Campus Community Health • HEERF I, II & III

International Education

Laws & Customs

Customs and Culture

Culture shock is normal for any visitor anywhere. You may feel depressed and isolated once the first glow of arrival has worn off. Struggling with foreign ways and idioms is a stressful situation. You may even conclude Americans are unpredictable and insincere, and you may wish you were back home. Understanding why Americans behave the way they do may help you understand your own feelings.

About one-third of all Americans move every year. Contrast this with the years—even centuries—of family relationships that you may enjoy in your home country. By necessity, Americans have learned to make quick friendships, but they feel few of them will ripen into permanent relationships. This casual attitude may cause ill will. One student said wistfully, "The first visit, Americans treat you like a king; the second visit, a prince; and then they drop you."

This reaction saddens many Americans who think of themselves as being very hospitable. One American commented, “Isn't it better to offer a glimpse of American life than nothing at all? Is it realistic to expect a magical matching of lifestyles and interests?” A frank discussion of these viewpoints may help to avoid misunderstanding.

Good wishes are worldwide, but different cultures express them in different ways. Here it is always polite to say, “This is new to me. Could you explain it, please?” Your asking questions about our customs gives us a chance to learn about yours. We would like to know you better, but we do not always know what to ask. If a misunderstanding occurs, please help us learn how not to repeat it with someone else from your country. This booklet is trying to do the same thing for you.

Social Invitations

We hope that you will meet and visit Cookeville families and that these hints will make you feel comfortable when you are invited out.

Acceptance: You may accept or refuse an invitation either by telephone or by letter. It helps the hostess, who is usually her own cook, if you do so promptly. Never accept an invitation unless you really plan to go. To refuse, it is enough to say, “Thank you for inviting me, but I will not be able to come.” If sickness or unavoidable problems make you change your plans, please be certain to tell your hostess as soon as possible, before the time when you are expected. When you accept an invitation, be certain you understand where you are going and how to get there. Ask for directions. If your host offers a ride, be certain he or she knows where to find you.

Food: If you receive an invitation for a meal and if there is anything you are not supposed to eat, then this is the time to explain to your hostess. She will understand, and it will help her plan food and drink for everyone to enjoy together. If you must refuse something after it is prepared, simply refuse politely. Your hostess may be able to offer a simple substitute. It is a compliment to ask for a second helping, if you see there is enough. Do not refuse food out of politeness because it may not be offered a second time unless you take some the first time.

Promptness: Public meetings, plays, concerts, weddings, schools and classes, and formal dinners begin as scheduled. It is considered impolite to be even a few minutes late. A family dinner will be much less formal, and 10 or 15 minutes will not be important. A cocktail party or reception may be attended any time between the appointed hours.

Any personal appointments with professors, doctors, and other professional people require you to be on time. If you will be unable to keep the appointment, be sure to notify the person ahead of time. On the other hand, sometimes emergencies delay these people for as long as an hour. If this delay creates a hardship for you, discuss rescheduling your appointment with the secretary.

Informality: When you eat with a family, you may find a formal dinner served in the dining room or an informal meal served in the kitchen or at a picnic table. The formality is an honor, but the informality means that we wish to know you and for you to know us. You may ask what to wear, if the invitation doesn't give you an idea. Your national dress is always appropriate.

Thanks: A short letter is an adequate expression of appreciation for any entertainment or visit, even overnight. Cookeville hostesses do not expect gifts from their guests and might even be embarrassed by them, unless they have done something out of the ordinary for you. You might offer to cook your specialty in your friend's kitchen.

Favors or Offers of Help: When you say “Thank you” for a favor, many Americans reply casually with, “Oh, any time!” In most cases, we mean “I was happy to do it. I'd be willing to do it again.” But we seldom mean, “Ask me every time.”

Meeting People: You know that you are new here but you may not realize that many of your neighbors are also newcomers, at least to Cookeville. Many people are lonely because they hesitate to introduce themselves. If you want to meet a neighbor or classmate, feel free to introduce yourself and extend an invitation. The other person may have wondered how to meet you.

If you have met someone you like, or have received an invitation from someone, and then you do not hear from the person again, it is possible that he or she is waiting for you to take the initiative. Do not worry if your circumstances do not allow you to entertain lavishly. An invitation to share baked goods and coffee or snacks and lemonade, or a suggestion that you meet and do something together will let the other person know that you are interested in continuing the relationship.

If your schedule is very crowded, but you wish to let a friend know that you have not forgotten him or her, it is perfectly proper to telephone and inquire how the friend is and explain that you are busy. You might suggest a future time period, such as “Let's get together after exams” or “early next month.” Busy Americans use the telephone for socializing as well as for business and setting up appointments. The term usually used for this activity is “keeping in touch.”

Social Equality

Equality of Manners: We know that we have not yet achieved the American dream of true equality for all, but generally we respect each individual regardless of occupation, gender, race, or religion. Thus, the professor, the student, the cab driver, the doctor, the janitor, the waitress, the shop clerk, or any person who meet will expect the same consideration and courtesy. On the other hand, our “good manners” are sometimes very informal. If people seem friendly, whatever their words, you can believe they mean to be courteous.

Women: Women have an active part in community life. They usually make the social arrangements for the family and participate in most activities with their husbands. Both parents take care of small children, especially if the mother is a student or has a job. Most women do their own cooking and housework; many have jobs outside the home. Men often assist their wives with home chores, and wives often assist with family business records. Many working women hold responsible and respected jobs equal to men.


With Strangers: If you have come from a more formal society, it is easy to misinterpret the casualness of Americans as rudeness. This is especially true when dealing with strangers. It is possible to be addressed and even to be asked questions by people whom you have never met: a check-out person in a store, a cab driver, a waitress, or someone standing with you in line or at a bus stop. The questions such people ask might seem remarkably personal, even prying, to someone not accustomed to this informality. However, the intention is almost always friendly. The polite response is a smile and a pleasant but brief reply. You may ask the same or a similar question if you wish, or the person may volunteer similar information without being asked. Turning away or displaying an obvious interest in someone or something else usually puts an end to such a conversation; or you may find it pleasant to continue. The important thing is not to be offended by such overtures, and not to feel rejected if they end rather abruptly.

Listening Styles: It is common for people from some parts of the country to "encourage" someone who is speaking. This is done in a variety of ways, often the nodding of one's head and also by adding sounds and words in the middle of a sentence. Examples might include "mm-hm," "really," "oh my" or similar expressions. Persons making such noises while you speak are not bored, trying to interrupt, or wishing to speak themselves. Rather, they are indicating that they are interested and still listening.

Unspoken Language: A common cause of misunderstanding between persons of different cultures is the way in which we interpret gestures and other unspoken signals. These are seldom, if ever, taught in language classes and are so automatic that we forget that they may mean different things in different cultures. It would never occur to an American, for instance, that the right hand might be more acceptable that the left, yet in some cultures it is offensive to hand someone something with the left hand. Nor would it occur to most American women that looking directly at a man could be interpreted as bold, flirtatious, or disrespectful. Here, it signals directness and honesty. The burp after a meal, a compliment in some countries, would be mildly offensive here, perhaps interpreted as overeating, and a “pardon me” is appropriate. The actual distance between people while they talk varies from culture to culture, but is not consciously thought about. Some of the most subtle differences in “body language” or customs are described by anthropologist Edward Hall in his book, The Silent Language.

To avoid misunderstandings, keep in mind the possibility that the unspoken language which you exchange with people from other cultures may not say what you think it does. If their words and gestures seem to disagree, it might be safer to believe the words.

Tipping: Service charges, or tips, are not added to the bill in American hotels or restaurants, but are often expected and needed by the employees.

Where You Do Not Tip: You do not tip anyone in a cafeteria or motel, or in any place where you provide your own service. You do not tip on buses or airplanes.

Where You Tip: In a restaurant you tip only the server 15%-20% of the check. In a hotel you tip the bellboy who takes you to your room $1 plus $1 for each extra suitcase. You tip the limousine driver who brings you from the airport $1 plus $1 for each suitcase if he or she helps you with your luggage.

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