American Culture

Core Concepts

  • Informality
  • Individualism
  • Freedom
  • Opportunism
  • Future-oriented
  • Optimism
  • Liberty
  • Justice

For many decades, the United States of America has been the most globally powerful and influential country. Its economy, technology, media and popular culture have reached all parts of the world like no other. In this respect, America has set the example of what the world perceives a typical ‘Western’ society to be; most foreigners have a rough familiarity with American values and culture. However, the country has an extremely complex society of over 300 million diverse people. People’s attitudes and orientations differ significantly between states, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. In the broadest sense, key features of a dominant ‘mainstream’ American culture can be understood by exploring the history of the USA following initial European colonisation and the subsequent arrival of diverse migrant populations.

Colonial Background
The United States of America was established as a colony by European migrants who were mostly fleeing persecution or seeking a better life. These people were fundamentally radical for their time. Not only were they ambitiously optimistic about a treacherous journey to the unknown New World, they were often determined to preserve strongly held social, religious, political or economic ideals. Their assumptions and beliefs regarding individual achievement, social mobility in the class system and limited government were not common in Europe at the time. Some of these ideologies continue to be visible in the cultural values of America today.

Sociologists have postulated that perhaps America’s love of innovation results from the daring, revolutionary mentality of the original colonisers. Today, Americans are renowned for their optimism and opportunism. Many people share an emotional desire to continually find and believe in something new. This is visible in the way new ideas, opportunities, entrepreneurial ventures and even personalities can gain an eager following in the United States.

Success and the American Dream
America has been seen as the gateway to a better life for centuries of migrants and, today, many continue to arrive with the same ‘American Dream’ of economic advancement as the first settlers. As such, visitors in America are often struck by how financially focused the culture seems to be. Indeed, like most globalised cultures, commercialism is pervasive. Time is similarly conceptualised as something that can be ‘spent’ and ‘saved’ like a commodity. Sociologists have postulated that this visible money-orientation and materialism in the public sphere is a manifestation of the aspirations that have driven people to migrate there. However, while competitiveness of the free market may be an underlying factor in their lives, Americans are not solely dollar-minded.

There is a strong individualist mentality among Americans that hard work creates success; thus, anyone is believed to be able to ‘make it’ if they put in the work. This perpetuates the idea of the American Dream and promotes the individualistic notion of the ‘self-made man’. To many Americans, while money may indicate accomplishment, success is particularly derived from a person’s effort. People often view themselves as self-reliant and independent, and believe that any prestige they have gained is a direct result of their own work. Those who work their way from the ‘bottom’ to the ‘top’ are held in high esteem.

The belief that anyone can ‘make it’ powers an achievement fever in the American workforce and economy, with many cities and businesses keeping a competitive tempo. However, a scepticism of the ‘self-made man’ is emerging in the minds of many Americans as success and socioeconomic mobility is becoming dependent on access to previously established privilege, old-boys’ networks or even luck. Furthermore, since the global financial crisis of 2007, the middle class of America has been significantly diminished. Many lower-income families now struggle to rise through the social strata. This has created widespread concern that the American Dream may be dead or dying. Various public opinion polls show that most Americans currently believe that working one’s way up or out of their current social class is no longer realistic or possible. Many also believe that children of the current generation will be worse off than their parents.

While the struggle for financial success remains a defining aspect of the culture, it does not diminish the value Americans put on people’s individual morality. The country has a strong cultural and religious narrative of the ‘Good Samaritan’ which sees Americans celebrate charity work and selflessness. As many as 1 in 4 Americans volunteer for non-profit organisations or events, and many are eager to offer their services during community-wide crises such as natural disasters. It is also common for people to approach and aid total strangers. This kind of charity is seen as particularly selfless as there is no expectation that the the giver and receiver will ever meet again for the favour to be returned.

Many Americans are also motivated to do charity as an influence of their Christian values (the dominant religion). Christian sentiments such as “love thy neighbour” encourage compassionate relationships among all. Ultimately, whether religious or not, Americans tend to be quite aware of their moral-compass and identity. Australians are often happily surprised by the friendly openness and respect most Americans exhibit.

Keeping it Clear-Cut
The terrain of American society is quite functionally orientated. Convenience is often prized over other aspects like quality or aesthetics. The preference for simplicity and speed can be seen in the abundance of fast-food restaurants and drive-through pick-up facilities (at pharmacies, for example). It can also be seen in other intrinsic aspects of the culture, such as language. For instance, American conversation is quite direct, with the goal of ‘cutting to the chase’. Humour often strikes Australians as generic or plainly explained as it tends to be more open, physical and exaggerated (for example, farce is popular). Less use is made of subtle irony, sarcasm or understatement. It is also argued that the American spelling of English words is simplified.

In some ways, American pop culture echoes this cultural tendency to reduce complexity. The country’s popular narratives commonly depict the world as split between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ or ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ when, in reality, it may not be quite so clear-cut. This is often coupled with a large trend towards exaggeration and sensationalism to create an entertaining “media hype” around news stories, personalities or the like.

Mass Media
Ultimately, American society is saturated by mass media and pop culture. In this respect, it can provide a valid reflection of certain aspects of American culture. Nevertheless, it doesn’t accurately represent the diversity of the American public. Despite the American media’s pervasive global reach, the country’s media culture is quite insular. News broadcasts are very USA-focused compared to other developed countries, with many world situations and circumstances represented in an American-centric way or not at all. America is commonly referred to as the “greatest country in the world” or a “winner” by its own citizens.

Different Races, Ethnicities and Origins
Race is a key social and cultural touchstone for American people. For many, it is the defining feature of their personal identity, therefore discourse around race and ethnicity is more public and common. Generally speaking, while most minority groups have readily embraced the American Dream, some populations still struggle against the stigma and social disadvantage of their ethnicity or race. In this way, there remain definitive social tensions around certain racial identities and their place within the country. Conversations about race are especially sensitive in the USA and the terminology used to refer to people of different origins is a contested space. Americans are arguably more attuned to perceived slights on other races than people from other countries who have not been exposed to such raw social fault lines. 

According to the 2014 population estimate, 77.4% of Americans are white. However, with thousands of immigrants arriving in the US (both legally and illegally) every year, an increasing number of Americans have a multicultural background. ACS data shows that 13.3% of the resident population are immigrants. An estimated 1.3 million foreign-born people moved to the US in 2014 alone. Hispanics or Latinos constitute 17.4% of the American population, numbering over 50 million people. The US Census Bureau considers Hispanic to mean persons of Spanish/Hispanic/Latino origin including those of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic, Spanish, and Central or South American origin. Thus, a ‘Hispanic or Latino’ person may be of any race or ethnic group (white, black, Asian, etc.). Although 77.4% of America is white, almost 20% of those people are Latino or Hispanic; 37 million Americans speak Spanish. An increasing number of Asians are also immigrating to America, mostly for economic purposes; 5.4% of the population is Asian. A Chinatown can now be found in most major cities.

Currently, 13.2% of America is black or African-American. The term 'black' refers to the race while 'African-American' specifically refers to an ancestral subgroup within that race (usually those descending from slaves of the 19th century). Some black people may not feel a strong affiliation with their African genealogy but identify as being African-American for its cultural meaning in contemporary America.More recently, black people have preferred their race to be referred to as simply ‘black’, finding terms readdressing them by another category to be insulting. America still struggles to build and maintain positive race relations between whites and blacks due to the history of African enslavement. In the Southern states especially, the two races tend to live in different areas of town. Furthermore, the black population is still significantly disadvantaged compared to the white population. For example, black children is less likely than other children (white, Hispanic, Asian) to finish school, while the average black man earns less than a white man and is more likely to serve time in prison.

The indigenous peoples of America are also disadvantaged. They were almost eliminated during the violent and subjugating process of European settlement, and have since struggled to reclaim their culture and land. Today, Native Americans and Alaska Natives comprise 1.2% of the American population. There is much effort within indigenous communities to preserve their culture, traditions and spirituality. Many traditional customs and practices are tribally specific. There are shared values and attitudes that are common to most Native Americans, however tribes differ in their systems of governance and language. Some Native Americans live with their tribal community and continue to practice their ancestral culture. Others may operate within America’s dominant mainstream culture and have a more limited knowledge of cultural practices. The degree to which a Native American knows or integrates their traditional culture into their life varies and is said not to define them as being any more or less indigenous. The tribes that have the largest number of people identifying themselves as members of them are Sioux, Navajo, Choctaw, Chippewa and Cherokee.

The idea of cultural assimilation has been powerful throughout the history of modern America. The country has been considered a melting pot where immigrants are absorbed to produce a ‘new’ American. Today, this notion is changing as more emphasis is being put on the importance of a bicultural identity. As different ethnicities and races have gained prominence in the public sphere, a multi-ethnic familiarity tolerance, awareness and acceptance is growing.
Cultural Competence Program
Cultural Competence Program Logo

Join over 300 organisations already creating a better workplace

Find out more
Download this Cultural Profile

Too busy to read it right now?

You can download this cultural profile in an easy-to-read PDF format that can be printed out and accessed at any time.

The United States
  • Population
    [July 2016 est.]
  • Language
    English (79%)
    Spanish (13%)
    Other Indo-European languages (3.7%)
    Asian and Pacific Island languages (3.4%)
    Other (1%)
    [2015 est.]
    Note: Data represent the language spoken at home.
  • Religion
    Protestant Christianity (46.5%)
    Catholic Christianity (20.8%)
    No Religion (22.8%)
    Mormon (1.6%)
    Judaism (1.9%)
    Christianity [ndf] (1.7%)
    Other (4.7%)
    [2014 est.]
  • Ethnicity
    White (72.4%)
    Black or African American (12.6%)
    Asian (4.8%)
    Native American or Alaskan Native (0.9%)
    Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (0.2%)
    Latino or Hispanic (16.3%)
    [2010 est.]
    Note: The category of "Hispanic or Latino" is considered by the U.S. Census Bureau to be separate from racial categories as people of this origin may be of any race or ethnic group (white, black, Asian, etc.).
  • Cultural Dimensions
  • Australians with American Ancestry
    66,556 [Census, 2016]
Americans in Australia
  • Population
    [Census, 2016]
    This figure refers to the number of Australian residents that were born in the United States.
  • Median Age
    38 [Census, 2016]
  • Gender
    Male (48.9%)
    Female (51.1%)
    [Census, 2016]
  • Religion
    No Religion (40.0%)
    Catholic Christianity (17.0%)
    Anglican Christianity (5.6%)
    Christianity [not defined] (5.6%)
    Baptist Christianity (4.2%)
    Other Religion (21.6%)
    Not Stated (5.2%)
    [Census, 2016]
  • Ancestry
    American (18.3%)
    English (16.9%)
    Irish (10.9%)
    German (9.9%)
    Other Ancestry (44.0%)
    [Census, 2016]
  • Language Spoken at Home
    English (90.0%)
    Spanish (1.7%)
    Mandarin (0.9%)
    Arabic (0.5%)
    Other (6.3%)
    Of those who speak a language other than English at home, 94.0% speak English fluently.
    [Census, 2016]
  • Diaspora
    New South Wales (34.9%)
    Victoria (22.9%)
    Queensland (19.8%)
    Western Australia (10.8%)
    Other (11.6%)
    [Census, 2016]
  • Arrival to Australia
    Prior to 2007 (56.2%)
    2007 - 2011 (16.8%)
    2012 - 2016 (23.7%)
    [Census, 2016]
Country Flag Country United States of America