I recently got a frantic call from a client who is a Swedish expat in the U.S. Her son wouldn’t get out of bed because he was too depressed about the differences between the schools and the people in his home country and those in his new country.

Finally, on the fifth day of unexcused absences, the school called. Our client learned that if her son was absent one more day this semester, he was going to flunk his grade.

The Swedish mom didn’t know about the absence rule. She didn’t know her son needed a note from the doctor to excuse the absences.

But, even beyond the crisis over the absences, there was still more she didn’t know about U.S. schools. She didn’t know that her son would be taking the same math class again because staff at his new school were afraid that putting him in the higher math class with his low English level would be too much for him. She agreed, but it was still disappointing, and her son was very bored.

Cultural Differences in U.S. High Schools

She also got the impression that students could only go to the bathroom during the 6-minute passing period, and never during class, so her son was stressed about rushing from class to class, trying to go to the bathroom and ended up never drinking water for fear of having the need to pee during the class time.

And, she (and her son) were afraid he would make no friends because someone had told them that when Americans smile, this does not mean they are your friend, so don’t trust them. What a welcome into the U.S.!

This family’s experience isn’t unusual. You get misinformation, you have no one to ask for help, and every tiny, little thing about your new life is different. I mean, they knew it would be different, but they didn’t realize it would be this different.

There’s so much to prepare for when you move internationally to the U.S. And most of the people you encounter won’t know what to clue you in on, because it would never occur to them that you don’t know a bunch of things they take for granted.

For example, how in the world can an American high school teacher prepare a family from Sweden for the differences if the American teacher doesn’t know how schools work in Sweden (and in most of Europe and South America)?

Here’s some of the advice we gave the Swedish mom. Hopefully, it will save other expat families some headaches!

Absences in U.S. High Schools

In the U.S., you must get a doctor’s note if your child is not going to be in school. The schools do this to make sure you aren’t keeping kids home for no reason. This is primarily to protect the child and his/her right to an education. You are likely not a bad parent, but not all parents are awesome.

Grading in U.S. High Schools

The U.S. grading system goes from 0 to 100. 100 is a perfect score. You will hear the letters A, B, C, D and F used. Every school uses a different scale. But, commonly, 100-90 is an A, 89-80 is a B, 79-70 is a C (this is average), 69-60 is a D and anything lower than 60 is considered failing.

AP Classes in  U.S. High Schools

Some schools have AP (advanced placement) classes for kids who want to push themselves. AP classes might cover more material than regular classes.

AP classes will also prepare teens for a test at the end of high school that could count toward college credit. That means your teen could skip some required classes, which saves you money!

For example, a liberal arts degree typically requires a few semesters of Spanish. But a student who gets a high enough score on the AP Spanish test might be able to skip a few semesters of Spanish and start at a higher level in college, which could get the student closer to a minor in Spanish as well.

Class Schedules

In most high schools, students take the same classes every day, and classes are just under an hour long. They have a few minutes to move between classes. The time allotted for changing classes can vary by the size of the school. High schools have traditionally had lockers for students to store their books. But there’s a trend toward schools doing away with lockers. This can be very different from European high schools where the kids have more freedom at school and are more independent in regards to classes and choosing class schedules. Many Europeans might become bored with the routine of US high schools. Beware.

Bathroom and Lunch Breaks in U.S. High Schools

Students can take a bathroom break while they’re changing classes, of course. But they can also ask the teacher if they can go to the bathroom during class. This is normal and expected.
The lunch period will likely seem VERY short to expat students. It is typically 30 minutes. (Which is ridiculous, right?)

What’s With All the Smiling in the U.S.?

Americans smile. A lot. We all do it. All the time. For no particular reason. We just do it. If we make eye contact, our lips curl. It just happens automatically, as it’s considered a bit rude to look and not smile. This does not mean we are fake or insincere in our smiles. We smile as a courtesy, out of politeness and general congeniality. That’s it. It’s like breathing. Just remember that a smile in your country might mean one thing, but a smile in the U.S. is natural and common, even from strangers.

Making Friends with U.S. Parents

When an American suggests that the two of you get a coffee sometime, this does not necessarily mean they want to schedule a coffee date for next week. It basically means, “See you later” or “Hope to see you again soon” or “Talk to you again sometime.”

This can really disappoint a lot of expats, who assume that Americans suggesting a coffee date truly want to make plans soon. Sure, you can ask them for a coffee in the future. But just don’t take their ‘Yeah, let’s get coffee sometime’ as a commitment. Not until you hear the date, time and place does someone want really to get together.

At Fluency Corp, we’re always happy to help our clients with questions like these that go beyond language. If you’re relocating to another country, or looking for ways to help employees at your company prepare for international assignments, contact us at getfluent@fluencycorp.com or (800) 401-3159 for a free consultation.