Monday, September 24, 2007

This article serves as an overview of the customs and culture of the United States. For the popular culture of the United States, see arts and entertainment in the United States.
The Culture of the United States is a Western culture, and has been developing since long before the United States became a country. Today the United States is a diverse and multi-cultural nation.
Further information: Cultural history of the United States

What is culture?
Variations in the majority traditions occur due to class, ancestral, religious, regional and other groups of people. Cultural differences in the various regions of the United States are explored in New England, Mid-Atlantic States, Southern United States, Midwestern United States, Southwest United States, Western United States and Pacific Northwestern United States pages. The western coast of the continental US consisting of California, Oregon, and the state of Washington is also sometimes referred to as the Left Coast, indicating its political orientation and tendency towards liberal norms, folkways and values. Strong cultural differences have a long history in the US with the southern slave society in the antebellum period serving as a prime example. Not only social, but also economic tensions between the Northern and Southern states were so severe that they eventually caused the South to declare itself an independent nation, the Confederate States of America; thus provoking the American civil war.

In terms of body contact and personal space the United States shows considerable similarities to northern and central European regions, such as Germany, the Benelux, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. The main difference is, however, that Americans like to keep more open space in between themselves and their conversation partners (roughly 4 feet compared to 2 to 3 feet in Europe). As these marriages deviated too far from the majority sentiment at the time, however, the issuing of gay marriage licenses was stopped through court order. These events in early 2003 illustrate the great differences in what is acceptable in different parts of the United States.

Intimate distance: extends roughly 18 inches (45.7 cm) from the individual and is reserved for family, pets and very close friends. Displays of affection and comforting are commonly conducted within this space. The only strangers an individual typically accepts within his or her intimate space are health care professionals.
Personal distance: extends 4 to 5 feet (1.2 - 1.5 meters) is reserved for friends and acquaintances. A handshake will typically place strangers at least 2 to 4 feet apart, preserving the personal distance.
Social distance: extends from about 4 to 12 feet (1.2 - 3.7 meters) and is used for formal, business and other impersonal interactions such as meeting a client.
Public Space: extends more than 12 feet (3.7 meters) and is not guarded. Secret Service agents will commonly attempt to ensure 12 feet of open space around dignitaries and high ranking officials. Body contact and personal expression

Main article: Social structure of the United States Social class
Further information: Household income in the United StatesPersonal income in the United States, and Educational attainment in the United States
Income remains one of the main indicators of class, as it commonly reflects high educational attainment as well as a prestigious occupation.

Class factors and politics
Income also had a significant impact on health as those with higher incomes had better access to health care facilities, higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality rate and increased health consciousness. While the United States lacks socialized medicine similar to that found in many other post-industrialized developed nations across Europe and Asia, 85% of the US population were insured in 2005. Yet, discrepancies seem to remain beyond the difference between insured and uninsured. In 2006 Harvard researchers divided the US into "eight Americas." One does of course, need to note than any statements or research connecting health consciousness and income are generalizations, as are most other statements made in regards to the diverse culture of the United States.

Health and income
Residents of the United States of America commonly refer to themselves and each other as Americans, and to their country as either the United States, the US, USA, US of A, or simply America. However, the terms "America" and "American" may also be applied to those living on the American continents outside the United States. The phrase is also occasionally used in contemporary discussions of American federalism and states' rights. Immediately after the American Civil War and for a generation afterward, the entire country was then referred to as "the Republic". This nineteenth century usage has since declined, except when invoking issues of civics and governance, such as in the Pledge of Allegiance uttered by school children and in town meetings.
Other ways of self-referencing may be used among certain sub-cultural groups within the United States. African Americans for example have exhibited a tendency to emphasize their racial heritage when referring to one another. Doing so may represent a strong collective group identity.

Further information: Demographics of the United StatesRacism in the United States, and Civil rights
Race in the United States is based on the physical characteristics of skin color and has played an essential part in shaping American society even before the nation's conception.

As the United States is a very diverse nation, it is home to numerous organization and social groups and individuals may derive their group affiliated identity from a variety of sources. Many Americans, especially white collar professionals belong to professional organizations such as the APA, ASA or ATFLC, although books like Bowling Alone indicate that Americans affiliate with these sorts of groups less often than they did in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, Americans derive a great deal of their identity through their work and professional affiliation, especially among individuals higher on the economic ladder. Recently professional identification has led to many clerical and low-level employees giving their occupations new, more respectable titles, such as "Sanitation service engineer" instead of "Janitor."

Group affiliations

Main article: Cuisine of the United States Food
In the United States occupation is one of the prime factors of social class and is closely linked to an individual's identity. The average work week in the US for those employed full-time was 42.9 hours long with 30% of the population working more than 40 hours a week.

It is important to bear in mind that the United States of America is highly diverse. It is difficult to identify a single American attitude, or American style for the simple reason that the country is so complex.
The United States was founded in the late 18th century and as such, a great deal of American culture is couched in the ideals of the Enlightenment. Examples of this influence are reflected in the following: the Declaration of Independence's mission statement, which secures life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; the French Revolution's ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity; and the national motto, E pluribus unum ("From many, one").
Another primary influence on American culture is the ongoing influx of new immigrants, many of whom have fled persecution or oppression in their home countries, and are seeking freedom (including religious freedom) and economic opportunity. This leads to the rejection of totalitarian practices, another widespread American attitude. By and large, Americans value the ideals of individual liberty, individualism, self-sufficiency, altruism, equality of opportunity, free markets, a republican form of government, democracy, populism, pluralism, feminism, and patriotism.

Political attitudes
As mentioned above, the United States features stronger free market tendencies than many other developed nations, and historically has been hostile towards socialism. America's animosity towards communism intensified during the Cold War, as symbolized by the McCarthy trials in the 1950s. While a small minority of Americans today favor the adoption of socialist practices such as "universal health care", economic attitudes generally favor minimizing regulation and other government intrusions. The American tradition of free-market capitalism has led the populace (and representative leaders) generally to accept the continuous alterations to society that an evolving economy implies, despite the accompanying social and economic displacement.

Economic outlook
Americans also tend to travel to other countries less than citizens of European countries. This partly results from intercontinental travel entailing much further distances than Europeans. The average American worker has fewer vacation days than the average European (10-15 rather than the European average of around 20). America's vast size allows its citizens to go great distances, and see a variety of places, without leaving the country. For example, one can travel within the continental United States from a near-tropical climate (e.g. Southern Florida) to a mid-continental climate (Minnesota). California alone offers a large coastline, snow-capped mountains, prairies, and deserts within a single state. Lifestyles, food, and culture also tend to differ within the different regions.

Relationship to other countries/cultures

Main article: Arts and entertainment in the United States Popular culture

Main article: United States technological and industrial historyAmerican culture Technology and gadgets

Main article: Passenger vehicles in the United States Automobiles
The drug culture of the United States is distinguished sharply between legal, illegal and prescription drugs. The three main legal drugs are alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. The use and sale of illegal drugs such as marijuana, heroin and cocaine carries heavy penalties (see Controlled Substances Act); the U.S. expends significant resources in combating the enterprises that produce and import such commodities, in what is termed the War on Drugs. Antidepressant drugs are widely prescribed, as are stimulants such as Ritalin, a methylphenidate used to improve concentration. Today there is considerable debate over the regulation and government policy towards the control over certain substances such as marijuana; some states and counties have decriminalized the use of marijuana, although this is still illegal under federal statutes. Age limits, varying by state, regulate the sale of alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco use has declined significantly in recent decades with many "Big Tobacco" companies being at the losing end of many costly law suites. Caffeine, if considered a drug, would be the nation's most popular drug.


Main article: Sports in the United States Sports
Dress norms in the United States are generally consistent with those of other post-industrial western nations and has become largely informal since the mid 20 century. Clothing in the United States also depends on a variety of factors including location, venue, and demographic factors such as ethnicity. Blue jeans are a consistent fashion trend among all classes. The western states are commonly noted for being more informal in their manner of dress than those closer to the eastern seaboard. Furthermore, individuals belonging to certain ethnic groups such as some Native American tribal members and individuals of Scottish descent may wear clothing to represent their ethnic identity at certain events. Conspicuous consumption and a desire for quality have also lead to a strong preference for designer label clothing among many in the middle and upper classes.
Fashion norms have changed greatly from decade to decade. The United States has generally followed and in some cases led trends in the history of Western fashion. It has some unique regional clothing styles, such as western wear.


Main articles: Education in the United States and Educational attainment in the United States Education
Public education in the United States is provided by the individual states, not by the federal government (except in the limited circumstances of public schools on military bases, provided for the dependents of members of the armed services, and Federal territories, e.g. the District of Columbia). All states provide public school education from kindergarten through Senior year of high school (12th grade) free of charge (except for 15 school districts in New Hampshire which do not offer kindergarten); further, the federal government does not establish a standard nationwide curriculum. Rather, the curriculum is typically established by state educational departments or local school districts, and teachers in many districts may have wide discretion to determine what is taught in the classroom.
Most states have adopted reforms based on the Outcome-based education movement. Rather than the traditional approach that all students would be expected to achieve at different levels, the focus of education would be to increase achievement, and insure through testing that all graduates must achieve one high standard, though some critics argue such a goal is not realistic. As of 2005, there is increasing state and federal pressure to quantify teaching efficacy using results from standards-based tests (cf. No Child Left Behind), which tends to lead to a more uniform curriculum. This trend toward educational standardization, which has been attributed with a concomitant decline in flexibility in teaching, and other reforms—such as the use of whole language methodology for teaching reading in primary school, instead of the more traditional phonics-based approach—promoted in recent years have been controversial. Another controversy has arisen over the adoption of new math standards which many critics charge has largely omitted the teaching of basic arithmetic as it has been understood over history rather than merely improve understanding. Other criticisms of recent educational trends include an increasing lack of post-secondary scholarships and subsidies.
Funding of the public school systems is most often provided primarily at the local level, with money obtained from county or city property taxes used to fund the public schools (in conjunction with additional funds from the state and federal governments).

Public education
Private school education in the United States at the primary and secondary levels generally receives little or no governmental support in the form of direct funding or subsidies, although non-profit bodies running private schools may receive favorable tax status. Conversely, because of the constitutional prohibition regarding governmental establishment of religion, most private religious schools are in fact barred from such direct governmental support.
Most of the private institutions have traditionally been religious institutions funded by, for example, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish communities. Some private secular schools, military schools, and multi-lingual schools also exist. Private secular and multi-lingual elementary and secondary education may cost $10,000 to $20,000 per year per student in large metropolitan areas, placing these schools out of reach of all but the wealthiest of middle- and upper-class families. However, many of these schools provide academic scholarships and need-based assistance. Religious schools vary in price, from nearly free to costs on par with private secular schools. Poorer families may send their children to these lower-priced schools for a religious education, or because they consider the schools better than the available public schools. Homeschooling is allowed in all states (with varying degrees of regulation) and is an alternative for a small minority of households. The motivation for home schooling is often religious or political.

Private education

Main article: Languages in the United States Language

Main article: Religion in the United States Religion
Immediately after World War II, Americans began living in increasing numbers in the suburbs, belts around major cities with higher density than rural areas, but much lower than urban areas. This move has been attributed to many factors such as the automobile, the availability of large tracts of land, the convenience of more and longer paved roads, the increasing violence in urban centers (see white flight), and the cheapness of housing. These new single-family houses were usually one or two stories tall, and often were part of large contracts of homes built by a single developer. The resulting low-density development has been given the pejorative label "urban sprawl." This is changing, however. "White flight" is reversing, with many Yuppies and upper-middle-class, empty nest Baby Boomers returning to urban living, usually in condominiums, such as in New York City's Lower East Side, and Chicago's South Loop. The result has been the displacement of many poorer, inner-city residents. (see gentrification). American cities with housing prices near the national median have also been losing the middle income neighborhoods, those with median income between 80% and 120% of the metropolitan area's median household income. Here, the more affluent members of the middle class, who are also often referred to as being professional or upper middle class, have left in search of larger homes in more exclusive suburbs. This trend is largely attributed to the so called "Middle class squeeze," which has caused a starker distinction between the statistical middle class and the more privileged members of the middle class.

Couples often meet through religious institutions, work, school, or friends. "Dating services," services that are geared to assist people in finding partners, are popular both on and offline. The trend over the past few decades has been for more and more couples deciding to cohabit before, or instead of, getting married. The 2000 Census reported 9.7 million different-sex partners living together and about 1.3 million same-sex partners living together. These cohabitation arrangements have not been the subject of many laws regulating them, though some states now have domestic partner statutes and judge-made palimony doctrines that confer some legal support for unmarried couples.
Marriage laws are established by individual states. Same-sex marriage is currently legal only in Massachusetts. Three other states, Connecticut and Vermont, and recently New Jersey (as of December 2006, resulting from an earlier decision by the New Jersey Supreme court on October 25, 2006 in Lewis vs. Harris), allow same-sex couples access to state-level marriage benefits with parallel civil unions. New Hampshire has recently legislated civil unions, which will be issued beginning January 1, 2008. In many states, it is illegal to cross state lines to obtain a marriage that would be illegal in the home state. Married couples typically reside in their own dwelling.

Romantic relationships
The typical wedding involves a couple proclaiming their commitment to one another in front of their close relatives and friends and presided over by a religious figure such as a minister, priest, or rabbi, depending upon the faith of the couple. In traditional Christian ceremonies, the bride's father will "give away" (hand off) the bride to the groom. Secular weddings are also common, often presided over by a judge, Justice of the Peace, or other municipal official.

Marriage ceremonies
Divorce, like marriage, is the province of the state governments, not the federal government. Divorce laws vary from state to state, but no-fault divorce on the grounds of "irreconcilable differences" is now available in all states except New York (whose nearest equivalent requires a one-year separation).
"Married adults now divorce two-and-a-half times as often as adults did 20 years ago and four times as often as they did 50 years ago... between 40% and 60% of new marriages will eventually end in divorce. The probability within... the first five years is 20%, and the probabilty of its ending within the first 10 years is 33%... Perhaps 25% of children ages 16 and under live with a stepparent." -Brian K. Williams, Stacy C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom, Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships', 2005
Prior to the 1970s, divorcing spouses had to allege that the other spouse was guilty of a crime or sin like abandonment or adultery; when spouses simply could not get along, lawyers were forced to manufacture "uncontested" divorces. The no-fault divorce revolution began in 1969 in California; South Dakota was the last state to allow no-fault divorce, in 1985. State law provides for child support where children are involved, and sometimes for alimony. The median length for a marriage in the US today is 11 years with 90% of all divorces being settled out of court.


Main article: Funerals in contemporary North America Gender roles
Today, family arrangements in the United States reflect the diverse and dynamic nature of contemporary American society. Although for a relatively brief period of time in the 20
Other changes to the landscape of American family arrangements include dual-income earner households and delayed independence among American youths. Whereas most families in the 1950s and 1960s relied on one income earner, most commonly the husband, the vast majority of family households now have two-income earners. Another change is the ever-increasing age at which young Americans leave their parental home. Traditionally, a person past "college age" who lived with their parent(s) was viewed negatively, but today it is not uncommon for children to live with their parents until their mid-twenties. This trend can be mostly attributed to rising living costs that far exceed those in decades past. Thus, many young adults now remain with their parents well past their mid-20s. This topic was a cover article of TIME magazine in 2005. Exceptions to the custom of leaving home in one's mid-20s can occur especially among Italian and Hispanic Americans, and in expensive urban real estate markets such as New York City [1], California [2], and Honolulu [3], where monthly rents commonly exceed $1000 a month.
Single-parent households are households consisting of a single adult (most often a woman) and one or more children. In the single-parent household, one parent typically raises the children with little to no help from the other. This parent is the sole "breadwinner" of the family and thus these households are particularly vulnerable economically. They have higher rates of poverty, and children of these households are more likely to have educational problems.

Household arrangements
See also: List of regions of the United States

Regional distinctions
The population of rural areas has been declining over time as more and more people migrate to cities for work and entertainment. The great exodus from the farms came in the 1940s; in recent years fewer than 2% of the population lives on farms (though others live in the countryside and commute to work). Electricity and telephone, and sometimes cable and Internet services are available to all but the most remote regions. As in the cities, children attend school up to and including high school and only help with farming during the summer months or after school.

Rural living patterns
About half of Americans now live in what is known as the suburbs. The suburban nuclear family has been identified as part of the "American dream": a married couple with children owning a house in the suburbs. This archetype is reinforced by mass media, religious practices, and government policies and is based on traditions from Anglo-Saxon cultures.
One of the biggest differences in suburban living is the housing occupied by the families. The suburbs are filled with single-family homes separated from retail districts, industrial areas, and sometimes even public schools. However, many American suburbs are incorporating these districts on smaller scales, attracting more people to these communities.

Suburban living patterns
Aside from housing, which may include more apartments and semi-attached homes than in the suburbs or small towns, the major difference from suburban living is the density and diversity of many different subcultures, as well as retail and manufacturing buildings mixed with housing. Urban residents are also more likely to travel by mass transit, and children are more likely to walk or bicycle rather than being driven by their parents.

See also