Culture of the United States

The United States has one of the most demographically diverse populations in the world from the immigration of so many groups of people.  Because of this, it is not easy to characterize the people or the culture.  The North American continent was originally population by many nations of aboriginal people.  Since European expansion into the territory, the dominant group in the U.S. has historically been white and of northern, western, eastern, and southern European origin.  The largest two minority groups have been of African descent, from the legacy of slavery, and of Hispanic descent, from Spanish-speaking countries south of the U.S.  However, newer and continuing waves of immigration from Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere, have complicated the picture.  A sign of the times is the fact that the latest U.S. Census allows citizens to list two races, not just one.

Surface characteristics of culture (e.g. clothing styles and music) change rapidly, especially in a country like the USA.  Deeper characteristics of culture (e.g. values and beliefs) change slowly.  Below are general description of key cultural characteristics, which you may use as templates or general models to help you interpret and understand the behavior that you observe.

Mainstream U.S. Culture

Here are some key characteristics of mainstream North American culture.  As you gain more exposure to U.S. Americans, you will be able to observe how these characteristics get displayed in daily interaction, in formal and informal situations, and in the classroom.  Please remember that following are very general descriptions.  The characteristics of African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and other subcultures will vary somewhat from this.  Please remember that the whole picture of North American culture is quite complicated, and there are many exceptions.


U.S. Americans are known for their strong sense of individualism.  It means that people will often make their own "path" their main concern, rather than the concerns of their family, community, etc.  This may appear selfish to people of other cultures (indeed, U.S. Americans are sometimes self-centered!).  However, the motive for this characteristic is a belief that each person has individual, unique gifts and talents, and that it is right and proper to develop these.  U.S. Americans also generally believe that they are responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment, and that fulfilling themselves allows them to fulfill others.  For example, U.S. Americans will often donate charitable causes; many seek education for personal development as well as career advancement; and some give up highly paying careers to follow lower-paying, service-oriented work because they will find it more personally fulfilling.  U.S. Americans usually feel that their identity comes from what they have accomplished in life, rather than who their family is or what socioeconomic level they come from.

In the classroom:  Students are expected to express their points of view, even encouraged to disagree with the professor if they have a good reason.  Students are expected to take personal responsibility for their own intellectual, moral, and philosophical development (and not blindly accept the viewpoints of others without careful examination).  Individual critical thinking and reasoning is valued in theory, if not always in practice.  Professors will customarily have and follow syllabus guidelines for evaluating and grading students' work, but may also adjust grades according to specific elements of the individual's performance, circumstances, development during the course, etc.  (see Explicitness section below)

In personal relationships:  Friends may want more time to themselves than you are accustomed to if individualism is less emphasized in your culture than in the U.S.  You may also notice that some people in this countries are quite involved in their individual hobbies, talents, or pastimes.  Sometimes, people will argue strongly for what they believe.


Self-reliance is valued from the days of our pioneer heritage.  People had to be self-reliant, or they didn't survive!  As a result, it is generally an admired characteristic in this country.  The greeting “How are you today?” is more of a ritual than a meaningful exchange; the expected reply is, "Fine", even if you do not feel fine.  Watch what happens someday if you answer “Well, not too good.  I am really depressed this week and need someone to talk to.”  The other person may have trouble knowing what to say!  This is because, except among friends, people are expected to give the public appearance of coping.  This characteristic also manifests in peoples' inclination to "do it yourself":  Many people repair their own plumbing, do their own sewing, painting, fence repair, car repair, etc., even though they could afford to hire someone to do it for them.  There is even a well-known joke about some Americans (especially men) refusing to ask for directions when lost!

In the classroom:  Students are always expected to do their own work.  If students work in groups, it must always be acknowledged  (see Academic Dishonesty section below).  In U.S. culture, students are generally expected to solve their own problems. At the same time, professors and advisors expect students to speak with them when they are confused or having trouble with a course.  It may sound contradictory, but this shows that the person is taking prompt steps to correct a problem - a way of being responsible to oneself.  (If you are having difficulty with a course, do not hesitate to seek help.  The student who says nothing will often find himself/herself shocked by a low grade when it is too late to do anything.)

In personal relationships:  It is customary for friends to exchange favors with one another.  It seems to be an unwritten rule that the nature and degree of favors and assistance should be about equal.  In this country, one friend would not expect to impose on (or ask a favor of) another for something that family might be obliged to do, except for unusual circumstances or a one-time situation.  For example, a person may need a ride and ask a friend with a car to help.  However, if the need for a ride is a regular one, e.g. to shop for groceries or to go to class, the person would be expected to solve this problem by paying for the friend's gas or providing some service in exchange, or buying a car.  In other words, if one cannot be self-reliant, one provides fair exchange.  Of course, in an emergency, one can always ask a friend for aid.

U.S. Americans are generally quite friendly and informal.  Like self-reliance, these qualities may also be due to our history - we are inclined to be egalitarian, and because we often move from one place to another, we learn to make casual friendships quickly.  You may find that it is easy to find a “friendly” person to talk to, but it is much harder to find a true friend.  The openness of people to discuss some topics can be deceiving; it may seem they are acting like a close friend on one occasion, but later act more distant.  This is probably because U.S. Americans are raised to be friendly with everyone, but of course people cannot be truly close friends with everyone they meet.  Most Americans have a few close friends, and many casual friends.  They prize their privacy and share their feelings only after a close, trusting relationship has developed with another person. 

In the classroom:  U.S. classrooms are fairly informal. Students in the classroom sit with relaxed postures, sometimes speak out without raising their hands, and bring coffee or soft drinks into the classroom (though eating food in a class is not acceptable unless it is a special occasion where the whole class is eating).  Professors are somewhat informal, too, smiling and joking with students.  This informality may actually be confusing, depending on what culture you come from.  For example, if professors join their students for lunch, or chat and joke with them in a way that seems friendly, does this mean they have become true friends?  Probably not.  It may look like friendship, but comes from the idea held by U.S. Americans that people should be treated as equals (egalitarianism), in a friendly, gracious, and civil way, not as inferiors or superiors.  However, professors and students don’t forget their actual differences in status – the student’s homework is still due by the deadline! (see Task/Time Orientation section below)  The role obligations are still in force, i.e. professors set the requirements, and students must meet them.

In personal relationships: Students may find that a "casual relationship" among men and women in this country would be considered quite serious in their hometown. Frequent dating, studying together, traveling together might suggest more than friendship in some cultures - even signal marital engagement. However, here in the U.S. a friendly interest in another person does not necessarily mean a romantic interest.   At the same time, though, it might! 

How can you interpret the behaviors of others?  And how can you signal your own intentions clearly?  This is not an easy question to answer.  (If it is any comfort, U.S. American also sometimes feel this confusion and ambiguity!)   The best advice here is true in many parts of the world:  Seek genuine friendship first. Getting to know someone takes time and patience, but you will be rewarded by being able to understand one another more easily.  When in doubt, talk it over with a friend or feel free to seek advice from a staff member of International Student Services, Residence Life, Center for Academic Success & Enrichment, University Ministry, or Student Affairs.


Egalitarianism - the notion of equality before the law and in public encounters - is closely related to the characteristics of openness, friendliness, and informality described above.  This section will just add a bit of detail.  The characteristic of egalitarianism also has historical roots from the establishment of the United States of America without a monarchy, but rather elected leaders.  Related to this is the idea that any person who breaks a law should be punished according to the law, even if the person is important, famous, or rich.  Of course, in practice, this is not always true, but one can see in the news that when public officials or powerful people are suspected of wrongdoing, there is intense interest in the proper legal processes being carried out.  Egalitarianism is based on the belief that even where people have differences in their status, these are external and often self-accomplished; one person is not inherently better than another because of family, finances, etc.


Have you ever seen a society that talks so much about freedom yet has so many rules, regulations, laws, contracts, applications and forms, forms and more forms?  For an example, take this International Student Handbook you are reading, which is written as explicitly as possible to prevent misunderstanding.  Take also the Lewis University Student Handbook, in which many rules and regulations are explicitly spelled out.  Take, additionally, your Residence Hall contract or Rental/Lease Agreement, your credit card agreement(s), the Terms of Service for your telephone, utilities, etc. U.S. Americans seem to explain themselves and their rules with endless detail! 

While some cultures value meanings expressed by implication (suggesting that the inner understanding of people is in agreement), U.S. Americans value the clarity of explicitness (suggesting that inner understanding and outer behavior are in agreement). The many rules you encounter may seem inflexible and unable to take into account individual circumstances.  However, remember that we also value individuality;  U.S. American believe where possible, it is rational to adjust the rules to sensibly fit the individual.  So if you have any concerns or problems, consult a staff member of International Student Services, Residence Life, Center for Academic Success & Enrichment, University Ministry, or Student Affairs.

In the classroom:  You will note that your professor will (or should) distribute a syllabus at the beginning of the course.  Read it, because the syllabus should describe what coursework is expected of the student, the semester's schedule, and how the professor will grade. To get a decent grade, the student must attend regularly, participate in discussion, write papers, read the textbooks and understand the lectures, take exams, and do various other projects and exercises.  (This may come as a surprise for students who come from a culture where the only thing that counts for a grade is a final exam.)  The professor expects students to explicitly demonstrate their individual and personal engagement with the subject on a class-by-class, week-by-week basis (see Individualism section above). Additionally, students' oral and written performance involves giving evidence, giving examples, expressing complete arguments including implications (in other words, being explicitly). You may ask the professor for examples of prior "good work" and you may ask him or her to be very explicit about assignments.  It may be that everyone in the class seems to understand what is required, except you.  In that case, you may certainly speak to a professor privately and point out that "My culture has different assumptions about writing (or exercises, or exams, etc.), so it would help me if you could be very explicit about what you expect".

Students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning by doing all these activities (see Self-reliance section above), and professors feel this is a truer (more explicit) basis on which to grade than one or two exam scores.

Task/Time Orientation

You will find that U.S. Americans in work and school settings generally put the task at hand ahead of their relationships with the people.  In business, work, and school settings, people may engage in a bit a chit-chat for friendliness' sake (see Openness/Friendliness/Informality section above), but then they "get down to business"!  Developing one's relationships and learning to trust or understand the other person are secondary.  Decisions are based on the merits of the case, not on who the person is or whom the person knows. 

Related to this is an orientation to time.  Punctuality is highly valued in U.S. culture. U.S. Americans feel time is valuable, should be made useful, and not “wasted.”  People are expected to be on time for virtually any formal or semi-formal activity.  Private parties such as get-togethers with friends and dances are more flexible. However, if a friend says, “I’ll meet you at six o’clock in front of the library,” he/she might be very impatient if you arrive more than a few minutes late (and if you do, an explanation is expected). If you accept an invitation for a function and you cannot make it, let your host/hostess know as soon as possible. This includes appointments made with faculty, staff and some private events.

In the classroom:   Professors usually make every effort to start and end classes on time.  And during the class time, they attempt to fill that time with as much information and activity as they can.  This shows their orientation to time and the task.  Notice also that, at the end of class, the American students are ready to go!  Even if the professor isn’t quite finished, the students are packing up, putting away their books and materials.  This may reflect a simple impatience to be “free,” but also suggests the expectation that the time-boundary of the class period should be respected.  Indeed, a professor will often apologize for going past the time, since it is regarded as an imposition (though the professor may be a little annoyed at students who appear too impatient to leave).  Students also are expected to be on time for class (sometimes, the value of informality conflicts with this!).  They are expected to hand in their work on time too; otherwise, it may interfere with the schedule of class activities, and where in the course material the professor expects students to be.

In personal relationships:  In this country, a person may put a task (e.g. the need to do homework) before friendship (e.g. an evening at the movies).  Do not be offended; people in this country will be expected to honor work or school tasks, to a reasonable degree, over leisure time.  (One can always suggest an alternative time for recreation.)

A General Note

Education is a valued part of the U.S. society.  However you may encounter U.S. students who are not aware of customs, traditions, geography, history, politics pr economics of other countries.  Global affairs, other cultures, and languages may not be stressed in their school systems.  Also, the U.S. shares only two borders with other countries, Canada and Mexico, one of which has many similar cultural characteristics.  So, unlike in European countries, there is little economic or political pressure to be knowledgeable about other cultures.  As a result, U.S. students may say things or ask questions based on mistaken ideas about your country or your part of the world.  

Please be patient.  If you encounter people expressing mistaken ideas, respond with gentle good humor.  The person will learn a thing or two about your country and also will learn from your attitude.  Remember that the most important contribution we together can make at the University is to educate one another.  A patient response may lead to a new friend.

As time passes, you will have a deeper and deeper understanding of U.S. Americans’ behavior in the school setting.  You may like some characteristics.  You may not like others.  But the more you understand, the more comfortable you will feel in the U.S.

Academic Honesty/Dishonesty

The Lewis University Student Handbook reads:  "Scholastic integrity lies at the heart of this academic institution.  All of its members should expect to be evaluated on their own work.  Plagiarism, collusion and other forms of cheating or scholastic dishonesty are incompatible with the principles of Lewis University.  Students engaging in such activities are subject to loss of credit and expulsion from the University" (p.36).

Notice how many of the values described above are evident in this statement.  Students must rely (self-reliance) on their own (individual) learning, and make it (explicitly) evident to the professor.  It is the person's own learning (task orientation) that should come first.

See also the section on "Academic Honesty" in the Lewis University 2000-2002 Undergraduate Catalog.


Cheating can be defined as any assistance given to another student during an evaluation, test, or exam (there may be exceptions if the assignment is a group assignment). One of the most serious problems for international students is the question of cheating.  Many international students come from cultures where helping one’s friend in a testing situation is acceptable, even encouraged; it is more important than one's own achievement (relationship orientation, rather than task orientation).   However, in the United States, this behavior is considered dishonest by faculty and administration.  Do not be tempted to apply the rules of your home country if they differ from the rules and regulations against cheating specified in both the Academic and Disciplinary policies listed in the Student Handbook


Plagiarism refers to copying or using writing, information (except general knowledge), or ideas without identifying the source.  It is regarded as a kind of "stealing" because in this culture a person's work (writing, performance, creation) "belongs" to him or her, and should not be used without giving credit to the person.  Actually, it is easy to avoid plagiarizing in your class work by simply identifying where you get your information.  Your English composition classes will give you a lot of detailed information about how to do this.  If in doubt, you may ask a faculty member.

Shared Work

Instructors in U.S. schools are usually pleased if students study together to help each other learn new materials.  However, in most cases, students are expected to do their own homework assignments (see Self-Reliance section above), or acknowledge that their work is shared.  There may be some "gray (unclear) areas" here.  For example, students may help each other solve math problems or complete exercises.  However, each person is expected to master the learning involved, often the demonstrate on an exam.  For another example, students are expected to write their own papers, although they may be encouraged to ask for advice and suggestions ("feedback") from classmates.  Sometimes students are actually assigned to work in groups on an exercise or project.  However, each student is still responsible for learning the entire lesson from the work. 

It is considered cheating if students hand in homework not done by themselves (except for minor assistance from others or where joint work is assigned by the professor), and they will be penalized according to their policies listed in the Student Handbook.  If you are in doubt, just ask your instructor how much help you may accept.

Computer Ethics

As indicated in the section on "Academic Honesty" in the Lewis University 2000-2002 Undergraduate Catalog, the same principles of academic integrity and honesty apply in the use of computer-derived work.  Please refer to the Catalog for details.

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