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American Culture 101

What You Need to Know

Students about to study abroad often overlook one crucial step in the preparation process. They take the time to learn about the new culture, the important historical events of the country, and even good places to get a bite to eat. But oftentimes, students fail to learn about their own culture.

Why is it important to learn about your own culture before you go abroad? There are a myriad of reasons, the first being quite simple: you will be asked questions about the United States and American culture while abroad, and it is in your interest to be prepared to answer them so as to best represent the USA and yourself to your host country and its people. Second, when you understand your own culture, you will be better prepared to recognize and appreciate the differences within your host culture. Understanding American culture will also help reduce culture shock, making the transition into the new culture less painful and more beneficial.

This page is meant to be used as a resource for students preparing to go abroad to learn about American culture. It is not a "one-stop shop" for all you will need to know about the United States and its culture. It is simply a resource to get you thinking and give you a push in the right direction to find out more. The links at the bottom of the page will take you to websites that will help you brush up on your knowledge of current events, of American government and politics, of popular culture, and of American culture in general.

American Culture

The information in this section is from Module 1.5 in the "What's Up with Culture?" training program from the University of the Pacific (What's Up with Culture?). It is highly recommended that students preparing to go abroad complete this training program.

As an American, you have grown up with ideas on how people should think, speak, and behave in different situations. For you, these ideas are seen as "common sense" and perfectly natural and are often subconscious. However, these beliefs and behaviors are defined by your culture, and when you go abroad you will discover that they are more than likely not shared by the host culture. You will need to learn to deal with the differences, and the best way to start doing that is to recognize how American culture has shaped your worldview.

To begin with, Americans tend to share the same values, values that they learned in childhood. Some of the most deeply held beliefs of Americans are egalitarianism (everyone is created equal; no one is better than anyone else), doing over talking (if there's a problem, don't talk about how you'll fix it--just fix it!), directness (get straight to the point; say what you mean and be done), emphasis on accomplishment (people are known for what they've done; a good resume has lots of activities and awards), optimism (tomorrow will be better; the bad times won't last forever), self-determination (if you want to do something, you can do it), self-reliance (if you want something done, you have to do it yourself; children look forward to living on their own), and experimentation (new discoveries make life better).

American culture also has many other unique aspects that may contrast significantly with your host culture. For instance, Americans tend to be individualistic, resulting in competitiveness and self-reliance being valued. Americans also tend to believe in doing things, because time is limited and belongs to the person. This is the opposite of many cultures, where identity is determined by group membership, and thus cooperation is seen as the most effective way to get work done. These cultures also tend to value being with people rather than getting things done, especially as they do not see themselves as owning time or being in control of circumstances. It is important to understand these radically different worldviews in order to understand why things happen in your host culture differently from in America.

The following table lists contrasting characteristics of world cultures. As you read it, think about which characteristic or value matches your personal views most strongly. US-Americans will, generally speaking, align with the first characteristic listed, rather than the second. Each person, regardless of home culture, may align themselves with either element of these pairs, depending on the situation.

  • Individualism vs. Collectivism
  • Competitive vs. Cooperative
  • Time Is Limited vs. Time Is Abundant
  • Doing (Task-centered) vs. Being (Person-centered)
  • Direct vs. Indirect
  • Equality vs. Hierarchy
  • Information Given vs. Information Understood
  • Informal vs. Formal
  • Control Over Life vs. Subject To Fate
  • Change vs. Tradition
  • Materialism vs. Spirituality
  • Value Youth vs. Honor Elders

American History and Politics

To help you understand why American culture holds the values it does, it is important that you understand a bit about American history. Provided here is only a brief overview of the historical factors causing American culture to develop in the way it has. It is recommended that you check out the links below or speak with a faculty member in the history department for more information on the role of these factors in cultural development.

The United States were originally peopled with Protestants seeking a place to safely practice their religion. As a result, there is a strong influence of Protestant Christianity on American culture even today, especially the so-called "Protestant work ethic." During the Revolutionary War, the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice were brought to the forefront and remain an important part of American culture, especially visible in the informality of Americans and their disdain for social classes.

After the founding of our nation, it became a haven for anyone seeking a new life, and so the spirit that the immigrants brought with them-optimism, a belief in having a second chance, the "American dream" of "rags to riches," etc.-was passed on to their children and continues to be a part of American ideals. As more and more people came to the United States, the need to expand grew, and eventually, so did the country. The idea of the frontier and the seemingly endless geography also helped to contribute to the individualism of American culture and the ideals of self-reliance and self-determination.

Helpful Links

The following links contain information that will be useful to students studying abroad who wish to learn more about American culture and current events. Remember, when you go abroad, members of your host culture will be learning as much about the United States from you as you are learning about their nation from them. For more information on American Culture, check out the book American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United Statesby Gary Althen, Amanda R. Doran, and Susan J. Szmania. 

Current Events and News

American Government and Politics

American Culture, Popular

American Culture, General