Moving to the States has been incredibly eye-opening and a great experience to see how a different part of the world lives - a part of the world that is very dominant not only politically and economically, but also in terms of pop culture and where trends start that later move to Europe and other parts of the world. As I work in a developmental psychology lab at New York University, I have been surrounded for the past few months by many students and people my age, which has made moving to a new country a lot easier as I have moved within universities so am still able to feel like a student in some ways. This has also allowed me to see how other university students from other parts of the world think and behave. 

The deep dive into the culture has shown me some interesting cultural differences that exist between the US and Europe. Just as a disclaimer, this is coming from the perspective of an international student who has moved around countries every three years growing up, so I thought I would have practice moving to places but I still had a few shocks! It is important to say that I’m sure everyone would have an extremely unique experience depending on their background and who they spend time with while abroad, so this is just my experience. Furthermore, most of my observations come from living in New York, and I’m aware that every state and city has it’s own little perks! 

But I think it is extremely relevant and an interesting topic to discuss as I personally did not expect to be too surprised by the American culture as I thought I was used to a Western society. 

Classic American brunch (sandwich, cheese grits, eggs, bacon and French toast)!

One aspect of living in New York that I have started to really appreciate are the extremely open conversations about very current and relevant topics, for example relating to sexuality, identity labels, politics, and more. Everyone seems to have a very “extreme” moral compass about what is right and wrong. Again, this might be specific to New York and people that I surround myself with, but I have found that most students my age are quite liberal and have very open discussions about what they think on current issues. Everyone is extremely knowledgeable about pop culture too! 

I did struggle at first when coming to the States as it took me a few weeks to realize that I had a different mentality than most of the NYU students that I would meet. To them, this was their third/final year of university and a large number of friendships had already been established over the past two years, groups had formed and people were meeting up regularly. Thankfully, I knew of a few people in the city that I could connect with and they introduced me to their friends, but I did notice that many students were not looking to make new connections, especially not with someone that was only going to stay in the city for one academic year. 

It makes sense that living in a big city and having the first year be deep into the pandemic that students are mostly looking exclusively for deep, long-term friendships, so I had to adjust to this mindset and understand that it was not personal and that some people that I would meet were simply not interested in meeting more than once as they already had their mind set on who their friends would be for the rest of the school year. On top of that, my status at NYU is not as a student but rather as an affiliate, and therefore I am not able to talk about classes, coursework or professors with them. If you find yourself in a similar situation when abroad - be patient and don’t worry too much as this is a common experience and it takes time to adjust to understand where other people are at mentally before you can make friends with them. Try to connect with people and groups who you know you have a mutual friend or shared interests with, this way you already have some common ground. I am lucky that my flatmates are also doing temporary work in the city like I am, and this immediately makes us have things in common!

Walking along the High Line (Chelsea, New York)

In the workplace, a prominent cultural difference is the way that people communicate with each other. During October, I was invited to participate in a Leadership Seminar focused on cultural integration in Washington D.C., targeted to people who were on their J-1 visa. During this time, I learned about the very common “sandwich method” that is used around workplaces and offices in the States. This method consists of sandwiching a complaint or a “negative” piece of feedback to a coworker around two positive pieces of feedback. For example - “Hey Emma, I loved the presentation you did on Tuesday. By the way, would you mind coming in to work a bit earlier to make sure you’re on time? Looking forward to hearing your ideas about the new project!”.  While this may seem like the polite and most appropriate method of handling things here, in other parts of the world and specifically areas of Europe it might detract from the main message (which is coming to work on time), and eventually make the person feel conflicted about whether they actually are doing a good job, and what their supervisor wants from them. 

One aspect of American culture that I really enjoy in the workplace is the sense of fairness and a rather flat hierarchy, at least in my case. For example, everyone is treated equally and their opinions are respected the same in our weekly lab meetings which we have with our research assistant, lab manager and lab director. Talking with my flatmates who are slightly older than me (between 24-30) and are working professionally in the city, they also mention how they are valued and promoted based on their potential and hard work rather than their age and time worked in the office, which is the more traditional way of running a company in parts of Europe. 

Pumpkin patch farm day with some of my lab coworkers!

It seems to me as though these differences come from a place of friendliness, and that is also very appreciated when coming to this country to live for the first time. This was most clear to me when I had to go to the doctor for an eye issue - the conversations with the doctor were very open and I felt like I could talk to them and ask them questions without it feeling like a waste of time for them. They were very attentive and in my experience, this differs from doctor-patient relationships in the UK, for example. 

Of course, there are so many more differences, not to mention the public restroom door gap and toilet paper, the type of food and how people say they’re “on line” instead of “in line”, but if you are thinking about going to the US for a few months as either a study abroad or placement program, I very highly recommend it! Of course, there are always tough parts such as the time difference, being so far away from friends and family, and these culture shocks that take time to adjust to, but my main advice is to be patient and take it day by day. Try to organize fun activities on the weekend - maybe you passed by a food truck you want to try out, or free walking tours, or a museum you’ve heard a lot about - this will give you something to look forward to and you can always invite a friend or two to come along. 

Good luck, and please email me or comment below with any questions!

Posted in: Department of Psychology, Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, International students, Overseas opportunities - study or exchange, Placements


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