Culture Shock and American Social Customs


Culture Shock

“Culture shock” is the name given to a feeling of distortion or confusion that often occurs when a person leaves a familiar place and moves too an unfamiliar one. Coming to Fairbanks from another country, you will encounter a multitude of new things.  The buildings look different, and so do the trees and the birds.  The food is not the same as it is at home, and the people look, speak, and act differently from the people at home. Even the smells are different.  Your English might not serve you as well as you expected it would.  You might not be able to convey your full personality in English, with the result that you think other people are seeing you as a child and your family and friends are far away.

Different people react differently to culture shock.  You may feel stimulated by your experiences.  You may also feel confused, unsure of yourself, and even have some doubts about the wisdom of your decision to come here.  In extreme cases, the stress of culture shock may be so severe that you may develop psychological and physical symptoms that interfere with your academic success.

You may be experiencing culture shock if you notice that you:

  • Become nervous
  • Are unusually tired and want to sleep a lot
  • Write many letters home
  • Feel frustrated and possibly hostile toward this country
  • Get excessively angry about minor irritations
  • Become dependent on fellow nationals who are also new to the country

All of these feelings and behaviors will make it difficult to concentrate on your studies, deal with Americans, and use English.

Here are some tips for coping with culture shock:

Maintain your perspective. Try to remember that thousands of people have come to Fairbanks from other countries and survived (even when they arrived in the cold of winter).

Recognize that anxiety is natural. Communication and adjustment across cultures is not easy; there is often a stress factor involved in interaction between people from different countries. Openness, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to laugh at one’s mistakes can help you deal productively with anxiety.

Evaluate your expectations.Your reactions to the United States, to Fairbanks, and the University are products both of the way things are here and of the way you expected them to be. If you find yourself feeling confused or disappointed about something, ask yourself, “What did I expect?” “Why?” “Was my expectation reasonable?” Understanding your expectations and adjusting those which are unreasonable will do much to reduce the amount of dissatisfaction you feel.

Suspend judgment.There is a natural tendency to immediately label all you observe or experience “good” or “bad.” This can be a major stumbling block to understanding and participating in a new culture. Instead, keep an open mind. Try to empathize, to put yourself in the other person’s place, and view the situation from his or her perspective, rather than evaluating everything using the standards you would use in your own culture.

Become involved and learn from the experience.Moving to a new culture can be the most fascinating and educational experience of your life. Show your willingness to learn about the people and culture by participating fully. You have the opportunity to explore an entirely new way of living; to compare it to your own. There is no better way to become aware of your own values and attitudes and to broaden your point of view. Here are some questions that you might try to answer as you encounter the local people: How do they make friends? How do friends treat each other? How is respect shown? What attitudes do they have about their families? What is the relationship between males and conflicts or disagreements? What do they talk about? When and with whom? How often do they “take turns” during a conversation? How loud do they talk? What do they do with their hands and arms while talking, and where do they direct their eyes?

Take care of yourself.Eat well, exercise daily, and get enough sleep. Adapting to a new culture is stressful. It is not uncommon for students to be sick more often than usual during the first few months in a new place.

Learn English by using it. Language is your key to involvement in your new culture. Remember, understanding others and making yourself understood will require more rephrasing, repeating, and rechecking than usual.

Discuss you experiences with others.Talk to your International Advisors, staff in the Diversity Office, and members of international organizations on campus. Discussing your experiences can ease feelings of frustration and isolation and help you develop a deeper understanding of yourself and your host culture.

Visitors who experience severe symptoms which do not seem to grow weaker after two or three weeks may need additional support.

When you are in a new setting, you have to make certain adjustments or adaptations in your usual behavior and attitudes. It is instructive to observe your own reactions to being in a new culture and to compare your reactions with those of other people who are here from different countries. These observations can result in increased understanding of yourself and of the various factors that have made you who you are. Furthermore, if you are able to keep the perspective of a person who is observing himself or herself undergo an unusual experience, you will be able to help prevent yourself from becoming extremely anxious and depressed. You will learn more from the intercultural experience you are having.

Social scientists who have studied the phenomenon of adjusting to a new culture have identified four phases of adjustment through which newcomers to a culture commonly pass. Those phases are as follows:

Spectator phase:The new person is excited and optimistic.

Stress and adaptation:Problems, disappointments, and internal conflicts emerge. Feelings of sadness, depression, anger, hostility, or rebellion might result.

Coming-to-terms:Increasing involvement with the host society reduces the international’s generalized hostility and disappointment and helps him or her find a relatively comfortable or, at least, acceptable position in society.

Decision to return home:This is a period of excitement and self-examination. If the international has become detached from his or her own society, this phase brings about tension and feelings of ambivalence; if the international still identifies strongly with his or her home country, this phase brings a feeling of release and pleasant anxiety.

This is only one way of looking at the question of “phases of adjustments.” Not everyone goes through all these phases, and different people spend different amounts of time in those through which they do pass. It can be interesting for you to see whether you pass through phases like this yourself. “Adjustment” in a new culture has three aspects, according to psychologist Richard Brislin. The first is a general feeling of satisfaction based, for example, on the satisfactory completion of one’s tasks and objectives. The second is feeling accepted by the host society. The third is having the ability to carry out daily activities without stress.

Here are some practical suggestions intended to help you adjust to your new situation:

Realize that you will often be treated as a stereotype. International visitors everywhere may be treated (at least at first) not as individuals but as “a foreign or international visitor” or “a person from country X.” The nature of that response will depend on each person’s previous experience and ideas about “international visitors” or “people from country X,” which are about you personally. Try not to let this discourage you. Avoid becoming angry with people who are, after all, just acting like people.

Learn the local criteria for success.Find out what is considered a good performance in academic studies, research, social relations, and other aspects of your life here. You can get information about this from teachers, students, employers, neighbors, and many other people.

• Learn how to get things done in organizations.Many of the things you will want to accomplish will be accomplished through organizations (academic departments, other units of the University, businesses, government agencies, and so on). Learn how those organizations work – which units or particular people do the work you are interested in, who makes decisions, and how you can best approach them. Departmental administrative assistants are often very good sources of information on this topic. Experienced students can sometimes help too; but not all of them can be assumed to have learned how to accomplish things in an organizational setting.

Realize how the status of your role here compares to the status to which you are accustomed.Different societies attach different importance to different roles or positions in society. In many countries, the role of “university student” or “professor” is accorded more respect or “status” than it is in the United States. An international visitor might get more attention and courteous treatment elsewhere than here. It can be difficult to adjust to having lower social status than you are accustomed to. It helps to recognize that you personally are not being downgraded, but that you happen to be in a society where less value is attached to people in your situation than they would be at home.

Avoid being excessively influenced by particular dramatic events. It has been pointed out that newcomers to a society may have a particular, very noticeable experience from which they generalize about the new society and the people who live in it. In fact, the experience might be very unusual, not a safe basis for generalization. (For example, one male international student new to a university found that his residence hall roommate removed all of his clothes when he was in the room studying or relaxing. The new international student assumed that this was what American students customarily did and wondered if he should do the same. He wisely asked around and found that his roommate’s behavior was not typical.) If you have a dramatic experience which you find influencing your opinions or feelings about the local people, discuss the experience with others to get an idea whether it is typical or unusual.

Try to understand other people’s situations.If you do not know anything about other people’s situations, you tend to assume that their individual characteristics account for their behavior. For example, if a person treats you in an apparently unfriendly way by not taking time to talk with you on the street or in an office, you may assume the person is unfriendly. If you knew more about the person’s situation, you might realize that the apparently unfriendly behavior was more accurately interpreted as a product of the person’s situation (being late for an appointment, having an exam for which to study, or some personal preoccupation not related to you).

In the same way, the local people may understand little about your situation as a newcomer from abroad, and they may therefore misunderstand the reasons for some of your behavior. Experienced international visitors have found it more helpful to think positively in these situations, rather than to assume the Americans are deliberately being inconsiderate or unkind.

Grades and Grading Components

The final academic grade for a course is generally comprised of several components such as homework, exams, quizzes, written papers, class participation and attendance. The course syllabus will include the grading policy.

If a student misses a number of class sessions, he or she may be dropped from the class at the professor’s prerogative or the absences may negatively impact the grade. Even though a student takes and passes all examinations, they could still fail the course due to low or no grades received on the other grading components. It is important to attend all class sessions unless it is unavoidable.

Many university professors expect students to participate in class discussions and the level of participation is computed as a component of the academic grade. While it may be uncomfortable, it is important to be prepared to speak during discussion times as well as to ask questions when you have them. It is not uncommon for differences of opinion to be voiced. This can be with the professor as well as other students. This is to be expected and students should be prepared to defend their opinion. Disagreement is not considered rude or disrespectful as long as it is conveyed in a respectful manner.

What do I call my professors and instructors?

The classroom setting and relationship with professors or instructors may be informal compared to other cultures. It is not uncommon for students to address faculty by their first name, or Dr. - - -, or Mr./Ms. - - -. If you are unsure, it is better to err in being more rather than less formal. You may ask your professor how he or she wishes to be addressed.

Clubs and Student Activities

UAF has a number of student organizations that provide different activities and experiences. You may find a listing on the Student Organizations website,as well as a calendar of events for each week. Select Student Organizations for a listing of active student organizations. The clubs may be academic, social, cultural, spiritual and/or religious in nature. Many of these organizations are not restricted to UAF students.

You also can take a look at our What to Do at UAF page, to learn about all the activities on campus and where to go have fun!


It is a tradition at many U.S. schools to have a mascot that represents the school. In 1930, UAF adopted the polar bear, or Nanook (from the Inupiaq word for polar bear), as the official sports mascot. Over the years, the Nanook has been incorporated into the UAF logo, not only in the athletics programs but also in official university communication. Each year people audition to serve as one of the official UAF Nanook mascots. They may be seen at community events as well as UAF athletic and other campus events.

Faith and religion can be very important to people, especially if they wish to find a place to worship with others with the same beliefs. A current listing for places of worship in the Fairbanks North Star Borough can be found on the Fairbanks New Miner website.

For more information, see our Faith and Worship page.

Spouses and children of foreign students and scholars go through the same phases of cultural adjustment as the students and scholars themselves, and they can benefit from many of the preceding suggestions. However, their initial attitudes and feelings may be different. For example, the spouse may have left a job in the home country, may not have wanted to come to the U.S., may have a lower level of English proficiency, and may have lost the support of family members who had an active role in child care and household matters. If the family’s economic status has changed, that fact can lead to greater frustration for the spouse, especially of the spouse is a female who has been accustomed to having help with the cooking, cleaning, and child care. Spouses need to adjust to a new country and new roles.

During the initial period, the wife or husband may feel a loss of self-confidence and independence. He or she may feel very isolated and lonely. These feelings may be more severe if the other partner is involved in studies and is often gone from home.

Spouses who have been in this position advise that the best way to overcome these difficulties is to go out and meet other people. This may seem very frightening, but the new spouse may meet others who have similar frustrations, and talking with them can be quite helpful.

Another common suggestion is to take as many English classes as possible, because the spouse’s feelings of insecurity will decrease as he or she is able to communicate with people. Additional advice: Join clubs or organizations or do volunteer work. In Fairbanks there are many groups to join and many volunteer organizations, depending on interests. The staff in the Office of International Student and Scholar Services and new friends are good sources of information on these activities.

Children also need time to adjust to being in a new place. In general they learn English very quickly, but school, day care, or baby sitters may be frightening for them at first. Younger children may want their mothers to be with them all of the time, and other children may want their parents to stay with them for a short time at day care or school. You should talk with their teachers to see if this is possible. The teacher will be a good source of information about other activities, such as sports, music, or art, in which your child can participate.

The key issue facing parents who are raising children in another culture is probably the degree to which they feel comfortable in seeing their children adapt to the local ways. Some parents do not mind if their children seem “American,” but others prefer for their children to behave according to the standards of the culture at home. They want their children to do well in school here and make friends, but may fear that their children are losing their native identity and are adopting behavior that people at home will not appreciate.

Children observe well and learn quickly. They may want an American first name and may learn attitudes about independence and choice (from school, friends, and television programs) which you believe are not appropriate for your culture. Each family needs to decide how important it is to them to help their children retain their native language and culture. The importance of this will probably vary with the child’s age and the length of the parents’ planned stay in the United States. It may be helpful for you to talk with other parents to see how they deal with this potentially challenging issue.

When you first arrive in a new country, it is natural to spend much of your time thinking about the new country and your reactions to it. It is helpful to try to keep in mind, that even though you are preoccupied with thoughts about your new setting, you will probably be going back to your own country after a certain period of time. Remember that you will change while you are away. You will learn new ideas, adopt new ideas, and begin to behave in new ways. This may happen so gradually that you are not aware of it. While you are changing, things will be changing at home also. Your family members, friends, and professional colleagues will have experiences that you do not know about, and they too will develop new ideas, attitudes, and ways of behaving. Social, political, and economic situations may also change. This means that when you go back home, things will not be as you remember them. You will have to adjust again, this time to your own culture. This readjustment is easier if you realize it is going to be necessary, prepare yourself for it, try to keep your expectations realistic, and try not to pass judgment on the people you encounter when you get back home.

Thank you to the University of Idaho and the University of Alaska Anchorage for permission to use and adapt portions of their International Student Handbook.

American Social Customs

Although Americans tend to be casual in their interactions with each another, it is always appropriate to practice good manners. These are some of the more common American social customs with which you should be familiar.

When people are introduced, they commonly shake hands firmly. After the initial introductory handshake, Americans do not usually shake hands in consecutive meetings. Normally, a verbal greeting will suffice. Hugs are usually acceptable among close friends of either sex.

First names are used more commonly in the U.S. than in most other countries. If you are introduced to someone by his/her first name, then it is acceptable to address that person by first name. For example, neighbors will probably expect you to address them by their first names. Unless a person invites you to address her/him by first name, assume she/he prefers to be addressed more formally. This is especially important if you are unsure, or if the individual holds a high position.

In dealing with your instructors at the university, you should address them by their title, such as Doctor or Professor, unless they invite you to call them by another title or name. Children should address adults as Mr., Ms., Mrs. or Miss. ‘Mr.’ (‘Mister‘) is the title used when addressing men. The term ‘Ms.’ (pronounced ‘mizz’) is widely used today for professional women. The term ‘Mrs.’ (‘Misses’) refers to married women, while ‘Miss’ usually refers to a young or unmarried woman. Mrs. and Miss are less commonly used today than in the past. It is best to use Ms. unless a woman indicates she prefers another title.

During a conversation, do not interrupt while the other person is talking. Americans are usually very sensitive to being interrupted, and may be offended if this occurs repeatedly. If a conversation is taking place between individuals with whom you would like to speak, it is polite to patiently wait until you are acknowledged.

While talking to an American, maintain eye contact. However, do not stare. Avoiding eye contact (which is considered polite in many cultures) is perceived by Americans as a sign of being untrustworthy. It also tends to make Americans feel uncomfortable.

While talking to an American, it is important to maintain personal space. Personal space is the physical space immediately surrounding someone,in which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable for them. Personal space is subjective and changes from individual to individual, so it would be wise to maintain at least an arm's length of distance between.

Generally, Americans do not feel comfortable touching each other during a conversation. You should generally avoid touching people other than your immediate family and very close friends. In public, showing affection is considered acceptable within limits. For example, holding hands and hugging are generally acceptable, whereas, romantic kissing may not be appropriate in certain circumstances.

Note: The issue of ‘sexual harassment’ is an important one to Americans. Make sure that when you touch someone it is done in a manner considered appropriate, or you may be violating rules that protect against sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a violation of university policy. What is sexual harassment? Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other sexually demeaning verbal or physical conduct may constitute sexual harassment.

Americans tend to enjoy casual visits, but it is always polite to call someone before you intend to visit her/him. If you are visiting a married couple or a family, it is generally more polite to do so when both husband and wife are at home.

Informal Invitations: Invitations to small, informal gatherings are often made over the telephone or in the course of a conversation. It is wise to verify the time of the gathering by telephone on the day before the scheduled meeting time.

If you receive a written invitation and it requests a reply (R.S.V.P.), you should do so by the date requested or no later than one week before the event. If you will be unable to attend, be sure to notify the host or hostess.

For both formal and informal occasions, plan to arrive no earlier than 5 minutes before or no later than 15 minutes after the time indicated. If you are invited for dinner, it is polite to bring your host or hostess a small box of candy, flowers, or possibly a bottle of wine. If you wish to bring a bottle of wine, first find out whether your hosts drink alcoholic beverages. You may also want to ask the host or hostess what would be considered appropriate attire (type of clothing) for the occasion.

If you are attending a formal dinner and are unsure of the appropriate table manners, observe the manners of your host(s) and other guests.

If you are invited to go out to dinner, your host will most likely pay for the dinner. However, you should carry enough money with you to pay for your own dinner, just in case there has been some sort of misunderstanding about who is going to pay.

If you know in advance that your host will pay for the dinner, you should ask what he/she is having and order something of comparable cost.

Most Americans are very time-conscious. Punctuality (being on time) is considered a necessary trait in business, at the University, and in society in general. If you think that you are going to be unavoidably late for an appointment or an engagement, be sure to take a few minutes to call and inform the other party concerned of your late arrival.

In addition, try not to engage in extremely lengthy discourse, since Americans tend to get impatient. Do not become offended if Americans seem to rush into the subject at hand without preambles, or cut you short and end your meeting, discourse, or presentation if they feel it is too long or you have exceeded what they consider your ‘allotted time.’ This reaction is a result of Americans’ time-conscious nature and is not meant as a personal criticism.

The following is an explanatory list of the types of social gatherings to which you might be invited:

Brunch: a late morning meal that is a combination of breakfast and lunch. It lasts about two hours and is usually on Sunday.

Coffee: informal conversation or entertainment over a cup of coffee.

Luncheons: formal or informal noonday meal (lunch). It is very often used as an opportunity for a business meeting.

Teas: small gathering where tea, coffee and light refreshments are served. Teas are usually in the afternoon and last about two hours.

Open House: gathering held any time of day or evening where guests are free to arrive and leave during the designated hours. Light refreshments are served.

Cocktail parties: usually begin between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. and last about two hours. Light refreshments and alcoholic beverages are served, but if you prefer a soft drink or fruit juice, do not hesitate to ask your hosts.

Dinner Parties: usually begin any time after 6:00 p.m. It is acceptable to mention to your host any dietary restrictions you might have. Dinner and luncheons may be served ‘buffet style.’ In this case, the food is set on a buffet table from which guests serve themselves and then sit down. Dinner guests usually plan to leave about one to two hours after dinner is finished. It would not be polite to leave immediately after eating. Should circumstances require that you leave soon after dinner, you should inform your hosts.

Potluck dinners or suppers: each couple or family is invited to bring a dish of prepared food, such as a main dish, salad or dessert. Your hostess or host will usually inform you as to the type and amount of food you should bring.

Barbecues: usually held any time after lunch in the backyard of the host’s home, in a park, or in a recreational area. Barbecues are usually very informal events. Your host/hostess may ask you to bring a salad or dessert. It is polite to offer to supply some food.

American restaurants do not include table service in the bill, unless the group of customers is large (in which case table service or mandatory ‘gratuity’ will be indicated). Normally, it is appropriate to tip servers 15% of the total bill. If service is exceptionally good, a 20% tip is reasonable. Tipping appropriately is important in restaurants in the U.S. because tips constitute a major portion of servers’ wages. See ourTipping section for more details.

When you call someone on the telephone, you should say, “Hello, this is (your name). May I speak to Mr. /Mrs. / Ms. (name) please?” When answering the telephone you need only to say, “Hello.” Except in a case of emergency (or if you have been informed by the person that it is acceptable), you should not call after 10 p.m. or before 9 a.m.