Although we may not know it, our daily lives and actions are informed greatly by our understanding of cultural norms. In our native environments, these cultural norms are all but invisible because we’ve learned to adhere to them without even thinking about it. But when you leave your home to travel or live in a new region—perhaps a new country entirely—it becomes much harder to know which actions and behaviors are proper and which ones will get you into trouble.
For anyone studying in the U.S.A. after growing up overseas, the cultural change can be overwhelming. Although America is well-known as a melting pot, it actually has cultural norms that are fairly confusing to foreigners in part because those norms can vary depending on location, and because many norms have been inherited from a wide range of other cultures.
Preparing for a study abroad trip can primarily consist of pre-departure duties, such as planning out your packing list, getting legal paperwork in order and purchasing a valid travel insurance policy—but don’t forget to consider cultural adaptations you’ll have to make. Here are some key differences to keep in mind when traveling abroad in the U.S.
Driving on the right
In Europe and other parts of the world, vehicles are driven on the left side of the road. But all roads in the United States have cars drive on the right. That can be tough for foreign drivers to get used to, so try to remain aware on the roadways and follow the flow off traffic to avoid accidentally pulling onto the wrong side of the road.
Extending the middle finger
Some parts of the world use the middle finger to point at objects, but in America, the middle finger is a foul gesture that will offend most people. You’ll be fine as long as your middle finger isn’t explicitly sticking out above the others, but if you come from a place where the middle finger has no stigma attached to it, you’ll want to be mindful of this no-no.
Respecting personal bubbles
Asian cultures in particular tend to see much smaller distances between people in conversation, or between strangers simply standing near one another in line or on the street. Americans tend to value their personal space more, so try to keep a few feet between you and those you encounter. If you notice someone leaning or stepping back from you, it’s probably nothing personal—he just feels a little too close for comfort.
Forgoing long walks for short drives
Whether you blame a lack of strong public transportation systems or cultural laziness, Americans simply like to get where they’re going via car. As you make friends in the country, you’ll probably notice an inclination to drive to places that could be easily reached on foot. It’s a time-saver and a convenience, although it’s also less healthy and consumes a vehicle’s fuel. Either way, be prepared to be the oddball if you want to make a long walk of various errands and excursions.
Overall, many visitors are able to catch onto the cultural norms in America after only a short time in the country. If you’re in school, you’ll have a quicker learning curve as you and your fellow students trade stories of your experiences. And by the time you’re ready to return home, you may have even decided you prefer some American norms to those you grew up with!