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Exploring American culture: a guide for international students

07 May, 2024
Exploring American culture: a guide for international students

From customs and traditions to everyday interactions, there are many aspects of US culture that, as an international student, may differ from what you're used to.

This blog post will help you uncover the nuances of life in America and enrich your experience in this diverse and captivating country.

Table of Contents

Traditions and customs of the United States

The language landscape of America

Religious diversity and freedom in the United States

Demographics of the melting pot: America’s population mix

Defining American style: fashion, architecture, and beyond

Culinary traditions: exploring American food and drink

Innovation and expression: the Arts in American culture

A nation of fans: sports and identity in America

Celebration and remembrance: American holidays through the year

Etiquette and interaction: understanding good manners in America

Traditions and customs of the United States

The United States of America, or USA as it's more commonly known, is a country comprising 50 states expanding over the southern half of the North American continent, with Alaska in the northwest and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

It is the third most populous country globally, with a population of over 325 million people.

American society is rooted in Christian values (70% of people follow Christianity) and principles of personal freedom, liberty, and independence.

The customs and traditions of the US reflect the country’s long and complex history, and are a an integral part of its identity.

Customs like shaking hands, tipping service workers, and respecting personal space are widely practiced in the US.

Traditions such as fireworks on the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving meals with family and friends, and the singing of the national anthem before sporting events are deeply ingrained in American society.

That said, as a country with a highly diverse population and vast regional differences and influences, each region has its distinct set of traditions and customs that enrich the cultural tapestry of the nation.

The language landscape of America

There is no official language of the United States, according to the US government.

  • While almost every language in the world is spoken in the United States, the most frequently spoken non-English languages are Spanish, Chinese, French and German.
  • Ninety percent of the US population speaks and understands at least some English, and most official business is conducted in English. Some states have official or preferred languages.
  • The Census Bureau estimates over 350 languages spoken in the United States, categorized as Spanish, Indo-European (e.g., German, Yiddish, French, Italian, Polish, Hindi, Punjabi), Asian and Pacific Island languages (e.g., Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai), and "all other languages" like Arabic, Hebrew, African languages, and those of native peoples in the Americas.

Religious diversity and freedom in the United States

Religion is significant in American society with freedom of worship guaranteed by the US Constitution.

  • Around 90% of Americans hold religious beliefs, with 70% being church members.
  • Christianity is the majority religion (48% Protestants, 23% Catholics, and 1.8% Mormons).
  • Minority religions like Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%), Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism (combined 2.5%) are also present.

Demographics of the melting pot: America’s population mix

The demographic makeup of the United States is emblematic of its historical moniker as a "melting pot." For international students, this diversity promises not just an academic education but a deep, enriching cultural experience.

Since the first arrivals from Europe in the 16th century, the United States has been a country built on immigration that has embraced different cultures.

According to the US Census of 2021, the American population consists of:

  • White or European Americans (including Hispanics) - 75.8%
  • Hispanic or Latin Americans - 18.9%
  • Black or African Americans - 13.6%
  • Asian Americans - 6.1%
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives (Native Americans) - 1.3%
  • Mixed/multi-ethnic Americans - 2.9%
  • White Americans (non-Hispanic) - 59.3%

Defining American style: fashion, architecture, and beyond

Internationally, the influence of American style—in fashion, architecture, and more—is both visible and pervasive, shaping perceptions and trends across the globe.

Fashion

The United States has long been a breeding ground for fashion innovation, from the invention of blue jeans in the late 19th century to the rise of sportswear and streetwear in the 20th and 21st centuries.

American fashion designers like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger have become household names, known for their versatile, wearable designs that blend sophistication with comfort.

Day to day, fashion in the USA is a reflection of the diverse regions and cultures across the country. From the laid-back style of California surfer culture to the chic sophistication of New York City, the clothing choices vary widely.

As is the case in any country, fashion choices are dictated not only by current trends, but also factors such as climate, religion and of course, occasion.

Architecture

The United States of America is a vast and diverse country with a rich history and culture that is reflected in its regional styles of architecture.

From the Art Deco skyscrapers of New York City to the adobe houses found in states bordering Mexico, such as Texas, each region has its own distinctive flair and focus on functionality.

Buildings are designed to fit the climate and needs of the area, from the tropical climate of Florida to the harsh winters of the North East. Whether it's the iconic Victorian homes (or painted ladies as they are also known) of San Francisco or the sleek modernism of Los Angeles, American architecture is a fascinating lens through which to explore the country's history and cultural identity.

Culinary traditions: exploring American food and drink

Food is one of the many essential elements that define a culture, and the US is no exception. Whilst foods such as burgers, hotdogs and breakfast pancakes may be considered stereotypically American, in reality, with such a diverse landmass, every region has its distinct culinary tradition.

From the seafood-rich North East to the barbecue-loving South and the Mexican-inspired South West, American food cannot be defined by any one dish. Instead, it's an amalgamation of various cultural influences, ranging from Native American to African American, Mexican, and European cuisine. Each region's food tells a different story about its people, history, and climate.

Innovation and expression: the arts in American culture

The United States accounts for a third of the global media and entertainment industry, valued at an enormous $717 Billion.

  • Television broadcasting in the US found its footing in the early 1950s, and American TV programs now light up screens worldwide.
  • Hollywood serves as the heart of the vibrant movie industry, and continues to reach huge audiences globally.
  • Beyond the silver screen, Americans have a rich theatrical heritage, with the world-renowned Broadway in New York attracting actors and audiences from all over the globe.
  • American music is renowned for its diversity of genres that have captivated audiences globally. It has been a melting pot of various styles, from blues to jazz, rock to hip hop, and country and western to pop. This amalgamation of cultures has given rise to some of the most influential musicians of all time, like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Beyoncé, to name a few. From the swing era of the 1930s to the rap and R&B of today, America's music has always captured the hearts and minds of people worldwide.

A nation of fans: sports and identity in America

Sports are more than just games in the American cultural landscape; they are a pivotal component that unites the nation, shaping identities and fostering community spirit.

  • Baseball, originating in colonial America and evolving into an organized sport in the mid-1800s, has long been heralded as America's favorite pastime. However, for the last few decades (according to the Harris Poll) its popularity has been overtaken by American football and the NFL.
  • Basketball, ice hockey, swimming and athletics are also popular sports in the US.
  • In the United States, college sports hold a special place in the hearts of millions, not just as entertainment, but as a vital conduit for young athletes to shine both academically and on the field. The televised coverage of college sports amplifies this impact, bringing the thrill of the game into homes across the country and spotlighting the remarkable talents of student-athletes. Consequently, college sports scholarships emerge as a crucial pathway for aspiring youth to access higher education while pursuing their athletic dreams.

Celebration and remembrance: American holidays through the year

The United States is a melting pot of cultures, which is especially evident from its plethora of holidays celebrated across the calendar year. For international students, understanding and participating in these celebrations can offer a deeper insight into American culture and provide an opportunity for meaningful cultural exchange.

American holidays weave together the diverse threads of the country's history, culture, and values. They range from festive and widespread celebrations like New Year's and the Fourth of July to reflective remembrances such as Memorial Day and Thanksgiving.

Major American holidays through the year

  • New Year's Day (January 1st): marking the beginning of the calendar year, it’s celebrated with fireworks, parades, and resolutions for the months ahead.
  • Independence Day (July 4th): commemorates the United States' independence with fireworks, parades, barbecues, and patriotic displays.
  • Thanksgiving (Fourth Thursday in November): a time for gratitude, family gatherings, and feasting, Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest and other blessings of the past year.

The United States is a country of immense diversity, and this is reflected in how holidays are celebrated across different states and communities. While traditions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas are widely observed, regional distinctions can provide unique experiences, from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to grand St. Patrick's Day parades in cities such as Boston and Chicago; a nod to its strong Irish-American communities.

Etiquette and interaction: understanding good manners in America

Exhibiting good manners and being polite are highly valued in the USA. Tips for anyone new to the country include the following:

  1. Greet with “hello”; when meeting new people, say “Hello” or “Hi, nice to meet you.” Introduce others with you as well.
  2. Use “please”; Americans say “please” when asking for something, like when ordering food. Not saying it may be seen as rude.
  3. Say “thank you”; Americans say “thank you” frequently for small gestures. Always show appreciation, especially to those helping you.
  4. Apologize; in the US people use “sorry” often, even for minor incidents. It’s a sign of politeness and kindness.
  5. Mind manners; Americans find not excusing bodily noises impolite. Cover your mouth if you burp or cough, and excuse yourself if needed.
  6. Respect queues; Americans value waiting in line for their turn in various settings.
  7. Hold doors open for others if they are following you through; it's considered a common courtesy in the US.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Below we look at some of the most commonly asked questions about American customs and culture.

Q1. How much should I tip at restaurants and other places in the US?

These days, it is generally standard to offer 20% of the total cost. Anything less than that will be considered a bad tip.

Q2. How can I stay safe while exploring cities in the US?

As an international student, exploring different cities in the US can be a hugely exciting experience. However, it is always important to keep safety in mind when traveling.

One way to stay safe is to research the area you plan to visit beforehand. This can include:

  • identifying safe neighborhoods
  • finding out about local laws and customs
  • learning about emergency services such as hospitals and police stations

It is also important to be aware of your surroundings while exploring, keeping valuable belongings close, and avoiding unfamiliar or unsafe areas, especially at night.

Always carry a fully charged phone and let someone know your itinerary for the day.

Q3. How do I use public transportation in major US cities?

Using public transportation in US cities can be an affordable and efficient way to see all that each city has to offer. Most cities offer a variety of options, from buses and light rail to subways and commuter trains.

Research ahead of time to understand the transit options available, and download maps and schedules to ensure smooth journeys.

Additionally, many cities and transport organisations have apps that offer real-time transit updates, making it simple to check arrival times and plan your route on-the-go.

Q4. Where can I find affordable places to eat in the US?

Exploring the culinary delights of different cities in the US can be a fantastic experience, whether you are looking for expensive fare, or food on a budget.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources available to help you navigate the food scene without breaking the bank. Apps like Yelp and TripAdvisor offer user-generated reviews of restaurants, and additionally, many cities have local food bloggers who share their favorite budget-friendly spots.

Whether you're craving pizza in New York or tacos in Los Angeles, there are plenty of options out there to satisfy your hunger without emptying your wallet.

From traditions to education: discovering American culture and study opportunities

We hope that this article has clarified some of the cultural elements of life in the USA, and given you an idea of what to expect as an international student here. Further articles about life and study in the US can be found on our blog, Kings Life.

Through our Guaranteed Outcome programs in the US, students begin a bachelor’s degree at one of our partner universities in Boston, New York, California, Oregon and Wisconsin.

They are supported extensively by our specialist on-campus teams as they adapt to US college life. They learn more about the US education system, improve their GPA, and gain a host of new skills and experiences.

After 2 years they are then able to transfer to a Top 50 or Top 100 university, from where they will graduate. Our expert advisors will guide each and every student through the entire transfer process from target university identification, course selection to transfer university applications.

We also offer semester abroad programs (in Boston, California, New York and Oregon), for those who would like to experience American College life without taking a full degree.

For those who require English preparation, we also offer a range of English language programs, from general English tuition to exam preparation courses and specialist English for career success.

If you would like receive more detailed information about the Kings and our programmes, please get in touch with us at us.admissions@kingseducation.com.

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