Cultural Differences

Holidays - Meeting People - Personal Lives - Alcohol Consumption - Humour - A Local Mindset - Tipping - Values - Additional Resources

Thanksgiving dinner with an American family.

While you may not think it at first, there are numerous cultural differences between the US and the UK that you will likely encounter. Just as there are Language Differences between the US and UK, there are even differences in customs, attitudes, opinions, and reactions within the US. The US encompasses many different cultures and regions, so the information here is simply a general guide and may not be valid everywhere. However, it can be a great way to get familiar with your new home before you arrive.

Holidays

These are some of the more notable holidays. There are numerous holidays in the American academic calendar, most of which will provide days off from classes. Major holidays you should note are:

Meeting People

One of the best ways to learn about US culture is to make friends and get involved on campus. Besides, they will want to hear your accent! You should do your best to avoid falling into a clique of other international students when you arrive. The friendships you make with Americans will enhance your experience and the depth of your exposure to US culture.

In addition to learning more about American culture, there are many perks of becoming friends with Americans. They will know about the local area and getting involved in campus. They may be willing to drive you to the supermarket or for travelling/road trips, and they may even invite you home for weekends or holidays such as Thanksgiving.

A Few Tips for Meeting People:

Personal Lives

In general, Americans are much more open than Britons. Friends and even acquaintances discuss personal thoughts and opinions that might seem private or intrusive in the UK. Do not feel embarrassed if an American asks you a seemingly private or presumptuous question. He or she is most likely sincerely curious about your thoughts and feelings and is assuming you would like to share them.

You may learn more about your American friends than you wanted to know, or you may hear more childhood stories than you care to listen to. Americans will be interested in your experiences and background as well since your upbringing may differ greatly from theirs. In addition to more frequent discussion about their personal lives, there is often a greater display of photographs, posters and memorabilia in dorm rooms or office spaces.

Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol is a less integral part of the campus culture in the US than perhaps it is in the UK. The drinking age in the US is 21, so many university events are dry (no alcohol allowed). If a campus is known as a dry campus, this means there are no on-campus bars and that no alcohol is permitted on campus grounds. See our Alcohol and Drugs page for more information on drinking in the US.

Humour

The sense of humour differs from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Americans tend to be less dry or sarcastic; do not be surprised if your subtlety is not understood at first! Some Americans may feel offended if they do not understand your humour, but after a brief explanation they will be laughing along with you. Similarly, absurd and nonsensical humour (think Monty Python) is not typical and may not translate at first.

You also may find that typically British programmes such as The Office or Downton Abbey have gained a large following in America, and are great starting points when meeting people for the first time.

A Local Mindset

Due to the size of the US, news and education are focused more locally. Unlike in the UK, culturally similar regions are large and slowly blend into other regions.

While European countries are close together, and therefore host visitors more frequently, the vast majority of Americans are removed geographically from international borders and feel they have no need to apply for a passport - only about 22% of the American population have one. You may find that your local newspaper does not cover much in terms of global news. This is important to keep in mind when studying with or getting to know American students.

For example, an American in Des Moines, Iowa is approximately 450 miles (724 km) from the Canadian border and 1,800 miles (2,950 km) from the Mexican border!

Tipping

As you may already know, tipping is a common practice in the US. It is the general rule to tip your waiter or waitress at restaurants 15-20% on top of the price of bill, as a service charge is not usually automatically charged. Not tipping your server is considered VERY rude, and even if the service is poor, Americans will still tend to tip something (10% of the service is poor, 15% if it is good and 20% if it is excellent). In addition to servers, it is generally expected to tip other customer service providers:

Please keep in mind that often a large part of these workers’ salaries are made in tips, so if they did a good job, be sure to show your appreciation.

Values

Americans tend to believe that individuals control their circumstances by how much they work. This work ethic is reflected in American attitudes towards academics. Do not be surprised if you meet students who spend a vast majority of their free time studying in the library.

Americans also tend to care much more for punctuality than their UK peers. Everything from classes to a lunch date is expected to start right on time. Along with punctuality, most of the US moves at a faster pace than in the UK. For example, dinners at a restaurant, even a sit-down restaurant, can be finished in under a half-hour. Additionally, you will not have to ask for the bill. It will be brought to you as soon as it is clear to your waiter or waitress that you are finished ordering more items.

The vast majority of Americans also tend to be more openly patriotic than Britons. Having been raised reciting the Pledge of Allegiance daily at school, many Americans are proud (at times even defensive) of their country. Just as some Americans do not appreciate sarcastic humour, they may not appreciate self-deprecating humour either. Whether it is about them or their country, Americans can have a hard time laughing at themselves.

Religion and Politics  can be culturally different also depending on where you study.

 Additional Resources

Take a look at information about American Cultural Basics from the Office of International Services at the University of Maryland. This is a great starting point for learning about key cultural differences in the US, particularly the American social character which, is characterised by individuality and self-reliance, time consciousness and direct communication. Getting a picture of American character will prepare you for communicating with Americans upon your arrival.

EduPass, an informative guide for international students studying in America, also has an in-depth section on social customs and cultural differences. The website mentions a phrase heard a lot in America, "If you don't toot your own horn, who will?" which sums up a key distinction between the US and the UK. Essentially, it means don't be modest. Americans want to know about your achievements, so don't hold back when talking about them.