Social Customs


These may be printed, handwritten or in person. Responses can be made in the same manner. Regardless, make every effort to tell your host as soon as possible whether you will be able to attend. It is not rude to decline a first invitation; accept only if you intend to go. If you are going to refuse an invitation, it is enough to say, "Thank you for the invitation, but I will not be able to come." Though not required, it is a nice gesture to bring something for the host whether such as flowers, drinks or food. 


If you are invited for a meal or refreshments and you have special dietary restrictions, it is considered polite to inform your host of those restrictions well in advance, preferably at the time you accept the invitation.


Being on time is very important in American society. Schools and classes, plays, concerts, public meetings, weddings, and formal dinners begin as scheduled. It is considered impolite to be even a few minutes late. Family dinners are a little more flexible and informal, but you should still try to be on time. You may attend a cocktail party or reception at any time between the appointed hours. 


When expressing thanks to a host, for any entertainment or visit, a short letter is sufficient. You might also consider inviting special friends to an event or offering to prepare a meal from your country at their home to thank them.


A form of entertainment that people in the United States enjoy is "eating out." Family, or one or two friends, might get together to go to a local restaurant for lunch or dinner and conversation, and then return to their homes immediately afterwards. If a friend asks you to "go to dinner" with him/her, you may assume that you will each pay for your own dinner. If he/she asks to "take you to dinner," he/she will pay for both of you.


Most Americans bathe or shower daily and use a deodorant or antiperspirant. Americans, therefore, because they are not accustomed to it, find body odor and perspiration offensive. Some international visitors may want to adjust their bathing and hygiene routine to accommodate the American preference for the time that they are here.


The American dream is equality for all; unfortunately this dream has not yet been completely achieved. Americans, however, expect that all people respect an individual regardless of occupation, handicap, sex, race, religion, or sexuality. All individuals you meet will expect the same consideration and courtesy, whether they are professors, students, doctors or janitors.


Women in the United States have an active part in community life. Many women have full time careers outside the home, and in many cases both parents take care of small children and share home chores. Women who hold responsible positions in the work world expect the same professional respect as do men.


The U.S. has been known to be materialistic and superficial which is usually determined by someone's personal fashion and hygiene. The way you dress and conduct yourself leads the people around you to make certain assumptions about you that may not be true. Wearing more revealing clothing may allow someone to think you are more sensual than you may actually be. Also, wearing clothes of a certain fashion may lead people to think you are inapproachable or reserved. Albeit, the U.S. emphasizes individuality and encourages people to accentuate their personal style.


One of the best ways to meet Americans is outside of class in the cafeteria, during break-time, following class, through student organizations and in residence halls. Friendships form around shared interests, work, study and opinions; and by asking them questions about life in the United States, you will understand the culture better as well as establish rapport with someone.

As an international student, it will often be up to you to begin a conversation with those around you. You can tell by the way a person responds whether they would like to continue the conversation. Americans usually appear warm and open. Friendship patterns are generally casual and informal due to the mobility and quick pace of American life. An American may have a quantity of friendly acquaintances, but only a few "close friends." Among college students, flexibility is valued in friendships.

Try not to feel offended if someone is ignorant of your country – its modernization, politics, even its location! Remember that young Americans may not have had the opportunity to travel outside of their country or, possibly, out of their home state. Young students today appear very naive about world events and politics. Remember that both of you are learning about each other's culture, which requires time, patience, dialogue, and exposure.

Be aware that you should speak English when your American friends are around. It may feel more comfortable to you to speak in your own language, but Americans often feel excluded and far away from you when you start talking in a language they do not understand. 

It will be tempting to spend time with people in your own nationality group. They share many of your own problems, concerns and interests, and can provide needed support. However, some international students spend so much time together that their English hardly improves. They form their own group in a foreign environment and do things together which they enjoy back home. It is fine to spend some time with students from your own country, but many students, once they leave the United States, regret that they have learned little and have not made American friends.


To "date" someone or to "go on a date" with someone implies that you would like to know the person better, often leading to a romantic relationship. It does not mean that you wish to marry the person or that you have any intention to marry the person. Going to social events together indicates an enjoyment of the other person rather than implying a serious commitment.

For heterosexual relationships, men have traditionally initiated invitations to movies, parties, or other evening events, although it is not uncommon for women to take the initiative. Whoever asks for the "date" should specify what is planned and when. Recognizing that few students have a great deal of money, many people go on "dutch dates" where the cost is shared by both people.

The amount of physical contact between people depends, of course, on the individuals and the amount of affection developed for each other. What happens on a date varies with each individual and each situation. Touching someone may appear to be an invitation to greater intimacy; sometimes it is not. Even though the U.S. is progressing in the acceptance of same-sex relationships, there are many who find it offensive or inappropriate. Showing affection to someone of the same sex is to your own discretion but be attentive of when and where you do it. 

If you have any questions about dating or any other American customs, do not hesitate to ask a fellow student or the International Center staff. Social customs in the United States are vague and confusing. It is not unusual to be confused at first.