Understanding American cultural differences
Americans have their own customs and way of doing things. It can be confusing for newcomers. This information about American society and cultural differences will help you understand US culture.
The United States was once a colony of Britain. It became a free country in 1776 after the American Revolution. Another big conflict came in the Civil War, during the 1860s. Americans in the Civil War fought about rights, including the right to own slaves who were brought from Africa. The slaves were freed, and the laws were changed.
Another important thing to know about American history and cultural differences is that Americans come from many backgrounds. Only Native Americans (also called Indians) have ancestors from America. All other Americans have ancestors who came from other continents. Many of them came as refugees.
Because of this history, racial issues are important in American culture. The law says people are all the same. But one of the important cultural differences in the USA is that Americans divide themselves by race. African Americans do not always get the same opportunities as whites. Many non-white Americans are poorer than white Americans.
Americans are very proud of their country. American culture and society is founded on freedom, equal rights and democracy. Americans value the idea of free speech. This means they are allowed to say what they like about the president. They protest when the government does things they do not like.
The law says the government must not follow any religion and people have a right to their religious and cultural differences. But most Americans celebrate Christian holidays. About 80% of Americans say they are Christian, although fewer than 40% go to church. Like Islam, Christianity follows one God. It tells followers to be kind to their neighbors and to treat others with respect.
If you a practicing Muslim, you can talk to your employer about your faith and ask for a place to pray during the day. Many schools will also provide a space for students to pray.
Holidays and celebrations
People celebrate holidays by getting together with their families and by eating large meals. The biggest holidays are Christmas (December 25) and Independence Day (July 4). Independence Day is celebrated with fireworks and barbecues. New Year’s Eve (December 31) is another big celebration. People stay up late and count down the time until the clock strikes midnight. Halloween (October 31) is celebrated as a day to dress up in funny clothes and have fun.
Birthdays are very important. Americans celebrate with gifts, cake and parties. Families with young children will often have parties and invite neighbors, classmates and friends to celebrate birthdays.
The capitalist economy means that people (not government) own businesses and services. Healthcare is a big business. Farming is important too. Many farms are big and owned by businesses.
Business owners are not required to help the community, but many make donations to local or national charities. Americans donate a lot of money to charities. Many churches and community organizations provide food, housing, and essentials to low-income families.
But American culture is more individual. One of the cultural differences you may notice is that people do not usually share their money with their extended family. They may choose to donate or help their extended family members or friends, but it is not expected.
Most Americans have three names: first name, middle name, and family name (also called last name). Most women take their husband’s last name when they get married, although some keep their own last name or use both. If you have a different last name than your child, you may be required to show proof that the child is your child.
Elders do not have the same level of respect as they do in many other countries. People tend to give more respect to university professors, business leaders, and rich people. This may be a hard adjustment for older newcomers.
The concept of time is strict, and this is one of the cultural differences that newcomers struggle with. People set a time for most daily events. They will leave an event early to make sure they are on time to their next appointment. Time is especially important in work and school settings.
Men and women typically shake hands. However, it is okay for a woman to decline to shake hands or to touch a man. Men do not touch each other very often, except for shaking hands or possibly a quick hug. It is okay to touch other men. Women are more likely to touch one another, such as a hug when they first see one another or when they say goodbye. Family members often touch and hug each other.
People may say “hi” in the morning or smile but do not take a lot of time to greet other family members in the morning. You can greet your co-workers when you first arrive at work. People smile and say “thank you” a lot.
Writing is used for important and official communication. If you sign a piece of paper, people will take the paper very seriously. Legal contracts are signed written documents that can be enforced by the court.
People mostly eat with silverware (fork, knife and spoon) unless they are eating sandwiches, hamburgers, or fast food. They use their own plate and bowl for each meal instead of sharing one bowl or plate. If you have a guest at your home, you can offer them their food on a separate plate. If you are unsure if food is communal or for one person, you can ask.
All children must go to school from ages 5 to 18. Most teachers are women, but many men teach children, too. Schools expect parents to get involved in their children’s education. This means attending meetings or events at the school. It means giving students time to complete homework, and helping them to learn. American parents also help in the school as volunteers.
Your children will learn to work in groups and teams. They will study to pass tests for college. Children in American schools learn how to think critically. Thinking critically means students are expected to question ideas. As a result, students may start to question their parents. This is not a sign of disrespect. It shows they have learned an important skill to succeed in school and work.
Many people visit the doctor for yearly check-ups rather than just when they are sick. Doctors are very respected.
If a health worker will not talk to you about your family member’s medical care, do not take this as a sign they are being rude. The law says they are not allowed to discuss a patient’s health with other people unless the patient signs a form to give permission.
Counselors are very well respected. It is very common for Americans to see a counselor to help them through the death of a family member or other sad and hard events. Almost every school has a counselor to help student’s achieve their goals, such as going to college. If your student needs to see a counselor, this can be a big help for your family and does not mean anything negative for your family.
Marriage and divorce
In the US, you can only be married to one person. Polygamy is against the law. Divorce is common and accepted in the United States.
Most people live only with their immediate family members – parents and children and sometimes grandparents. Only a small percentage of families live with their extended families. The is one of the most noticeable cultural differences for newcomers from more traditional societies.
Men and women are both important to the household. Most men help with household chores such as cooking and cleaning and taking care of children. Men who do these chores are still seen as in charge of their homes.
Most families have two children. Many people pay to send their children to daycare. It is against the law to leave children home alone without supervision. It is also against the law to hit or physically discipline children.
Women and girls
In the US, men and women live, work, and go to school together. This is one of the biggest cultural differences and adjustment for some newcomers. Men and women mix at social events too. But you can request to have a doctor of the same sex.
Girls continue with their educations just like boys. American boys and girls both help with chores. American girls are not expected to run households until they are adult or get married.
In the US, women and girls are still expected to go to work and school while they are menstruating.
Women usually work outside the home like men. Most women take care of their babies on their own after one or two weeks. Employers must give unpaid time off for a few weeks, but then they expect women to return to work as soon as possible.
Some newcomers say they do not have any skills for the American workforce. This is not true. Many newcomers speak more than one language. They are strong because they have survived great hardship. Most newcomers value learning. They are willing to study and work hard. Newcomers make important contributions. Please use our work resources to help you find work and succeed at work.
- American values
- Race in America
- Talking to Americans
- Useful US laws to know
- For parents
- School in America
- For seniors
- Women at work
- Go to the doctor
- Why do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?