America is home to people from all around the world, so when you study at a US university, you’ll likely encounter unique cultures, traditions, arts, sports, and more. Over time, these many multicultural traditions have blended and adapted to become the face of culture in the USA.
If you are planning to study in the US, it helps to know what to expect when you arrive, and also to prepare for culture shock. Read on to learn more about culture in the USA and what you can expect as an international student living in America.
Described as a “melting pot” of cultures, the US is the third-largest country in the world, with residents representing different ethnic groups such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Latin Americans. As a result, US culture may at once seem both familiar and different, whether its shared values, food portions, driving, fashion, and even slang. Learning about American culture in advance can give you a sense of what to expect while studying in the US!
Every country has its own set of values and principles, and this is also true for America. Speaking generally, people in the USA align with the values stated in our Declaration of Independence: that all are created equal, with unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let’s take a closer look at what this means from a cultural values perspective.
From a young age, Americans are taught to be self-sufficient and independent. The importance of a person being able to mold their own identity and future via their own choices, abilities, and efforts is heavily emphasized in American culture, education, and institutions. Americans value taking care of themselves and having the freedom to pursue their own definition of happiness. This extends to university life, where students are in charge of selecting their own major and pursuing the degree program that best aligns with their personal goals.
For international students who come from a culture where everything is done collectively as one unit/family, this emphasis on individualism and autonomy could take some getting used to. Focusing on independence does not mean you are alone, however, as there are many communities, advisors, and support services in the US you can rely on in times of need.
For Americans, equality means everyone is born equal and no one is inferior or superior to the other. US universities take equality seriously, and will often include statements affirming equal rights in their charter, annual reports, and student and staff codes of conduct. Additionally, anti-discrimination policies are often in place and enforced for admissions, hiring, events, etc.
If you attend a US university, you can expect to live and study in an equitable and inclusive campus environment, where everyone can learn and freely pursue their goals.
Similar to valuing independence, culture in America places a great deal of importance on individualism. Individualism usually refers to being self-sufficient, with community and/or government assistance as a last resort. This means people are free to pursue their goals, often on their own terms, within the context of US laws.
Americans hold the ideals of freedom and order in high regard, and individualism is a key component — everyone in the US is entitled to their personal beliefs. The ability to express your individual views and opinions is considered part of this freedom.
America has the largest economy in the world, built off the principles of capitalism. As a result, culture in the USA often places a strong importance on materialism.
Competition and capital accumulation encourage businesses to maximize efficiency, allowing investors to profit from growth while customers benefit from cheaper pricing on a broader selection of goods. Equally, consumers are incentivized to purchase goods and services to feed back into the economy, and many financial systems in the US are designed around encouraging spending.
Due to America’s strong economic position and capitalist economy, people can sometimes be encouraged to assess their wealth based on personal possessions and compare material possessions with others. This materialism plays an important role in explaining inequities in America, but can depend on many factors such as your personal community, city, or the state where you live.
In US culture, there are a few significant holidays that may be new to international students. Here’s a list of federally recognized holidays in the US:
New Year’s Day — The first of January is a holiday in the US, with Americans celebrating the arrival of a New Year. As this day symbolizes new beginnings, many Americans start the New Year with family and loved ones.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Day (MLK Day) — On the third Monday of January, the US honors the life of American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), who protested against racial discrimination and made immense contributions to end segregation and prejudice. On this holiday, Americans are encouraged to reflect on racial equality and social change, as well as to devote time to community service.
Memorial Day — The last Monday of May is dedicated to US military personnel who lost their lives in service. To honor their lives and service, Americans place flowers and flags on the graves of military personnel; many towns also hold parades. Memorial Day is also considered the official kickoff to summer, and many Americans have outdoor parties, gathering with family and friends for barbecues, swimming, and/or outdoor recreation.
Juneteenth — To recognize the day slavery officially came to an end (June 19, 1865), Juneteenth is commemorated across America with parades, fairs, barbecues, and more.
Independence Day — Celebrated with fireworks, barbecues, parades, and live festivals, the Fourth of July marks the day the United States declared their independence from British rule.
Labor Day — The first Monday in September honors and appreciates the American labor movement, as well as laborers’ contributions to the country’s progress and achievements. This holiday is considered the close of summer, and Americans gather outdoors for food, swimming, games, and other festivities.
Veterans Day — Observed on November 11, Veterans Day acknowledges living veterans who previously served in the United States military.
Thanksgiving — Thanksgiving is a holiday of gratitude, commemorating the Pilgrim settlers’ first harvest back in the 1600s. Now, every fourth Thursday of November, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends over a hearty meal of turkey and all the trimmings.
Christmas Day — Celebrating the birth of Jesus, Christmas Day is celebrated every December 25. It’s a huge holiday in America, with parades, shopping events, music, and decorations. You may experience the country getting into the festive spirit even before October ends!
Along with these holidays, individual states or regions will observe local holidays based on their cultural history, or for members of specific communities or religions. For example, Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day the third Monday of April, honoring the first battles of the Revolutionary War in Lexington and Concord; the Boston Marathon is also held that day.
With its many multicultural communities, US states and cities tend to be home to a variety of different religious denominations. According to a 2021 study, Americans identify as:
63% — Christian (40% Protestant, 21% Catholic, 2% other)
25.1% — Unaffiliated with any religion
2% — Jewish
1% — Buddhist
1% — Hindu
1% — Muslim
Even though the majority of Americans practice Christianity, the United States does not have an official state-endorsed religion. This is a foundation of the US Constitution: Everyone has the freedom to follow and observe whichever religion they wish.
Social Norms and Etiquette
Culture in the USA is also built around different social norms and etiquette (which may be new to you). Let’s take a look at some basic cultural behaviors and best practices to be aware of when interacting with people in America.
Don’t ask personal questions — As a general rule, Americans value privacy. Asking questions about weight, age, salary, wealth, religion, or politics is considered rude.
Be punctual — Time management and punctuality are important in America. Being late or delaying a gathering/meeting will reflect badly on you, and you may be regarded as inconsiderate and disrespectful. Be on time!
Tip correctly — At restaurants and bars in the US, sales tax and tips are not included in the menu; therefore items can cost up to 25% more. Additionally, those who serve you when you go out will expect a tip, as this is considered part of their income. (Don’t know how much to tip? Tipping 15-20% of the cost of the meal is the general standard.)
Don’t skip lines — It is rude to push in line or skip people in a queue. If you are in a rush, ask the person in front of you whether you can skip ahead (but expect them to say no).
Be aware of pets — If you visit a home in America, remember that many Americans have pets. If you are allergic or uncomfortable being around certain animals, let your host know in advance so they can accommodate your needs.
Discuss dietary preferences — If you invite your American friends over for a meal, keep in mind that they may follow a certain diet or choose to omit certain foods. Be sure to ask for their preferences and follow them accordingly.
Follow social pleasantries — Smiles are basic signals of politeness and are seen as a non-verbal way of being friendly. "Small talk" when waiting in line is also considered acceptable.
Be prepared for big portions — Portion sizes in America tend to be quite big, so it is perfectly fine to ask for your leftovers to be packed up when you go out to eat!
Many social norms and etiquette foster the individual respect Americans expect from each other, while also showing respect for the identities of diverse communities in America.
Diversity in America
With its many multicultural societies, America gives you the chance to experience and connect with different cultures, whether you’re dining at ethnic restaurants, attending a live performance celebrating particular types of music or artists, collaborating on a group project with fellow students from various backgrounds, and much more.
Because the US seeks to honor its multicultural roots, you can find historical landmarks, monuments, and locations that tell the story of many of the minority communities in the US. American culture examples of these communities include African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Latinx Americans, Native Americans, and more.
Even the international student community in the US mirrors how diverse the country is — nearly 4.6% of the total US student population is made up of international students from 200+ countries. Each of these students bring their own culture and identities to add to the mix, with unique traditions, food, and sports — which you’ll definitely experience during your university studies!
Sports play a critical role in American culture, with many sports enthusiasts and fans found all over the country. The most popular sports in America are American football, basketball, and baseball; each has its own professional league. These sports have fan communities, built over decades, with rich history, cultural transitions, and sports icons who have become world-famous.
There are also annual championship sporting events such as the Super Bowl (football), NBA Finals (basketball), and World Series (baseball). Many of your American friends will be highly enthusiastic while watching these matches on television (or, if you’re lucky, you might even get to go watch games live at the stadium). The US’s massive stadiums hold hundreds of cheering fans and are a strong part of the American experience — they are a must-visit at least once during your stay in the US.
If you have an interest in sports, they can be a great way to get involved on campus and make new friends. Many universities and colleges in the US have their own sports teams and clubs, with many offering national competitions!
Other Tips for Living in America
The US is a large country divided into different states, each with their own unique culture. Your cultural experience is bound to differ depending on where in the US you choose to pursue your education. Living away from your home country can be challenging, but there are so many new experiences and adventures waiting for you. If you want to know more about preparing for your future in America, check out these tips when coming to the United States.
Remember, if you ever need support with adjusting to your life in the US, your Shorelight advisor is always ready to help. From tips for preparing for your flight to managing culture shock, they are with you every step of the way to help you succeed and thrive.
Here’s how Shorelight can help you transition into campus life >