This article very generally discusses the customs and culture of the United States; for the "culture" of the United States, see arts and entertainment in the United States.
As the United States is an immense country, with many residents and citizens being descended from relatively recent immigrants, defining a common set of customs, traditions, behavior and way of life is difficult. Unlike many Old World nation-states, the United States does not have a homogenous population or a traditional homeland.
However, American culture can be interpreted as being largely based on Western culture and English culture , with influences from the native peoples, Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves, and to a lesser extent other more recent immigrants from Asia and elsewhere. Additionally, due to its large size and the value placed on individualism, there are many integrated but unique subcultures within the U.S.
America's formative years were in the late 18th century, and a great deal of American culture is couched in the ideals of The Enlightenment. The Declaration's mission statement about securing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; French revolution's ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity; and the national motto of E pluribus unum ("From many, one") reflect the country's values and social development. Another primary influence on American culture is the constant stream of new immigrants, many of whom had fled persecution or oppression in their home countries, and were seeking freedom (including religious freedom) and economic opportunity, leading them to reject totalitarian practices.
By and large, Americans value the ideals of individual liberty, individualism, self-sufficiency, altruism, equality, Judeo-Christian morals, free markets, a republican form of government, democracy, populism, pluralism, feminism, and patriotism. (Americans often believe that their patriotism has nuances that differentiate it from nationalism and nationalism's negative connotations.)
There is a close relationship between America's political and economic traditions: that the individual pursuit of self-interest leads to the best result both for the individual and for society as a whole, is believed to be a successful formula for both economic success and optimal political function. An effect of this can be seen by the fact that while the United States government is not the most generous donor of international aid, Americans are by far the most generous in terms of individual charitable contributions. The precise amount of individual economic freedom that Americans should have is often debated, with the (usually slight) differences in opinion marking the major differences between political parties. The end result, however, is that the U.S. economy has become the largest on earth, with most of its citizens enjoying comparatively high living standards.
The fact that the United States is the largest English-speaking marketplace allows firms to compete across the country and to enjoy economies of scale (cost reductions that arise from the huge scale of manufacturing) that reduce prices and benefit consumers. The relatively uniform commercial culture--with many large stores or "chains" operating nationwide--produces a commercial atmosphere that is relatively homogeneous throughout the country.
The population of the United States tends to be centered in large cities, in marked contrast to the demographics of a century ago, when the country was quite agrarian.
The United States is skeptical or hostile toward socialist and communist ideologies, but some of the related movements, such as the labor movement, became a defining part of America's heritage after the New Deal. The country was less affected by socialist ideas in the 20th century than was Europe, and the McCarthy Era and the Cold War as a whole demonstrated a deeply felt hostility to communism, which was perceived as anti-individualist and anti-liberal. They are also evidenced in aspects of social policy, e.g. the absence of a national health care system and constant controversy about the size and role of the government, especially the federal government, in individuals' lives and in states' laws.
The American tradition of free-market capitalism has led the populace (and their leaders) to generally accept the vicissitudes of the free market and the continuous alterations to society that a changing economy implies, although social and economic displacement are common. The result is a flexible, profit-oriented socioeconomic system.
Americans can be ethnocentric, with little interest in the culture of other countries. For example, very few books from European countries or Japan are translated for sale in the United States and sales of those that are translated are slow. Imported television shows are rare, except on PBS, although remakes of foreign shows are increasingly common. Imported films are generally less successful than domestic productions.
Americans also tend to travel abroad less than citizens of other countries, partly due to the fact that it entails traveling much further than it would for a European. This stereotype of ethnocentricity does not apply to all Americans, however. Large American businesses and their executives are generally quite knowledgeable and sophisticated about other countries.
The citizens and many other residents of the United States refer to themselves and each other as Americans, and to their country as the United States or as America. Non-Hispanic Americans understand, and may say, "the Americas" with the meaning of the two major continents of the Western hemisphere, but generally will resist using "America" in that sense, despite that designation's familiarity to Spanish speakers. While to many foreigners "Yankees" is synonymous with the American people, Americans almost always use the term for the sports team, for New Englanders, or in contrast to Southerners. The major exception to that is Americans' occasional ironic usage of "Yankee" (or especially "Yank", construed by Americans as a British usage), in attempting to convey either striving to transcend American parochialism, or resignation to the failure of any such striving. "The States" is a term generally used when referring to the country from some overseas vantage point. "The US" or "The U.S." is a casual, short-hand term.
When discussing the American Civil War, Americans use the phrase "the Union" to refer to the states that remained under the control of the federal government in Washington and did not secede to join the Confederacy. The phrase is also occasionally used in contemporary discussions of American federalism and states' rights.
Fairly formal terms, still short-hand, evoking patriotic observances (possibly with irony) are "U.S.A." (with or without the periods, and usually with "the"); a more marked version is "the U. S. of A." The full name of the nation, the "United States of America," is very formal and is most often used in formal government documents, pledges, or ceremonies.
USian is used within the country mostly in discussions like this paragraph, and is otherwise so extremely rare as to probably usually convey being either ignorant or more interested in drawing attention than in gaining a sympathetic hearing. Its rare use internationally denotes the U.S. specifically, rather than the Americas as a whole, or distinguishes U.S. English from the whole English language.
Because of the size and large population of the country, America is often described as a nation of joiners who tend to self-associate with non-familial groups. Individuals tend to perceive themselves as "free agents" rather than bound by family or clan ties.
Group allegiances are sometimes regional, but can also be related to a professional or fraternal organization. For example, residents of North Carolina are proud to be "Tar Heelers," Indiana residents are "Hoosiers" and many cities have a strong sense of civic identity, often reinforced by an innocuous but deeply felt rivalry with another local city. An example of such a rivalry existed until the early 1960s between the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Recent immigrants tend to congregate with other immigrants from their country of origin, often establishing neighborhoods (sometimes called ethnic enclaves) in cities with popular names like "Chinatown", "Poletown", "Little Saigon." Second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants tend to have looser affiliations with their ethnic groups.
America has tens of thousands of clubs and organizations, and if a group has a charitable or service orientation, Americans may volunteer their time through those groups. Examples of these groups include the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts of America, Little League, etc.
Main article: Cuisine of the United States
The types of food served at home vary the most and depend upon the region of the country and the family's own cultural heritage. Americanized versions of these cultural foods, such as American Chinese cuisine, sometimes appear. Recent immigrants tend to eat food similar to that of their country of origin. Families that have lived for a few generations in the U.S. tend to eat some combination of that and the food common to the region they live in or grew up in, such as New England cuisine, Midwestern cuisine, Southern cuisine, Tex-Mex cuisine, and Californian cuisine.
Tobacco and other drugs
Use of tobacco has decreased sharply among the better educated portion of the American public with use at only 10% among the college educated although it continues at 40% among high school dropouts. It is generally possible to avoid tobacco smoke in business establishments provided care is taken. Many towns, cities and even some states prohibit smoking in the interior of public places.
American sports are quite distinct from those played elsewhere in the world. Baseball has a huge following and is universally referred to as the "national pastime"; Major League Baseball teams play almost every day from April to October. American football (known simply as "football" in the U.S. and as gridiron in the UK) attracts more viewers than baseball nowadays; however, National Football League teams play only 16 regular-season games each year, so baseball is the runaway leader in ticket sales. Basketball, invented in Massachusetts by a Canadian, is another popular sport. Less popular, but still considered a major spectator sport, is hockey. Hockey, always a mainstay of Great Lakes area culture, gained tenuous footholds in regions like the Carolinas and Tampa Bay, Florida in recent years as the National Hockey League pursued a policy of expansion. The cancellation of the 2004-2005 NHL season could slow, or even halt, the spread of hockey into new regions of the United States. Unlike in Europe, South America, and recently, Japan, soccer has a small following, and is mostly popular in the more international cities of New York and Los Angeles, where there happens to be a high immigrant population. Generally most non-Hispanic Americans aren't very attracted to soccer. Sports such as cricket and rugby, common in other English-speaking nations, are nearly nonexistant in the United States.
The extent in America to which sports are associated with secondary and tertiary education is unique among nations. Particularly notable in basketball and football, high school and particularly college sports are followed with a fervor equalling or exceeding that felt for professional sports; college football games can draw six-digit crowds and for upper-tier schools sports are a significant source of revenue. Though student athletes are held to farcically lower academic requirements than non-athletes at universities, a minimum standard does exist.
Main article: Dress of the United States
Dress is usually casual and informal, and in the Western tradition of pants and a shirt, and dresses for women. The exception to the informality is major cities such as San Francisco and New York City, where many residents dress with posh and style. Social and business situations may call for tailored suits or other more elegant outfits. The strictest clothing convention applies to skirts and dresses; they are usually reserved for, but not always used, or exclusively used by, women and girls.
Jeans, a T-shirt and athletic shoes , with optional baseball cap, come close to being a national uniform.
The greatest variations in dress are related to climate. Easterners generally tend to dress more formally than Westerners. Residents of northern states wear heavy sweaters, warm, water-resistant boots, stocking caps and heavy coats or down parkas in the cold season. In Hawaii, the Hawaiian shirt as an acceptable item of wear by men has received formal approval by the state legislature. In beach areas, especially in California, Hawaii and Florida, skimpy clothing is considered acceptable in all but the most formal settings. Cowboy hats, Western boots and large silver belt buckles are found in southwestern and western regions of the United States, particularly Texas and Arizona. However, people from the Southern United States do not always go with the "cowboy" stereotype and instead dress in the aforementioned jeans and t-shirt.
Main article: Education in the United States
Should be merged with Education in the United States
In the American educational system children are generally required to attend school from the age of five or six until age 16, with the majority continuing until they are at least 17 or 18, or have graduated from high school. The public education systems vary from one state to another but generally are organized as follows:
Additionally, many children attend schools before they reach the age of five. These pre-schools are often private and not part of the public educational system although some public school systems include pre-schools.
Public education in the United States is provided by the separate states, not the federal government. It is free, but unlike many other countries, the US has no standard nationwide curriculum. Rather it is up to the teachers and administrators of the school districts to determine what is and is not taught. Increasingly, statewide curricula are being developed. Also, as of 2003 there is increasing state and federal pressure to use standardized tests, which lead to a more uniform curriculum.
Funding of schools is often done on the local level, with money obtained from property taxes used to fund the public schools.
Most of the private institutions have traditionally been religious institutions, such as Catholic schools, various Protestant schools and yeshivas. Some private secular schools, military schools and multi-lingual schools are available. Private secular and multi-lingual elementary and secondary education may cost $10,000 to $20,000 per year per student in large metropolitan areas, placing these schools out of reach of all but the wealthiest of middle and upper class families. However, many of these schools, reflecting the American spirit of private charity, provide academic scholarships and need-based assistance. Religious schools vary in price, from nearly free to costs on par with private secular schools. Poorer families may send their children to these lower priced schools for a religious education, or because they consider the schools better than the available public schools. Home schooling is allowed in many states and is an alternative for a small minority of households. The motivation for home schooling is often, but not always, religious.
The United States is a great center of higher education, boasting more than 1,500 universities, colleges, and other institutions of higher learning.
Undergraduate degrees granted by institutions of higher education include associate's degrees from community colleges and bachelor's degrees from four-year schools.
Common postgraduate degrees are master's degrees or Ph.D.s, or specialized professional degrees such as a J.D. for a lawyer, an MBA for a businessperson or an M.D. for a doctor.
As with the lower level public education system, there is no national public university system in the United States. Each state has its own public university system. There are also many privately run colleges, universities, and trade schools, some of them religiously affiliated. State university tuition ranges from nearly free on up, but is generally significantly lower than at private schools, and often lower for state residents than for out-of-state students.
Among the prestigious private universities of the United States are the eight Ivy League schools, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, Duke University, Emory University and Georgetown University. Prestigious state universities include the University of California, Berkeley, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the College of William and Mary, the University of Texas and the University of Michigan.
The U.S. federal government does provide some federal grants and loans for higher education to many families. Most universities offer academic scholarships and need-based aid, however, the American attitude is that higher education is a privilege, not a right, and that it is proper for students to assume some of the cost of their own education through work and loans.
Students seeking officership in the United States Military may enroll in ROTC courses at most colleges and universities, or in one of service academies, such as West Point or Annapolis.
Main article: Languages in the United States
The primary, although not official, language of the United States is English, of the subtype American English. Other major languages are Spanish (due to the proximity of Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America and the culture crossover of the borderlands), Hawaiian, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Tagalog, and to a certain extent French (primarily in far north New England and Louisiana, due to the Acadian-Canadian influence). There are more than 300 languages besides English which can claim native speakers in the United States--some of which are spoken by the indigenous peoples (about 150 living languages) and others which were imported by immigrants. Homegrown creoles include Gullah and Cajun, both spoken in the southeastern United States. Deaf people and their affiliates primarily communicate via American Sign Language.
The demographics of the United States illustrate why American English is largely rhotic; the letter "R" gets pronounced in most words with that letter, which is due to the splitting off from Britain in the 1600s when English was still rhotic. During this time, the King James Version of the Bible was written, and is referred to as such in the United States, not the "authorized version." Somehow the specific King James Version phrases, like the words of Shakespeare and the British units of measure, still resonate for most Americans.
There are four major dialects in the United States--northeastern, south, inland north and midlands. The midlands accent extends from what were once the "Middle Colonies" across the Midwest to the Pacific.
Main article: Religion in the United States
The American religious tradition is primarily Christian, but the Constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state, freedom of religion and, again, the diversity of the population means that no one religion holds sway over the entirety of the population. Culture "wars" often have roots in religious differences, but religious violence is rare and on a small scale. America is a more church(-temple-mosque)-going country than most Northern European countries. (The U.S. is rare among industrialized nations in that most of its citizens consider themselves religious.)
According to the 2001 American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS), 76.5% of Americans, or 159 million people, identify themselves as Christians; 13.2% or 27.5 million identify as non-religious or secular. These two identifications total almost 90% of attested religious affiliations in the United States.
Other faiths represented include the 1.3% or 2.8 million of Americans who identify themselves as Jewish; 0.5% or 1 million who identify themselves as Muslim; 0.5% or 1 million who identify themselves as Buddhists; 0.5% or 991,000 who identify as agnostic; 0.4% or 902,000 who identify as atheist; 0.4% or 766,000 identify as Hindu; and 0.3% or 629,000 who identify as Unitarian Universalist.
According to the same study, the major Christian denominations (making up the vast majority of faiths actively practiced in the United States) are (in order): Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal (aka charismatic or evangelical), Episcopalian, Latter-Day Saints, Church of Christ and Congregational.
According to other studies, as reported by the Statistical Abstract of the United States (the U.S. Census does not query about religion, so non-governmental sources are used), Americans' self-reported religious affiliations are 56% Protestant Christianity, 27% Catholic Christianity, 2% Judaism, 1% Orthodox Christianity, 1% Mormon Christianity, 5% "other specific" and 8% "other" or "did not designate." Some 68% of Americans are members of a place of worship, and 44% attend that place of worship regularly.
Work and jobs
Most people commute to work using automobiles rather than mass transit; the effect of the automobile on the United States is significant.
Most jobs are based on a 40-hour work week, that is, five days (Monday through Friday), eight hours per day. The United States has minimum wage laws requiring a minimum wage for many employees, though a number of employment sectors are excluded. Minimum wage differs from state to state; some states have higher minimum wages than the wage mandated by the federal government.
Paid vacations are usually two weeks. Other company benefits include sick days and personal days.
Americans usually retire at the age of 65, but may retire earlier if their pension plans permit it.
Immediately after World War II, Americans began living in increasing numbers in the suburbs, belts around major cities with higher density than rural areas, but much lower than urban areas. This move has been attributed to many factors such as the automobile, the availability of large tracts of land, the increasing violence in urban centers (see white flight), and the cheapness of housing. These new single-family houses were usually one or two stories tall, and often were part of large tracts of homes built by a single developer.
The resulting low-density development has been given the pejorative label "suburban sprawl."
The typical coupling in the United States involves two people of different sexes. Couples often meet through religious institutions, work, school, or friends. There are many private firms providing "dating services," services that are geared to assist individuals in finding partners.
The trend over the past few decades has been for more and more couples deciding to "live together" before or instead of getting married. The 2000 Census reported 9.7 million different-sex partners living together and about 1.3 million same-sex partners living together. These cohabitation arrangements have not been the subject of many laws regulating them, though many states now have domestic partner statutes and judge-made palimony doctrines that confer some legal support for unmarried couples.
Marriage laws are established by each individual state. Same-sex marriage is currently (as of 2004) legal only in the state of Massachusetts. In many states it is illegal to cross state lines to obtain a marriage that would be illegal in the home state. Married couples typically reside in their own separate dwelling rather than living with others or with their parents.
The typical wedding involves a couple proclaiming their commitment to one another in front of their close relatives and friends and presided over by a religious figure such as a minister, priest or rabbi depending upon the faith of the couple. In Christian ceremonies, the general practice is for the bride's father to "give away" the bride to the groom. Secular weddings are also common, often presided over by a judge, Justice of the Peace or town clerk.
Divorce, like marriage, is the province of the state governments, not the federal government. Divorce laws vary from state to state, but no-fault divorce on the grounds of "irreconcilable differences" is now available in all states except New York. Prior to the 1970s, divorcing spouses had to allege that the other spouse was guilty of a crime or sin like abandonment or adultery; but when spouses simply couldn't get along, lawyers were forced to manufacture "putative divorces."
State law provides for child support where children are involved, and sometimes for alimony. The divorce rate in the United States has been climbing for decades, and as of 2004 hovers around 50%.
During the 1990s, unpaid child support came to be seen as a major contributor to the growth of federal welfare programs. Congress partially federalized child support law to make it easier for custodial parents to chase down noncustodial parents and seize their wages and assets.
Deaths are generally thought to be an occasion for grieving by the majority of Americans. Funerals are held to honor the "passing away" of the individual. The dead are placed in a coffin and are generally embalmed and often displayed in a chapel or funeral home for a day or two (occasionally longer) before being buried in the ground. Unlike some Western European countries where the body remains in the cemetery for a limited period of time—e.g., 20 years—in the United States there is typically no limit. Cremation, an increasingly common practice, involves the burning of the body to ashes, which are then stored in an urn or scattered over a site significant to the deceased.
Since the 1970s, traditional gender roles of male and female have been increasingly challenged by both legal and social means. Today, there are far fewer roles that are legally restricted by one's sex, though there are still cultural means of inhibiting such roles. More and more women have entered the workplace, and in the year 2000 made up 46.6% of the labor force, up from 18.3% in 1900. Most men however have not taken up the traditional full-time homemaker role, nor have they taken many of the traditionally female jobs, such as receptionists and nurses.
Nuclear family living patterns
Beginning in the early 20th century, the two-parent family known as the nuclear family was the predominant American family type. Children live with their parents until they go away to a college or university, or until they acquire their own jobs and decide to move out into their own apartment or home. Children are expected to be out of the house by their mid 20's. While in some cultures (Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean) its acceptable for an adult to remain in the parental household, a person over 25 living with their parents is viewed negatively by most Americans. This may come from the long tradition of individualism. (There are some exceptions to this custom, especially in New York City, California, and Honolulu, where in addition to having large Italian, Hispanic, and Asian populations respectively, housing costs can be extremely high).
In the early to mid-20th century, the father typically was the sole wage earner and the mother was the children's principal caregiver. Today, often both parents hold jobs. Dual-earner families are the predominant type for families with children in the US. Increasingly, one of the parents has a non-standard shift, that is a shift that does not start in the morning and end in the late afternoon. In these families, one of the parents manages the children while the other works.
Before they start school, adequate day care of children is necessary for dual-earner families. In recent years, many private companies and home-based day care centers have sprung up to fulfill this need. Increasingly, corporate sponsorship of day care is occurring as well as government assistance to parents requiring day care.
Single-parent living patterns
Single-parent households are households consisting of a single adult, typically a woman, and one or more children. These types of households have been increasing in number and today, the majority of black households are single parent households. For whites, Hispanics, and other races, the predominant family household is still the two-parent family. Although the United States has a larger number of single-parent households than it did in the past, countries such as England have a higher percentage of single-parent households than the United States.
In the single-parent household, the mother typically raises the children with little to no help from the father. This parent is the sole breadwinner of the family and thus these households are particularly vulnerable economically. They have higher rates of poverty, and children of these households are more likely to have educational problems.
See also: Regions of the United States
Variations in the majority traditions occur due to class, racial, ethnic, religious, regional and other groups of people.
Cultural differences in the various regions of the United States are explored in the New England, Mid-Atlantic States, U.S. Southern States, Midwest, Southwest United States and The West pages.
Puerto Rico has a separate culture from the mainland United States.
Rural living patterns
The population of rural areas has been declining over time as more and more people migrate to cities for work and entertainment. The 1970s and 1980s saw the closure of many smaller farms across the US as small farmers were no longer able to make a profit from farming. Even in the rural areas, electricity and telephone service are available to all but the most remote regions, due in part to rural electrical cooperatives and the New Deal rural electrification projects. As in the cities, children attend school up to and including high school and only help with farming during the summer months or after school. However, the school schedule throughout the US is based on the assumption that children will be needed to work on farms during the summer.
Suburban living patterns
About half of Americans now live in what is known as the suburbs. The suburban nuclear family has been identified as part of the "American dream", a married couple with children owning a house in the suburbs. This archetype is reinforced by mass media, religious practices, and government policies and is based on traditions from Anglo-Saxon cultures.
One of the biggest differences in suburban living is the housing occupied by the families. The suburbs are filled with single-family homes separated from retail districts, industrial areas, and sometimes even public schools.
Urban living patterns
Aside from housing, which may include more apartments and semi-attached homes than in the suburbs or small towns, the major difference from suburban living is the diversity of many different subcultures with close proximity as well as retail and manufacturing buildings mixed with housing. Urban residents are also more likely to travel by mass transit, and children are more likely to walk or bicycle rather than being driven by their parents.
Arts and entertainment in the United States, including Architecture, Cuisine, Dance, Folklore, Literature, Movies, Music, Poetry, TV, and the Visual arts
Education in the United States
Holidays of the United States
Languages in the United States
Media in the United States
Religion in the United States
Social issues in the United States
Social structure of the United States
Standard of living in the United States
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12