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Culture of the United States

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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 immigrantss, 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, with influences from the native peoples, Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves, and 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.

Table of contents
1 Attitudes
2 Names
3 Intra-National Allegiances
4 Food
5 Clothing
6 Education
7 Language
8 Religion
9 Work and Jobs
10 Housing
11 Coupling rituals
12 Death rituals
13 Gender roles
14 Family Arrangements
15 Regional Distinctions
16 Related topics
17 External links

Attitudes

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 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. Whether this is true is arguable (e.g. the United States government is not the most generous donor of international aid, large corporations have enormous power over individual lives, and there are pockets of severe deprivation within the United States) but the U.S. economy is one of the most successful on earth, and many of its citizens enjoy 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, were accepted by the country, although not without dispute. 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 market and the alterations to society that a changing economy implies, although social and economic displacement are common. The result is a flexible, but money-minded, socio-economic system.

Individual 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 more common, and imported films are less successful than homegrown versions, especially imports that are not spoken in English. Americans also tend to travel overseas less than citizens of other countries. American businesses, however, tend to be quite internationally sophisticated.

The insularity of the general population and the media means there can be limited understanding of and sensitivity towards other countries and cultures, and this has arguably produced problems for the United States.

Names

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. 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." 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.

Intra-National Allegiances

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 a 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", "Frogtown" or "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.

Food

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. 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.


Clothing

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 polish 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.

Education

Main article: 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

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 curricla 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.

Private Education

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 most wealthy 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.

Higher Education

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 businessman 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, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, Duke University and Georgetown University. Prestigious state universities include the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Virginia, 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.

Language

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 geographic proximity of the 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.

Religion

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 European countries.

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 who 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. 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.

Housing

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, 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.

Coupling rituals

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 laws 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.

Marriage Ceremony

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

Divorce, like marriage, is the province of the state government, not the federal government. Divorce laws vary from state to state, but all states allow for divorce of married couples. State law provides for child support where children are involved, and sometimes for alimony.

Death rituals

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 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.

Gender roles

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.

Family Arrangements

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.

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.

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.

Regional Distinctions

See also: Regions of the United States

Variations

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

Most 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 and industrial areas.

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.

Related topics

The Nacirema and their relationship to U.S. culture have been a topic for cultural anthropologists since the mid-1950s.

External links