As you start your new life in the United States, you may experience a period of culture shock. Everything seems new and strange, and so unlike the life you lived before. But the longer your time in America, the more you’ll find that its culture, people, and traditions may be very much like your own.
Defining American culture, or what makes something, or someone, American, is hard to narrow down. The early settlers to this young country came from other countries rich with their own traditions, beliefs, and customs. Their influences found a new home in the United States, and because of that, our modern-day holidays, food, culture, and traditions have origins from all over the globe.
Because of this history, the United States is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Sometimes referred to as a “melting pot,” the culture of the United States is a mixture of influences from Native Americans, early English settlers, Europeans, Africans, Asians, and everywhere in between. To give you a better understanding and make your transition to the United States a success, let’s dive into some concepts that helped to shape the modern American way of life.
Many popular foods that are considered American aren’t American at all. The first recorded recipe for apple pie was written in England in 1381. The hamburger patty originated in Hamburg, Germany, but the idea to put it on a bun is American, thanks to German immigrants. When it comes to food, what may be uniquely American is the ability to take flavors, spices, and ingredients from every part of the world and make it into something truly original.
Aside from what Americans eat, how they eat can be seen as a reflection of a fast-paced and convenience-focused culture. Food eaten without utensils, fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and drive-throughs all cater to eating on the go. It’s not uncommon in American restaurants for the complete dining experience, from beginning to end, to take no more than one hour. Ordering food and drinks “to go” and favoring meal preparation shortcuts is often the preferred choice for many busy American families.
Americans generally eat three meals a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When eating a meal with other Americans, there is usually no sharing of plates. Everyone has their own dish or meal, but they will eat together at the same table. You’ll find that the serving sizes and portions are larger in the US than what you are used to, and many dishes like hamburgers, chips, french fries, and sandwiches can be eaten with your hands. If you’re unsure of how to eat something, look around to see how others are dining.
Hungry for more details on American food etiquette and how to tip? Check out our article, “American table manners that help you fit in while dining out.“
American Style of Clothing
Many Americans value comfort and an individualistic sense of style when it comes to how they dress, although this wasn’t always the case. In the history of American fashion, Americans dressed to reflect their social standing. Since the lines of social status have become increasingly blurred, dressing casual has become the equalizer in the United States. You can find CEOs in jeans and t-shirts as well as entry-level employees.
As the trend for casual clothing seems to be an apparent American identifier, the ways to express your individuality or alternate your sense of style are openly welcome. Wearing sweatpants one day and a pressed pair of pants the next, would not be considered strange. Some American workplaces may have strict dress codes, but the majority opt for business casual attire. Check your employee handbook for guidelines on what’s acceptable to wear or ask your co-workers for suggestions.
Sports is a pastime that brings many Americans together and can also be the cause of many spirited debates. Popular American sports include football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Soccer, the American version of football, is beginning to gain many American fans but the following is much smaller than that of many other countries. Baseball was founded in America and often called “America’s favorite pastime,” but in recent years football has ranked number one in popularity.
Sports can be a great icebreaker when you are trying to make new American friends. Ask about favorite teams or details about the most recent game and feel free to share your favorite sports game from your native country. You’ll often find that many American sports are derived from other games across the world.
Language and Religion
According to the US government, there is no official language of the United States. However, at least 90 percent of the native-born US population speaks English. Dr. Wayne Wright, a professor of language and literacy at Purdue University, spoke to CNN about the lack of federal law at the time of the Constitution signing. “English was pretty much the dominant language of the United States at the time, so there really wasn’t a need to protect it. And they didn’t want to offend their fellow Americans who helped fight for independence.” Other frequently spoken languages in the US are Spanish, Chinese, French, and German.
When it comes to religion in the United States, it has been a long-held belief that early settlers came to America to escape religious persecution. The idea of religious freedom carries on through the Constitution, in which the First Amendment prevents the Federal government from making any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Americans exercise a wide variety of religious beliefs and value the general practice of respecting each other’s religious expressions.
Many American holiday traditions have roots in other countries, and how they are celebrated can vary from house to house. There are ten federal holidays as determined by Congress. Federal holidays are often referred to as public holidays because of their widespread observance throughout the country and at the state level.
Popular holidays include:
- New Year’s Day – January 1
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – Third Monday in January
- George Washington’s Birthday – Third Monday in February
- Memorial Day – Last Monday in May
- Independence Day – July 4
- Labor Day – First Monday in September
- Columbus Day – Second Monday in October
- Veterans Day – November 11
- Thanksgiving Day – 4th Thursday in November
- Christmas Day – December 25
Some holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Independence Day can mean a paid day off from work, but it is up to your employer’s discretion. There are no national holidays that require businesses to close. Other holidays are observed with festivals, food, and the sale of certain goods like Halloween and Valentine’s Day.
With many different ethnicities, backgrounds, religions, cultures, and beliefs, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one identifier that is uniquely American. Because of this, the United States can be said to be a country that values individualism and offers a variety of expressions that vary from region to region and from family to family. However, some concepts can help to define an American way of life. Keep in mind that these are generalizations and may not represent everyone.
- Time – A famous American saying is, “time is money.” Leisure time can be perceived as indulgent or lazy. Americans want things fast, and they feel productive when they are kept busy. Americans can be frustrated by things they consider to be a waste of time.
- Privacy – Many Americans enjoy alone time and appreciate privacy, especially when it comes to their money. Some Americans may consider it rude to be asked how much money they make. Unannounced home visits can also be perceived as an invasion of privacy. Always let someone know that you plan to visit. Americans also give each other more personal space and feel uncomfortable when standing too close. A best practice is to stand at least at an arm’s distance.
- Competition – In America, there is a belief that competition can bring out a person’s best. While teamwork and cooperation are also valued, Americans draw particular pride in being the best and working hard to achieve their goals.
- Equality – The belief that everyone should be given the equal opportunity to succeed is a strongly held value for many Americans.
- Directness – Americans place a high value on the idea of directness by expressing an opinion or thought in a way that is clear and honest. In America, being direct is an indication of trustworthiness.
- Progress – Having goals, working towards them, and learning from the growth are positive attributes in the United States. Americans are always striving for improvement and can feel uncomfortable when things remain stagnant. Change is viewed positively and is often connected with development, progress, and growth.
- Friendliness – Smiling at strangers or offering a greeting or conversation is typical American behavior. Americans are social and often look for ways to bond with those around them, even if it’s temporary. For some cultures, American friendliness can be perceived as getting too personal too fast, but the intention is one of kindness.
- Informality – Stemming from the fundamental value of equality, American culture takes pride in being informal. This dynamic was most likely caused by the cultural shift toward equality among social classes. Strangers will be introduced to you by first name and the American style of dress is very casual and relaxed. But that doesn’t mean Americans lack respect for others; the signs are simply not as clear as in other countries.
As a nation created by people from all over the world, American culture has grown from the many histories of its contributors. Getting to know your new home and its people takes time and effort as each person may not fit into every category described here. We hope you come to see there is plenty of opportunities for you to help shape what it means to be American, no matter your background or where you come from. As you settle into your new life, keep an open mind and don’t forget to enjoy the journey.
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