Helping International Students Understand American Values

Shared history and geography often give rise to the perceptions that become incorporated into a nation’s identity. Although America’s communal history is relatively short, many U.S.-born citizens inherently display values that are rooted in historical events. As with any culture, Americans have distinguishable values that international students should try to understand so they can successfully adjust. While there are many American perceptions and behaviors that are worthy of discussion, the focus of this article is on five attributes of Americans that sometimes result in confusion or even clashes with members of outside cultures.

  1. Equality—Considered important enough to be written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence, this concept has given rise to some of the nation’s deepest beliefs, aspirations, and rights. Although it is not always achieved, Americans strive for equality. We commonly use the first names of our elders, professors, and lawyers—a lack of deference to age and authority that is commonly mistaken for disrespect or laziness by foreigners. Similarly, our sensitivity to disparity and unfairness causes us to be outraged when someone receives special privilege due to their family’s wealth or notoriety.
  2. Hard Work—Americans believe that through hard work and human endeavor, one can improve their status in life. Values such as thriftiness, hard work, and ingenuity go back to a time when pioneers began settling the western United States. There was so much land and so many opportunities, but it was dangerous and difficult. These conditions led to an adopted mentality of “work hard or perish” that has withstood the test of time and been passed down through generations.
  3. Directness/Transparency—Americans are often perceived (sometimes negatively) as bold, especially in their professional dealings. One theory about this phenomenon is that, because the earliest U.S. citizens had vastly different backgrounds, languages, and expectations, they adopted a very direct approach so as to avoid misunderstandings. This characteristic can be seen as overbearing or rude in certain contexts.
  4. Time-focused—Punctuality is another American quality that was likely transmitted from our northern European ancestors who resettled in the 1800s. Time-focused societies think that people who show up late are being disrespectful or unprofessional. Americans believe in deadlines and sticking to the agenda.
  5. Individualism—This is also most likely rooted in America’s history of immigrants who left families and support systems behind to start a new life. They needed to rely on themselves in order to be successful and thus became independent minded. Many Americans believe that this individualism translates directly to the freedoms outlined by the U.S. Declaration of Independence—the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While the dogged pursuit of happiness can be viewed as childish or foolish in some cultures, Americans cherish the right to live according to one’s own ideas of success and satisfaction.

Understanding the history behind common American values helps to put them into perspective. Schools can help their incoming foreign students by matching them up with a cultural mentor—another student from the local culture—who can explain the cultural roots of the American qualities that are often difficult to understand.


This article was written by Tina Quick

Tina Quick has moved 18 times and has raised three daughters across four cultures and continents. Her international experiences led her to start International Family Transitions, a consultancy that helps individuals, students, and families who relocate internationally. To learn more, visit

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