Adjusting to U.S. Culture

Montclair State University International Services offers intercultural counseling and programs to enhance the adjustment of international students and scholars to campus life and American customs.   We encourage you to attend any of our programs and excursions. 

Individual Adjustment Counseling

If you are facing challenges in your adjustment whether it is related to the classroom culture, making friends, the English language, managing your finances, or feeling sad and homesick - the staff of International Services is available for individual counseling and advising.  Just call or email us to schedule an appointment:
EMAIL: international.services@montclair.edu
TEL: +001-973-655-6862

Culture Shock

Whether they want to admit it or not, anyone who moves to a place where people’s language, behavior, ideas, and ways of thinking are different will experience some degree of “culture shock.”  Culture shock can be understood as a set of feelings a person has when faced with a very new living situation. The feelings include:

  • excitement and stimulation
  • confusion
  • tiredness (sometimes made worse by difficulty sleeping)
  • homesickness
  • depression (low energy, lack of motivation to do anything)
  • anger and hostility toward the local people
  • anxiety and sometimes paranoia
  • questioning whether they have made a mistake in going to the new country

Some new students are more affected by these feelings than others. The feelings last longer for some people than for others. Some people feel reasonably comfortable in their new setting within a few weeks; for most people the period is longer—several months, or a year or more. Culture shock can also set in or recur after someone has been in a new place for a period of time, even years after arrival. For example, someone might realize after a long time in the new place that an assumption they had been making about the local people was not correct. They then need to reinterpret things they previously thought they understood.

Culture shock is not necessarily a bad thing. It can make you more alert and inquisitive, and give you motivation to learn more about the place you are now living. It can encourage you to look for new ways of thinking and acting, so you have a better chance of getting what you want. It can make you a more flexible person. Culture shock is not an illness that requires medical treatment. Normally, it passes with time. (A student experiencing a prolonged period of depression, though, should visit a foreign student adviser or a mental-health counselor.)

Many students report having “reverse culture shock” when they return to their country. Perhaps without realizing it, they have changed in important ways while in the United States. In addition, things at home may have changed too. The result is that returning students have to readjust to their own culture and society.

Understanding the American Culture

Be aware of differences between your culture and the US Culture. Students often discover differences in the American culture in issues related to these values:

Time – Americans say “Time is Money!” Don’t waste it. Be on time. Stick to the schedule. You are expected to schedule an appointment with most teachers, advisors and other professionals. It is considered polite to call ahead if you are going to be late or if you can’t make an appointment. Americans get easily annoyed by someone who is consistently late for an appointment.

Communication – Being assertive and frank is a major characteristic of Americans. Most Americans show their likes, dislikes, hatred, love, happiness, and sadness in a very direct way. Saying NO is not considered rude but is valued and respected if it is the honest answer. They have an expression – Honesty is the best policy – that sums up their beliefs. In the U.S., people are expected to have direct eye contact even with people in authority. People who don’t have direct eye contact may be considered dishonest or even weak in the American culture. If Americans make mistakes, they often admit it and try to learn from the mistakes. They consider constructive criticism from teachers and others to be a positive thing and they are not easily embarrassed. They do not usually try to avoid embarrassment. In fact, most Americans believe that it is important to be honest and face the true facts rather than SAVE FACE. People from other countries may find the way in which Americans are assertive and direct in their manner to be disturbing. Therefore, it is important that if you feel disturbed by the behavior of Americans, that you remember this difference is due to the difference in cultural values.

Individualism – Many people feel that the biggest difference between the American cultures and other non-western cultures is the view of the individual. In the United States, Americans place a high value on the individual rather than the group or the family. They want to be self-reliant and independent. It is important for Americans to feel that they are free to make decisions that are best for them and not necessarily best for the group. The usually expect that they will take care of their problems by themselves and may not depend on a group or family to help them.

Competition - Because Americans are individualists, you will find that they are competitive and they are proud of their accomplishments. You may be surprised to hear Americans talk about themselves and their own accomplishments and you may even find this rude especially if, in your home country, you are used to people being modest about themselves.

Informality - Many visitors to the United States notice how informal Americans are. Although Americans value and respect their teachers, they may call them by their given names and speak to them in a casual informal manner

Americans are also most comfortable believing that all people are equal, regardless of their job, age, or education level. Unlike many cultures, Americans generally do not value a society that has a proper order or hierarchy with overly harmonious relationships.

Rather, Americans are brought up to question authority, even their own parents. In fact, American parents generally encourage their children to speak up and ask questions of people in authority, even teachers and other leaders. American teachers believe they are successful in their teaching if their students ask questions and also speak up to present their own ideas and views on a topic. An American teacher who has a student who never speaks in class might think that student is not interested or not understanding the class.

International visitors may feel disturbed by what they consider to be an American’s lack of respect for traditions and other people. It is important to remember that this is because of a basic difference in cultural values.

Privacy - Although Americans are informal in their behavior, they still have certain rules that they follow. Because Americans are always working and busy doing something, they especially value their time and space. This means they need time to themselves and value spending some time alone. Therefore, it is good to call ahead or schedule time to visit Americans. Most Americans do not just show up at someone home for a visit without calling first. This would be considered an invasion of their privacy.

Friendship - Americans tend to be very friendly on a casual basis. This may result in many casual friendships around to specific activities but not always close, lasting friendships. International students in the United States are often surprised at how friendly Americans are but how difficult it is to become a friend to an American. Students often tell us how they have very close friends in their home country that may last for many years or even a lifetime.

Americans are different in the way they make friends. Everyone in the US seems friendly. Friendliness is a kind of social ritual in America. Americans will walk down the street and say Hi, how are you?! And not wait for an answer. People from other countries find this odd and even rude. It is important to remember that this is just a social greeting or ritual and does not mean that they want to be close friends.

In general, Americans may have a large set of friends that change over time and does not involve many obligations.

How to Help Yourself Adjust Successfully

• Look for internationals who have already studied in the United States - ask for help in your adjustment based on their past experiences.

• Most U.S. classrooms are learner centered in which there are discussions, student presentations, critical analysis, interactions with the Professor, different types of exams and assignments, and a chance to apply knowledge. Remember that classroom participation is generally valued by US. Professors.

• Attend all classes - be prepared - do your assignments and bring any questions you may have to class or schedule appointments with professors and advisors to ask questions.

• Communicate clearly and directly.

• Meet with your Academic Advisor each semester. Meet with your Professors during their office hours if you have concerns or questions that can’t be addressed in class.

• Plagiarism and Cheating are considered serious offenses and may result in failing the class or even suspension from school. Ask your professors if you have any questions about what is considered plagiarism or cheating. See Academic Information

• Don’t hesitate to ask for help so you can figure out how to do things for yourself. Then be independent and make choices that help you to be successful. Practice assertiveness by asking questions and taking action to do what is expected of you.

• Try to adapt to your new setting. Keep an open mind. Have a sense of humor. Remember it is ok to make mistakes and then learn from your mistakes.