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10 Unique Aspects of US Culture for International Students

10 Unique Aspects of US Culture for International Students

Studying abroad in the US is a challenging yet rewarding experience for international students, since they have the opportunity to learn and live in a partially or entirely different culture. While preparing for this journey, we would like to introduce 10 unique aspects of US culture to international students. After understanding these aspects, you will be more confident opening a new door of opportunity in the US.
1. Tipping in the US Culture

The American service industry expects everyone to pay tips in exchange for the employees’ services. This is because servers in America are paid a tipped minimum wage, which is generally lower than minimum wage, for their job. Therefore, they are dependent on tips to live off. Examples of services you may seek when you’re in America are restaurants, taxi drivers, valet parking, hairstylists and barbers, estheticians, massages, and other special spa services. Examples of places without tip requirements are fast-food restaurants, coffee shops, any places with counter service, or anytime you do take-out. Note that over the past several years voluntary tipping by customers has become much more common at take-out and counter service restaurants as well as at coffee shops, but it is still not required.

The typical tipping structures are:

  • Taxis: 15% – 20%, depending on your trip length and your luggage. 
  • Restaurants: 15%-20%
  • Food delivery: $3 – these people make very little money and generally use their own cars to deliver your food- be nice to them!
  • Haircuts/Beauty Salon/Spa: 10%-20%
  • Bell Hops: at some hotels, they will help carry your bags to your room. Tip $2 per bag
  • Coat Check: $1 per coat

Another thing to note is that if you have over 6 people in the group, the restaurant will automatically add the tip to the bills. The most common tipping percentage for a group of 6 is 18%.

2. Holidays

Holidays in the US culture are different from other countries. A great way to immerse yourself in the culture is by participating in holiday events. Some notable holidays in America include (Source: Internationalstudent.com)

3rd Monday in JanuaryMartin Luther King, Jr. DayCelebrates the life and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr., an influential American civil rights leader.
3rd Monday in FebruaryPresident’s DayHonor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The day is sometimes understood as a celebration of the birthdays and lives of all U.S. presidents
March 17thSaint Patrick’s DayCommemorates Saint Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and celebrates the heritage and culture of the Irish in general.
Last Monday of MayMemorial DayRemember the men and women who died while serving in the US Armed Forces.
July 4thIndependence DayCommemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence of the United States
1st Monday in SeptemberLabor DayHonor the contributions and efforts of hard workers throughout the country.
2nd Monday in OctoberIndigenous People’s Day

In 2021, this became a holiday to celebrate and honor Native American peoples and commemorate their histories and cultures.

Last Thursday in NovemberThanksgiving DayFeast on a traditional meal that commemorates the dinner shared by the Pilgrims (first settlers of the thirteen colonies) and the Native Americans.
December 25thChristmas DayCelebrate the birth of Christ, leader of the Christian faith, by exchanging gifts with family and friends.
3. Individualism

The individualistic concept may not be new to international students from Western countries but is for students from countries that focus on collectivism. US culture strongly stresses the concept of being separate individuals with different needs. For example, the Chinese and Vietnamese cultures emphasize family values, and children are expected to pay back to their parents once they get older and be financially independent. However, in the US culture, American students don’t have the same expectations from their parents, and sometimes they are required to be financially independent once they become legal adults at 18 years old.

The concept of individualism in the US culture also spans interactions between friends and co-workers. Particularly in the workplace, you will see American people voice their opinions and ideas to their managers or supervisors, even though managers are in a position of power and respect. Since American people have been educated to be vocal from a young age, this may be shocking for many Asian students when they first arrive in America.

4. Small Talk

A significant portion of American conversations start from small talk, with strangers, acquaintances, and friends. Students may think small talk is a waste of time because it does not lead the conversation anywhere. However, small talk is a great way for getting to know strangers. Furthermore, mastering the art of small talk is beneficial for building friendships, working relationships, and professional networks. So next time, if you are in an Uber and the driver asks how your day is going, just be friendly and share with them about your day and continue the conversation from there. You won’t believe how many incredible people you can meet just from small talk! But remember, if a stranger makes you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to pressure yourself to continue the conversation. We trust your best judgment!

America has unique cuisine, as people call it “a melting pot” of many different cultures. People in America speak all kinds of languages and eat all types of food; therefore, the melting pot is a metaphor for all the cultural differences in the US melding together. Fusion restaurants are common in America, where ethnic cuisines and flavors are blended “fused” with more traditional American flavors or entirely other ethnic cuisines. This leads to things like Korean tacos or Kimchi quesadillas, where Korean and Mexican food and flavors are mixed together.

However, it’s an entirely different story regarding American food and the American way of eating. In typical American restaurants, you will be served a large portion of food that you won’t be able to finish during one seating. When that happens, you can ask for a take-out box. Besides traditional American restaurants, drive-through restaurants are also a popular choice because of the busy lifestyle. Typically, people will drive their car up to a restaurant, make an order, then go to the drive-thru window and grab a meal so that they don’t have to go into a restaurant and wait.

Another critical point you should remember is that Americans don’t have the culture of sharing food, compared to other countries. Additionally, everyone usually will split the bill at the end of the meal.

Sports are a huge component and an essential part of American society. Sports are discussed when you are in elementary school, middle school, high school, and beyond college. Do you know that Ivy League was created as an American collegiate athletic conference, instead of an academic association? Colleges also look to attract top athletes in various sports to their schools, in the hope of bringing reputation and achievement. Americans consider sports to be beneficial to an individual’s mental and academic development. So, when you arrive in America, a common small talk topic is about sports, generally American football, baseball, hockey, or soccer. American football is a unique sport that is widespread across the United States and Canada but is not commonly found elsewhere.

American has a highly developed transportation system with trains, subways, buses, and cars running within and across cities. However, with the infrastructure and suburban population, a vast majority of people travel in cars. American people eat, watch movies, and move in cars. Many international students don’t have access to a vehicle when they first arrive in the US. It’s challenging for international students to move around when they don’t have a car, especially when they live in the suburbs where public transportations are not that developed. So, before studying abroad, remember to check the public transportation systems of the city your school is in! Additionally, check what transportation options the school offers to get to a larger suburban or urban area. Many schools offer bus transportation to go to certain places regularly during the weekend and sometimes during the week.

8. Languages spoken

Since US culture is such a melting pot of cultures worldwide, there is no official language of the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 300 languages are spoken in the United States. In addition to English as the main spoken language, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and French are the most frequently spoken in the US-based on the latest data on language use from the US census bureau.

9. Shoes inside the house

Another interesting fact that we would like to point out in the US culture is Americans’ habit to not take the shoes off when they are inside the house. There is no scientific or religious reason behind this phenomenon. However, if you are from a different culture where taking shoes off is a must before entering the house, remember to pay attention to the surroundings and the host’s perspective about shoes before taking them off or keeping them on.

10. Open to discuss politics

The last aspect international students may be surprised about is the openness to discuss politics. Suppose you have the chance to visit your American friend’s house for holiday dinners. In that case, you will notice that sometimes holiday dinners can turn into political debates, especially when that year is the presidential or mid-term election. From topics like healthcare to taxes, the American people have strong opinions on various matters.

In addition to this article, the Official Guide to Government Information and Services also published an article to guide students through the new life in the U.S: 


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