The Culture, Traditions, and Heritage of The United StatesIf you are one of the millions of people worldwide planning to visit or relocate to the United States in the near future, you should probably expect to experience a bit of culture shock, as life in America is unlike anywhere else in the world. As a nation formed by immigrants, the United States is a melting pot of different races, ethnicities, religions and values. So diverse is the country, in fact, that one might argue that the people of the United States do not share a common cultural landscape, but one as varied as the people who inhabit it. This is a valid argument, but despite their differences, the American people also have much in common from a cultural perspective, including their patriotism and their desire to live in a country where freedom is prized above all, and where people are given the opportunity—and even encouraged—to express themselves freely according to their own set of values. In the following article we will take a closer look at the American culture, first by describing some of the cultural traits that influence the way Americans think and act. We will follow this with a description of some of the cultural aspects of the country, including religion, the arts, cuisine, sport, holidays and celebrations.
Cultural Traits of AmericaThe diversity of America’s ethnic groups and cultures has helped shaped the values of the country’s people. Some individuals and groups, of course, have a set of respected values that are quite different from those of mainstream America, and their attitudes and behaviors are based on and tend to reflect these values. However, in looking at America as a whole it is fairly easy to discern the traits and institutions that seem to have the most bearing on the way Americans think and behave—particularly their individualism and employment.
For good or bad, the United States is a land of individuals. From the time they are old enough to listen, Americans are taught to be independent, to think for themselves and develop a set of goals based on what is most important to them. They are encouraged not to depend on others too much, including their friends and relatives, and they come to understand that rewards in the country are given to those who work the hardest.
Individualism is defined as a way of life by which a person places his or her own desires, needs, and comforts above the needs of a broader community; and nothing could describe the average American better. This does not, however, mean that the people of the United States have no concern for their fellow Americans. They do. What it does mean is that Americans regularly give high priority to their own personal ambitions. Sadly, in many people these personal ambitions can evolve into an excessive selfishness, which can ultimately complicate many aspects of their life, including the ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships. Perhaps this is why fewer Americans are getting married these days and why over 50 percent of all marriages eventually end in divorce.
Of course, the individualism that often defines the average American does have a positive side, too. It encourages people to express themselves in very creative ways, and because the culture so values individuality, new innovations across every spectrum of American life are admired. In recent decades, America has been home to some of the most advanced technological inventions in the world, and many of the most admired and popular artistic genres, such as Jazz and Hip-Hop music, had their birthplace in the United States.
To some outsiders, the individualism that characterizes the United States might lead them to believe that the American people have completely abandoned their community spirit. However, that belief would be wholly extinguished once they witnessed the manner in which the people of the U.S. seem to come together in moments of tragedy. Whether due to a natural or manmade disaster, Americans have always been able to rely on the help and generosity of their fellow citizens during their most troubled moments. One must also remember that this individualism allows people of all ethnicities and cultures to express themselves, within the laws of the land, without fear of repercussions from any given community.
In the United States, one of the first questions people ask upon meeting someone new is “what do you do?” Work occupies the lion share of a person’s daily life, and the people of America don’t just take pride in the work they do, they are defined by it. In other cultures, people may have the tendency to identify themselves according to family lineage, ethnic heritage or religion, but in America, work is perhaps the most central component of a person’s identity.
Statistics show that Americans work more hours and are afforded fewer vacation days than their European counterparts. Moreover, the average U.S. worker now spends approximately 2 weeks more each year on the job than they did 20 years ago, and the average married couple’s combined annual workload is now seven weeks longer than it was just a decade ago.
In the majority of American families today, both parents work. Naturally, this can put extreme stress and limitations on family life and relationships, as parents struggle to balance their work commitments with their family obligations. Americans are constantly seeking for new ways to make their work faster and more efficient, a factor that has driven the technology and computer industries in the country to produce time-saving software and gadgets. In the end, however, many of these products and advances simply lead to more work and a greater number of distractions.
Cultural Aspects of AmericaReligion
Religion plays a major role in the lives of Americans, and the United States is home to people of all faiths and creeds. According to census data, nearly three-quarters of the American population self-identifies as Christian. About half of those practice one of the many Protestant faiths, and over one-quarter follows the precepts of the Roman Catholic Church. Additionally, a small percentage of people belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. These numbers, however, do not accurately reflect religious participation in the country, which has dwindled gradually every year since the 1950s.
In addition to the large percentage of Christians in the United States, the country also plays host to a number of other religious faiths, including Judaism—the second-most identified religious affiliation—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and many lesser known religions, including those of the Native Americans. The fastest-growing sector in terms of religious beliefs is the group that has no religious affiliation whatsoever; a group that includes non-participatory citizens, non-religious (agnostic) and atheists—people who do not believe in a God or higher power.
For more information about Religion in the United States, see our section entitled “United States: Religion.”
The United States is a world leader and pioneer in mass media production, including television and the movies. Beginning in the early 1950s, the television industry quickly took a hold in America, and today the various programs of the United States are shown throughout the world. In every corner of the nation, no American is ever far from a television, and from a cultural standpoint, television is easily the country’s most preferred form of entertainment. Depending on the Cable or Satellite Television provider and package one chooses, Americans have access to hundreds of channels and a variety of interesting and enjoyable programming. Popular television genres, with one or two examples of each, include:
- Situation Comedies (Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory)
- Reality Television (Survivor, Amazing Race)
- Competition Shows (America’s Got Talent, American Idol)
- Crime Dramas (NCIS, Criminal Minds)
- History (The History Channel)
- True Crime (Dateline)
- Educational (National Geographic Channel)
- Sports (ESPN)
- Children’s Programming (ABC Family, Cartoon Network)
- Game Shows (Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune)
The United States is also known for its very vibrant movie industry, the largest in the world. For the most part, the movie industry is headquartered in the California city of Hollywood, and American movies are popular worldwide.
Americans have a very rich and storied theatrical history and tradition. The city of New York, which is home to Broadway, is considered the hub of the theater industry in the U.S., but most major cities also boast several large theater venues, as well as opera houses and community theaters.
Music is ultra popular in the United States, especially among young adults and teens. Americans have scores of popular genres from which to choose, including jazz, country and western, bluegrass, rock and roll, gospel and Christian music, rhythm and blues, rap and hip hop.
The gastronomy of the United States is as varied as its people, with the different regions of the country having very different styles of cuisine. Below are just a few of the types of dishes and styles of cooking that are most closely associated with each region of this large and diverse country.
Northeast and Mid Atlantic Regions
People who enjoy seafood will simply relish the northeastern part of the United States, an area famous for its fresh fish, Maine lobster and New England clams. Lobster rolls, consisting of fresh lobster, with mayonnaise or butter and served on a hot dog bun or other type of roll, can be found in the region’s many lobster shacks, and its world-famous clam chowder, a cream-based soup with fresh clams, seafood and potatoes, is enjoyed throughout the country by locals and tourists alike. Dairy items are also very popular in the northeast, especially ice cream. In fact, the state of Vermont is home to the internationally-recognized Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Company, with more flavors than you can count.
Traveling south through the Mid-Atlantic states, there is still plenty of fresh seafood to be had, but perhaps what sets this region apart from a cuisine standpoint are the distinctly tasty foods of New York and Philadelphia. As one of the most multicultural cities in the world, New York is home to thousands of restaurants, serving a variety of international cuisine, including many dishes from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Snack-type food, sold by street vendors, is also very popular throughout this bustling metropolis. New York-style pizza, for example, is loved throughout the country for its thin crust and heaps of mozzarella, and it’s not uncommon to see the locals folding their slices in half and eating them like pizza sandwiches. Other snack stands are also prevalent within the city, including those selling juicy hot dogs, soft pretzels and ice cream.
Visiting the beautiful colonial city of Philadelphia is a must when traveling to the Mid-Atlantic region, and while you’re there, you should definitely make time to enjoy a world-famous Philly Cheese Steak. These wonderful treats consist of thinly sliced steak, heaped with gobs of melted cheese, and served on a Kaiser or other type of sandwich roll.
The heartland of America is known for its scrumptious comfort food, with recipes that can be traced back to Germany and many Eastern European countries. Family style dishes are very popular in this region, especially what is known as “Hot Dish.” Hot Dish is an all-in-one meal; a type of casserole invented for its convenience and ability to feed large groups of people. Typical Hot Dishes are made using some type of meat—beef, pork, chicken—mixed with potatoes and vegetables and cooked in a cream sauce, such as cream of mushroom soup. Casseroles such as these are the perfect family meal solution for the cold winter nights of Chicago, Michigan and Minnesota.
Pierogies are another Midwestern favorite. These dumpling-like treats are stuffed with ground beef, potatoes, cheese and often sauerkraut. There are also dessert varieties of pierogies, filled with a variety of local fruits and sweet spices. Once filled, these rolls are brought to a boil, removed from the pot and then baked on a cookie sheet until golden brown.
The American South is also known for its delicious comfort food and home-style of cooking. Some of America’s most emblematic foods—fried chicken, corn bread and macaroni and cheese—originated in the south and are still enjoyed today. Although not for the health conscious, due to the fried manner in which most southern dishes are prepared, once you get a taste of Southern food you may just want to extend your visit.
Because of its relative inexpensiveness (as compared to beef), pork products play a major role in Southern cooking, products that include ham, bacon, sausage and especially pulled pork (pulled pork sandwiches are very popular throughout the region). Regional seafood, ranging from catfish to crawfish, is also incorporated into many of the dishes, especially in the Gulf States of Louisiana and Mississippi, which are both famous for a seafood and vegetable stew known as Jambalaya.
Soul food is another staple of the Deep South. This style of cuisine dates back to the slave trade in the United States and consists of foods that were available to the slaves during that time. American slaves, who had to make do with the scraps they were provided, developed interesting ways to prepare foods such as greens (the tops of vegetables like turnips and beets), and seldom-eaten animal parts, including pigs’ feet, chitlins (pig intestines), tripe and ears. The New Year’s Day feast, consisting of chitlins, pigs’ feet and black-eyed peas, is a tradition in the Deep South and is said to bring luck and prosperity in the New Year.
The western half of the United States can be broken down into the American Southwest and the Far West along the Pacific Ocean. Consisting of states such as Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas, the American Southwest is known for a cuisine that somewhat models that of Mexico, only with its own spicy flair. Southwestern cuisine can largely be traced back to the early Spanish colonists who settled in the region and the Native American tribes, particularly the Navajo who shared the land. Native Americans cultivated chilies, corn, beans, tomatoes, avocados and squash, all of which are infused into the American Southwest cuisine of today. The Spanish added ingredients from their homeland, including cheese, lard and rice, and even more influences came later from the Mexican settlers and the cowboys of the south, further changing the cuisine we know today.
The cuisine of the Far West, including the states of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, relies heavily on fresh seafood from the Pacific Ocean. The region’s cuisine has many influences, including those of the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Italians and Greeks. Sushi, a Japanese favorite consisting of raw fish, seaweed and other spices, has become very popular in the west in recent years, especially in California, as have many other dishes that originated in Asia. Large game, such as Elk and Moose, is a staple for many people living in the Pacific Northwest, especially in Alaska. Mexican food is also very popular throughout the region, with restaurants and snack trucks selling treats such as tacos, burritos, tortas (Mexican sandwiches) and quesadillas.
For more information regarding the cuisine of the United States, please refer to the section entitled “United States: Gastronomy.”
No discussion of the American culture would be complete without mentioning sports. Americans love their sports, whether they’re playing or watching. Each and every year, millions of people fill the various stadiums and arenas around the country to root for their favorite teams. Some of the country’s favorite sports include:
- Football. Not to be confused with European-style football, which Americans refer to as soccer, American football is characterized by its non-stop excitement, thrilling runs and passes, and crushing hits among large men wearing pads and helmets. Football is played at the youth, high school, college and professional levels. In the last few years, football has eclipsed baseball as the most-watched sport in America. Beginning each September, the National Football League in the United States begins its season of 16 games (held once a week on Sundays), culminating with the championship game in February known as the Super Bowl—the single most-watched television program in the world.
- Baseball. Developed in colonial America and organized into a sport in the mid 1800s, baseball has long been one of America’s favorite pastimes. Like football, baseball is played at every level, including the top professional level known as Major League Baseball (MLB). Each October, Americans gather around their televisions to watch the culmination of the MLB season, a best of 7 championship series known as the World Series. Baseball’s popularity has now spread throughout the world, as evidenced by tournaments such as the World Baseball Classic and the Little League World Series.
- Basketball. Basketball is also very popular in the U.S. and is played at every level by boys and girls, men and women. Thanks to the wide-reach of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the sport has produced many stars that are now recognized and even idolized the world around, including names like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.
Holidays and Celebrations
Many holidays and celebrations are observed in the United States, beginning on January 1, when the country rings in the New Year with a bang. Each year, tens of thousands of people gather in New York’s Times Square to watch the iconic “ball” drop, counting down to the stroke of midnight, while people around the country offer a toast for a healthy and prosperous new year. Americans celebrate their independence from the British each year on July the 4—celebrations that are marked by fireworks, backyard barbecues and plenty of good will. Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May, honors those who have died in military service; and Labor Day, observed on the first Monday in September, celebrates the country’s workforce. Thanksgiving is another emblematic and distinctively American holiday. It falls on the fourth Thursday in November and dates back to colonial times, when the first Pilgrims and the Native Americans celebrated the harvest. Presidents’ Day in the United States, marking the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, among others, is a federal holiday that occurs on the third Monday in February. The sacrifices of America’s veterans are honored on Veterans’ Day, observed on November 11, and the contributions of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. are remembered on the third Monday in January.