Living in Boston
Becoming comfortable with your new life in Boston will make your experience at the Institute that much more successful and rewarding. The following topics are presented to help you in getting to know Americans, understand your own adjustment to life in Boston, find an apartment in the Boston area, learn about the quirks of Boston English and more.
The United States is a culturally diverse country, and it is especially so in metropolitan areas such as Boston. Most people in the US are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants from all around the world. This multiculturalism can be comforting for international visitors; it can also make it hard to identify the cultural practices of “typical Americans." However, there are some general trends of social interactions that are particular to Americans. These cultural norms can be surprising to people who come from different backgrounds. Below are some qualities and characteristic trends found in American culture. It is important to note that as with all generalizations, sometimes these trends do not apply. As always, the best way to learn about new culture is to interact with locals!
Individuality is highly valued in American culture. Americans often identify themselves as separate individuals before identifying with their family, a group, or the nation. American children are often taught that understanding and relying on oneself is crucial to success in adult life. This does not mean that Americans do not form strong social networks or familial bonds. Rather, taking an interest in improving oneself is thought to benefit the majority. This individualism can be seen as rudeness by people from more collective cultures, but this is not the intention.
American society is based on the ideal that “all men are created equal." While there are many economic, social, and cultural differences throughout the U.S., in theory, everyone should have an equal opportunity for success. Because of this emphasis on equality, Americans tend to disregard social status in everyday interactions, and only acknowledge these differences in subtle ways. People from other cultures who hold higher social positions sometimes feel that Americans do not treat them with enough respect. On the other hand, Americans may feel offended if they feel they are not being treated equally.
Partially due to their sense of equality, Americans tend to be very informal. Dress, especially in an educational setting, can be very casual. This informality also lends itself to friendliness. Americans are quick to say hello to friends and casual acquaintances alike. Often Americans will ask “How’s it going?” as a way of saying hello. While this informality can be startling if you are not used to it, Americans mean it as a warm and friendly gesture.
Americans can seem to always be in a rush. Efficiency is a highly regarded trait, and Americans can seem impatient. In general they put a great value on time. Punctuality is important in both business and social settings and arriving late can seem rude and unprofessional. If you are going to be more than ten minutes late for an appointment, it is advisable to call ahead to let them know you are going to be late, or will be unable to attend. Meetings with friends can be more casual, but again, it is nice to keep people updated on your arrival status. Not all Americans are on time and everyone is late sometimes, but it is a good idea to keep punctuality in mind while in the U.S.
Americans believe that being direct is the best way to communicate, and, that often, it is the only way to be heard. To people from different backgrounds, this can seem aggressive or rude. The importance of individuality in U.S. culture has fostered a sense of competitiveness which has, in turn, led to the need to be heard. Americans are not shy about defending their opinions. Honesty and openness are valued, and being direct is often seen as a way to resolve conflicts and misunderstandings. Americans may think that they are helping resolve a situation by being clear and direct, while someone from a different background could see this as being aggressive. Keep an open mind, and give people the benefit of the doubt. More often than not, people are just trying to be clear, open, and friendly.
What is it?
Culture shock is the natural reaction to a series of transitions that occur when one is uprooted from one’s familiar cultural environment and transplanted into a new situation where the language, gestures, customs, signs, and symbols that have previously helped us to make sense of our surroundings suddenly have no meaning or have new meanings. Most of all one has lost familiar social supports (family, friends, classmates, coworkers) and is having to begin again in a world where things are unpredictable. While the term “culture shock” implies something immediate, the onset is usually gradual and cumulative.
How can I avoid culture shock?
Since culture shock is a natural response the strategy should not be how to avoid it but how to manage it. Being able to anticipate the feelings you may encounter and having an understanding of the cycle of adjustment should help minimize much of the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States. While at times it may be an unpleasant experience to go through, adapting to a new culture provides great opportunities for personal growth and development.
What are the stages of culture shock and cultural adjustment?
- Honeymoon Stage
When you first arrive, the differences you observe are new, exciting and interesting. You are optimistic and likely to focus on the positive aspects of your new environment.
- Negotiation Stage
After a period of time, a few weeks or a few months, the excitement of experiencing a culture becomes tiresome and could cause anxiety. You feel frustrated by the effort everyday activities seem to require. During this phase you may feel loneliness, helplessness, sadness or depression, fatigue, acute homesickness, and a desire to withdraw. It is very important during this stage to remember that this is normal and your fellow international students are experiencing, or have experienced, this phenomenon. Reach out to them or a trusted advisor for support.
- Adjustment Stage
Gradually you will grow accustomed to the new culture and create new routines to go about your daily life. You know what to expect in most situations or have developed the confidence to ask questions to seek understanding. In short, your new life starts to make sense.
- Mastery Stage
You are able to fully participate in the host culture. You are not “Americanized” but you have achieved a cultural flexibility commonly referred to biculturalism.
How long will it take for the unpleasant symptoms to go away?
Sometimes the symptoms of the Negotiation Stage last just a few days, but more commonly, a few weeks or even months. Your friend may appear to adjust easily while you are suffering miserably. Several different factors, such as your pre-departure expectations, coping skills, and any past experience living overseas can affect the degree to which a person is affected by culture shock making each individual’s experience unique. Also, people often move back and forth between the stages throughout their stay.
The feelings and symptoms of culture shock will dissipate with time. There are a number of tips and tricks for hastening the adjustment process. Be proactive in getting to know your new environment. Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new whenever you have the opportunity. Keep an open mind and a healthy sense of adventure. If you find yourself in a low place where you are having difficulty coping, or you are experiencing severe symptoms of culture shock, seek counseling immediately.
In U.S. culture where individuals often live apart from the social support network of family and friends, it is normal to seek counseling in times of emotional distress. There are many caring, qualified professionals such as social workers (MSW), psychologists (PhD or PsyD) or psychiatrists (MS in psychiatry) who can listen and provide the support you need to help you through a period of difficulty. International Student Services is also available to listen and provide referrals.
Suggestions on how to make your adjustment as smooth as possible.
- Realize that what you are going through is normal. Remember that the unpleasant feelings are temporary, natural, and are common to any transition that a person makes during their life.
- Be patient and give yourself the time to work through this process.
- Take good care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, learn relaxation and stress reduction techniques.
- Maintain a sense of humor. Be able to laugh at yourself and at the predicaments you get into.
- Resist the temptation to constantly disparage the host country. Begin to consciously look for logical reasons for anything in the United States that seems strange, confusing, or threatening. There is a reason why Americans do things differently than people do in your country. Most importantly, when you are having a difficult time, do not be afraid to talk to someone, especially if you are thinking of leaving the U.S. You can always talk to family, friends, members of your host department or the staff at the Services to International Students and Scholars Office who have a lot of experience with this process. Professional counseling is a wonderful resource, is available free to all students, and is often part of an employee’s health plan. For more information, see COUNSELING section below.
Reverse Culture Shock
Do not underestimate the adjustment that will be required when you return home from your sojourn. People go through a similar series of stages upon re-entry to their home culture.
Books to help you through your transition
The following books are published in the U.S., but may be found on the internet at www.amazon.com or at a local bookstore or library once you arrive.
American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States by Gary Althen. Intercultural Press; 2nd edition (2002)
Stress Management for Dummies by Allen Elkin. IDG Books (1999).
Transitions by William Bridges. Addison-Wesley Publishing (1980)
Beat Stress with Strength: A Survival Guide for Work and Life by Stephanie Spera and Sandra Lanto. Park Avenue Books (1997).
Living in the U.S.A. by Alison Lanier. Intercultural Press (1988).
A Foreign Visitor’s Survival Guide to America by Shauna Singh Baldwin and Marilyn M. Levine. John Muir Publications (1992)
The following websites will lead you to more information to help you adjust to your new life in Boston. Some sites offer information on multiple topics while others are more focused specific information. If you discover a particularly helpful website please share it with International Student Services.
Provides an interactive map of apartment cost, size and availability, rental sites, and information on weather, transportation and things to do in Boston.
Insights on renting your first apartment including tips for long distance apartment searches, understanding your lease, tips on dealing with roommates and furnishing on a budget.
Popular website used by Bostonians for local news, weather, and rental information.
Official website of the public transit (buses, subways, trains, and water taxis) system serving Boston and the surrounding suburbs
American slang and common colloquialisms defined
A word of caution regarding Craigslist Apartment listing scams from the MGH Police Department:
Rental Property Scam
The number of fake rental scams on Craigslist and other online classifieds continues to grow, with new aliases appearing daily. But while the names may change, the methods are always the same. These thieves, mainly based in Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S., are out to steal your money and your identity.
They use yahoo, ymail, rocketmail, fastermail, live, hotmail and gmail, and they also post ads under anonymous craigslist addresses. They frequently change their aliases.
They use photos stolen from other property advertisements or from home furnishing catalogues or hotel websites. They use fake names, often stolen from Facebook profiles or networking sites. Often they assume the identities of previous victims.
What they all have in common is that sooner or later you get a request to transfer funds via Western Union, Moneygram or some other wire service.
NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, WIRE MONEY AT THE REQUEST OF ANY PROSPECTIVE “LANDLORD” VIA WESTERN UNION, MONEYGRAM OR ANY OTHER WIRE SERVICE.
EVEN IF THEY TELL YOU TO WIRE THE FUNDS TO A FRIEND OR RELATIVE’S NAME “TO BE SAFE.”
NEVER SEND A SCAN OF YOUR PASSPORT OR OTHER ID. THESE THIEVES WILL USE YOUR IDENTITY TO SCAM OTHERS.
Should you feel that you are the victim of a scam, we recommend that you take the following actions:
- Report the incident to your local law enforcement agency.
- If you are affiliated with the Massachusetts General Hospital or the MGH Institute of Health Professions, please contact MGH Police & Security.
- Contact the three major credit reporting bureaus and request a fraud alert be placed on your account. View more information about placing a fraud alert.
- File a claim with The Internet Crime Complaint Center.
- Review the Federal Trade Commission’s web page concerning Identity Theft.
Good luck in your search for an apartment.