“How are you?” is a question that carries different implications across cultures.
“I didn’t know whether or not it was a form of salutation or if people actually cared about me,” says Weinberg first-year Seungmin Han from Seoul, South Korea.
Han says small talk is less common back home, but he has learned to adjust in introductory social settings in the United States.
“I [say “How are you?”] more now, but I feel like it’s not really the content of the conversation but what it implies,” Han says. “I guess it’s a little bit of genuine interest, but a lot of it is just trying to reaffirm your friendship.”
Ten percent of full-time undergraduates at Northwestern are international students from 104 distinct countries, according to Northwestern’s 2021-2022 international student statistics. The University’s diversity has increased over the past decade, and the undergraduate student body in particular has seen a 60% increase in heterogeneity during this time.
McCormick first-year Ricardo Olmos also had to adjust to American norms of greeting but for a different reason: In his hometown of Cartagena, Colombia, a hug and kiss on the cheek are expected.
“It’s not appropriate to do that here,” Olmos says. “I’m used to it because my dad would do that to me, my mom would do that to me, everyone would do that to me. You can’t really be that close to people [here].” [say “How are you?”] more now, but I feel like it’s not really the content of the conversation but what it implies,” Han says. “I guess it’s a little bit of genuine interest, but a lot of it is just trying to reaffirm your friendship.”
For many of these students, the first time they set foot in the U.S. is when they move into their Northwestern dorms. International students often grapple with varying degrees of culture shock in addition to settling into the college lifestyle.
Sociology, Gender and Sexuality Professor Héctor Carillo described this as an adjustment to the “social script” of the U.S.
“Part of what [international students] often have to do is learn the ropes about how to participate in U.S. society and what is advantageous to them in terms of forms of interaction, but also what kinds of things can be disadvantageous,” Carillo says.
You had me at “hello”
Beyond salutations, Weinberg first-year Amber Lueth from Shanghai, China noticed a difference in how people in the U.S. interact.
“I feel like Americans in particular are really extroverted people, really over the top in friendliness, at least on the first meeting,” Lueth says.
“You need to be loud. You need to smile and be confident, even with people you won’t interact with again.”Amber Lueth, first-year
Lueth describes exchanges with strangers back home as more transactional. For example, little would be said in an exchange with a cashier at a grocery store. To her, Americans’ friendliness in short interactions is a double-edged sword. It can be socially draining to constantly engage in small talk but also pleasant to have rapport.
While Lueth has noticed that strangers verbally acknowledge each other more in the U.S., she says people back in China are inherently more perceptive of each other’s presence. For instance, she says someone is likely to be stared at if they talk too loudly on public transportation. As a result, Lueth describes feeling more conscious of her presence in public settings in Shanghai compared to in the U.S.
McCormick third-year Maia Traub, who is from Johannesburg, South Africa, says she has to speak louder to be heard in group conversations. This has affected her personality in college.
“I was considered an extrovert back home, but when I came here, I was considered an introvert simply because of the volume of my voice,” Traub says.
Learning the ropes
Weinberg first-year Noblesse Ushindi also felt the need to become more conscious of his speech. For fear of getting in trouble, Ushindi says he has to control what he says in the U.S., especially because he feels some things that might not be a big deal back home in Kigali, Rwanda are treated seriously here. This surprised him when he moved in for college.
“Back at home, the conception we have about [the U.S.] is that it’s a free country, that there is freedom of speech, which I feel like to some degree they do have,” Ushindi says. “Here, I have to think about any single thing I’m going to talk about [and] consider the environment I’m in.”Noblesse Ushindi, first-year
Some international students believe that American culture has made them more thoughtful.
“I became more diplomatic, which I feel is more of a maturing experience, but also it kind of hinders your thoughts,” Ushindi says.
Weinberg fourth-year Ines Hinojosa’s interactions in the U.S. have made her critically reflect on the socioeconomic norms of racism, classism and a lack of opportunity back home in Mexico City.
“There’s a lot of social and political-economic issues in Mexico that I hadn’t really thought about critically before coming to the U.S. and learning more about the world,” Hinojosa says.
Traub also realized the different implications that words hold in the U.S. She says in South Africa, there’s a specific demographic of people called “Coloureds,” who are mixed-race descendants from the inter-marriage of white settlers, African natives and Asian slaves. The term is used neutrally back home but considered derogatory in the U.S.
“I use the word coloured. Everyone was like, ‘Woah, you can’t refer to people like that,’” Traub says.
Expectations vs. Reality
Many students who either were not immersed in American culture before or did not have much prior experience were shocked to learn that Americans were friendlier than they expected. Much of Han’s perception of American culture was informed by Western media he consumed growing up.
“I thought in the U.S., [people] would be total strangers to each other,” Han says. “I expected the U.S. to be like New York City, or how people stereotype it, but I felt that it’s not as individualistic as I initially perceived. It’s warmer and more welcoming.”
Ushindi also formed a perception of Americans based on Western media.
“One thing that I expected is timeliness, consistency, honesty. Back at home, we have this idea that people in the U.S. are so honest, and that’s what I was expecting,” Ushindi says.
He compared American social norms to those in Rwanda which, to an extent, confirmed his initial perceptions. However, Ushindi says he was surprised at how bad Americans are at lying, and that back home, people lie all the time with no ill intention.
Han had to adjust to the lack of hierarchies between people of different ages in the U.S., coming from Korea. He says conjugations change to the honorific form when speaking to adults in Korean, linguistically defining his relationship with those older than him. The same kind of relationship in the U.S. has less of a hierarchical distinction.
He also compared student-professor interactions between the U.S. and back home. While Northwestern professors often give students avenues for regrades, Han says a Korean teacher’s word is the law, and asking for a regrade is considered rude backtalk.
“Because of this respect that you have to hold, sometimes you have to act in ways that I feel like Western people would think is illogical,” Han says.
These cultural differences often lead international students to gravitate to one another because of similar past experiences.
Ushindi says he feels most comfortable with the people who come from the same place as him. For example, the same things that make him angry make them angry too, and people from different backgrounds have a different set of taboos and criteria for determining what’s appropriate. He also says he’s more reserved when meeting new people as he figures out how they may react to different things he says.
For Traub, the very fact that international students come from different cultures and norms is what helps them bond when going to college in the U.S.
“Even though we [international students] come from very different experiences, the adjustment is pretty similar for us and the shocks are all the same,” Traub says.