Understanding American Culture

So you’ve decided to come study English in Los Angeles! I think you’ve made a great decision! Los Angeles is a multi cultural city with a great location in the US near beaches, mountains, and even the desert all within a few hour drive! Before you come to study English the the USA, it’s important to learn a few things about American Culture.

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The USA
America’s population is extremely diverse. In cities like Chicago or San Francisco, 1/10 of residents were born in a foreign country. In the two biggest cities, Los Angeles and New York, more than 20 percent of the population was born in another country. In every big city in the US, you will find people from almost any country in the world. Terms like “Asian American,” “Italian American,” and terms to represent other various ethnic heritages are common.

When it comes to religions, America’s population has Catholics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, and every other religion you could think of. What about in Politics? We have Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Socialists, etc… America has very rich and very poor, very conservative views and very liberal, and thousands of various jobs. So with all this diversity, who is to say what is really “American”?

Americans typically do not view themselves as a good “representation” of what it means to be “American.” We usually see ourselves as individuals who fit into the melting pot of cultures in America. While, Americans do have many stereotypes for the various cultures in our country, we have a difficult time choosing what exactly is “American.” However, there are some cultural norms that I will share today.

Individualism
Because most Americans have a difficult time putting a label on what is “American Culture,” many people pride themselves on their individualism. Most Americans have been raised with the idea that they are separate individuals with their own responsibility for their life. Most are not raised to feel a close-knit connection with other groups, and are proud of their own individualism.

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Respect
Most Americans do not display the same level of respect as other cultures. American culture is not as traditional or family-oriented as many other countries and children often feel it is parents responsibility to care for them. Once reaching adulthood, many Americans lose close ties with parents and view themselves as an equal and individual person apart from their families. However, because American culture is so varied, this is not true for all Americans and is only a generalization of many.

Privacy and Personal Space
As most Americans put a large importance on Individualism, privacy is also a big factor of the American lifestyle. Many Americans assume that people “need some time to themselves” or “time alone” to think about their own life. Most Americans will not understand foreigners who always want to be with another person, or who don’t ever want to spend time alone. Personal space and privacy are important to many American’s lifestyles. Try to avoide physical contact while speaking, as this may lead to discomfort. Touching in any way (arms around shoulder, touching face, holding hands) is usually too intimate for American friendships. When meeting someone, shaking hands is acceptable and sometimes a hug to say goodbye is acceptable for a close friend.

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Equality
American Culture is built upon the idea that “All men are created equal.” Many Americans hold a deep belief in this concept and let it guide their daily interactions. However, this idea sometimes isn’t fully implemented in rural, or countryside, communities. Sexism, racism, and other discrimination still can be found within America, though it is slowly becoming not acceptable. Social order is not formally admitted in the US, instead people will use their tone of voice or subtle signs to acknowledge status amongst themselves.

Directness and Assertiveness
Americans are not raised to mask their emotional responses and as a result are much more open about their emotions in public. Americans usually consider themselves to be open and direct in the way they deal with people. They will often speak directly and open about things they dislike. In situations they believe should be different, Americans use “constructive criticism,” which spins the negative comment with a more positive connotation. Even if they don’t speak what’s on their mind, they often show it through body position and gestures. Americans in general are not afraid to speak up or ask questions, and foreigners are expected to act the same.

Informality
The notion of equality leads Americans to be very informal in their behaviors and relationships with other people. Americans are very informal in speech; often using slang, first names, and informal gestures. On campuses, the dress is very informal- do not be surprised to see students wearing pajamas to class! Also, the relationship between professors and students is informal, equal, and often more like a friendship than what a foreigner might expect to be a student/professor relationship.

Time and Punctuality
Americans generally organize their life activities using schedules. Punctuality and adhering to schedules is usually extremely important to most Americans. The phrase “Time is money” is a common expression that many Americans use. For these reasons, Americans may seem hurried- always running from one thing to the next. They may seem like they can’t relax and enjoy themselves, or that they are always rushed. It is important for you to arrive on time to appointments, meetings, or class. Sometimes you will not even be allowed to enter class after the specified start time. Many Americans frown upon tardiness and will become aggravated or upset. If you are going to be late to or miss an appointment or event, you should contact the others involved ahead of time to let them know that you will be late or be absent. This is important to keeping positive relationships with American people.

Hard Work and Achievement
People who center their lives around goals and achievement are usually highly respected in American Culture. “He’s a hard worker,” is a highly positive praise used frequently. Amerians admire people who are persistent and conscientious when approaching tasks. Foreign visitors often remark that Americans work harder than they expect, and likely this is because of American movies and television programs which usually depict Americans as more focused on fun activities and love. However, most Americans have a very strong work ethic and stay active in their daily life. They believe it’s important to devote significant energy to their jobs and to other daily responsibilities. Americans generally like to be doing something most of the time. They usually do not enjoy sitting for long hours just talking with other people; they will get restless and impatient.

Dining
Most Americans eat three meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast and lunch are typically smaller than dinner, which is the main meal of the day. Breakfast begins between around 7:00 am, lunch around noon, and dinner around 7:00 pm. On Sundays, many Americans eat “brunch” which is a combination of breakfast and lunch, typically eaten around 11:00 am. Because there is very little “American” food, much of American cuisine is based around cuisine of other countries.

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Tipping/Gratuity
Tipping is expected in the United States. Restaurants do not include a service charge in bills, so you must do the math to tip. Generally a tip should be 15% of the bill, with excellent service getting a 20% tip. Taxi drivers expect you to tip 15% of the total fair. Driving apps like Uber do not require or expect a tip. Hotel bellhops (the people who carry your bags) except a $1 tip for helping you with your bags. Room Service generally includes the tip within the bill. Valet parking attendants also expect a $1 tip. Though not usually listed on the bill, tipping is an extremely important part of the service industry in the US.

Making Friends
Americans generally come across as very outgoing and friendly. They quickly make friends and usually have many casual friends, as well as a few close friends. Relationships can usually be formed when a foreign student takes initiative to meet U.S. people at the work, or by participating in social events throughout the community. In L.A., for example, many of our students have American friends by joining clubs or by taking classes for their hobbies (dancing, yoga..). These clubs or social activities are great way to make lasting connections!

Opinions
Americans have so much diversity within the country. American people hold diverse opinions because the country is so vast. You are likely to meet devoted conservative Christians, modern-day hippies, and everything in-between on a daily basis. Listen to what others have to say before you share you opinions, but don’t be shy to politely explain how you feel about any subject! While the country is an extremely complex, country, I have no doubt that you will fall in love with the extremely diverse “American culture” that you find while studying and living in Los Angeles.