Chinese Students' Guide to Research and KU Libraries: Cultural Differences

This guide is designed to assist Chinese students with doing research and using KU Libraries.

Cultural Differences
Below are some cultural differences (compiled from both Chinese and American perspectives) that are useful to getting accustomed to living in the United States.

Interactions with People

  • Shaking hands: When meeting someone for the first time, it is acceptable and polite to shake their hand but is not always necessary. For example, young people may or may not shake hands upon meeting for the first time. Wait and take the other person's lead with this if you are not sure. You can't go wrong with shaking hands but it might be a little too formal for the situation.
  • You should shake hands with bosses, teachers, etc upon meeting for the first time.
  • Hugging: Close friends often hug when saying hello and goodbye, even male and female friends. There are different kinds of hugs that determine the nature of the relationship. If you are not comfortable with hugging, simply say that. You are not obligated to hug anyone.
  • Kissing: Kissing on the cheek is not a (typical) American greeting. People on talk shows may do this but the general public does not.
  • "Have you eaten?": If you ask a person in the U.S. if they have eaten or not, they will not understand it to just be a greeting, they will think you are inviting them to eat with you.
  • Restaurants: Individual orders are most common, family-style dishes rare. As a result, people typically pay for their own meal.
  • Most Americans do not drink hot water. Most common hot drinks are tea and coffee but hot water can be requested. Remember that "tea" on a menu might be cold tea (iced tea), especially if it says "sweet tea."
  • Pressure: People control their own, individual food/drink intake. Only children are encouraged to drink/eat more by their parents, so someone may perceive a pressure to eat/drink more as condescending, rude, and even dishonest (in the case of alcohol).
  • Seating: only important in some family households among family members - not important in restaurants.
  • Who eats first: It is a general rule that you should wait until everyone's food has arrived (in restaurants) or everyone has been seated (in households) before you begin eating. Someone may tell you to start eating first if their food hasn't arrived yet and then it is okay. Who eats first is not dependent on age/seniority. Religious households may not start eating until a prayer is said.
  • People are usually not shy about helping themselves to food.
  • “Finishing your plate” as a guest in someone's home is a show of politeness and that you enjoyed your meal - leaving a lot of food could be an indicator that the guest did not like the food or is very wasteful (leaving some is okay). If you want more food, just ask. Don't wait for hosts to suggest you get more - most hosts will not do this because as an adult you are expected to take care of yourself.
  • If you do not like the food, it is okay to politely say that you do not care for something and not eat it. Only mention that you do not like something if you are asked. (Ex. "I don't really care for _____/I'm not used to this type of food yet but I like this _______ a lot").
  • Food Allergies: If you have any kind of food allergy or certain foods you do not eat, it is totally acceptable to say so before eating at someone's home. Most Americans are very accommodating and aware of certain food allergies.
  • Greeting: In the Midwest especially, when meeting eyes with a stranger on the street, people typically smile or say hi/hello.
  • Sharing: People may also be much more open with strangers about their personal lives and share a lot to be friendly. (Such as in grocery stores, waiting in line together at the post office, etc.)
  • Safety: With this said, it is still important to be aware of safety. If you are unsure if someone's behavior is appropriate or you are uncomfortable, leave the situation and ask an American friend later.
  • Questions: Despite a certain degree of openness/friendliness with others, privacy is highly valued. Someone may share a lot of information with you, but certain questions that might embarrass the other person are considered rude, such as how much money someone makes, how old they are (only if they are older, this doesn't apply to younger people), how much someone weighs, etc.
  • Withheld information: Grades, cell phone numbers, health records, etc. are withheld from the public. Cell phone numbers may be requested after establishing a clear foundation for friendship; a man requesting a woman's phone number is often understood to be someone interested in dating. Adding someone on Facebook is a more neutral alternative.
  • Appearance: It is common for people to compliment each other, even strangers. It is important to remember that you shouldn't talk about people’s appearance unless it’s positive: “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.”
  • What to say: Compliments are typically limited to clothing, hairstyle, makeup, etc. such as "I like your outfit today" or "Your hair looks really pretty today!" These kinds of neutral compliments are usually, but not always, between women.
  • Compliments between men are much less common than compliments between women in the US and "帅/handsome" is seldom used.
  • Beauty standards: People in the U.S. have different beauty standards. Many women (but certainly not all) don't want to be white/pale; they want to be tan and lay in the sun to get darker. This is commonly seen at pools, beaches, and tanning salons.
  • Just like white skin shows you do not have to do manual labor and have a certain social status in China; in the U.S., tans are preferred because there is a certain social status assigned to people who can afford to go on vacation to the beach or suntan.
  • Reaction: International students will not get the same reaction and excitement that international students get when they visit China because the U.S. is fairly diverse.
  • Race & ethnicity: There is a lot of political and social tension surrounding subjects of race. How people of different races or ethnic groups are spoken about is something to be very careful and considerate about. If you are not sure if something is offensive, ask an American friend.
  • Speaking: Americans may be much less formal when speaking with their superiors than Chinese people would be.
  • Form of address: Usually teachers or bosses will establish how they would like to be addressed and it may be by their first name, but definitely not always. If someone introduces them self as "Dr./Mrs./Ms./Mr. _____", then use that address until you are informed otherwise.
  • Social distance: There is much more social distance between teachers and students in the US than in China and it is rare to spend time with superiors outside of work or class. In the case of teachers, this is to avoid a teacher being partial to one student over another.
  • Comfort: People in the U.S. require much more personal space when interacting with people. If someone is shifting their body further away while speaking, they are trying to establish a more comfortable amount of personal space, not being rude.
  • Spaces: When there are a certain number of empty chairs or spots available, people in the U.S. will typically sit with one or more empty chair in between each other until it is not an option anymore. Sitting directly next to someone when other options are available may be very uncomfortable for them. This is also true when choosing a urinal in the men's bathroom.
  • Hand holding: Usually friends do not hold hands in the U.S. Hand holding is viewed as behavior between a couple.
  • Guests in the home: Unlike in Chinese culture, where giving guests the very best room is common, American homes typically have a designated guest room. This is because a person's room is their personal space and contains personal possessions and a guest room is a space for guests. It is also common for guests to stay in a hotel to have more personal space and freedom to move around. 
  • Personal relations/关系: In the U.S., people's actual abilities and competency ideally determines their job placement, not who they know.
  • Favors & gifts:  Most people will view favors and gifts as freely-given displays of kindness or gratitude from the other person - with no strings attached - and do not feel any need to reciprocate, because favors are not compulsory. People will also be less likely to ask others for favors.
  • Gift-giving: Gifts are opened immediately in the U.S. because Americans like to view the person opening it and being happy with the gift itself.
  • If a person sets a gift aside and does not open it, it will be perceived as very uncaring and confusing.
  • Disagreement: Students may (politely) disagree with fellow students and teachers.  Do not be offended if they disagree with you and respond more forcefully than you would expect. In the traditional American way of discourse they expect you to hold your ground (at least at first) and give a good reason for your opinion.  
  • Self Perception: “Not caring what others think” is valued. Being overly sensitive to how one is regarded by others is seen as insecure.
  • Changes: People in the U.S. stick to plans much more strictly.  Schedules for work, class, research projects, and even outings with friends are rarely changed after plans have been made.
  • Class syllabus: Seen as a kind of unchanging contract between a teacher and students. The dates on the syllabus are accurate representations of when events will occur and when schoolwork is due.
  • Appointments: It is necessary to give people advanced notice and make appointments ahead of time. Teachers do have hours open for students to go to their offices without an appointment (usually listed at the top of the class syllabus as "office hours"), but culturally, it is polite to give others advanced notice in most situations. You must make appointments for a variety of services (to see a doctor, to get a hairstyle, etc). Many places do accept "walk-ins" (without an appointment). When interacting with other Americans, it is important to remember that some people may need a certain amount of time to process a plan and cannot commit to something so sudden without prior notice.
  • Appointment time is very precise. If you show up early to an appointment with your adviser, for example, you cannot go into their office early. You must wait outside until the specific time (unless they see you and invite you in) because that is the arranged time. You must respect their time.
  • Time: Spoken of directly and accurately. A “1 hour drive” is always 1 hour. Paper due in 2 days means 2 days. Concert time at 7 means 7.
  • Confidence: What is considered modest in China may be considered insecure in the U.S.  What may be considered "taking initiative" and "confident" in the U.S. may be perceived as arrogant in China. Being out-spoken is valued in the U.S. and rewarded in education. Being overly modest, introverted, and not participating in class is not.
  • Individuality: is very valued. Deviating from what the teacher has taught (within reason) and sharing original ideas is rewarded in the classroom. You cannot copy another person's words or thoughts. This is a serious offense. 
    See Plagiarism:
  • Individualism: is valued instead of collectivism. That is, the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group.
  • Privacy: is valued and protected in law. Private information is not made public.
  • Equality: is very valued and protected in law/regulations. For example, you cannot get special treatment in school for doing favors, giving gifts, etc. and if you did, that would be seen as highly unethical. You also cannot cut in front of other people in line; everyone must wait the same.
  • Speaking: People in the U.S. are much more direct. The goal is to speak as clearly as possible so there is no miscommunication. If you don't want to discuss a topic just politely decline (if too personal, or too political, etc. for you). Most Americans do not intend to offend with direct speech but expect to engage in some dialog (which can be awkward until you get used to it).  Many Americans are quite ignorant of your culture but most are eager to learn and be a friend.
  • Emphasis: It is much more common in the U.S. to embellish speech with curse words, especially among young people.
  • Cursing is not necessarily an indication that someone is angry or dislikes something (although it definitely can be). Cursing is commonly used for emphasis in a neutral or even positive way. Just pay attention to the surrounding words to get the meaning. Ex: "This is so f***ing great!"; "This so f***ing stupid"
  • Who speaks this way: Be aware of who you are speaking with. It is important to "feel out" someone and the situation to know if cursing in a neutral way would offend the person/make them uncomfortable. More conservative people do not speak this way and may be very uncomfortable hearing it.
  • A general rule: Let someone else speak that way first and do not speak that way in front of older generations or children or in formal contexts. Definitely don't speak this way in class (unless the situation calls for it, such as discussing language) or in front of people you want to show respect to. It may be used with friends in informal contexts.
  • Chinese medicine: Most Americans are not informed of Chinese medicine and do not have the same health considerations of hot, cold, and yin/yang.
  • Hot water: Most Americans do not drink hot water and it may not be available in some places. More common hot drinks are tea and coffee but hot water can be requested.
  • Doctors: When talking to a doctor, be sure to ask questions if you do not understand or have issues with something. Doctors are there to serve you so do not worry about causing disharmony by mentioning problems. If you are in pain or something is wrong, tell your doctor.
  • Treatment: If you are worried about treatment or the potential side-effects of a medication, ask your doctor to explain them. Do not take only part of a prescribed medication.
  • Medical costs: If you are worried about medical costs, ask your doctor about available payment plans.
  • No cutting: You cannot cut in front of other people in line because everyone is to be respected as an individual and everyone must wait just the same.
  • If you do cut someone in line, don't expect Americans to be quiet about it.
  • Meaning: In English, "sorry" does not only mean 对不起. It is also used to show empathy for someone's misfortune, regardless of what or who caused it.
  • Ex.
    A: "My dog died."
    B: "Oh, I'm really sorry to hear that..." or just "I'm sorry..."
  • Public: People in public say "sorry" pretty often. You should say "sorry" or "excuse me" if you bump into another person.
  • People also say "excuse me" (although it sounds more like "'scuze me") if they walk too closely to someone else and invade their personal space (causing them discomfort.)

Public Establishments

  • Servers: In the U.S. you cannot yell for servers to come to your table. You must sit quietly and wait for the server to come over. To get their attention politely raise your hand and only if they have been gone awhile. Wait until they are not serving another table - do not interrupt. American restaurants assign a certain person to serve each table so look for the person who first approached your table.
  • Tipping: You must tip servers in the U.S. (and many other people in the service industry) when you eat in a restaurant. This is because servers do not make minimum wage and the majority of their income is dependent on tips. If you do not tip a server, it is seen as extremely rude and an indication that they did not do a good job serving you, or that something went very wrong. Today, a 15% tip is standard (15% of the total price of what was ordered.)
  • Trash: In fast-food restaurants, it is important to throw away your trash and put your tray away in a designated place (typically a stack of trays on a trash can).


  • Clean: Leave restrooms in the condition you found them.
  • Restroom seats: It is important to be considerate of other people using public restrooms. For example, people do not stand/squat on top of bathroom seats. This makes them dirty for the next person. Americans sit directly on top of toilet seats or use a seat cover (if available) or toilet paper to cover it.
  • Bargaining: You may bargain (砍价) for prices at garage sales or on Craigslist but any other price is probably a set price and you cannot bargain.
  • Putting items back: If you drop clothing (or other items) on the floor of a store, it is important to be considerate and pick it up and put it back. If you decide you do not want something, put it back where you got it or give it to a sales associate if you don't remember.
  • IDs: The drinking age (21) is enforced in the U.S. and you cannot buy alcohol without an ID. You need an ID to get into many bars as well, regardless of whether you are drinking or not.
  • Purchasing: You can only purchase alcohol at certain times in certain states.
    Kansas: Alcohol hours: 9 a.m. - 2 a.m. Grocery store sales: 9 a.m. - 11 p.m. (Mon–Sat), noon - 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. (Sun)
  • Location: You can drink in your home or in bars but you cannot drink publicly/outdoors (with the exception of Power & Light District in Kansas City, Missouri)
  • States: Laws concerning alcohol are different in different states. If you are unsure if something is legal, please look it up.
  • IDs: There is an enforced age to purchase cigarettes (18 years)
  • Ideology: Smoking is generally looked down upon in the U.S. It can be seen as a problem and something that infringes on others' health (if near other people)
  • Location: You cannot smoke indoors (with some exceptions, state laws are different).
  • Gender: Smoking is not gender-specific in the U.S.
  • Cold: People in the U.S. are not as concerned about getting too cold.
  • Air conditioning: In the summer, air conditioning is turned on in all buildings and can be very cold. It may be a good idea to take a jacket with you to put on inside buildings.
  • Cars: Most, but not all, people in the U.S. have their own cars.
  • Public transportation: is not very good, accessible, or dependable in the U.S.
  • Getting around without a car can be very difficult and inconvenient.
  • Buses: There are buses available in Lawrence and on campus:
  • Dress: People often wear nicer clothes (as opposed to just everyday casual clothes) to events such as theater performances, classical music performances, when giving a speech, company dinners, to church, etc. Usually events in the evening are more formal than events during the day (for example, a dinner calls for more formal clothing than a lunch would.) People dress fairly casually overall and dress semi-formally to events such as these. The only time most people dress in actual formal clothing (such as wearing a suit, for example) is at weddings. Funerals also call for more formal dress and people wear black or dark clothing, nothing too bright.
  • Here are some examples of events and the types of clothing to wear:
    • BBQ: casual
    • Luncheon: casual-semi-formal
    • Concert (not classical): casual
    • Movies: casual
    • Honorary dinner: semi-formal
  • If you are unsure about what to wear you can always ask an American friend for advice.