Relationships with Americans

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 the foreign 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 native students because native 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 native students they know to parties, sports events, and so on. Third, on the level of individuals, foreign 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 foreigners 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, foreign 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

General Comments

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.

Same-Sex Relationships

Iowa City is home to a number of people engage in same sex relationship, that is, people whose feelings of sexual attraction are toward members of their own sex. There is also some 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 GLBTQ community. For example, the LGBT Resource Center, Office of Graduate Inclusion (OGI), the Women’s Resource and Action Center (WRAC). There are also student organizations to support GLBTQ community, such as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allied Union (GLBTAU), GraDykes, MEDIQS, The Outlaws, TransCollaborations, etc. For more information, please visit: http://diversity.uiowa.edu/about/lgbtq-community.

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 web address http://www.uiowa.edu/~lgbsfa/.

Sexual Involvement

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 United Asian Women of Iowa, 886-881-4641

Seek Medical Assistance

  • UIHC Emergency Treatment Center, 319-356-2233
  • Mercy Hospital, 319-339-3600

UI Confidential Resources

  • Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP), 319-335-6000
  • University Counseling Services, 319-335-7294
  • 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 Equal Opportunity and Diversity, 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