), J. Daniel Hess makes these suggestions for people who are experiencing the loneliness of culture shock.
- Find people to interact with. Give them a smile or a little gift. Ask them questions. As you take an interest in them, your feelings will have a focal point outside of yourself.
- Surround yourself with some familiar things--a favorite jacket, a photo, a cassette. Make your near environment pleasant and reinforcing.
- Slow down. Simplify your daily tasks. Relax. Let your emotions catch up with the newness all about you.
- Develop patterns. Follow the same routine each day so that you get a sense of returning to the familiar.
- Cry. Laugh. Sing. Pray. Draw a picture. Give expression to your feelings.
- Revise your goals to accommodate a detour instead of scolding yourself for failures.
- Give new energy to language study, and use it on simple occasions. It is amazing what language success can do for you.
- Find times and places to get physical exercise.
- Confide to friends, and even your host family, that you are sad. Their support will warm you.
- Make a few small decisions and carry them out. Again, your resolve in small things will pay big confidence dividends. Be assured that, however stressful, culture shock passes if you are willing to let the process of culture learning and cross-cultural adaptation take its course.
Here are some additional suggestions:
- Be patient.
- Take care of yourself.
- Talk with international students who have had similar experiences.
- Learn how to navigate the new cultural and academic system.
- Try to understand other people's situations.
- Do what you think is appropriate, and explain if necessary.
- Evaluate your expectations.
- Learn from the experience.
- Visit an advisor at the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS).
- Attend the on-going orientation programs, Life in Iowa, offered by the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS).
- Join student organizations on campus, departmental social functions, such as Organization for the Active Support of International Students (OASIS), Friends of International students, the International Women’s Club, or other organizations that interest you.
- Remember the positive outcome of going through this experience and of becoming bi-cultural.
- The standard greeting is a smile, often accompanied by a nod, wave, and/or verbal greeting.
- In business situations a handshake is used. It is very firm. Weak handshakes are taken as a sign of weakness. When shaking hands people look directly into each other’s eyes.
- Good friends and family members usually embrace, sometimes finishing the embrace with a pat or two on the back.
- In casual situations a smile and a verbal greeting is adequate.
- If you see an acquaintance at a distance a wave is appropriate.
- The greeting “How are you?” and “How are you doing?” are often used. A simple “Hello” or “Hi” are usually acceptable as well. “What’s up?” and “How’s it going?” are often used among younger people who use more informal greetings.
- The American ritual parting remark, “See you later,” means “goodbye,” and does not mean that the person saying it has a specific intention to see you later.
Titles/Forms of Address
- The order of most names is first (or given) name, middle name, and last (family) name.
- When you meet someone for the first time, use a title and their last name until you are told to do otherwise (this may happen immediately). If the other person asks you to address him or her by first name, you can feel free to do so.
- People are seldom addressed by their middle names, although some people might choose to be called by their middle name.
- To show respect, use a title such as Dr., Ms. Miss, Mrs., or Mr. with the last name. If the other person has a title such as “Ambassador” or “Dean,” use that title and the last name.
- Using nicknames is fairly common among Americans. A nickname can be their formal names in the shortened ways. Some names might shorten in surprising ways, e.g., Bob for Robert, Bill for William.
- If you are in doubt about what to call a person, ask the person, “What should I call you?” Conversely, if you have an English name, or a nickname that preferred to be called, you can tell others “You can call me …” or “I go by …”
- Traditionally, a woman took her husband’s name upon marriage. Some women still do so, while others add their husband’s family name to their own, separating the two with a hyphen. There are other women do not change their names in any way upon marriage.
You will probably have opportunities to visit an American home for dinners, receptions, or parties. The following paragraphs give a general idea of the behavior that is appropriate in formal situations and the expectations that are common at informal social gatherings. In general, you will notice what may seem to be a lack of attention to the formalities of a traditional host-guest relationship. Americans usually want their guests to “feel at home,” which, to them, means to feel relaxed and able to “act naturally,” as they presumably would in their own homes.
Invitations to more formal engagements such as dinners or cocktail parties are usually written. A written invitation will include the date, time, place, and a description of the occasion. It will specify if children are included; if it does not include the children’s names or word “family,” then children are not included. If it says, “R.S.V.P.,” you should phone to say whether you plan to be present. If it says, “regrets only,” reply only if you do not plan to be present. Tell the host or hostess about any dietary restrictions you have. If you are unsure how to dress you can simply ask: What should I wear?” When replying to a formal invitation you should never say that you accept an invitation unless you truly intend to do so.
It is essential to arrive on time for a meal or a cocktail party. You may be thought inconsiderate and impolite if you do not arrive at or shortly after the appointed hour. It is a very good idea to notify your host or hostess if you cannot avoid being late. After the party a telephone call or a personal comment expressing appreciation for an invitation is appropriate.
More formal dinner parties usually begin with cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres (small appetizers). You may have an alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktail. If you do not drink alcohol, it is perfectly appropriate for you to ask the host or hostess which drink contains no alcohol. Many dinners are served buffet-style, where the food is put on table and the guests serve themselves and eat while standing.
Invitations to less formal gatherings, such as student parties and other impromptu gatherings, will come informally, by telephone or in person. Guests can arrive or leave at any time, and dress however they wish.
People often take some food or drink to share with others at informal social gatherings. Beer, soft drinks, chips, dips, and “salsa” (spicy, tomato-based sauce common in Mexican cuisine) are common refreshments at informal gatherings. If you are invited to an informal gathering, you might ask the person who invited you if you should bring something to eat or drink.
“Potlucks” (meals where every guest brings a dish to share) are common for larger groups. Potlucks are considered convenient, because they reduce the burden on any one individual for making all arrangements and preparing all food.
Keeping Appointments and Dates
Punctuality is highly emphasized in the United States. Remember that it is considered impolite and extremely inconsiderate to fail to keep an appointment or “date” without giving prior notice to the other person.
In this society it is acceptable to decline an invitation by giving a vague excuse or avoiding commitment. If you do not want to accept an invitation, make an appointment, or have a date with a particular person, you should decline the initial invitation or request. You should not accept and then not appear at the appointed time.
Sometimes it happens, after an appointment or date has been agreed upon, that keeping the appointment becomes impossible. In such circumstances, notify the other person or people as soon as possible. If you fail to keep your appointment you should call to apologize. Changing plans for an appointment or date does not present the same problems as “breaking” a date by simply not appearing. If you have agreed to go to a movie and then decide that a party would be preferable, it is acceptable to call the other person and propose the change in plans. The other person can accept or decline the proposed change.
University business hours are (with some exceptions) 8:00 a.m. to noon and 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Some offices are open over the noon hour. Most retail businesses open at 9:00 a.m. Closing hours vary. Many businesses always close at 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. Some downtown businesses stay open until 9:00 p.m. on Monday and Thursday evenings. Businesses in shopping centers are usually open until 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Most retail businesses are open on Saturdays, with varying hours. Some are open on Sundays. People might not check emails, or do things related to work outside of business/working hours.
Daylight Savings Time
In order to have daylight further into the evening in spring and summer, most of the United States uses "daylight savings time" between March and October/November. You can search the daylight savings time on internet. You might want to set your clocks or watches one hour back on the night when it switches in October or November, and one hour ahead in March. Many people try to remember the direction in which to move their clocks in April (the spring) and October (the fall) by recalling the instruction: spring forward, fall back. Your phone will automatically switch to the correct time during daylight savings.
Tips, or service charges, are not added to the bill in U.S. hotels or restaurants. Nevertheless, tips are often expected and needed by employees, whose hourly rate of pay is usually quite low, based on the assumption that tips will provide a reasonable income. It is customary to tip the waiter or waitress in a restaurant 15 to 20 percent of the amount of the check, if the service is satisfactory. Tips are not expected in cafeterias or “fast food” establishments. In a hotel, the bellhop who assists you to your room expects $1.00 per suitcase. Tip taxi drivers 15 or 20 percent of the fare, and “red caps” (who help carry baggage at airports) 35-50 cents for each smaller bag, and $1.00 each for large bags.
In different societies there are different customs concerning the giving of gifts. Sometimes, in relationships between people from different societies, one person will give a gift when the other person did not expect to receive one. Or no gift will be offered when one was expected. Such situations can cause confusion and embarrassment. Here are some general (that is, subject to variation and exception) ideas about gift-giving customs in the U.S. Knowing them can help avoid awkward situations.
- To whom are gifts given? As a rule, gifts are given to relatives and close friends. They are sometimes given to people with whom one has a casual but friendly type of relationship, such as a host or hostess, but it is not necessary or even common for gifts to be given to such people. In other parts of the U.S., the giving of gifts to hostesses is more common than it is in the Midwest. Gifts are not usually given to teachers or others who hold an official position. Offering gifts in these situations is sometimes interpreted as an effort, possibly improper, to gain favorable treatment from that person.
- When are gifts given? Christmas is the only national gift-giving day, when most Americans, with the exception of some adherents of non-Christian religions, give gifts. Otherwise, gifts are given on occasions that are special to the recipient – birthdays, graduation from high school or college, weddings, and child-births. Gifts are sometimes given when someone has a new house or is moving away. If you have visited several times for dinner, you may wish to bring a small token of appreciation for the hostess. Always bring a small gift when you are invited as a house guest for a visit lasting a day or more.
- Cards, rather than gifts, are given to acquaintances who are not close friends. This is especially true at Christmas, when it is common for people to send cards to their acquaintances and business or school colleagues.
- What gifts are appropriate? Generally, an effort is made to select a gift that the giver knows or supposes is one the recipient needs, wants, or would enjoy. The amount spent on the gift is something the giver can afford; generally, it is not expected that people on limited budgets will spend large amounts on gifts. Expensive gifts are to be expected only when the people involved have a very close relationship with each other.
- How are gifts acknowledged? If a gift is opened in the presence of the giver (as is often done), a verbal expression of thanks is appropriate. If a gift is opened in the absence of a giver, a thank-you note should be sent. The note should mention the particular gift.
Relationships with Neighbors
In different societies and communities, people have different ideas about the proper behavior of neighbors. In Iowa City, you might have different interaction with your neighbors, depending on the type of housing you live in. People who live in a house usually know their neighbors. When first moving in, people who already live there will initiate the relationship. They will come and introduce themselves to you. Especially when you live with your family, and have kids, your kids are likely to play with other kids in the neighborhood. Therefore, it is good to know who your neighbors are. People living in apartment housing (a lot of them are students) may never meet their neighbors, since people are in short term living situations. Sometimes, you might never see your neighbors. However, it is still a good idea to at least recognize your neighbors in case any strange things happen. If you live in the residence halls there will be different expectations. Students who live in the resident halls are suggested to open their door when they are in the room. Students are advised to get to know their Resident Assistants (RAs) and other students on the floor.
Relationships in the Workplace
Cultural differences are reflected in the workplace as well. Whether you have a student job in a food service, a post-doctoral research position in a laboratory, or teaching responsibilities as a visiting professor, you will find that the basic American values discussed earlier are reflected in the behavior of the people around you. Individualism, equality, and efficiency are cultural values particularly noticeable in American workplaces.
Furthermore, each workplace has its own “culture,” with variations, for example, in the amount of attention paid to hierarchical differences. Even with these differences, there are guidelines international students and scholars will want to follow if they want to be accepted by the Americans around them, and if they want to get promoted:
- Arrive at work punctually. If you must be late or miss work, notify your supervisor as soon as you can.
- Ask how you are expected to dress (that is, how formally), or observe how others in the workplace dress, and then dress accordingly.
- However you dress, be sure you are neat and clean.
- Ask questions about any assignments or procedures you do not understand. Make sure you understand what you are expected to do before you start to do it. Don’t say you understand something you do not truly understand.
- If you encounter difficulties in carrying out an assigned task, tell your supervisor immediately.
- Carefully follow any safety and health rules that pertain to your workplace.
- When appropriate, offer to help other employees with tasks.
- Avoid treating your supervisor with what Americans would consider excessive deference or respect. For example, avoid saying “Yes, ma'am or yes, sir” repeatedly, and avoid bowing. Notice how other employees at your level address the supervisor and how they treat him or her, and try to follow their example.
- Be friendly and sociable with fellow employees. Watch how they interact with each other, and try to follow their example. Learn something about the topics they discuss when they are socializing, so you can join their informal conversations. If you have opportunities to participate in outside-of-work social activities with co-workers, try to do so.
- Treat subordinates, including secretaries, with respect. Greet them when you encounter them for the first time in the day. Say “please” and “thank you” if they do things for you.
- Treat females with respect.
- When you are talking to people, look directly at their eyes from time to time; do not keep your eyes turned away from theirs.
- Periodically ask your supervisor, “How can I improve?”
- Show a “positive attitude.” That is, avoid complaining and gossiping, and be cheerful and constructive in your dealings with people.
- Consistently practice and improve your English.
Sometimes workers encounter problems associated with their jobs. For example, they might believe they are being treated unfairly or unreasonably, or that another employee’s behavior is making it difficult for them to carry out their responsibilities. When this happens among Americans, the general expectation is that the worker will first speak directly with the person with whom he or she has the problem. The next step is to talk to the supervisor, and then, if there is no resolution, the supervisor’s supervisor, then the head of the unit.
UI workers seeking outside help for resolving workplace problems can turn to the Office of the Ombudsperson or, if the complaint has to do with racial discrimination or sexual harassment, to the Equal Opportunity & Diversity Office. International students and scholars can talk with an International Student and Scholar advisor for suggestions and assistance with workplace problems.
The U.S. has adopted legislation that moved the celebration of several holidays to the Monday nearest the date of the event the holiday commemorated. The purpose of this legislation was to create as many "three-day weekends" (that is, Saturday-Sunday-Monday) as possible. The fact that the dates of holidays could be changed to provide longer vacations is seen by some as a reflection of Americans' general lack of concern for tradition.
Four principal national holidays--New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas--were not subjects of the date-changing legislation. They are still celebrated on the same day each year. Another principal holiday, Labor Day, has traditionally been on Monday. Many businesses and all government offices close in observance of these holidays.
Of the holidays on the following list, not all are celebrated throughout the U.S. and not all are celebrated by everyone. Some are holidays only for members of certain religions; others are for particular groups, such as lovers or children.
The following list indicates which are legal holidays (when government offices are closed) and which are business holidays (when many businesses, except some drugstores, service stations, and food stores) are closed.
New Year’s Day, January 1
Celebration of New Year's Day usually occurs the night before, on "New Year's Eve," when it is common for groups of people to have a party to celebrate the coming of the new year. Alcoholic beverages are usually consumed at these parties. It is customary to make loud noises at midnight, when the new year officially arrives; embracing or kissing others at midnight is not unusual. A legal and business holiday; all University offices are closed.
Martin Luther King’s Birthday (January 15, but celebrated the third Monday in January)
A legal holiday in many states, including Iowa; all University offices are closed.
Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12
It is a legal holiday in some U.S. states including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Indiana. See President's Day (February, third Monday).
St. Valentine’s Day, February 14
A day for lovers to exchange cards and/or gifts. Children in primary school usually exchange "valentine cards" with their classmates.
George Washington’s Birthday, February 22
See President's Day.
President’s Day, February, third Monday
Commemorates Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays. A legal holiday.
Ash Wednesday, Date varies
Marks the beginning of the 40-day period of Lent, a period of penitence and fasting in some Christian denominations. On Ash Wednesday, some Christians attend a church service during which small ash marks are placed on their foreheads to symbolize man's ultimate return to dust.
St. Patrick’s Day, March 17
A day dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland. Many people wear something green on this day. Some communities have parades. Many bars sell green-colored beer.
Easter, date varies (sometime in March or April)
Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For children, baskets of candy and dyed, hard-boiled eggs are hidden by a mythical "Easter Rabbit" or "Easter Bunny." The children seek out the hidden eggs.
Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May
Gifts, cards and/or special attention are given to mothers and grandmothers.
Memorial Day, May 30 (or nearest Monday in May)
A legal and business holiday when homage is paid to U.S. soldiers who have died in wars; all University office closed.
Father’s Day, the third Sunday in June
Gifts, cards and/or special attention are given to fathers and grandfathers.
Flag Day, June 14
Flags are flown to mark the adoption of the American flag.
Independence Day (usually termed "the Fourth of July"), July 4
Parades, fireworks (which are now illegal in most states) and flags to celebrate the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. A legal and business holiday; all University offices closed.
Labor Day, the first Monday of September
A legal and business holiday noting the importance of labor and labor organizations; all University offices closed.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement
Both celebrated on varying dates in September or October.
Columbus Day, October 12 (or nearest Monday)
Commemorates the arrival of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus on the shores of North America. A legal holiday, but not a business one.
United Nations Day, October 24
Speeches and events to draw attention to the United Nations.
Halloween, October 31
A children's holiday, associated with carving faces on pumpkins called "jack-o'lanterns" and making witches, cats, and ghosts for decorations. Children often go to parties in costumes or go "trick or treating." "Trick or treating" means putting on a costume and going door-to-door in a neighborhood saying "trick or treat," and being given a piece of candy by the occupant of the house or apartment. Young children should be accompanied by an adult when trick or treating.
Election Day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November
Not a legal or business holiday, but people may leave work briefly in order to vote in municipal, county, state and/or national elections.
Veteran’s Day, the second Monday in November
A legal holiday, honoring veterans of armed service.
Thanksgiving Day, fourth Thursday in November
A harvest celebration, stemming from harvest-time festivities in the original American colonies. A legal and business holiday when, traditionally, families gather and have a large meal that includes turkey and pumpkin pie; all University offices closed for the Thursday of and Friday after Thanksgiving.
Hanukkah, late November or (usually) December
An eight-day Jewish holiday marking the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Christmas, December 25
The major U.S. holiday. It began as a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but is now also a widely celebrated day of feasting and gift-giving. Preparations, including gift-buying and decoration of homes and public places, begin as early as Thanksgiving. "Santa Claus," a mythical figure, is said to visit the homes of children on the night of December 24 and leave gifts for them while they sleep. Many people send Christmas cards to their friends; all University offices closed for two days on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day.
You may know you should practice English with Americans, but you are afraid to try it. Remind yourself that:
- If you want to improve your conversational English, you will have to practice every day (or nearly every day).
- It will not be easy to improve your English if you are more than about twelve years old (young children learn languages very quickly).
- Sometimes Americans might not want to talk to you.
- You lose valuable opportunities if you do not take advantage of your time in the United States to improve your English – opportunities to make friends, to learn about another way of life, and to better prepare yourself for your post-graduation career.
- There is much to be gained from improving your English: academic work will be easier, so will socializing, and in fact all types of interactions with Americans; you will probably be more respected back home if you use English well, and you may even be able to get a better job; you will have more ready access to people and ideas in your field.
Make a commitment to yourself: “I will practice English at least ten minutes every day.” (It’s easier to start with a modest objective. You can plan for longer practice sessions later.) Then make a plan to fit English into your daily schedule: “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will practice English for at least ten minutes during the noon hour.” And so on. Decide when your daily schedule has room for some English practice. Start today! Don’t put it off.
The idea of speaking English with Americans you don’t know probably makes you nervous. Here are some suggestions for overcoming your anxiety:
- Remind yourself again what you can gain from improving your English.
- Remind yourself what you will lose if you do not improve English.
- Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I try to talk with an American and get a negative response?” What is the worst thing that could happen? Maybe the person will say “no.” Maybe the person will walk away from you. The person might even say some unpleasant words to you, or behave rudely. Could you survive that? OF COURSE YOU COULD!
- To get an idea what to expect in your interactions with Americans, review sections below about interacting with Americans and the communicative style of Americans.
Actions to Take
Prepare Some Topics
You may be reluctant to approach Americans because you don’t know what to talk about, but there are hundreds of things you could discuss! Get some ready in advance. Memorize them, or have them written down so you can refer to them. Here are a few possibilities:
- Reasons you (both) came to Iowa City
- Your plans for after you graduate
- What (both of) your families are like
- Description of the houses you lived in when you were children
- How you celebrated birthdays when you were children
- How various American holidays are celebrated
- How you spend your weekends
- What you like to read about
- Slang expressions you have heard but have not understood (write them down when you hear them)
- Something in the day’s newspaper
- Plans for the coming summer
- Popular television programs or personalities
- Places to eat in Iowa City
Locate someone to talk to
How can you find someone to talk to? Here are some suggestions:
- Find people who share interests with you.
- If you play sports, go to the Recreation Center (CRWC) or the UI Field House
- Join a club or student organization based on your interest. The Center for Student Involvement and Leadership (CSIL) in the IMU has a list of UI student organizations. There might be a student organization in your major field. If there is, join it and volunteer to work on one of its committees. Women can join the International Women’s Club.
- Talk to people who spend time in the same places you do, people such as classmates, library staff, neighbors, and departmental secretaries (volunteer to help the secretary with some small task, and talk while you are doing it).
Groups and Organizations to Support English Language Development
A program on campus enabling informal conversational practice for English language learners. Through programming such as the Intercultural Social Hour (ISH) and our Conversation Pairing Program (CPP), undergraduate students build confidence and cultural fluency with the English language and other cultures by engaging in informal, “low-stakes” verbal interactions.
International Student Conversation Group
International Student Conversation Group is a place where students can learn new ways to cope with challenges of living in a new cultural environment, find support for living away from home, and discuss concerns about language, friendships, and customs, etc. The group is led by University Counseling Services. Please contact them for more information.
People (even native speakers of English) who are deeply committed to improving their ability to speak English in public will want to consider joining one of the three Toastmasters clubs in Iowa City. Toastmasters is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. The organization has more than 292,000 memberships in more than 14,350 clubs in 122 countries. Members meet weekly to give presentations and critique others’ presentations in a friendly, supportive atmosphere. People interested in the possibility of joining can go to a meeting and observe.
The Old Capitol Club meets from 5:45 to 6:45 pm on Tuesdays at the Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockwood Hall, at the corner of Jefferson and Clinton, downtown Iowa City. Please see https://164.toastmastersclubs.org/ for more information.
The Affirmationist Club meets from 5:30-6:30 pm Mondays @ the Unitarian Universalist Society Church, at Gilbert Street and Iowa Avenue. Please see https://1209.toastmastersclubs.org/ for more information.
North Dodge Toastmasters Club meets every Tuesday from 12-1 pm at Pearson, located at 2510 North Dodge Street in Iowa City. Please see https://northdodgetm.toastmastersclubs.org/, or call 319-358-4511 for more information.
Names of qualified ESL tutors are available from the ESL Programs. Please check with the ESL Office before you hire a tutor, as they can help you find one who best fits your needs. Call 319-335-5630, email email@example.com, or visit ESL Programs Office at 1112 University Capitol Centre for more information.
The Speaking Center, housed in the Rhetoric Department in Rooms 410, 412, and 414 EPB, offers quality, one-on-one and small group tutoring and consultation to students and instructors on campus who would like to work on any aspect of oral communication. Please see their website https://speakingcenter.uiowa.edu/ for requirement for non-native English speakers to sign up for an appointment with a tutor. If you have any questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 319-335-0205.
Additional Resources for J-1 Scholars and Their Spouses
When we think about communicating with people from another country, we think first about their spoken language. But much (some scholars think most) communication between people is nonverbal, involving dress, ornaments, facial expressions, gestures, postures, and body positioning. A few statements about nonverbal communication with Americans have already been made in the Communicative Style of Americans section. Here are some more comments:
When they are talking to someone, Americans alternate between looking briefly into the listener’s eyes and looking slightly away. When they are listening to another person, they look almost constantly at the speaker’s eyes. Americans tend to distrust people who do not look into their eyes while talking to them.
People in some countries touch their conversation partners far more frequently than Americans do; people in still other countries touch each other even less often than Americans do. American men rarely touch each other, except when shaking hands. Women touch each other somewhat more often, but with rare exceptions they do not walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm the way women in many countries do. Americans usually get nervous if another person stands closer than about an arm’s length away, unless the other person is a partner in a romantic relationship. They stand a bit closer if they are side-to-side rather than face-to-face.
This is not say that there is a taboo on touching conversation partners. There is not. Some Americans periodically touch their conversation partners lightly on the arm or shoulder while talking.
As you can readily tell from television commercials, Americans have been taught that the natural smells of people’s bodies and breath are unpleasant. Many Americans bathe or shower daily (or more often if they engage in vigorous exercise during the day), use an underarm deodorant to counteract the odor of perspiration, and brush their teeth with toothpaste at least once daily and perhaps more often than that. In addition, they may rinse their mouths with a mouthwash or chew mints in order to be sure their breath is free of food odors. It is very common for women to shave their legs and underarms and to use a small quantity of perfume each day; many men use a scented cologne or after-shave lotion to impart what they believe is a pleasant smell. “Too much” of a perfume or cologne is generally considered unpleasant. Most Americans will quickly back away from a person who has “body odor” or “bad odor” or “bad breath.” This backing away may be the only signal that they are “offended” by another person’s breath or body odor. The topic of these odors is so sensitive that most Americans will not tell another person that he or she has “bad breath” or “body odor.”
In a thoughtful and concise introduction to American society and culture, Cornelius Grove offers these points:
- Americans have no taboo of any kind associated with the left hand; they are as likely to touch you or to hand you objects with the left hand as with the right hand.
- Americans have no negative association with the soles of the feet or the bottom of the shoes; they do not feel it necessary to prevent others from seeing these locations.
- A common way to greet small children in the U.S. is to pat them on the top of the head.
- People in the U.S. often point with their index finger and wave it around in the air as they make especially important points in conversation.
- One beckons to another person to come closer by holding the hand with the palm and fingers up.
- Americans show respect and deference for another person by looking him or her in the face.
- Informal, relaxed postures are commonly assumed by U.S. people when they are standing or sitting, even when they are conversing with others; lack of formal posture is not a sign of inattention or disrespect.
- Americans are uncomfortable with silence; they expect to talk rather constantly when in the presence of others.
- In the U.S., the doors of rooms usually are left open unless there is a specific reason to close them.
- Punctuality – being on time – is important to many U.S. people; they are likely to become quite annoyed if forced to wait more than 15 minutes beyond the scheduled time for meetings or appointments.
Meeting and Getting Acquainted with Americans
General Comments about Cross-Cultural Relationships
Foreigners anywhere have problems establishing relationships with the local people. This can be frustrating for those who want to get to know some local people and learn to understand them better. For Handbook readers who are interested in getting to know individual Americans, the following paragraphs offer some explanations of the difficulties you face and some suggestions for overcoming them.
Assumptions and values about relationships, whether they are friendships or romantic relationships, differ markedly from culture to culture, so misunderstandings can easily arise. Misunderstandings arise because people from different cultures often have different answers to such question as these: Under what circumstances can one appropriately initiate interaction with someone else? What interactions are socially acceptable, considering such variables as age, sex, marital status, differences in social status, and the setting where the encounter takes place? How much is it appropriate to let the other person know about you? How can relationships be expected to evolve? What can reasonably be expected from another person in a relationship?
A particular area in which assumptions and values differ between cultures is that of friendship. Friendships among Americans tend to be shorter and less intense than those among people from many other cultures. At least many observers from abroad have this impression. Because Americans are taught to be self-reliant and live in a very mobile society, many of their relationships are casual and the number of people with which they have deep involvement is often limited. Furthermore, Americans tend to "compartmentalize" their friendships, having their "friends at work," "friends at school," a "tennis friend," and so on. Americans often seem very friendly, even when you first meet them. This casual initial friendliness is sometime called “Iowa Nice” and could mean a genuine interest in a deeper friendship. But, more often, it is merely kindness and does not mean that the American is looking for a deeper relationship.
The result of these attitudes and behaviors is sometimes viewed by foreigners as a "reluctance to be friends." Other times it is seen as a normal way to retain personal happiness in a mobile, ever-changing society.
In addition to problems related to differences in assumptions and values, there is the further complication of stereotypes. People normally have in their minds stereotypes about people who are different from themselves. Stereotypes are based on limited and incomplete experience and information, but they shape people's thoughts and expectations nonetheless. Americans have many stereotypes about international students in general (for example, that they are very hard working, intelligent, and rich; that they are clannish and do not speak English well) and about particular categories of international students (Chinese are polite and good at mathematics, for example, or Italians are emotional). And international students have their own stereotypes of Americans, for example, that they are arrogant, rude, outspoken, and generous.
There are two stereotypes that often afflict male-female relationships involving U.S. and international students. The first is the idea, held by some foreign males, that American females are invariably willing, if not anxious, to have sex. The second common stereotype, held by some American females, is that male international students have no interest in American females other than having sex with them. (American females sometimes have the same stereotype about American males.)
The existence of these and other stereotypes can give rise to considerable misunderstanding and can block the development of a mutually satisfactory relationship between particular individuals. Stereotypes seem unavoidable, given the way the human mind seeks to categorize and classify information, so it is not realistic to suppose people can "forget their stereotypes." But they can be aware of their stereotypes, and be ready to find exceptions to them.
The Situation in Iowa City
Many, if not most, University of Iowa undergraduate students come from rural areas or smaller towns in Iowa or Illinois. They have had limited experience with international students or anyone else who is significantly different from themselves. Thus, they tend to be rather afraid of international students. They do not know what to say to them. They do not want to reveal their ignorance of other countries and cultures. They imagine that language problems make communication with international students almost impossible. They do not know how to initiate conversations or relationships with people who are very different from themselves. Because they have grown up far from other countries and have not been especially aware of economic ties between themselves and other countries, they have seen no reason to be especially interested in learning about other countries and cultures. They see the international students as "clannish," that is, as associating only with other international students. They do not suppose that international students have any particular interest in talking with them. They do not realize how interesting it can be to have a conversation with someone from another country. Happily, even in Iowa this perception has been gradually changing, especially in the last decade, with globalization and the rise of multiple communication channels.
There are many exceptions to this, of course, but it appears to be a fairly accurate description of the viewpoint of large numbers of University of Iowa students, especially undergraduates. Graduate students and faculty members may have more cosmopolitan backgrounds, but their commitments to study and research may severely restrict the amount of time they are willing to devote to social activities or even sociable conversation.
What about the international students? In many ways, their attitudes resemble those of U.S. students. International students are often rather fearful of encountering U.S. students or other Americans. They fear that language barriers will prevent them from understanding or being understood. They fear embarrassment over failures to understand the Americans' English, particularly their slang. They do not know what topics to discuss. They cannot imagine that the natives could be interested in talking with them. They are bewildered by what they see as the U.S. students' reluctant to establish close relationships, even among themselves. Often the international students feel anger at the U.S. students because U.S. students have asked them the same questions again and again: "Where are you from?" "How long have you been here?" And, "Do you like it here?" Some international students decide that the U.S. students are capable of no more than such superficial questioning.
International students also have heavy demands on their time, especially during their first semester, when they have so many new things to learn.
Suggestions for Starting Relationships
What can international students do in these circumstances? They need to take the initiative in meeting U.S. students. This can happen on several levels. First, large-scale activities such as nationality group social or educational programs serve to acquaint large numbers of local people with certain aspects of other cultures. Second, smaller scale activities such as picnics, parties, or athletic activities can include U.S. students and give them an opportunity to have closer involvement with international students. International students can invite U.S. students they know to parties, sports events, and so on. Third, on the level of individuals, international students can show a little more initiative than they often do in starting conversations or joining activities with U.S. students. They can join student organizations that are based on common interests (for example, video gaming, music, or sports), or they can volunteer to help in any of the UI or local organizations that rely on volunteer assistance from community members.
A group of experienced UI international students talking about making friends with Americans offered these suggestions:
- Be patient with the Americans' possible lack of knowledge of your country and their stereotypes about you and people from abroad.
- Seek out Americans who are at leisure--eating in a cafeteria, for example, or waiting for the bus. Do not try to start conversations with people who are obviously busy.
- Consciously commit yourself to spending time away from your compatriots and with Americans.
- Be persistent. Persevere through the disappointments with superficial interactions.
- Learn what Americans talk about in different situations. And learn what they do not talk about.
- Observe their focus on themselves, rather than on their families.
- Have a list of topics you are ready to discuss. Examples: local or campus news, recent athletic events; popular movies or TV shows; how vacations and weekends are spent; slang terms.
If you have not learned what topics Americans consider appropriate for different settings and types of relationships, you can nearly always talk about what to talk about. That is, you can ask the Americans what topics they consider appropriate (and inappropriate) for the particular occasion. You can explain what you would talk about if you were in a similar situation at home, and ask if the same topics would be appropriate here. Conversations such as these, about cultural differences, are almost always safe, relatively easy to start, and interesting.
The fact is that the U.S. students are home here and have no particular reason to adjust their behavior to accommodate international students. International students, by contrast, are in the minority and are the ones who have an interest in helping to broaden the horizons of the domestic students. Thus, international students need to take the initiative. Local students will rarely do so.
This is not by any means to say that international students should try to avoid each other and should stop having activities that are for international students only. Such activities are very necessary to any group of international students anywhere, if they want to maintain their ties to their own countries. It is simply to say that, by trying to be patient with the U.S. students and by taking the initiative in meeting them, international students can make their own stays in the U.S. more beneficial for themselves and for the natives. With initiative, patience, and persistence, international students can establish rewarding relationships with people from the U.S.
Dating, Romantic Relationships, and Sexual Involvement
Generally, in the United States, young, unmarried people associate with members of the opposite sex more freely and casually. In fact, young Americans are generally encouraged to spend time with friends of the opposite sex.
A relationship between two people of opposite sexes (also, see the section below on same-sex relationships) can be of many kinds. It might be a casual acquaintance, a brother-sister type of relationship, an acquaintanceship with romantic overtones, or a passionate involvement. The two people may have no plans for marrying each other or anyone else, or either of them may have plans to marry another person, or they could be planning to marry each other.
The non-American, faced with this variety of values and practices, is likely to become confused. American students themselves are often very unsure how to meet another person who is interested in romance, how to find out what the person thinks or feels, what kind of relationship the other person is looking for, what kind of behavior the other person expects in particular situations, and indeed whether the other person wants the relationship to continue.
Starting Romantic Relationships
The social rules governing romantic relationships in the United States are loose and unclear. When getting together, Americans tend to do something, such as going to a movie, a concert, or simply getting a cup of coffee. Going somewhere together to do something is traditionally called a "date" because the time you will meet and the place you go are agreed upon in advance. Dates can be initiated by either person and do not necessarily lead to romantic relationships. People can go on dates simply to get better acquainted with each other. A date does not necessarily signify that two people are committed to a lasting relationship with each other. In fact, someone can have a date with Person A one day and with Person B the next.
Relationships usually begin through mutual attraction, often communicated by "flirting." When unsure of someone's interest in you, you can try several acceptable ways to communicate your interest. You might:
- Express interest in something the person is also interested in.
- Find out about some place you both want to go, and possibly have never been. Then suggest a time to meet there.
- Express genuine interest in what the other person is doing and, in the course of the conversation, tell the person something about yourself.
- At the end of the conversation with the person, say, "I enjoyed talking with you. I'd like to talk again sometime."
- Invite the person to go along for a casual activity such as a trip to a mall.
- Say: "Let's have lunch one day this week."
- Ask the person for a “date,” fixing a time and day for a particular activity (such as seeing a movie or a play, or going for coffee or "a drink." Going to a theater, restaurant, coffee house, or some such place is more neutral than going to your apartment). For safety’s sake, women will want to be sure they are not taken to a place where they feel uncomfortable our out of control.
- Exchange phone numbers, so that you can easily contact each other later.
If you are attracted to someone and suggest an occasion to meet, you must be sensitive to the reply. It is important to look for signs that tell you whether the feeling is mutual, whether the person is either attracted or uninterested. Sometimes the reply to an invitation may be vague. This may mean the person is avoiding making a commitment because he or she is uninterested. It is also possible that the person may simply be unsure about how he or she feels about dating you and may agree to a date to find out more about you.
If you are asked on a date and you already have plans for the proposed time, but you are interested in going out with the person, you may simply suggest an alternative time.
Arrangements for transportation are generally based on convenience. The person who has a car will offer to drive, if driving is necessary. It is less formal to arrange to meet at a particular place. The matter of who pays for the activity should be clarified. Traditionally the male would pay for the entertainment. Nowadays, each person usually pays his or her own way. If the other person seems determined to pay, you might plan another evening to make sure the kindness is reciprocated. It is a good idea always to have money with you, so you can pay if that seems appropriate.
After a few enjoyable evenings or outings together, continuing the relationship may be relatively easy. If you get the idea the other person is not interested in continuing the relationship, simply withdraw.
It should be emphasized that if you or the other person agrees to a date or invites you into his or her home there is no commitment to any sexual involvement on either part. The next section contains more ideas on that topic.
Iowa City is home to a number of people engaged in same sex relationship, that is, people whose feelings of sexual attraction are toward members of their own sex. There is also a number of bisexual people, that is, people who feel sexual attraction for members of both sexes.
It is not unusual for homosexual people to "come out of the closet" in their late teens or early twenties, that is, at the time when they may be university students. To "come out of the closet" might mean different things to different people, but it usually implies letting other people--perhaps just one's friends or family, or perhaps a larger set of people--know that one’s sexual orientation. A person whose sexual orientation is not kept hidden "in the closet" is said to be "out."
While some segments of contemporary American society have become more accepting of gay people than they formerly were, others remain convinced that same sex relationship is unacceptable. The University of Iowa values diversity and is committed to creating a welcoming environment. There are a lot of services and resources on campus for students who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. For example, the LGBTQ Resource Center, Office of Graduate Inclusion (OGI), the Women’s Resource and Action Center (WRAC). There are also student organizations to support the LGBTQ community, such as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allied Union (GLBTAU), GraDykes, MEDIQS, The Outlaws, TransCollaborations, etc. For more information, please visit: https://diversity.uiowa.edu/resources/lgbtq-resources
The University of Iowa Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Staff and Faculty Association provides information, support, and social activities for staff and faculty members who are homosexual or bisexual.
The question of sexual involvement is problematic in any society. It is often more problematic in the U.S. than in many other places, since there is such a wide range of attitudes and practices here. There are few if any ways to be certain in advance what a particular person's attitudes about sexual involvement are; moreover, a person may seem to have different attitudes at different points in time or in different relationships. The American media tend to convey the inaccurate idea that all Americans are readily available for sexual activity. Some may be interested in sexual activity, but many are not, especially since Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has become a prominent concern. Contrary to what the media may imply, some young Americans decide to abstain from sexual activity until marriage.
Americans generally follow their personal (including religious) values, their personal feelings, and their thoughts about other people's reactions (these three factors might not all incline a person in a single direction) when considering whether to become intimate with another person. The general situation is that people regard sexual involvement as being entirely the personal and private business of the people involved in the relationship. Most unmarried people who share sexual intimacy with another person do so because they genuinely like the other person and the two of them have come to regard sexual activity as a natural way of showing their affection for each other.
Some segments of society have negative opinions about individuals who engage in sexual activity before marriage. Thus, people's sexual involvements are not usually a matter of widespread knowledge. Somewhat of an exception to this is the case of two unmarried people who are living together. Such arrangements, called “cohabitation,” have become quite common. They almost always involve couples who are committed to a continuing relationship with each other, and their relationship might be known to many people. The two people might be members of the same sex.
Concerning the relationship between dating and sexual activity, the following ought to be kept in mind: When an American accepts a date or, after accepting it, indicates additional interest in the other person, he or she is not necessarily expressing a commitment to sexual involvement. In practical terms, a date implies no commitments of any kind other than the basic one of the individuals' meeting at the agreed upon time and place.
In general, at least during the early stages of a relationship, most Americans have no particular expectation about sexual involvement. They may have desires or even hopes, but they have no particular expectations. They await developments, and try to be sensitive to the interests and feelings of the other person. A basic general rule is this: Do not initiate intimate sexual activity without the other person's explicit consent. If the other person says "no," then stop. For women, in particular, it is important to say “no” clearly and unambiguously. The charge of rape can be brought against a person who forces sexual activity onto another, even if the two people are well acquainted with each other. A rape charge has very serious legal and immigration consequences.
If a relationship between unmarried Americans does culminate in sexual activity, no additional or subsequent commitment of any kind is necessarily implied. But sexual activity usually suggests a special caring or concern for the other person, and is not usually undertaken without serious consideration of the other person's feelings--unless the sexual activity takes place with people whose judgment has been impaired by consuming alcohol.
If a sexual relationship develops, it is important to take steps to prevent disease and unwanted pregnancy. Birth control information and contraceptives are available at various clinics mentioned in Medical Care and Expense. Furthermore, the possibility of contracting the AIDS virus is a growing concern. The number of people affected by this disease is increasing year by year and warnings from medical institutions are frequent. The primary recommendations are to choose partners carefully and use condoms during sex.
Resources for Sexual Harassment
Seek an Advocate
- Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP), 319-335-6000
- Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP), 319-351-1043
- Monsoon Asians & Pacific Islanders in Solidary, 886-881-4641
Seek Medical Assistance
UI Confidential Resources
- Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP), 319-335-6000
- University Counseling Services, 319-335-7294
- Office of the Ombudsperson, 319-335-3608
- Women’s Resource and Action Center, 319-335-1486
Make a Complaint or Consult about UI Policies/Procedures
- Office of the Sexual Misconduct Response Coordinator, 319-335-6200
- Office of Institutional Equity, 319-335-0705
Make a Criminal Complaint or Ask for Police Assistance
- Emergency, 911
Ask for Accommodation to Address Safety Concerns or the Impact of Trauma
- Office of the Sexual Misconduct Response Coordinator, 319-335-6200
Though the major religion in America is Christian, there is no official religion or established church that is supported by the government. Indeed, strong efforts are generally made to prevent any open governmental support for religious activities of any kind. The doctrine of "separation of church and state" is widely respected, and perceived deviations from it over such matters as prayer in public schools cause vigorous debate. Religion is generally considered a private matter. People have their own beliefs, and they may or may not discuss them with others. Americans are generally taught not to raise the subject of religion with people they do not know well, so they will not offend or create an argument with someone who has differing views.
Visitors from abroad will find a wide range in the religious practices of Americans in Iowa City. Some people here attend a church, synagogue or mosque weekly and also participate in related social and service activities. Some attend irregularly, perhaps no more often than once or twice a year. And some do not go to church at all, perhaps because they do not believe in Christianity or because they do not believe that "organized religion" adequately represents their own religious or philosophical beliefs.
Some of those Americans who openly discuss their religious beliefs belong to fundamentalist Christian groups who consider it their duty to try to attract others to their faith. Or they may be members of "cults." These groups often single out international students and try to “convert” them to their own religious views. International students will want to be aware that kindness done them or interest shown them by representatives of religious organizations may be displays of genuine helpfulness and concern, but may also be part of an effort to induce a student from abroad to join a fundamentalist group.
Iowa City has many churches, both Catholic and Protestant. There is a significant Jewish population here too. The names and addresses of Iowa City churches are in the yellow pages of the telephone book under "churches." The listing is classified by denomination. There is also a yellow page listing of synagogues. At http://www.yellowpages.com/iowa-city-ia/religious-organizations is another listing of religious organizations in Iowa City and Coralville.
You can also find a religious or spiritual student organization.
Many churches have "campus ministries" that pay particular attention to the religious needs and interests of university students. The Association of Campus Ministries is a confederation of campus ministers of various denominations.
International Visitors and Religion
International students and scholars who are Christian or Jewish and who want to join a church or synagogue here can simply look up appropriate addresses and telephone numbers. Those following other faiths can seek out fellow nationals who share their beliefs and ask how they go about practicing their religion in Iowa City.
If you want to see what happens in an American church you can simply attend a service. Or you can go with a friend or acquaintance who attends a church or synagogue.
If you meet a fundamentalist Christian who tries to persuade you to join, you can simply say that you are not interested. You need not listen or reply to a person who does not appear to respect your right to have your own religion. One tactic proselytizers (that is, people who seek converts from one doctrine to another) use is to invite international students to "a dinner" or "a party" or some other event without informing students that the event is sponsored by the church and that those who attend may be subject to pressure to change their religious beliefs. Students who find themselves in such situations can simply leave if they are uncomfortable.
The preceding sections concerned some values that generally prevail among Americans another way of describing differences between people from diverse cultural backgrounds, besides comparing their values, is comparing their communicative styles. According to communication scholar Dean Barnlund (writing in Public and Private Self in Japan and the United States), “communicative style” refers to:
- The topics people prefer to discuss
- People’s favorite forms of verbal interaction (ritual, repartee, argument, self-disclosure),
- The depth of involvement people seek from each other
- Communication channels people tend to rely on (vocal, verbal, physical)
- The level of meaning to which people are generally attuned (the factual or the emotional content of messages)
When people with differing communicative styles interact, they frequently feel uncomfortable, and they often misjudge or misunderstand each other. To help understand why that happens, and to try to reduce the communications problems that arise when it does happen, it is helpful if foreigners (anywhere, not just in the U.S.) know something about the communicative style of the local people and how it compares with their own communicative style. With that knowledge, the foreigners will be better able to understand what is happening when they are dealing with the local people, and will know some of the ways in which the local people are likely to misunderstand or misjudge them. Here are some generalizations (subject to exceptions) about the communicative style of Americans:
In casual conversation (called “small talk”), Americans prefer to talk about the weather, sports (males discuss sports more than females do), jobs, people they both know, or past experiences, especially ones they have in common. As they grow up, most Americans are warned not to discuss politics or religion, at least not with people they do not know rather well, because politics and religion are considered controversial topics. Sex, bodily functions, and perceived personal inadequacies are considered very personal topics, and are likely to be discussed only between people who know each other very well (younger people generally discuss sex more freely than older people do).
Favorite Form of Verbal Interaction
In the typical conversation between Americans, no one talks for very long at a time. Participants in conversation “take turns” frequently, usually after the speaker has spoken only a few sentences. Americans prefer to avoid arguments. If argument is unavoidable, they prefer it to be restrained, carried on in a normal conversational tone and volume. Americans are generally rather impatient with “ritual” conversational exchanges. Only a very few of them are common: “How are you?” “Good, thank you. How are you?” “Good.” “It was very nice to meet you.” “I hope to see you again.”
Depth of Involvement Preferred
Americans do not generally expect very much personal involvement from conversational partners. “Small talk” – without long silences, which provoke discomfort – is enough to keep matters going smoothly. It is only with very close friends (or with complete strangers whom they do not expect to see again) that Americans generally expect to discuss personal topics.
Some people from other countries prefer even less personal involvement than Americans do, and rely more on ritual interchanges. Others come from countries where much more personal involvement is sought, where one wants to learn as much as possible about another person and keep open the possibility of developing a relationship of mutual interdependence. For Americans, getting to know another person is generally a process of learning more about the other person’s feelings and experiences in life.
The ideal among Americans is to be somewhat verbally adept, speaking in moderate tones, using relatively few and restrained gestures of the arms and hands. They do not touch each other very often.
By contrast, others might prefer even quieter conversation, less talking, and even more restrained gestures. Or they might be accustomed to louder voices, many people talking at once, vigorous use of hands and arms to convey meanings or add emphasis, and/or more touching between conversation partners.
Level of Meaning Emphasized
Americans are generally taught to believe in the “scientific method” of understanding the world around them, so they tend to look for specific facts and physical or quantifiable evidence to support viewpoints. Underlying this search for facts is the assumption that there are “truths” about people and nature that can be discovered by means of “objective” inquiry that is carried out by trained people using “scientific” means measurement of observation.
Compared to Americans, people from some other countries might pay more attention to the emotional content or the human feelings aspects of a message, and be less concerned with what Americans would call “facts.” They may not assume the existence of an objective “truth,” but may suppose that “facts” are relative, depending on who is observing them.
Many misjudgments and misunderstandings can arise from interactions between people who have different communicative styles. Here are some examples:
- International visitors in the U.S. might hear little but “small talk” among Americans, and derive the erroneous conclusion that Americans are not intellectually capable of anything more than simple talk about such subjects as the weather, sports, teachers, or their own social lives. The conclusion that Americans are intellectually inferior is also reached by many people who regard argument as a favorite form of interaction, and who find that Americans are often not very good at arguing.
- Responding to people who customarily speak little and who rely heavily on ritual conversation, Americans might use the labels “shy,” “too formal,” or “too polite.”
- Vigorous arguing (with raised voices and much use of hands and arms, and perhaps more than one person talking at a time) of the kind that is “natural” to some people may alarm Americans, who expect violence, or at least long-lasting anger, to follow from loud disagreements.
- What Americans might regard favorably as “keeping cool” – that is, not being drawn into an argument, not raising the voice, looking always for the “facts” – might be seen by others as coldness and a sort of lack of humanness. Conversely, Americans are likely to see those who do not “keep cool” as being “too emotional.”
- Embarrassment or unease almost always results when someone raises a discussion topic that the other person thinks is inappropriate for the particular setting or relationship.
- Americans are likely to view a very articulate person with some suspicion.
These are but a few of the many misjudgments that arise between Americans and people in the U.S. from other countries. It can be very helpful to be aware of the differences in communicative style that produce them. Please keep in mind that not every American has the same communicative style. Americans from different part of the U.S., different ethnic groups, and different age groups all have their distinguished communication styles. Within groups there might be differences as well. Talking about differences in communicative style, when such a difference seems to be causing problems, is usually a good way to reduce the negative effects of the differences.