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American Cultural Hallmarks
Casual conversation between Americans can sometimes be confusing. "How are you?" does not necessarily mean the person wants to know how you are feeling. Rather, the person may simply be saying, "Good morning," or "Hello." In response, you may simply smile, nod and say "Fine, thank you. How are you?"
"See you later," "Drop by sometime," or "Let's get together sometime" are often meant as a friendly good-bye, rather than an actual invitation. When in doubt, do not be too shy to clarify whether it's an invitation or not.
Some cultures tend to have a much closer conversational and "personal space" distance than does the US culture. Americans generally will keep their distance; they avoid bodily contact with others.
Informality among Americans
The emphasis on individual identity, responsibility, and tolerance produces a considerable degree of informality in dress, relationships between people, and methods of communication. A great deal of flexibility to express oneself is permitted as long as it does not infringe on the rights and comforts of others.
Use of Names
First names are more readily used in the United States than in other countries. It is all right to use the first name of someone of approximately your same age and status or someone younger.
A woman or man older than yourself, including a professor is often addressed as Dr., Ms, Mrs., Miss, or Mr. with the last name, until the individual requests that you use his or her first name. Ms. ("miz") is used for both single and married women.
Americans are informal and some of your professors and some staff and administrators may invite you to address them by their first name, if you feel awkward doing that, please don't feel uncomfortable in stating that fact; no one will be insulted!
Invitations are usually informal and most often verbal, but they do specify time and place. It is important that you keep the appointment and be punctual.
If you receive a written invitation that says "RSVP" this means "please reply" and you should respond by letter or phone, telling your host whether or not you plan to attend.
Handshaking & Hugging
Men usually shake hands at the time of their first meeting. Men and women also often shake hands; women often don't shake hands with each other.
Good friends often hug each other at meeting and parting times; this is mostly a feminine custom.
Concept of Time
North Americans are usually time-conscious, and being on time is very important. When an appointment is made, you are expected to arrive within 5 minutes of the appointed time. Life in the U.S. may seem hectic because of this.
Being Asked Questions
Americans generally are not well versed in geography, so some of the questions you will be asked may appear ridiculous, uninformed, and elementary, but try to be patient in answering them. Many Mount Union students are sincerely interested but will probably have very little understanding of your life and your culture.
Friendship between U.S. and international students may be confusing since definitions and expectations of friendships differ from one culture to another.
In the U.S. friendships may seem to develop more quickly and seem more casual than in many other cultures. International students are sometimes struck by how warm and friendly people seem from the start. Yet, soon they observe that while Americans seem warm at a first meeting, they later may seem remote.
"Superficial" is the word sometimes used by international visitors to describe Americans' relationships. Upon closer examination, you may notice that North Americans tend to be very private, keeping their personal thoughts and feelings to themselves.
It is important to remember that these are generalizations and that there are many exceptions to them.
(Adapted from American Ways, by Gary Althen, Intercultural, 1988)