Cultural Guidelines

With so many people traveling around the globe, most international students already know a great deal about the United States and probably about the people who live there. However, there are any number of subtle cultural differences and surprises international students may encounter when arriving in Davis.

Each international student has a unique experience, with individual cultural “bumps” or “shocks” along the way. This list is not comprehensive but rather a list of the more common cultural differences for those new to the United States.

Importance of Time

In the United States, time is treated like a tangible asset and is used carefully and productively. Being “on time” (arriving at the stated time) for class or meeting with advisers, instructors or even with friends is often very important. Be on time for scheduled meetings with professors.

Work Ethic

Like people in many countries, U.S. Americans place a high value on hard work. However, they tend to feel personally responsible for their accomplishments and take personal credit for what they’ve done. It is believed that people achieve results on the basis of how hard they work, so people often judge others by how hard they work and how task-oriented they are.


A very high value is placed on a person’s accomplishments and productivity. Individuals evaluate themselves and are evaluated by others in terms of their achievements and accomplishments.


U.S. Americans tend to view themselves first and foremost as individuals with both freedom and responsibility to manage their own lives, make their own decisions, and accomplish their own goals. Families and friends are important, but individuals are expected to consider their own needs, desires and values when making decisions. U.S. Americans seem to be less comfortable being obligated to or dependent on others. People are also held individually accountable for things they have promised to do, and international students may find that they are expected to do more of their work independently than they are accustomed to at home.

Direct Communication and Problem-Solving Style

While this varies greatly by region and family background, people in the United States generally place a higher priority on clear, factual communication. This means that at times, U.S. Americans may choose to be direct even if it means possibly hurting or embarrassing another person.


U.S. Americans can be pragmatic and oriented toward practical matters. They are attracted to things and ideas that are seen as “useful.” This goes together with the orientation toward work and achievement. There is a high value on being able to relate “theory” to “practice.” Understanding these values can help you understand why things are as they are in the United States and help you to adjust to your new home.

Friendship and Dating in the United States

Because of the value put on friendliness, U.S. Americans sometimes misread people from other countries who are reserved or formal as being cold or rude. In the United States, saying “Good morning,” “Hi” or “Hello” with a smile will usually indicate that you do not have any bad feelings towards colleagues, faculty or friends. Until you get used to it, this friendliness (smiling and being sociable and helpful) can be confused with an invitation for a friendship.

U.S. Americans are often much slower to form deep relationships than first impressions may indicate. They may shy away from international students out of respect for your privacy or to avoid offense, so you may need to be the one to initiate friendships.

Because U.S. Americans are “doers,” it is helpful when trying to make friends to ask someone to do something with you: go out for coffee, to a movie, shopping, bowling, etc. Another approach is to join a club or activity on the campus or in your community. Generally, dating among students is very casual due to the expense of going out. There are no set rules in terms of who asks for the date or who pays. In many cases the person who asks for the date will pay, but one should be prepared to cover their share of the expenses. Volunteering to cover some of the costs would be a nice gesture and probably appreciated by your date.

Adapted from American Ways by Gary Althen, University of Iowa

First Names and Titles

There are strong regional and cultural differences within the United States with regard to formality and the use of titles with names. These include “Mr.” (pronounced “Mister” and meaning male, married or single), “Ms.” (pronounced “Miz,” meaning female, married or single), “Mrs. (pronounced “Missus,” meaning a married female), “Prof.” (short for “Professor,” meaning someone who has a faculty appointment or tenure at a college or university) and “Dr.”(short for “Doctor,” meaning a medical doctor or someone with a Ph.D.).

In California, people generally use first names when speaking. This can make addressing professors, teaching assistants (TAs) and staff very confusing for international students when they first arrive. Do you call a professor by a title such as “Professor Brown” or do you call her by first name, “Judith,” as you may hear other students do? Sometimes it’s one way, and sometimes it’s another, so how can you tell when each is appropriate?

It is best when dealing with professors and TAs to err on the side of politeness and use their titles—Professor, Doctor, Mr. or Ms. Often instructors will tell you on the first day of class what they would like to be called. If you aren’t sure, it is appropriate to ask them how they would like to be addressed. Graduate students, especially graduate assistants and TAs, are more likely than undergraduates to be on a first-name basis with their professors. And most professors are on a first-name basis with each other. Office staff, receptionists and secretaries are almost always on a first-name basis with students.

It is most important to remember that informality is not an indication of disrespect. It is simply a cultural habit that may indicate mutual respect, equality and a willingness to engage in open dialogue and intellectual exchange.

Appropriate Dress

In the United States, a person’s way of dressing is expected to suit the circumstance. As students, dressing casually (jeans, shorts, shirt, t-shirt) is acceptable. In the workplace or other professional settings, follow the norms of that particular place. Professional attire for men generally requires dress slacks, shirt and tie, or a suit. Women’s professional attire may require a suit (with slacks or skirt), dress or skirt and blouse. Be observant of what others are wearing or ask a supervisor before wearing casual clothes. Also note that because people are dressed casually doesn’t mean it’s an informal environment or that supervisors or professors are to be treated as equals.

Guidelines for Getting Things Done

There is a strong trend towards informality in the United States. In many countries, secretaries and receptionists are trained to use specific, formal behavior in order to serve people courteously, including set greetings such as, “Good morning, may I help you?” In the United States, especially the Midwest, the desire to be on “equal footing” with others tends to make people uncomfortable with this kind of formal behavior. You may encounter a very casual attitude from many of the University staff with whom you have business. In comparison with your background and experience, you may find this very helpful and courteous, or casual to the point of disrespect. Try not to take it personally!

Be respectful of all employees. In the United States, secretaries and receptionists often have power to make decisions, and they may have the information you need.

Remember that in the United States, many rules really are followed, and procedures often are not negotiable. Arguing or demanding to see someone “in charge” will not lead to success. It is more effective to explain exactly what you need and what kind of problem you have been having, and ask, “What do I do now?” or “Is there someone who could help me?” Even though employees usually can’t “bend the rules,” if they like you, they are more likely to put a little extra energy into solving the problem.

If you follow procedures and instructions carefully, a lot of time and energy can be saved. In the United States, many things are done over the phone, or through the mail, making a personal visit unnecessary. Take the names and phone numbers of people you talk to, in case some delay or complication does arise and you need further help.

Adapted from American Ways by Gary Althen, University of Iowa


U.S. Americans place a strong emphasis on cleanliness. Daily bathing, use of deodorant and brushing one’s teeth twice a day is recommended. Many people in the United States become uncomfortable when they are in close contact with someone who has noticeable body or mouth odor. Though U.S. Americans communicate directly on many topics, they will probably avoid that person rather than discuss the problem.

Personal care products such as soaps, deodorants, shampoos, toothpaste, mouthwash and feminine hygiene products (tampons and pads) can be purchased in grocery, drug or discount stores. Pharmacies are the best place to ask questions about specific product information. If the clerk is unable to help you, talk directly with the pharmacist.