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Cultural Adjustment

It is normal for anyone in a new country to experience some challenges adjusting to the new culture. Many experts believe that cultural adjustment often occurs in three stages:

Stage I: The Honeymoon Stage (excitement about being in the new country.)
State II: The Uncomfortable Stage (frustration, confusion and negative feelings about the new culture, homesickness, illness.) This stage is often called Culture Shock.
State III: Adjustment Stage (understanding many aspects of the new culture, making friends and discovering helpful people at the university, ability to keep core values of the home country, but operate within the new values of the new country.)

Suggestions for Coping with Culture Shock

  • Understand that your feelings are normal, and that you will eventually adjust to the new culture.
  • Observe how others are acting in situations in order to understand what behavior is expected of you.
  • Talk to other international students about how they adjusted to the new culture.
  • Make American friends by talking to them in the classroom or workplace, joining clubs or organizations, or volunteering
    • Contact Pay It Forward for Ohio State area volunteer opportunities. See the Sunday Columbus Dispatch newspaper for Columbus volunteer opportunities.
  • Find trusted Americans to talk to about cultural questions.
  • Take care of yourself physically: get plenty of rest and exercise, eat well.
  • Enjoy nature. Sit by Mirror Lake, walk along the river across from Lincoln Tower, or take a trip to Hocking Hills (a public state park about 40 miles away).
  • Phone or write home, watch a video from your home country, or eat in a restaurant which serves food from your home country.

Cultural Information

This information is meant to provide some generalities about people in the U.S. but it does not apply to all people from the U.S.


Many people in the U.S. have a number of friends with whom they share something in common. A U.S. student might consider you a friend, but he or she might only invite you to do something once or twice a quarter. This is not because he or she doesn't like you. It simply means that life in the U.S. is very busy and U.S. students tend to have many more commitments (work, study, and family) in addition to study than students in other countries.


Sometimes international students feel that U.S. students are "superficial" because they "act" very friendly but do not wish to build a friendship. Acting friendly is a U.S. custom. It's intended to create positive feelings. Some new international students feel confused when someone they do not know says hello to them in the street. This casual greeting is not intended to encourage a conversation or express a romantic interest. It is just another form of American friendliness.

Hi! How are you?

This is a common greeting in the U.S., but very often the person who asks the question "how are you?" does not wait for a response. Some international students think this is very rude, but it is not intended to be. It is not customary for the person asking this question to wait for a deep answer. It is customary to reply, "fine" or "okay." You might also want to ask how the other person is. She or he will most likely answer with the same brief response.


People in the U.S. have ‘sensitive' noses that do not like the smell of the human body. Perfume is common. We have entire stores devoted to selling sweet-smelling soaps and lotions. Most people shower once a day and we tend to change/wash our clothes a lot. You will notice that most students will not wear the same shirt for more than one day at a time - even if it is still clean!

Meeting Americans

Because the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, international students look as "American" as students from the U.S. U.S. students are very sensitive about difference, and some do not want to risk offending someone by asking an ignorant or insensitive question. For that reason, some U.S. students may feel shy about approaching you. If they do notice that you have a foreign accent, they may be unaccustomed to talking with someone who is not from the U.S. They may wait for you to take the initiative to talk with them first. Many students at Ohio State may never have met anyone from another country! Although it may seem awkward, you may find that saying hello to someone in your class and explaining that you are a new international student will give you an opportunity to meet Americans.


The U.S. was founded by people who valued independence. This "independent spirit" is still evident in this culture. Many people from the U.S. believe that they are responsible for their own destinies. Being self-reliant is considered more important than relying on family and friends. Many people from the U.S. believe that individuals reach maturity at age 18 and should be ready to make independent decisions. Privacy is valued for many of the same reasons. Even among members of a family, issues such as money, marriage, and career decisions may not be discussed out of respect for a person's privacy.

Work Ethic

People from the U.S. tend to value hard work. We value being busy, and we often make lists of what we hope to accomplish in a day! You might notice that people in the U.S. walk quickly, talk quickly, and pay little attention to manners and politeness. We want to "get down to business" rather than make polite conversation. We don't mean to be rude! We just have a lot to do (or think we do).

Race, Ethnicity and Gender

Many people in the U.S. like to think that all people are equal - race, color, religion, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation are unimportant to our value as human beings. Words like "tolerance" and "appreciation" are words that we might use to describe our relationship with people different from ourselves. For this reason, racist and sexist jokes and comments are not tolerated in many social and business settings. In fact, people who make such comments could lose their jobs.

However, despite these principles, many inequalities still exist in the U.S. You might hear people make negative comments about other groups. You might even experience discrimination because you are an international student. If this happens to you and you wish to talk about it, come to International Affairs or contact the police if you feel threatened. An Immigration Coordinator who is familiar with these issues will try to understand the situation and make some suggestions for dealing with it.

Many international students have seen American movies, many of which portray black communities as violent and poor and portray American women and men as having many sexual partners. These are just a few of the stereotypes in America films. Just remember that many people do not fit the stereotypes in these movies.

Some international students are surprised to hear men and women say they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Although many Americans are not comfortable with sexual orientation other than heterosexual, there is a growing community of Americans who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. This community has become more visible and accepted, and people who are part of this population form a respected part of U.S. society. You might even have a professor, classmate, roommate, or friend who is gay. Remember to treat the people you meet with the same respect and openness that you would expect of them.