Soon it will be time – for this year’s exchange students, departure is just around the corner. Most of them are moving to the USA. It is high time to familiarize themselves with the customs and traditions of their host country.
Many German teenagers are familiar with the American way of life from movies and television. And yet some things are quite different "on site" than expected. In order to make a good start, Carl Duisberg Centren offers a few tips on the most important cultural differences.
Quick contact – quick friends?
Interest in exchange students is particularly high at small schools. Everyone is open-minded and asks where you are from and how you are doing. Americans are generally more outgoing and open than Germans. This often gives newcomers the impression that friends can be made more quickly there than in Germany. Many people are therefore surprised when classmates who enthusiastically took you in hand the day before show little interest the next day. In America, too, close friendships do not develop overnight; they take time, just as they do in Germany. The same applies here as there: good things take time.
Avoid clique formation among exchange students
No matter how comfortable you are and how homesick you may feel, exchange students should not only make friends with each other, but also seek contact with local students. Otherwise, American classmates quickly get the impression that you want to keep to yourself and are not interested in getting to know each other. Also, it is impolite to speak German among themselves. This excludes the others and is even perceived as blasphemy.
What parents say is law!
Other countries, other customs. This is especially true for American family life: Stricter rules apply than with German parents. Therefore, new friends should always be introduced to their parents first. Night out times are often shorter than in Germany and apply to both local and foreign young people. If you don’t want to risk a curfew, you should abide by it at all costs. Rules of the (host) parents are not discussed, unlike in Germany, but accepted – at least as long as the young people live at home. In general, young people in the U.S. remain "children" longer, while in Germany they are raised to become independent young adults at an early age. Stricter views also exist on the subject of dating and relationships with the opposite sex: overnight stays at the partner’s home are not allowed.
Outgoingness replaces closed doors
The kitchen and living room are the control centers of family life – whether it’s doing homework, watching TV, cooking or eating together. All room doors remain open during the day. This signals sociability and openness. For example, it is unusual to retire to your room after school, close the door and listen to music.
Alcohol and drugs
Alcohol is not allowed until the age of 21, smoking is only allowed from the age of 18. Drugs are forbidden at any age. The control of the age limit is very strict on site, therefore absolutely observe – otherwise the exclusion from the program threatens.
Church as a family activity
Church is an integral part of everyday American life and an important part of social life. Church services and church life have a high value as a lively family activity. Therefore, exchange students are expected to participate in activities. Americans are very tolerant of other faiths and do not try to proselytize the exchange students. The church serves as a social environment in which to meet people and make friends. Especially for exchange students staying in rural areas, the church is an important place to make new contacts – and therefore not to be underestimated.
Nothing works without a car
What the bus and train are to Germans, the car is to Americans. Public transportation is only available in large cities. American teenagers get their driver’s license as early as 15 years old. Walking longer distances is uncommon and can earn many a surprised look from motorists. Car pooling is common, passengers pay gas money to the driver. If you want to go to sports or to the cinema in the evening, it is a matter of course to ask your acquaintances who can give you a lift.
In America, there is a very friendly student-teacher ratio. Teachers are dedicated and willing to stay after school hours to explain things or lead a sports team. On the other hand, the students treat the teachers with respect and sometimes even give them small gifts. The so-called school spirit is very important, because the students identify themselves with their school. The sense of community and belonging is very strong. Sports teams are cheered on together in the school colors at events.
Dealing well with criticism
Americans criticize little. They perceive open criticism as hurtful – if it is necessary, therefore please address it very carefully and "well packaged": Highlight many positive aspects, include mildly worded criticism and end the conversation on a positive note. A straight "no" is not common. Especially at the beginning of the stay, foreign guests should be very careful in dealing with criticism, so as not to directly offend the host family.
Exchange students are new temporary family members. You cannot expect your host family to change your daily routine for the entire duration of your stay. If the family members are "couch potatoes," they will remain so, perhaps after initial efforts otherwise.
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Rules of conduct summarized
Americans are generally more open and outgoing than Germans, so newcomers are never alone for long. Nevertheless, close friendships do not develop simply there either. Be patient – good things take time!
Even if it is easier to make friends with other exchange students at the beginning – look for local friends and speak as little German as possible. This is how you signal interest and quickly become part of it.
Accept house rules
In American families, the rules for both local and foreign young people are usually stricter than in Germany, for example with regard to going out times. Discussing is rather unusual – accepting is the motto here. After all, it’s only for a limited time…
Be part of the family
During the day in American houses the room doors remain open. Even if the day was exhausting – take the opportunity after school to participate in family life: this signals openness and sociability.
Church as a meeting place
The church is an important part of everyday life in America, especially in rural areas. Community life also offers non-churchgoers a good opportunity to meet new people locally.
Car: the be-all and end-all
The car is a constant companion for Americans. Especially in more rural areas, there is little public transportation, hardly anything is done on foot. Join carpools – together the ways are only half as long!
American students identify strongly with their school; there is a great sense of community. Teachers are available after class for questions or sports and leisure activities. Foreign guest students also benefit from this "we" feeling. Through active participation in the available recreational activities you quickly become part of it.
Americans find open criticism hurtful; a direct "no" is not customary. Here the sandwich technique helps: put positive things first, let criticism flow in mildly formulated and end the conversation positively.
Be careful with alcohol and drugs: In America, the rules are stricter than in Germany, so keep your hands off – otherwise your high school stay will quickly come to an end.
Everyday life all new
As a new temporary family member, you have the opportunity to become part of life in another culture. Get to know your host family’s daily life as it is and don’t expect them to turn their lives upside down for you. With realistic expectations, foreign country soon feels like a second home.