Cultural Specifics in the USA

Cultural particularities in the US
Image source: UTBP / Shutterstock.com

Americans are culturless gun fanatics, they feed exclusively on fast food and are basically superficial – some of the usual clichés about the USA. Those who spend a semester abroad or complete their studies in the United States are taught better.

A glance at the multi-ethnic population structure of the USA alone gives an indication of the multitude of cultural influences that shape the country. The U. S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2044, more than half of all U. S. citizens will be ethnic minorities.

Whereas at the beginning of the 20th century the USA was still referred to as the “melting pot”, today the metaphor is considered obsolete. The idea of the melting pot, in which all cultural influences merge into a single national entity, leaves no room for cultural differences. Therefore, with “Salad Bowl” and “Quilt”, concepts were developed that take a closer look at the different cultural influences and ethnic groups in the USA.

Origins of American culture

The beginning of the history of the USA is often equated with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. However, in the area of today’s United States of America, American indigenous people lived thousands of years ago. The Vikings are said to have discovered the American continent about 500 years before Columbus.

No matter where the origins of American culture lie: The voyages of discovery of Columbus marked the beginning of the conquest of the American continent by the Europeans and marked the beginning of the era of colonialism.

American colonial times

At the beginning of the 16th century, the first major wave of immigration from Europe to North America began. In particular, three large groups settled in the United States today:

  • Spaniards in California today
  • French in present-day Canada and Louisiana
  • English in Virginia and today’s New England.

Successful tobacco growing in Jamestown led many impoverished farmers from Europe to leave for America. They hoped for a better life in the new world. In order to finance the crossing, many settlers came to America as “indentured servants” and signed up as workers for a fixed period of time. In addition, from 1619 African slaves were brought to Jamestown for the first time, marking the beginning of slavery in the United States.

American foundation myth

Among the emigrants who left for Jamestown were also religious communities. In the middle of the 16th century, a Protestant community of faith was formed in England with the Puritans, which opposed the Anglican state church. The Puritans regarded themselves as chosen by God, they appreciated hard work and aspired to a “pure” church. They made themselves unpopular with the state Church of England and were soon subject to religious persecution.

Some of them traveled to America on board the “Mayflower” in September 1620 to realize their life philosophy of a godly and self-determined life. Still on the ship, the so-called pilgrim fathers put on the “Mayflower Compact”, which is considered the first document of American self-government. The pilgrims agreed with the non-Puritan fellow travellers to establish a self-governing community in the new colony and agreed on a common set of rules.

By the way: The American tradition of Thanksgiving goes back to the Pilgrim Fathers. As the first winter was approaching, the pilgrims asked the American natives for help after their arrival. These brought the fathers of the pilgrims through the cold winter months and showed them the cultivation of corn and native plants. In gratitude and in view of the rich harvest in the following autumn, the fathers of the pilgrims celebrated a Thanksgiving feast on November 21, according to the myth.

The puritanical way of living and thinking has had a lasting impact on the USA. To this day, US Presidents speak in their speeches of the United States as a God-chosen nation. Faith is an important component of the cultural identity of the USA. It served as a connecting element for immigrants from all over the world.

To this day, religion plays an important role in public life – despite the constitutional separation of church and state. The idea that each individual can achieve a better life and economic success through hard work is reflected in the American Dream.

Foundation of the United States of America

The ever-increasing number of colonies meant that conflicts between the European powers were inevitable. After the end of the French and Indian War (1754-1763) between England and France and Spain, most of the colonies were in English hands. However, the colonies increasingly sought economic independence.

The British Crown’s attempt to involve the settlers in the war debts by imposing duties and taxes also caused growing tensions. The Boston Tea Party in December 1773 is regarded as a key event that ushered in the American War of Independence.

The following documents are of fundamental importance for the foundation of the United States of America:

  • Declaration of Independence: Declaration of independence of the 13 colonies of England and thus the birth of the United States of America. In the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776, the principle of equality and the right to “life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness” are formulated for the first time. To date, July 4 is the American National Day (Independence Day).
  • Constitution: In the American constitution of 1787, the separation of powers was first proclaimed as a political programme and the governing bodies and their responsibilities were named.
  • Bill of Rights: With the 12 additional articles to the constitution passed in 1791, the Americans gained important freedoms. These include freedom of speech, religion, press and assembly, as well as the right to possession of weapons and due process of law.

In the course of American history, additional articles were passed which led to the abolition of slavery (1865) and the introduction of the right to vote for women (1920).

The right to the pursuit of happiness, the gold rush and the prospect of religious and political freedom led to millions of people in the 19th and 20th centuries setting off for the USA. The development of the United States of America is thus inextricably linked to the country’s immigration history and explains why it has always been considered an immigration nation.

Features of American culture

The typical American and the typical American culture do not exist. Nevertheless, there are some cultural peculiarities in the USA, which still characterize the self-conception of many US-Americans today. These characteristics do not reveal anything about the cultural identity of the individual. However, they can give an impression of life in the USA and, for example, help international students to adapt to the country and its people.

Idea of equality

The lengthy process of founding a nation and the laboriously attained independence explain why freedom and equality are so important in the USA to this day. The principle formulated in the Declaration of Independence,“all men are created equal”, forms the foundation of the United States’ values – even though it was initially in contradiction with slavery, which lasted until 1865.

The principle is that all people are born with equal rights and have the same initial chances. The idea of equality is now reflected, for example, in anti-discrimination measures such as affirmative action programmes or corporate diversity principles.

Freedom and individualism

The United States of America is considered an individualistic society. Freedom of self-determination has top priority in the “Land of the Free”. In the USA, it is generally accepted that each individual is a blacksmith and responsible for his or her own success. Although individualism is very pronounced in the United States, many Americans are socially and voluntarily active, for example in the neighbourhood. Many students also use clubs or student associations for social purposes or provide community service.

The importance of personal freedom in the USA is evident in many different areas of public life. The idea of freedom is expressed particularly strongly in the US debate on tougher arms laws. Many Americans insist on their constitutional right to carry a weapon. They see a ban on weapons as a restriction of their freedom and regard a corresponding law as a threat to personal and public security.

For many Americans, the car in particular conveys a feeling of freedom and independence. This explains why cars are the most popular and widely used means of transport in the USA. Outside the big cities, in particular, public transport is often only sparsely developed. In order to be mobile, many international students buy a used car during their studies in the USA. This gives them the chance to experience the boundless feeling of freedom on the highway.

Sports enthusiasm

Whether international media spectacles such as the Super Bowl, the playoffs of the four major sports leagues NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL or college competitions – sport plays an important role in American society. Many Americans spend a large part of their free time in sport. They are active in sports clubs or accompany sporting competitions as spectators.

Numerous sporting events in the USA are associated with rituals. For example, so-called tailgate parties often take place before football matches. Fans meet before the kick-off to eat and drink in the car parks of the venues. In many cases they are equipped with barbecue and camping chairs. The Americans celebrate the Super Bowl, which has become an unofficial holiday. Family and friends watch the spectacle together in front of the TV. Super Bowl parties can be found at every corner.

Sports competitions are about values such as fairness and team play. Sport is also so important in the USA because it has long been a connecting element between the many cultural groups. Because sport can overcome differences such as ethnic or social affiliations, it is an important means of integration.

Open and direct: Communication behaviour in the USA

Compared to Germans, Americans are considered extroverted and direct. In the café or retail trade, waitresses or salesmen may well introduce themselves with their names. Colleges and universities in the USA also use first names for lecturers and professors.

Phrases such as “How are you?” or “How’re u doin’?” meet you in the USA in your studies and leisure time. These questions are not meant literally, but as a sign of courtesy. Therefore, no one expects a serious answer.

In the USA, small talk is common – even with strangers. This kind of communication is strange to non-Americans and is the reason for the persistent cliché of the superficial American. In fact, Smalltalk aims to enter into conversation with other people and create a pleasant atmosphere. Many Americans find it unpleasant to keep quiet about each other, so they tend to talk small. It mainly deals with uncomplicated topics such as the weather, sports or cars, but more personal questions about family or hobbies can also arise.

Many Americans like to approach other people. For this reason, international students often have the impression that it is easier for them to make new contacts in the USA. However, the initial signal of interest should not be misinterpreted and interpreted as a sign of friendship.

Behavioral tips for the USA

Americans are generally regarded as agreeable. Nevertheless, there are also certain rules of conduct in the USA. For example, political, religious and social issues have no place in small talk. Discriminatory statements against minorities are also taboo. In addition, students should exercise caution when making national comparisons. National pride is stronger in the USA than in Germany. Thus, a harmlessly meaningful comparison can possibly lead one or two Americans to feel that they are being hit in the head.

It is also advisable not to take everything literally in the USA. For example, when saying good-bye, sentences such as “See you later” or “Feel free to call me anytime” are often used. What sounds like an alleged invitation is often meant to be just as meaningless as the question of well-being. A rough clue: If the caller names an appointment with date and time, it is actually an invitation.

No matter how thorough the cultural preparation, cultural misunderstandings are sometimes unavoidable. But if you are open and positive in your approach to errors, you cannot do much wrong in the USA. The method of “trial and error” is widespread in the population and generally a “can-do” mentality prevails.

Typical USA: the most important do’s and don’ ts

Do’s Don’ ts
Small talk Addressing social, political and religious issues in small talk
Listening attentively to the conversation partners and showing interest Drinking alcohol in public
Waiting for a table assignment in the restaurant. Get out of the car at a police checkpoint.
Dealing positively and openly with mistakes Give no or insufficient tips
Only express indirect and factual criticism bill separately
Present your escort (Pre-)Thrust
Getting leftover food packed in the restaurant (“Doggybag”) Discriminatory treatment of minorities
Friendly attitude of the Americans heeded nude bathing
SHARE