American Customs and Culture

Monetary Units | Value of a Dollar | Sales Tax
Tipping | Dealing with Culture Shock | Cultural Hints

Monetary Units

The U.S. monetary system follows the decimal system. The basic unit is the dollar, the symbol for which is "$." The most widely used bills are in denominations of $1, $5, $10 and $20. Occasionally, a bill of $2, $50 or $100 may be seen.

Each dollar can be divided into 100 cents. Currency in the form of a coin is: 1 cent (penny), 5 cents (nickel), 10 cents (dime) and 25 cents (quarter). There are some other coins, such as the 50 cent coin or the Susan B. Anthony silver dollar coin, but they are rarely seen.

*Be prepared that your first month in the United States is likely to be the most expensive, since you will not be able to take everything you need, and might forget some things. The first month might be twice as expensive as the others.*

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Value of a Dollar

The following list of average prices will give you an idea of how much a dollar is worth:

Purchase Price
cup of coffee $2.40
lunch at a restaurant $12 - $20
hotel/motel room $75 and up
movie ticket $9
gasoline (1 gallon) $2.8
haircut (woman) $44
haircut (man) $28
letter stamp in the U.S $.49 cents
letter stamp abroad $1.22 cents (for 1st ounce, for additional ounces, rates vary by destination)
monthly rent for a two bedroom apartment $600 + utilities (electricity, heat, phone, internet etc.)
monthly rent for a room in a house $250- $300 + utilities

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Sales Taxes

Most states in the United States charge a sales tax on tangible personal property and services, such as clothing, restaurant and fast food restaurant meals, services (haircutting), newspapers, books, toiletries etc. Sales taxes vary from state to state, but average 5% or 6% in most places. Sales taxes are added at the cash register, so be prepared for your bill to be more than the price tag on an item. For Maryland, the state sales tax is 5%.

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Tipping, also known as gratuity, is giving a small amount of money to another person for a service. These are the most often tipped services:

Service Tip
waiter/waitress 15% of food bill
porters $1 - $2 per bag
barbers/hairdressers 15% of bill
taxi drivers 10% - 15% of fare, no more than $1
room service at a hotel 50 cents - $1
food delivery persons no less than $1

You should never tip police officers, physicians, government employees or University employees. It may be interpreted as a bribe, which is illegal.

You do not tip bus drivers, theatre ushers, museum guides, salespeople, employees at fast food restaurants or hotel clerks.

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Culture Shock and Ways to Deal with It

Culture shock refers to an individual's reaction to living in a new environment. Some of the things that you are used to in your own culture, may be very different in the United States: language, customs and traditions, holidays, values, behaviors and foods. It is common and even expected for international students and visitors to feel confused and frustrated when they enter another culture. The following are some tips on how to cope with culture shock:

  • listen to what others are saying and try to understand what is going on around you,
  • never hesitate to ask questions if you do not understand what is being said or the situation you are in,
  • observe how people behave in different situations, but do not make judgments based on your own cultural values,
  • keep an open mind: you are living in a different world!
  • develop friendships with Americans, they can explain what you do not understand or are curious about; develop friendships with other international students, they can share their experiences and ways to overcome culture shock,
  • read newspapers and magazines, watch movies - they provide good examples of American culture
  • seeing a professional counselor is one way to deal with emotional problems. Counselors can help you put your problems in perspective; consulting a counselor is a common practice in the US and does not mean you are "crazy".
  • show a sense of humor. Laughing at your own mistakes will ease your anxiety.

Jet Lag: Jet lag is a sleep disturbance, experienced while traveling to another time zone. The most common symptoms of jet lag are fatigue, irritability and sometimes disorientation. The effects of jet lag can be avoided by rapidly adjusting to the day/night pattern of your destination. For detailed information on how to deal with jet lag, please see your International Student Advisor as soon as you arrive in Salisbury.

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Cultural Hints

Greetings: Americans are very friendly. They tend to greet each other with a smile, sometimes a handshake, and a friendly "Hello, how are you?" (which is not a question about your health) or "What's up?" Such a greeting is very common, and does not always require an answer. If an American friend greets you with "Hi, what's going on?" and walks away, do not feel offended, it is a popular way of greeting. Also, the common phrase "See you later" is not an invitation for a visit, but a way to say "Good bye." Americans are also very informal, and address each other by their first names from the time they meet, even with elders and people of authority. Do not feel uncomfortable when someone asks you to use his/her first name, it is customary. If you are in doubt about how to address someone, you should first use the formal name and wait for them to suggest that you use the first name.

Gifts: As a rule, gifts are given to relatives and close friends. They are sometimes given to people with whom one has a casual but friendly relationship, such as a host or hostess, but it is not necessary or even common for gifts to be given to such people. Gifts are not usually given to teachers or others who hold official positions. The offering of gifts in these situations is sometimes interpreted as a possibly improper effort to gain favorable treatment from that person.

Body Language: Keep in mind that unspoken signals by others may not mean what you think. Various gestures are automatic and vary from culture to culture. For example, burping after a meal in America is something that one needs to excuse himself/herself for doing. While in other countries, burping may be seen as a complement to the cook. If a person's words and gestures do not seem to match, it would be wise to ask the individual.

Dress: Casual dress is appropriate for the classroom. Students will, however, dress more formally for certain class presentations. Casual dress is also appropriate for visits in people's homes, shopping or movie theatres. You might dress more formally for a special dinner or a special event at the University.

Personal Hygiene: To most Americans, personal hygiene is very important. They shower and wash their hair daily, and wear freshly cleaned clothes each day. Natural body odors are considered unpleasant and offensive, so deodorants, colognes and other toiletries are used often.

Time: Americans are very time conscious and place high value on promptness. Busses, trains, meetings and classes generally start on time. If you are going to be more than five or 10 minutes late for a meeting or an appointment, you should telephone to let the other party know you will be late.