5 Keys to Understanding Your American Classmates

From their work ethic to their diversity of opinions, Americans may surprise you, so keep an open mind.

By SHARE
Don’t let stereotypes and misconceptions about the U.S. color your opinions about your American classmates.
Don’t let stereotypes and misconceptions about the U.S. color your opinions about your American classmates.

If there was a way to measure which country was the most talked-about in any given day, I would bet that in nine days out of 10, it would be the United States.

Before becoming an international student, you are probably already in contact with a lot of U.S.-related things on a daily basis, like watching a Hollywood movie or an HBO TV show, checking Facebook, eating at McDonald's or wearing Nike shoes.

All of that indirect exposure will lead you to form preconceived notions. I certainly had them when I first moved more than six years ago, and I learned the hard way about a few important things. Here are some key lessons for new international students about understanding Americans.

[Explore how international students can benefit from U.S. high schools.]

1. Americans are extremely friendly. Many Americans love to talk about anything with anyone. Whether you know each other beforehand or not is usually irrelevant – a stranger is just a friend you haven't met.

You will learn quickly that the people next to you on the airplane, in line at the grocery store or beside you in class who strike up conversations are not drunk or mentally unstable. If you don't speak up or you seem uninterested in the conversation, you come off as weird, rude or both.

I am not the chattiest person and initially found it difficult to carry on random conversations until I realized that all I had to do was to bombard the other person with questions. I quickly built a reputation of being extremely pleasant to converse with, without ever really saying much.

In addition, the question "How are you doing?" that always follows a hello should be answered with no more than a few words. From most people, it is simply a gesture of politeness rather than a concern about your actual well-being.

2. Americans have pride in their country. The United States is on the cutting edge in more aspects than any other country. It has many of the top universities, often wins the most gold medals and is home to some of the most popular cities in the world, like New York and Los Angeles. Americans are aware of this from a young age, are reminded frequently and are very often extremely proud of it.

Their sense of pride can sometimes be a source of irritation for foreigners, but there is often very little to gain from trying to set them straight. Claiming that the way you do something in your home country is better will not fly well with many Americans.

If you choose to argue about which country does something better, be delicate and present your points without undercutting your American peers – or you may hear that if you don't appreciate it, you are free to leave their country.

I learned this lesson the hard way in a political science class during my first semester. I, who grew up in socially democratic Sweden, clashed ferociously with my ultraconservative professor, who labeled the government as evil. After I was told that nothing stopped me from returning home, we settled our differences and have remained good friends to this day.

[Learn why your dream U.S. school may not be right for you.]

3. Americans see other countries as exotic. Many students have never left the continent, for reasons that span parents not having enough vacation time to not having the money. In addition, the country is vast and filled with beautiful and interesting travel spots, so you don't have to leave to see something new.

Because of this relative isolation, most Americans love getting to know foreigners and foreign things. Use that to your advantage and share with your hosts all of the best parts of your home country. I've found that my Swedish crepes almost always make a home run breakfast alternative.

[Find out how to explore the U.S. as an international student.]

4. Americans are not lazy. There are reasons why their country is the best in almost every category, and almost exclusively they boil down to hard work.

Athletes train long hours from an early age, working adults have less vacation than in most European countries and most Americans work jobs aside from their precollege studies. Make sure to observe and adopt their work ethic.

5. Americans hold diverse opinions. The United States is vast, and so is the spectrum of opinions among its citizens. Depending on where you end up, you are as likely to meet devout Christians as modern-day hippies, radical conservatives as free-spirited liberals – and everything in between.

Listen to what they have to say before you make up your mind about their politicians, political and religious institutions and decision-making processes. In the end, the country is far more complex than you would first think.

Anders Melin, from Sweden, is a former collegiate swimmer for Limestone College and the University of Missouri, where he earned an undergraduate degree in finance. He is now pursuing a master's degree in journalism at New York University.