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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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,
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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