About U.S. Culture

American Values

Being aware of differences between your culture and the US Culture can often clarify and smooth your adjustment experience. Students and scholars often discover differences in the American culture in issues related to these values:

Friendship - Americans tend to be very friendly on a casual basis. This may result in many casual friendships around specific activities but not always close, lasting friendships. International students and scholars in the United States are often surprised at how friendly Americans are but how difficult it is to develop a friendship with an American. Friendliness is a type of social ritual in American culture and does not necessarily lead to friendship. Some internationals are surprised when Americans walk down the street and say, Hi, how are you? and not wait for an answer.   This a typical casual greeting in the U.S.  A brief casual response is expected such as - Fine, thanks, how are you? 

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 must cancel an appointment. Americans get easily annoyed by someone who is consistently late for an appointment or a social meal.  Most events begin on time and if you arrive late, you will miss a portion of it. However, arriving late is acceptable for some events such parties, receptions, or open houses.   

Communication – Being assertive and direct is a common American value. Most Americans show their likes, dislikes, hatred, love, happiness, and sadness in a very direct way. Saying NO in a direct manner is generally valued and respected. 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 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 rude.

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. They generally 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 are proud of their accomplishments. You may be surprised to hear Americans talk openly about themselves and their accomplishments. You may even find this rude especially if, in your home country, you are used to people being modest about themselves and their accomplishments. Competition is considered by many Americans to bring out the best in people since it is believed to produce progress and success.

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.  

Equality - 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, such as teachers and other leaders.

Privacy - Although Americans are informal in their behavior, they still have a few behavioral rules that they follow. Because they 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 on their own. Therefore, it is good to call ahead or schedule time to visit Americans. Most Americans do not just show up at someone’s home for a visit without calling first. This would be considered an invasion of their privacy.

Behavior Expectations and Taboos

Although American culture is generally relaxed and open, international students and scholars are sometimes surprised to learn that there are some behaviors that are acceptable and others that are considered inappropriate or taboo.

  1. College Drinking Culture in the US:  The legal drinking age in the US is 21.  Some international students are surprised at the prevalence of excessive alcohol drinking on US campuses by both legal and underage students.   Students should be comfortable choosing to participate in the  many events on campus that do not involve alcohol.  But if a student chooses to drink alcohol, they should understand the laws of the US and the University policies. For more information:
    Alcohol Transport to University Health Service
    Alcohol & the Disciplinary Process
    Alcohol Violations & the Department of Public Safety
  2. Greetings:   The most common greeting is a firm handshake for men and women. Close friends and relatives may embrace or kiss lightly on one cheek. Smiling, especially upon greeting someone, is customary. It is common for Americans to say hello with a quick, HiHow are you? This is intended as more of a quick greeting rather than a true question. An appropriate response might be - Fine thanks, How are you?
  3. Friendliness and politeness are valued.  Americans are known to smile broadly and frequently and generally expect others to smile back in return. Saying please and thank-you are taught to children from an early age. 
  4. Direct eye contact with people at all levels of authority is valued but avoid staring at someone for long periods of time.  Not having eye contact with someone when they talk to you is considered strange in American culture.
  5. Invitations:   An invitation to a party or an event will often be delivered verbally in a very casual manner. Don’t expect a written invitation except for weddings and other very special events. If you are interested in going to a party, and don’t have all of the details, such as the time and location, it is customary to phone, text, or email the host of the party to get more information.
  6. Timeliness:  Excessive lateness is frowned upon. If you are unavoidably late, call ahead if possible for appointments, dinner invitations, or social meetings. Arrival time is more relaxed for larger social events like parties and receptions for which you may arrive a bit later.
  7. Gifts: In general, gift-giving is not common in the U.S. culture except for special events like birthdays, weddings, new baby showers, and some holidays. If you are invited to someone’s house for dinner or a party, it is fine to bring a bottle of wine, cake, or other small gift.   Americans are not comfortable with large expensive gifts but may appreciate a small token or sweets that come from your home country.
  8. Table Manners: In general, Americans value neat eating habits without making noise. Do not chew with your mouth open. Belching loudly in public is considered rude. Do not pick your teeth or your nose in public. Differences in table etiquette across cultures can be complex. You will find more information in a  western etiquette guide.
  9. Cover your mouth if you cough. Use a tissue to blow your nose.
  10. Smoking is against the law in most public places. Most people do not allow smoking in their homes or cars.  
  11. Littering is not appropriate and is often subject to a fine. Place trash and other disposed items in the appropriate trash or recycling receptacles.
  12. Gestures: Sticking your middle finger up is considered an insulting gesture. Remember that gestures that are considered rude in your country may not be offensive in the U.S.
Diversity and Inclusion at Princeton

In the U.S., you will be working and studying with people that are different from you in a variety of ways that may be challenging and rewarding. It is natural to feel more comfortable with people that are similar to you and awkward with people that are different. We encourage you to enrich your personal and intellectual growth by learning about and socializing with a diverse group of people during your studies at Princeton. American diversity reflects a range of human characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, religion, economic class, gender and gender identity, nationality, physical and learning ability, and sexual orientation. In general, Americans value diversity and believe it enriches our personal growth and strengthens our organizations.   

Princeton University Statement on Diversity and Community - As a community, we respect the dignity, individuality, and freedom of each member. At the same time, we strive to be a place where individuals and groups learn with and from each other. We aim to foster a sense of shared experience and common purpose, along with a collective responsibility for each other’s well-being and for the well-being of the University as a whole.
Although we acknowledge the difficulties inherent in creating a community of individuals who are different from each other, we remain unwavering in our commitment to both diversity and community in a context of academic excellence. We seek to enable all members of this community to pursue their educational, scholarly, and career interests in an environment that recognizes both the distinctiveness of each person’s experience and the common humanity that unites us all, and permits us to take full educational advantage of the variety of talents, backgrounds, and perspectives of those who live and work here.

Throughout the University, from the staff to the trustees, members of the Princeton community have a deep commitment to being inclusive. We believe — and know from research — that having a diversity of perspectives is crucial for excelling in our mission of teaching and research, so we've invested in many initiatives to make the campus more welcoming to people of all backgrounds.  More information about a Diverse and Inclusive Princeton can be found on the Inclusive Princeton website.

Video Diversity and Inclusion Resources at Princeton - For more information about twelve offices that serve as Diversity and Inclusion resources -  scroll through this video to view a specific resource.

For more information:

Addressing Concerns of Bias, Discrimination, or Harassment Concerns

The Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding at Princeton University provides training, social and cultural programs and educational opportunities that prepare students and others to succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world.

LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender)

In the U.S., you are likely to meet and study with people who are openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Princeton University is an open and welcoming community that supports LGBT people. The Princeton University LGBT Center serves the campus community by striving to improve the campus climate through programs, advising, and consultation in support of LGBT people. In addition, the Princeton University anti-harassment Policy prohibits discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation.

For more information:
Princeton University LGBT Center
Addressing Concerns of Bias, Discrimination, or Harassment Concerns

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.  

Princeton University is committed to creating and maintaining an educational, working, and living environment free from discrimination and harassment.Princeton University’s policy prohibits such discrimination and harassment and applies to everyone in the University Community.  

For more information: 
Sexual Misconduct and the Title IX laws
Sexual Harassment Assault Advising, Resources, and Education (SHARE)
Addressing Concerns of Bias, Discrimination, or Harassment Concerns