Academic achievement is your primary goal in the United States, but a good social life is important too. Recreation, diversion, friends—all contribute to a balanced life. You will find that social life may be different here in the United States compared to what you are used to at home. We hope that you will find the following information helpful as you adjust to living in the United States.
Americans are casual people. If you come from a very traditional social structure, some of the behaviors or attitudes may seem irreverent. Be aware that there are different ways of doing things!
Use of Names: Most people here prefer to be called by their first names; even your professors may ask you to do the same! Usually, if the person is older than you, use his/her first name only after they have asked you to do so. If you feel uncomfortable calling someone by their first name, let them know. Most people will be very understanding.
Punctuality: Being on time is very important in this culture. If you make an appointment for 7 p.m., then you must arrive within five minutes of that hour. If you are from a country that is more relaxed about time, life in the United States may appear hectic and overwhelming at first!
Invitations: Invitations are made informally here, and they are usually verbal. If you say yes, then you are obligated to attend. If you find that you cannot attend after accepting the invitation, let your host/hostess know as quickly as possible. It is very rude to call a few hours before the scheduled time and cancel. Do not feel pressured to accept an invitation out of politeness if you do not want to attend. It is okay to politely decline.
Greetings: A “hi” or a “hello” is a standard form of greeting here. “Good evening” or “good morning” is usually for more formal or respectful instances. People usually shake hands when meeting someone for the first time. It is rare to shake hands when meeting with people you already know.
Etiquette: Men and women here have similar roles. Both sexes try to have equal responsibilities towards children, housework, and finances. If you come from a society where roles are clearly defined, then you should try very hard to understand the dynamics of a male/female relationship here—which is usually based on equal treatment and mutual respect.
As is probably true in your own culture, it takes time for friendship—a close relationship—to develop between Americans. Nevertheless, most Americans are very “friendly” and appear to be very open when you meet them. You may hear Americans refer to acquaintances, such as persons who happen to sit together in class, as “friends.” There are, however, different degrees of friendship.
In the United States, people often say, “Hi, How are you?” or “How are you doing?” and then do not wait for a response. This is a polite phrase, more of a greeting than a question. You can respond by saying, “Fine, thanks.” Or you may hear an American say, “Drop by anytime” or "Let's get together soon.” These are friendly expressions, but they may not be meant literally. It is polite to call someone on the telephone before you visit. Even without an invitation, it is acceptable to call a new acquaintance to see if he or she would like to go to an activity with you.
You will have to make an effort to meet people so that friendships can develop. Because studying in another country is a unique and powerful experience, you may find, at least initially, that you have more in common with other foreign students than with Americans, and some of your strongest friendships will be made with other foreigners.
Many students believe that there is no better place to make friends than the college dormitory. There may be 30 students living on your floor with different accents, different musical tastes, and possibly 30 different standards of acceptable behavior. Be prepared for very open discussions. Participate in dormitory life and become involved in dormitory activities and functions.
Seek out fellow students with similar interests. You may find them in your classes, laboratories, or dormitories. Look for a list of the different organizations in the UCSU Student Club Guide.
Participating by running for student-government office, leading an international student club/campus organization, or volunteering in the community provides an excellent way to meet others and work with them on issues that matter to you. That's the best way to meet people and develop friendships.
You may be surprised by the informality of relations between men and women in the United States. Couples go out alone in the evening to attend a movie, concert, lecture, or party; students may get together for a “study date.” Whether the man or woman offers the invitation to go out, students often share the expenses.
In your relationships with others, it is best to express your feelings and intentions clearly so you can avoid misunderstandings and even discomfort. If your date appears interested in a sexual relationship and you are not, it is very important that you say no clearly. And if someone seems to be saying no to you, listen. Unwanted sexual attention is a very serious matter in the United States. Do not interpret the acceptance of a date as anything more than an agreement to meet at a certain time and place and to spend some time together.
If you are in doubt about correct behavior, talk with American friends, with your host family, or with your foreign-student advisor. Be aware that alcohol and dating can be a problematic mix, particularly in a cross-cultural setting.
The United States, in theory, has very clear-cut definitions of sexual harassment, but in practice the understanding of this problem is vague. Sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or any verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that undermines the integrity of relationships.”
Date rape is another issue that is not quite clear. The best way to avoid being accused of sexual harassment or date rape is to listen and be aware of whether someone you may be interested in, is interested in you. Do not make sexual gestures, comments, or advances in a situation where it is inappropriate, uncalled for, or not wanted. Also do not base your knowledge of the U.S. culture on books or films. While people here may seem more casual—both in behavior and dress—do not interpret a friendly gesture or a certain way of dressing to mean something more.
If you are in a situation where someone is making sexual comments or gestures, however obvious or veiled, that makes you uncomfortable, uneasy, or scared, talk to someone immediately—a friend, a counselor, an instructor, or an advisor at ISSS. There are policies and regulations that deter sexual harassment and you can get help.
The United States is a multicultural society founded on tolerance and mutual respect; you should not hesitate to seek out opportunities to practice your religious beliefs. Organized religious groups of many denominations are likely to be found at your college or university, and others exist in the surrounding community. Although America has a higher rate of church attendance than most other western societies, many Americans are uncomfortable discussing religion. Some Americans may shy away from the topic altogether. Others will want to share their religious views with you. Most people are sincere and straightforward, but some may try to take advantage of you or convert you to their religious beliefs by offering you their friendship. If you begin to feel uncomfortable in such a situation, politely but firmly explain that you are not interested.
U.S. laws concerning the sale and consumption of alcohol may seem very liberal or very constraining to you, depending on your nationality. In the United States, it is illegal to purchase alcoholic drinks, including beer and wine, until you reach the age of 21.
Do you smoke? In many parts of the United States, all public buildings are designated “smoke free,” meaning that you cannot smoke in any part of the building. Other buildings may have spaces designated for smokers. If you are a guest in someone's home, always ask permission before you smoke. Even if you are in your own room, it is polite to ask your guests if anyone objects to your smoking before you reach for a cigarette. Be prepared to see No Smoking signs in most offices, classrooms, and stores.
You might, at some point, be exposed to the drug culture in the United States. You should know that possession, use, or sale of illegal drugs or narcotics like hashish, amphetamines, hallucinogens, barbiturates, cocaine, heroin, and a whole host of others, are serious offenses under Colorado law and under immigration law. If you are caught dealing or using illegal drugs, you will be in serious trouble with the law—the possibility of prison or deportation are very real.
You may be aware that in 2012 voters in Colorado passed Amendment 64, which applies to the possession of marijuana. Under Colorado state law, it is now legal for those age 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Possessing or using any amount of marijuana, no matter your age, is still illegal under federal law. This means that federal authorities like the FBI can still prosecute you for marijuana possession, and you could face prison or deportation. Possessing or using marijuana also remains illegal on the CU Boulder campus and many other designated "drug-free" areas like schools and national parks. We therefore strongly recommend that you neither possess nor use marijuana while in Boulder. Even if other students tell you it is legal, remember that as an international student you are already under government scrutiny and at an increased risk to face consequences for marijuana possession under federal law.
Please see Chancellor DiStefano's statement on Amendment 64.