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Culture of the United States

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Customs and Culture

As the United States is an immense country, most of whose citizens are descended from relatively recent immigrants, defining a common set of customs, traditions, behavior, and way of life is difficult. However, its culture can be interpreted as being largely based in Western European based culture with influences from the native peoples, Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves, and other more recent immigrants. Additionally, due to its large size and valuing of individualism, subcultures within the U.S. have come into existence. Many of these subcultures[?] generally share the common customs, but have their own customs beyond those of the general culture.

At present in the U.S., the mass media, and to a lesser extent, the educational, religious and political institutions shape the overall culture.



By and large, Americans value the ideals of individualism, self sufficiency[?], equality, Judeo-Christian morals and patriotism. The culture is generally informal, with first names almost always used except by children addressing adults. The culture is very much consumer-oriented with products heavily promoted through many different advertising channels to the extent that its detractors claim it is a very materialistic culture.

Television and Media

Television often plays an important role in introducing children to new ideas and developing common views of the world. Many shows are broadcast over the entire U.S., delivered to the home via the air or by cable and thus have an influence on a very large set of the population as 98% of all American households have at least one television and in fact, the majority of households have more than one. It is through the mass media that Americans develop their sense of the rest of the world. The national broadcasts are in English, though many more urbanized areas of the country have some local broadcasts in languages other than English, such as Spanish or Chinese, and the Spanish-language Univision network is available in large parts of the country.

Newspapers have declined in their influence and penetration into American households over the years. The U.S. does not have a national paper per se. Though the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are sold in most U.S. cities, they do not have a large circulation outside New York City. USA Today is promoted as a national newspaper, but appeals largely to people who are on the road. Instead, metropolitan areas have their own local newspapers. Typically, a metropolitan area will support at most one or two major newspapers, with many smaller publications targeted towards paticular audiences. Although the cost of publishing has increased over the years, the price of newspapers has generally remained low, forcing newspapers to rely more on advertising revenue and on articles provided by the major wire service, the Associated Press, for their national and world coverage.


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. REecent 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. See Cuisine of the United States for a complete list.


Dress is more uniform, being similar to other Western European nations, though there are ethnic and regional differences as well such as the cowboy dress found in south-western and western regions of the United States. There is little clothing that is specifically male, but skirts and dresses are considered female clothing only.


Children are generally required to attend school from the ages of 5 or 6 until 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 prior to age 5. 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 and yeshivas. Some private secular schools, military schools and multi-lingual schools are available. Private secular and multi-lingual elementary 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. Religous 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 small minority of households. The motivation for home schooling is often religious.

Higher Education. 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. State university tuition ranges from the 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. The US does provide some federal grants and loans for higher education to lower income families.


Most people commute to work using automobiles rather than mass transit. Commuting time varies, but in the extreme, some commuters in California will travel upto 4 hours one way to work. However, a journey to work of 20 to 30 minutes each way is far more typical.

Most jobs are based on a 40 hour work week, that is, 5 days, 8 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.


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 of the urbanized 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, their work or 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 between individuals is only allowed between indviduals of different sexes and the marriage laws are established by each individual state, however all of the states in the U.S are bound by the constitution's full faith and credit clause to honor the marriages and divorces of another 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 the bride's father to give away the bride to the groom. Secular weddings are also common, often presided over by a judge or town clerk.


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 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. Other traditions such as cremation have arisen in which the body is burned to ashes and the ashes are 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 work place and at all levels, though women are still typically found at the lower, less influential roles in private companies. Most men however have not taken up the traditional homemaker role, nor have they taken many of the traditionally female jobs, such as receptionists and nurses.

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. The family life is generallyChildren 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 care giver. 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.

Prior to 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 bread winner 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.

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 re-inforced by mass media, religious practices and government policies and is based on traditions from the white 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 is often smaller apartments[?] or semi-attached homes rather than separate houses, 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.


Variations in the majority traditions occur due to class, racial, ethnic, religious, regional and other groups of people.

Regional differences are explored in the New England, Mid-Atlantic States, U.S. Southern States, Midwest, Southwest Region of the United States and The West pages.

Subcultures in the United States include:

National holidays

New Year's DayJanuary 1Federal government holiday. Also observed by most businesses and schools.
Martin Luther King Day3rd Monday in JanuaryFederal government holiday. Also observed by most businesses and schools.
Inauguration Day[?]January 20th (following presidential election)Observed by the federal government.
Groundhog DayFebruary 2Not generally observed by businesses.
Valentine's DayFebruary 14Not generally observed by businesses.
Presidents Day[?]3rd Monday in FebruaryFederal government holiday. Also observed by most businesses and schools.
St. Patrick's DayMarch 17Not generally observed by businesses.
April Fool's DayApril 1Not generally observed by businesses.
Mother's Day2nd Sunday in MayNot generally observed by businesses.
Memorial Daylast Monday in MayFederal government holiday. Also observed by most businesses and schools.
Flag Day[?]June 14Not generally observed by businesses.
Father's Day3rd Sunday in JuneNot generally observed by businesses.
Independence Day Federal government holiday. Also observed by most businesses.
Labor Day1st Monday in SeptemberFederal government holiday. Also observed by most businesses.
Rosh HashanahDate depends on Hebrew calendarNot observed by most businesses.
Yom KippurDate depends on Hebrew calendarNot observed by most businesses.
Columbus Day2ndMonday in OctoberFederal government holiday. Also observed by some businesses.
HalloweenOctober 31Not generally observed by businesses.
Election Day[?]1stFirst Tuesday on or after Nov 2Observed by the federal and state governments.
Veterans DayNovember 11Federal government holiday. Also observed by some businesses and schools. Formerly Armistice Day
Thanksgiving4th Thursday in NovemberFederal government holiday. Also observed by most businesses and schools.
ChristmasDecember 25Federal government holiday. Also observed by most businesses and schools.

Culture: Arts and Entertainment

The development of the arts in America -- music, dance, architecture, the visual arts, and literature -- has been marked by a tension between two strong sources of inspiration: European sophistication and domestic originality. Frequently, the best American artists have managed to harness both sources.

American Popular Culture has expressed itself through film, music, and sports such as baseball, basketball and American football. Mickey Mouse, Babe Ruth, screwball comedy, G.I. Joe, the blues, "The Simpsons," Michael Jackson, the Dallas Cowboys, Gone With the Wind, the Dream Team[?], Indiana Jones, Catch-22 -- these names, genres, and phrases from American sports and entertainment have joined more tangible American products in traveling the globe. For better or worse, many nations now have two cultures: their indigenous one and one consisting of the sports, movies, television programs, and music whose energy and broad-based appeal are identifiably American.

Cultural exports

The United States is an enormous exporter of entertainment, especially sports, movies and music. This readily consumable form of culture is widely and cheaply dispersed for entertainment consumers world-wide. That said, what a society considers entertainment is not necessarily reflective of the 'true culture' of its people. More popular syndicated programs cost more, so overseas entertainment purchasers often choose older programs that reflect various, and dated, stages of the United States cultural development.

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