Why Aren’t Americans and International Students Becoming Friends?

Yesterday we learned that American students like having international students on campus. Only 10% of the American students who took our anonymous survey (a survey designed to find out what Americans really think about their international classmates) told us that they wouldn’t want more international students at their school.

» Read part 1 of this series, in which we explore what Americans had to say about international students

How well do American students relate to international students
Click for full-sized image

But what we didn’t discuss yesterday is that this positive attitude towards international students isn’t necessarily translating into friendships.

Although 85% of American students who took our survey reported having at least one international friend, only about 50% said they have more than two international friends.

The international students in our survey had a slightly different experience. 75% said they have more than two American friends. But 10% told us they have no American friends at all.

And that may be an optimistic estimate. A recent study by Baruch College professor Elisabeth Gareis found that more than one in three international students have no close American friends.

Why the separation?

Some American students in our survey acknowledged they don’t do as much as they could to get to know international students.

“When I was a student I didn’t make an effort to get to know international students because they weren’t in my classes or in any of the organizations I was in,” said a graduate from the University of California, Berkeley.

Randy from the University of Kansas explained, “I am a natural introvert, which may have made communication between myself and other international students even more difficult.”

Whose Move: American students discuss friendships with international students

And several international students said that they feel more comfortable hanging out with other international students than with Americans.

“Most of the international students in my social environment are from Asian countries and thus they are brought up in a similar culture to me and I find it easier to communicate with them,” said one international student at Oberlin College, adding that “we are used to live our lives in a more similar way compared to Americans.”

The plot thickens

But here’s something interesting – for the most part, each group told us they are the ones trying to make friends, and it’s the other group that’s not doing enough.

Do Americans make an effort to get to know international students

80% of the Americans in our survey said either that they make an effort to get to know international students or that making friends with international students doesn’t require any special effort.

Fewer than half of their international classmates agreed.

“When they’re in their own country and there’s a minority outsider who they’ll have to put particular effort into getting to know, I think most of them just don’t bother,” said one international student at Oberlin College.

Tara from the University of Southern California said her American classmates have “no interest to know how [international] students struggle to live here.”

Americans, on the other hand, complained that international students keep to themselves and make it hard to reach out.

“At my school, international students stick together,” said Laura at the University of Central Oklahoma. “There’s always a group of two or more in my classes and they rarely try to talk to us, so we sort of just leave them alone. It’s like they don’t want to make friends with us.”

Kristin from Southern Illinois University said that “getting to know international students can be difficult – while international students are in the same classes as American students, the international students have a tendency to group together.”

“As someone who has studied abroad, I understand this tendency,” she added, “but it can still make breaking into their group of friends slightly daunting.”

» See all comments from American students

This video of a conversation between our blogger Thuy, from Vietnam, and American classmate Alex illustrates the tension over which side needs to put in more effort:

Answering the burning question

The obvious question is, if Americans and international students both think the other group isn’t putting in their fair share of the effort, who’s right?

I’m not sure we can answer that, but our survey turned up one illuminating result.

Among the 80% of Americans who told us they try to get to know international students, a whopping 42% said that making friends with foreign students doesn’t require any special effort.

International students didn’t exactly agree that extra effort isn’t required – only 19% of them had the same response.

In fact, international students seemed much more aware of the barriers created by cultural differences than their American counterparts. Many international students wrote comments about overcoming (or failing to overcome) specific differences between American and international students.

They are “more about self and less about give and take” said one international student of American students. “[We] aren’t open and outgoing like them,” said another.

» More about the cultural differences international students notice most

Americans, by contrast, often said that they make friends from among the people they encounter during their day, whoever they might be.

“They are just like other students to me,” said one Oberlin College student. “I had never really thought of them as a separate category than everyone else. They blend in so well.”

“I get to know people who are around me, regardless of whether they are national or international,” added a Princeton University student.

For Americans, perhaps, an international student is just another type of student in a sea of types of students.

So the correct question may be not who needs to put in more effort to relate to one another, but rather, how to reconcile these two views of how much effort is actually required.

Or we could all just take the zen approach of Vikram from the University of Chicago.

“Some people like making international students their friends, some don’t. Simple,” he said.

“Some might want to know international students to know more about different cultures, while some are content being ignorant. That’s fine, though. Everyone should be free to choose his/her own way in living life.”

Read the rest of this series:
Part 1: The Truth – Americans Reveal What They Really Think of International Students 
Part 3: Americans are Self-Centered but Friendly
Raw comments: 60+ Opinions from American Students About Their International Classmates


  1. Hey,

    I’m Taiwanese and studying in an international school in Shanghai. From what I’ve read above, it seems that Chinese students are often excluded from social circles in America? Its really sad when foreigners in Shanghai treat us (meaning my fellow classmates) like freaks, when we go out on fieldtrips. We can speak English like any other native speaker, there’s nothing to stare about. I see this tension in my school too. We have a local division, and the international division. The local kids are very distant and seem hostile, they never approach us, and when we do, they clump together awkwardly 🙁

  2. As a BlackbamericN I find most foreigners are very,very prejudiced against Blacks especially Indians and Middle Easternwrs. There are always exceptions,but for the most part,I give them. wide berth,especually Indians,they are downright nassty.

  3. Let’s think about the other question. How Americans feel when they either work or study or travel in Asian country? Do they feel welcomed or rejected?

  4. I am an international student in American university, I found it hard to make an American friend since I still did not make one. Americans would never talk to international students actively when they can talk with Americans, you have to be active to talk to them. And you don’t know what conversation is proper, your sense of humor is totally different from people in other culture. So I am still trying!

    1. Hello Iris. I understand it can be hard to make new friends in a new country; especially if you feel your English isn’t as strong as you might like. Still, I think American students can often be very understanding, and open to meeting new friends. It can take a little time, but I would encourage you to keep at it! I’m sure you’ll make a set of friends soon.

  5. Ayad, the reason for her using her membership card, is not to offer you whatever discount applied, but to benefit from your purchase for her future gas bill or whatever.. don’t overestimate this fake politeness and smiles, it’s all for profit, and remember you’re in a largest consumer based country, as long are you’re buying – they’re smiling.. you can experiment in the same shop next time you do big purchase, if they offer you to use their card, refuse, and request to give you one that you can use.. really, you’ll see their real ugly faces then..

  6. It’s been a couple of days since i touched down here in America and i am just surprised and happy to see the kindness of people here and their will to help me as foreigner. Honestly people here are very supportive and one nice African American lady yesterday -at wall mart cashier lone- advised me to sign up for the the membership in order to get a discount and i was amazed when she insisted to use her membership for my shopping items. I love this country people are so social and smile when they look at you in the eyes and say hi I and start asking you where you from and the conversation goes on…..i like it here! i think there are so many we can learn from Americans outside the college campus as well. Peace to all people!
    Greetings from Saudi Arabian student

  7. Hey Jessica,

    I used to be an international student and in my experience this is 100% true, especially when it comes to students from Asia. I think the cultural divide is too deep and the shock they get when they come to the US is so big that they just close up into their groups and refuse to make friends with others, even non-Asian international students. Also, there are so many of them now, especially from China, that they don’t really need to make any effort to make friends outside their circle. As for the rest of us, it all really depends on the person and where you come from. Spanish-speaking people tend to be semi-isolated from other groups and if you come from a small country you have to try to make friends with everyone, you just don’t have a choice.

  8. Haha, Andrey!
    Molodets!Krasavchik:) If you really wanna see how international students excluded, come to Wake Forest University Business School!

  9. I think the language barrier has something to do with it. It’s a lot of work sometimes to carry on a conversation with someone with limited linguistic/cultural proficiency, and people sometimes do the easy thing, which is to not do that. Even though they might be missing out on someone fun or interesting.

    Part of it also is that sometimes groups of international students clump together and always talk to each other in their native language. Where it might be easy for an American student to go talk to one classmate who is international, it’s not when there are three or four people sitting and speaking to each other in their own language. I’ve lived abroad and I know that some days you just want to be able to talk without having to think about every word. But if you do that all the time, it’s hard to get better in the language you are learning, and it’s harder to make friends outside your group.

    But, to break it down into a dichotomy like “Some might want to know international students to know more about different cultures, while some are content being ignorant.” is unfair. Just because you don’t make friends with international students doesn’t mean you are “content being ignorant” — plenty of people travel, live abroad and learn about different cultures without necessarily having a friend in college who is international.

  10. I dont think you’re sorry at all.. this is exactly what was meant in previous comment, where people smile but really dont mean anything, same for “sorry” thing.. I hear this “sorry” crap 10000 times a day, these thanks 100000 a day and observe fake smiles another million times a day – all bring to an idea that American culture is based on fake feelings, expressions. on the “other side” (as you-americans like to define anyone but not american) we actually mean when we say something, of couse there are exceptions, but majority is based on that. going to clubs and activities to find some one with a common interest is an absurd. when you ask an american how many friends do they have, indeed they reply – a dozen friends for golf, another for fishing, five book friends, 300 facebook friends.. – and after all when you are asked whether you have any one to speak when you just want to complain about certain things, you change topics. yeah tell me more about how awkward is it to meet strangers – you dont, because everyone “has a right for privacy”, and most of you are afraid to approach even those from your own kind, just because others can get offended and all might end up in court. this topic is pointless, its like a discussion between green peace and petroleum operators.. good luck on that though.

  11. Hi am a student in the university level in Cameroon and i would like to have a good friend in the USA that we can share our differences and most importantly experience in school to.Just any one weather a work or a student any please,i would be happy to read from any one please.

  12. I think more international students helps U.S. schools increase their culture and diversity. The world is becoming more globalized and the ability to interact with students from all over the world will make everyone more well rounded, more tolerant and more knowledgeable.

  13. Friendship is pretty much about finding something in common. Obviously, the more different is the culture the more difficult is to find something in common.

    At school, we see different groups of people, united by common interests and personalities, why would it be different between people from different nationalities?

    How many friends from different countries do have the international students? Or are their majority friends from the same region as them?

    Why do I never see Chinese and Indian people hanging out together?

  14. Hi,

    I am an international student (from Asia) attending a graduate school at Wisconsin. I think many of American graduate students are nice, but certainly some of them are overtly unfriendly to me. For instance, some of them ignored my greetings and pretend they did not see me from like 3 foot distance (which is absurd), after it happens several times, I don’t bother to say hello to them.

    And certainly there are things that they do not expect me to do (but they can do). For instance, I approached a female graduate student (there was some chemistry between us) and one male graduate student literally blocked my way and since then there have been couple of occurences where he tried to physically threaten me, e.g. following me really close in the hallway. I have just ignored these weird behaviors but can not help feeling very uncomfortable.

    And there have been some issues outside academic setting as well. For instance, some restaurant servers took my dish even before I finished it, they asked if I am finished while taking my dish away so that they have excuse as at least they asked… Once was when my brother visited me and the other time was when I was having meal with an white American guy.

    This was totally unexpected and I believe the demographic factor certainly plays a role in the way people behave toward internationals (~90% population is white in my college town). I hope it would be different in other areas of the country, e.g. NYC, CA, ….

    1. I’m really sorry to hear about these experiences. Sounds like you’ve encountered a couple of real jerks – the one guy in particular. If you do feel like he’s genuinely threatening you in any way, make sure you make use of the resources at your school for reporting things like that. There’s no reason you should have to feel uncomfortable or endangered because some guy thinks he’s tough.

      I don’t know if some of these things might be related to cultural differences (for example, at some US restaurants, particularly chain restaurants, they often try to hurry you out so they can get more customers in), but I do hope you’ve met some nice people as well who have served as a counterbalance. Have other international students at your school had similar experiences? Do you have any advice for other international students who might be thinking about studying in the US?

  15. Hi Jessica Stahl ,

    I’m not american, I’m a brazilian young.
    I think Americans have a hard time making friends with people from other countries.
    I like to make friends with some American and also a day to know your country.


  16. America is an amazing country, and also an amazing place to study and experience a very unique culture. My parents are from an asian country but I was born and raised in America and have experienced studying in Asian and European countries. America I believe has much more opportunity for a foreigner to adapt and understand. We are not a monoethnic country and are a melting pot of difference people and cultures. American schools value things that actually help you be successful in an american career. Failing to adapt and make friends with people here will not help you succeed. Like in an American company, having people that will support and vouch for you will help you succeed. We often reward those that step outside their comfort zone- so you should do that. If you are shy, make it a point to be outgoing- so much good will come from that. I suggest international students to do that, make friends, embrace to the culture while not abandoning your native, find a way to connect it to who you are as well- doing that will allow you success inside and outside the classroom. If you want to increase your chances of getting a company to sponsor your visa to work, fitting in the american culture and company culture is something they will invest in.

  17. I am an international student here in Usa. I started my college in january and haven’t made any friends yet. I dont talk to any of my classmates, i know that’s my fault because i am a really shy girl, but the thing is that the american students dont talk with me either. May be they find me weird or anything but i feel really lonely and dont understand how to start a convo with anyone.

    1. Aw, I’m sorry to hear that. It’s always tough to go to a new place, especially when you’re sort of the odd man out. I’m a pretty quiet person too, so I completely relate to your situation. Have you gotten involved in any activities yet? That’s the best way to meet new people I think. Americans are VERY involved in extracurricular activities, and that tends to be where they meet their friends. Most people are involved in several groups or clubs outside of their academic work. So think about activities you might enjoy doing – playing sports, art, community service, discussing a certain issue – and then get involved in a club for that activity. I’ve always found it’s so much easier to start a conversation in that context, because you don’t have to awkwardly try to approach some stranger and ask them to be your friend. You already know you have something in common, because you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t, and usually you’re doing things like working on a project together or playing a game together where the conversations spring up naturally.

      1. I’m a female American student born and raised and I’m shy and am introvert and I am met with the same kind of prejudices. People think I’m a mean person because I’m not outgoing. Americans feels this way towards everyone and everyone gets made fun of. I don’t think it has to do with race or anything I think it comes from people being mean because you don’t try super hard to fit in.

      2. I am exchange student from Chinaand i’ve been here about four months.Ididn’t make any friends and i just wanna go home now.
        Maybe it’s because my bad English.I tried but I do not understand what others talk about or what ani talk o them.I feel sucks.Iguess i need helpand give me some suggestions,please!
        I’ll appreciate that!

        1. Hello J.Q., Doug here. I’m so sorry you’re feeling homesick, and that you haven’t made friends here. I imagine a lot of foreign students struggle through tough times as well. Would you be interested in writing something up for us about your experience? Sharing it could be a way for you and others to talk, and perhaps learn some new techniques to help break the ice. You can write me directly at dbjohnson@voanews.com

  18. Hi, I am an adult from Europe (lived in different countries) and have been living in US for 14 years. I find the American culture to be extremely different than other cultures. In other countries people are always interested to meet a person from another culture, always try to help etc.. It is very different here, people are distant, everyone is smiling but that doesnt mean anything. Even with kids it is so hard to make friends for them.

  19. great article, i’m from middle east and living for six months now in the us, going to start my study in the US this month and hopefully to make friends and meeting new people so the college and university years would be more fun..

  20. I am an American, and in my college, most of the students are from Asia. Many of them don’t speak English well at all so I find it very hard to communicate with them. In many of my classes, they are group projects, so I prefer to work with people who speak English because it makes it alot easier. Also, it seems to me like most of the international students stay together in groups. One of my classes, there was 4 Americans and 30 Asian international students in it. It made it really difficult for me because in one group project the Chinese students were only speaking Chinese.

    I really do not think that this issue has anything to do with race, but it has to do with communication.

  21. I think it is not the fault of ‘who’s putting in more effort’ to be friends it is the fact that most Americans are still ignorant about the world outside of the U.S. it is the fault of many Americans not being able to be accepting of others.

  22. Follow up on my last comment, I think most Americans here are afraid of what they don’t know. They stereotype international students only by what the media has portrayed them to be and more often times are quite negative. In this regard i think many avoid and even made fun of.

    When i was growing up as a American born Chinese. I was made fun of alot even though my cultural values were exactly the same as most Americans and my English was just as fluent as most of fellow Americnas. That fact that you I have an Asian face, the fact that i don’t look white was t he reason i was excluded and many times made fun of amongst my fellow Americans.

    Follow up on my last comment, I think most Americans here are afraid of what they don’t know. They stereotype international students only by what the media has portrayed them to be and more often times are quite negative. In this regard i think many avoid and even made fun of.

    When i was growing up as a American born Chinese. I was made fun of alot even though my cultural values were exactly the same as most Americans and my English was just as fluent as most of fellow Americnas. That fact that you I have an Asian face, the fact that i don’t look white was t he reason i was excluded and many times made fun of amongst my fellow Americans.

    I think it is not the fault of ‘who’s putting in more effort’ to be friends it is the fact that most Americans are still ignorant about the world outside of the U.S. it is the fault of many Americans not being able to be accepting of others.

  23. I just came across your blog today. I was in Graduate school in Newark,New Jersey from 2010 to 2011. Am African and i was curious about how studying in America would be. I thought i would have alot of American classmates but to my surprise all my classes were filled with students from India and China. There was hardly an American in my class and if there were any they were immigrants.
    I was only able to make friends with Americans through church. It took a while because i was shy and was not actively involved but with time i met very great people. Its easier though to first make friends with people with a similar background/culture.

    1. That’s interesting. Do you think it was something about your school/program that attracted international students more than Americans?

  24. I really find your blog interesting,am an international student studying in illinois. My first experience in the united states was somewhat challenging, i had difficult time coping and interacting with the students around here, for the first time being about 5000 miles away from home,i shed tears like no other. I am a really shy, reserved person and i do find it hard trying to make friends. one thing about this is that the americans will find it hard trying to get close to you because you are really not open to them but i later realised that it takes time for them to really know you and one just has to be natural,no pretense and feeling of pride and you will find them flocking around you.

  25. thanks for sharing this, now I have more knowledge about how to make relationship with others. Hope next year, I’m not hard to make friends with other students.

  26. I’m a Malaysian Chinese and i’m heading to New York in August to pursue my grad degree,
    and i don’t think making friends and blending in will be a problem to me.

    I did my college degree in Taiwan, and despite being the same race with Taiwanese,
    most international students from other Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore tend to stick with their own clique, which is a problem because the local students will be intimidated, at least that’s what the locals told me. To me, what International students need to do is to slightly alter their mindset, not exactly changing who you are but to be more open minded and accepting of a culture and society that is different and unique to where you are from. You learn from the good and take the one different from yours as a learning tool, or something like that.

    I never had much trouble mixing with local students despite being an international student, in fact, all my closest friends (you know, those who are so close with you that their family think of you as a part of theirs, cry with you when you breakup and help you out with whatever etc) are locals.

    So i guess in conclusion, i agree with what the American students’ opinions on how the International students aren’t making enough effort, because it’s a fact.

    1. Thanks for sharing that story. Good luck in New York! Sounds like you’ll be ready to make friends when you get there 🙂

  27. Hi Jessica,

    I am a visitor here and not even a Student, I am just curious. Found your blog interesting.

    As a worker, I can say that what the students say in the video mirrors what happens in a worplace environment.
    In today’s globilized world, we have guys coming here seeking a job from everywhere.
    So, I kind of understand you guys.

    Greetings from Italy.

  28. Thank you for posting another article about a survey and different opinions between international and americans. I watched video clips well and got have more understanding of what americans say about international students. It would have been better for me to understand if there had been interviews from international students’ side. I have been living in Australia for almost five years and I used to be a student in Adelaide which is capital of South Australia and had made few australian friends but not in class but outside of the school actually cause there was few australian in my class and simply the school was not big enough to accommodate many people because it was not a university capacity it was where you learn technical stuffs like cooking, welding and things like that. So If I go to university some day in Australia I’d hope to make more friends of Australians.

    1. Thanks David! Actually, it’s interesting you should comment that you wanted to hear from more international students. I specifically chose to focus on Americans because we post from the perspective of international students all the time on this blog, so I wanted to get the other side. If you’re interested in hearing about how international students feel about friendships with Americans, here are a couple of things I’d suggest you look at:

      And mostly everything in our “Campus and Social Life” category, actually 🙂

      1. it is hard to get friend with an american. i tried many times to say hi, but most of them showed dis-interest or suspicion. i some times tell my self that may be americans dont like to friend with some one who cant communicate english well like the way they do. i feel shy of my language and can not get friends in my campus

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