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  • Writer's pictureKayla Burton

Colorado Culture - What international students need to know!

Culture shock, altitude sickness, and language barriers, oh my! Studying abroad is a life-changing adventure. Although it is an absolutely worthwhile experience, there are many challenges to living and learning in a different country. It's important to know what you're getting into!

I am a native of Colorado, I've studied abroad myself, and I'm an absolute nerd about culture. I love learning about different communication styles, habits, and perspectives. Culture is a very complicated subject and this is certainly not an exhaustive list, but there are 5 things about Colorado’s culture that I believe are essential to know and will hopefully help you thrive while you're here.

1) Individualism - liberty and justice for all

The United States is the most individualistic country in the world. But what does that mean? According to Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory, individualistic cultures are “cultures where people are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families”. It is the perspective that you are a molecule in a gas. You can freely be whoever you want to be. Life is an adventure, and the best thing you can become is yourself. That also means that your life is your responsibility. Individualistic cultures are often associated with human rights, free press, and a faster pace of life. People are encouraged to show their uniqueness and self-sufficiency.

The podcast, Freakonomics Radio, has an excellent discussion on the pros and cons of America's extreme individualism -

The opposite of this would be a collectivist culture. The perspective here is that you are a molecule in a crystal. Your position in life is set whether or not you like it. You are expected to prioritize the good of your society over yourself. But, you are also not expected to be self-reliant.

You can read more about the cultural dimensions of the US and compare your own culture at

What does this look like in the American classroom?

Teachers will encourage students to express their own ideas and opinions. They will promote critical thinking, competition, and discussion of different perspectives. Students will be expected to show initiative and work hard. There will be less group work and more individual assignments. Students will be held responsible for their academic achievement. That is, they must earn their success. Plagiarism is taken very seriously and there are often big consequences if students are caught copying other people's work.

2) Timeliness - Time is Money

This is another very important American value. Americans are incredibly aware of the time, at all times. Punctuality and time management are essential to the American way of life. This is especially true for work and school settings. When the meeting is set for 10 am, most people arrive at 9:55 am. Americans are taught from a young age time-management skills, like keeping a personal calendar, setting regular alarms/notifications on their phones or watches, and setting boundaries for how much time they are willing to spend on any activity.

A key marketing strategy in America is to emphasize how a product or service is time-saving. You will see a lot of frozen, and quick-prep meals at the grocery store, and online shopping and package delivery have never been faster or more convenient. As Americans, we expect fast internet, fast highways, and fast food. we even walk faster compared to other counties.

See “Hofstede’s Model of National Cultural Differences and Their Consequences: A Triumph of Faith — A Failure of Analysis,” by Brendan McSweeney (Human Relations, 2002).

This focus on time and time management is why Americans are often busy. It is considered a big gesture, therefore, to make time for you, whether it is going out for coffee or just spending a few minutes chatting in the hallway.

What does this look like in the classroom?

There will be a clock in every single classroom. Homework assignments will have strict due dates and exams will have time limits. There will be little flexibility to any deadline you are given and LATENESS is a big problem. This is one of the most common faux pas (cultural mistakes/embarrassments) I see international students make. You must get to class on time. The Colorado School of English, like most schools in the US, has firm policies regarding lateness.

The best way to avoid being late is to just plan to get to class early every day. Students can take advantage of chatting with their teachers before classes start. Remember that to arrive at any event early is a sign of respect.

3) Power Distance - The American Dream

Another one of Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions is power distance, or the attitudes toward inequalities within a society. America has a relatively low power distance, meaning there are negative perceptions of inequality. There is, of course, a lot of inequality in the United States. However, as a community, we value equal treatment of everyone. Power distance is more clearly seen in the political arena of a country. Countries with low power distance tend to have a form of democracy. While countries with high power distance often have autocracies. High power distance involves a greater deal of reverence/respect toward authority figures.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Teachers will likely ask you to call them by their first name. The dress code for both students and teachers will be casual. School directors not only allow but encourage regular review/critiquing of teachers' performance. Teachers and directors will try to make themselves approachable to you, the student. You may often hear the term 'open door policy' which means students can come into a teacher or director's office to talk about problems or concerns.

4) Communication - low-context and speaker-orientation

When thinking about cross-cultural communication, it is important to recognize that there are different styles of communication. Not only is a different language being spoken, but there are also different expectations for how direct communication should be, and who is responsible for making sure the subject is understood.

First, high-context vs. low-context. The United States is a low-context communication culture. That means that speakers are very direct. Low-context communication can sometimes seem harsh or rude. This is because there is less consideration of maintaining harmony. Speakers are not as worried about causing offense in the conversation. If someone from a low-context culture says they are cold, they are only expressing how they feel. If however, someone from a high-context culture says they are cold, they may be asking you to get them a sweater.

In high-context cultures, there is more reading between the lines. This is because there is more consideration for not causing offense. l lived in a high-context culture for some time, and I made a few communication mistakes because I was not paying attention to the communication style.

When I went shopping with my 'high-context' friends, I would point out things that I saw and liked. I was just trying to make conversation, but they would often end up buying me those things that I commented on. On the other side, when they communicated with me, I would often miss the real point of what they meant. I once was at a co-worker's house for dinner. After a while, they asked me what time I go to sleep. At the time, I didn't realize that they were trying to tell me that it was getting late and I should go home.

Second, speaker-orientation vs. listener-orientation. This has to do with WHO is responsible for understanding the content of the conversation. In speaker-oriented cultures, like the United States, it is the responsibility of the speaker to be understood. This often means that the speaker talks a lot, and there can be a sense of over-explanation. The speaker wants to make sure that the listener understands what is being said.

In listener-oriented cultures, it is the listener's responsibility to understand what is being said. This often means that the listener will ask a lot of questions. They may also wait a long time to respond, in order to make sure that the speaker said everything that needs to be said.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Teachers will try to be very direct and clear when communicating with students. Students are welcome to ask questions but are asked to not interrupt when others are speaking. Raising your hand is considered respectful classroom etiquette.

5) Outdoorsy - Keeping it casual

Colorado Culture is largely influenced by its geography. The climate is relatively temperate. The weather, although sometimes unpredictable, is rarely extreme. There are 4 distinct seasons, all of which provide beautiful natural views. And we LOVE our mountains! With hiking, camping, mountain biking, skiing, snow-shoeing, rafting, etc. we spend a lot of time outside in the mountains.

This is why Coloradans dress VERY casually. There are many high-end outdoor recreation clothing stores, like REI and Cabela's, that make the locals think that a nice pair of jeans and clean tennis shoes are appropriate for almost any occasion. In the land of outdoorsy people, everyone is dressed for the outdoors.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Teachers and students are welcome to dress causally. It is a good idea to wear layers, because like I said before, the weather can be a little unpredictable. You can also expect a lot of outdoor after-class activities.

These are the 5 aspects of Colorado's culture that I think are the most important to keep in mind when studying as an international student. You can read more in the resources below.

I hope you have a great experience in Colorado!


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