What You Should Know About American Culture

Whether you’re working or going to school as an international student in the United States, it won’t take you long to notice that American culture is unique. It can be difficult to make friends or build relationships at work if you don’t have a strong understanding of the local culture. Aside from understanding the language, cultural context is a major part of communication. Learning the essential characteristics of American business and social culture will help you thrive inside and outside of work.

For anyone who wants to experience the United States and learn about it’s rich tapestry of cultures a road trip across the country is one of the best ways to do so. Traveling across this vast and varied land you’ll experience American values such as mobility, flexibility, informality, freedom, and distrust of central authority, among others. I recently took a trip across the country with my mother and husband — I’ll  share some of our experiences in a future post. In the meantime, for those not able to take the journey, I’ll walk you through some basics of American culture. 

The Beginnings of American Culture

America was founded on the idea of rebellion. The first settlers sailed to America to escape religious persecution in their native country of Great Britain. As the 13 American colonies formed and solidified, rebellion against the mother country grew. These rebellious stirrings culminated in the Revolutionary War which began in 1775. On July 4th, 1776 the United Stated Declaration of Independence was created by members of the 13 colonies. It declared that the United States was free from Great Britain. By 1783, the war was won and the Unites States were formally freed from British rule.

World Atlas Maps:  13 Original Colonies

World Atlas Maps: 13 Original Colonies

In 1803 the country had doubled in size with the purchase of land from France, known as the Louisiana Purchase. By the mid-1800s millions of Americans had migrated west with the hopes of securing land and becoming prosperous. This mass-migration is referred to as the western expansion. Self-reliance, independence, and the growing myth of the American Dream were forged during this time. The idea that one could come to America and become prosperous through hard work and determination continues to this day. These ideas fueled steady waves of immigration and still do — creating the foundation of American culture as we know it today. 

Mobility and Novelty

A rebellious start and the lure of the American Dream created the rich cultural tapestry you see today. There are American Indians who have been here for thousands of years. There are millions of immigrants who travelled here voluntarily for a better life. There are those who arrived involuntarily through slavery and indentured servitude. Traveling around the country you’ll notice the diversity of the people and seemingly endless combinations of cultures.

Source: Center for American Progress,   What Diversity Teaches Us

Source: Center for American Progress, What Diversity Teaches Us

The social mobility and mix of cultures has led to a taste for the novel. Many Americans love to give new things a chance, often the complete opposite of what came before. For instance, look at the current political situation. The president is someone with little political experience and the complete opposite of the president who came before him.

Country of Extremes

America is a country of extremes: huge food portions versus the latest health food craze, vast lands and politics characterized by division and extreme polarization. The first colonial settlers in America were considered too extreme in their home country. The western expansion required a do or die attitude. Immigrants came from foreign lands in search of the American Dream.  

Moving into unknown territories in search of freedom, fame, and fortune, is not for the timid. Because of its history and current realities, American culture can be extreme. This tendency is also reflected in language. In American English nothing is simply nice but amazing, extraordinary, or fantastic. For example, if you’re making a sales pitch don’t be too humble. What you have to offer is not just nice, it’s the best!

Informal but Competitive

Americans tend to come across as very laid back, jovial and informal. Unlike in some other cultures, a business meeting, for example, doesn’t mean that you have to act very formal. In business dealings your best bet is to go with the flow and follow your American counterpart’s lead. Casual conversations in business settings may include everything from sports to the weather. Many Americans love to talk sports and it's a nice way to break the ice when you can comment on a local sports team’s latest successes. Be prepared by learning about sports teams and sports-related phrasal verbs. If sports aren’t your thing, read up on the local area’s culture and food. From Texas barbecue to New England Clam Chowder, many Americans jump at the chance to discuss their regional cuisines.

A word of caution: despite all of the small talk, don’t be mislead into thinking you can completely relax in business settings. American culture is competitive and individualistic. Watch how Americans approach debates, discussions, and negotiations. Everything is a competition of the minds. You’re expected to present strong arguments. Think like a lawyer and you’ll get the idea. Even as early as primary school, Americans are taught to sell themselves. Anyone can potentially “make it” here so you better stand out!

So there you go, a brief introduction to American culture. As always, keep an open mind, continuously learn and you’ll be sure to get the hang of American culture. Remember, you're the best! Stay tuned for some of the stories from my cross-country adventures. 

Marike Korn