U.S. Culture

Getting to Know Americans

The United States is a culturally diverse country, and it is especially so in large metropolitan areas such as San Francisco. Most people in the U.S. are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants from all around the world. This multiculturalism can be comforting for international visitors; it can also make it hard to identify the cultural practices of “typical Americans”. However, there are some general trends of social interactions that are particular to Americans. These cultural norms can be surprising to people who come from different backgrounds. We have made notes on some of these trends below, and hope they will help you transition into life at UCSF. It is important to note that as with all generalizations, sometimes these trends do not apply. As always, the best way to learn about new culture is to interact with locals!

Individuality is highly valued in American culture. Americans often identify themselves as separate individuals before identifying with their family, a group, or the nation. American children are often taught that understanding and relying on oneself is crucial to success in adult life. This does not mean that Americans do not form strong social networks or familial bonds. Rather, taking an interest in improving oneself is thought to benefit the majority. This individualism can be seen as rudeness by people from more collective cultures, but this is not the intention.

American society is based on the ideal that “all men are created equal”. While there are many economic, social, and cultural differences throughout the U.S., in theory, everyone should have an equal opportunity for success. Because of this emphasis on equality, Americans tend to disregard social status in everyday interactions, and only acknowledge these differences in subtle ways. People from other cultures who hold higher social positions sometimes feel that Americans do not treat them with enough respect. On the other hand, Americans may feel offended if they feel they are not being treated equally.

Partially due to their sense of equality, Americans tend to be very informal. Dress, especially in an educational setting, can be very casual. This informality also lends itself to friendliness. Americans are quick to say hello to friends and casual acquaintances alike. Often Americans will ask “How’s it going?” as a way of saying hello. While this informality can be startling if you are not used to it, Americans mean it as a warm and friendly gesture.

Americans can seem to always be in a rush. Efficiency is a highly regarded trait, and Americans can seem impatient. In general they put a great value on time. Punctuality is important in both business and social settings and arriving late can seem rude and unprofessional. If you are going to be more than ten minutes late for an appointment, it is advisable to call ahead to let them know you are going to be late, or will be unable to attend. Meetings with friends can be more casual, but again, it is nice to keep people updated on your arrival status. Not all Americans are on time and everyone is late sometimes, but it is a good idea to keep punctuality in mind while in the U.S.

Americans believe that being direct is the best way to communicate, and, that often, it is the only way to be heard. To people from different backgrounds, this can seem aggressive or rude. The importance of individuality in U.S. culture has fostered a sense of competitiveness which has, in turn, led to the need to be heard. Americans are not shy about defending their opinions. Honesty and openness are valued, and being direct is often seen as a way to resolve conflicts and misunderstandings. Americans may think that they are helping resolve a situation by being clear and direct, while someone from a different background could see this as being aggressive.