The United States is the most culturally diverse country in the world. As a result, teenagers need to know about cultural differences so that they can understand themselves, their families and peers better. Culture relates to the patterns of behavior, norms, beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions that people from the same society share. Cultural differences affect teenagers’ personal, family, school and social life, and a teen who understands cultural diversity is better able to relate to people who think and act in a different way that he does.
Teenagers whose families come from a different culture or ethnic background usually have to perform a balancing act between their family culture and the American one. In many cases, the families of first-generation American teenagers still wish to maintain their original culture and as a result, they expect their teenagers to demonstrate their cultural values and acceptable behaviors at home. For example, a teenager from a Japanese family may still be expected to bow to elders at home, yet in school and with their peers a simple handshake will do. Therefore, these teenagers find themselves shuffling between two cultures daily to meet expectations both at home and outside.
School is the place where teenagers most experience cultural diversity and it is also where they are likely to suffer the adverse consequences of being different. School activities involve learning through individual coursework and team projects, as well as extracurricular activities such as sports, music and drama. Different cultures have a variety of ways of learning and expressing themselves, and teenagers from other backgrounds may have a hard time adopting the American culture. For example, most Asian cultures are collectivist and prioritize teamwork, so they may grapple with the largely individualistic tendencies of American school activities. These differences may affect the way teachers and other students relate to the teenager. In some cases, the student might experience isolation, ridicule and even bullying that affects his educational performance.
Peer relationships matter most to teenagers and cultural differences may complicate their ability to form or sustain them. Culture influences communication and body language, which has a direct impact on romantic relationships, confrontation, likes, dislikes and other aspects of teenage relationships. Therefore, teenagers from different cultures may have a hard time understanding each other, especially where they have different cultural expressions. For example, Asian cultures generally frown against direct eye contact because it signals aggression and disrespect, while for Americans it is a sign of paying keen attention. However, in as much as teenagers from different cultures also have divergent forms of creative expression, popular culture seems to help them bridge the divide and find ways to connect with each other.
Cultural differences have an impact on the way teens view themselves. As a result they might either embrace their distinguishing characteristics and be proud of them or try to change themselves so that they can fit it in. Teenagers may sometimes struggle to be accepted. For example, if a teenager cannot speak English properly, then she might feel shy and self-conscious. She might also have low self-esteem that keeps her from interacting effectively with other teens. It's important to teach teens to develop positive reactions to cultural differences so that they do not labor under negative personal images that could adversely affect their well-being.