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American Culture: Traditions and Customs of the United States

American culture encompasses the customs and traditions of the United States. "Culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones, and a million other things," said Cristina De Rossi (opens in new tab), an anthropologist at Barnet and Southgate College in London (opens in new tab).

The United States is the third largest country in the world with a population of more than 332 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (opens in new tab). A child is born every 9 seconds, and a person dies every 11 seconds.

In addition to Indigenous Americans who were already living on the continent, the population of the United States was built on immigration from other countries. A new immigrant moves to the United States every 666 seconds, according to the Census Bureau.

Because of this, the United States is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, according to The London School (opens in new tab). Nearly every region of the world has influenced American culture, most notably the English who colonized the country beginning in the early 1600s, according to the Library of Congress (opens in new tab). U.S. culture has also been shaped by the cultures of Indigenous Americans, Latin Americans, Africans and Asians.

The United States is sometimes described as a "melting pot", according to Golden Beacon USA (opens in new tab), in which different cultures have contributed their own distinct "flavors" to American culture. Just as cultures from around the world have influenced American culture, today American culture influences the world. The term Western culture often refers broadly to the cultures of the United States and Europe, according to ScienceDaily (opens in new tab).

The way people "melt" in the United States differs. "Different groups of immigrants integrate in different ways," De Rossi told Live Science. "For example, in the United States, Catholic Spanish-speaking communities might keep their language and other cultural family traditions, but are integrated in the urban community and have embraced the American way of life in many other ways."

The Northeast, South, Midwest, Southeast and Western regions of the United States all have distinct traditions and customs. Here is a brief overview of the culture of the United States.

Language

According to the US Government, there is no official language of the United States

According to the US Government, there is no official language of the United States (Image credit: Getty/ SDI Productions)

There is no official language of the United States, according to the U.S. government (opens in new tab). 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 U.S. population speaks and understands at least some English, and most official business is conducted in English. Some states have official or preferred languages. For example, English and Hawaiian are the official languages in Hawaii, according to the Washington Post (opens in new tab)

The Census Bureau (opens in new tab) estimates that more than 350 languages are spoken in the United States. The bureau divides those languages into four categories: Spanish; other Indo-European languages, which includes German, Yiddish, Swedish, French, Italian, Russian, Polish, Hindi, Punjabi, Greek and several others. Asian and Pacific Island languages, including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Tamil and more are also included. There is also a category for "all other languages," which is for languages that didn't fit into the first three categories, such as Hungarian, Arabic, Hebrew, languages of Africa and languages of native people of North, Central and South America.

Religion

An example of an American wedding post-Covid

An example of an American wedding post-Covid (Image credit: Getty/ Phynart Studio)

Nearly every known religion is practiced in the United States, which was founded on the basis of religious freedom (opens in new tab). About 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, according to information gathered by the Pew Research Center (opens in new tab), a nonpartisan research group, in 2017. The research also found that about 23% had no religious affiliation at all and around 6% of the population is made up non-Christian religions. 

The number of people who identify with no religion seems to be decreasing. According to the Pew Research Center (opens in new tab), this category is expected to drop from 16% in 2015 to 13% in 2060.

American style

An example of contemporary American fashion

An example of contemporary American fashion (Image credit: Getty/ Westend61)

Clothing styles vary by social status, region, occupation and climate. Jeans, sneakers, baseball caps, cowboy hats and boots are some items of clothing that are closely associated with Americans, though there have been a variety of other styles throughout the decades, according to InterExchange (opens in new tab). Ralph Lauren (opens in new tab), Calvin Klein (opens in new tab), Michael Kors (opens in new tab) and Victoria Secret (opens in new tab) are some well-known American brands.

American fashion is widely influenced by celebrities and the media, in 2019 US Clothing and Accessories sales amounted to 24 Billion US Dollars, according to Statista (opens in new tab). More and more Americans are buying fashion, electronics and more online. According to the Census Bureau (opens in new tab), U.S. retail e-commerce sales for the third  quarter of 2021 totalled $214.6 billion.

American food

Macaroni Cheese, a traditional American classic

Macaroni Cheese, a traditional American classic (Image credit: Getty/ Burcu Atalay Tankut)

American cuisine was influenced by Europeans and Native Americans in its early history. Today, there are a number of foods that are commonly identified as American, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips, macaroni and cheese, and meat loaf. "As American as apple pie", despite the dishes non-American origins, has come to mean something that is authentically American, according to the Smithsonian (opens in new tab).

There are also styles of cooking and types of foods that are specific to a region. Southern-style cooking is often called "American comfort food" and includes dishes such as fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas and cornbread, according to Southern Living (opens in new tab). Tex-Mex, popular in Texas and the Southwest, is a blend of Spanish and Mexican cooking styles and includes items such as chili and burritos, and relies heavily on shredded cheese and beans, according to Culture Trip (opens in new tab).

Jerky, dried meats that are served as snacks, is also a food that was created in the United States, according to NPR (opens in new tab).

The arts

A view of America's famous Broadway theatre scene

A view of the famous Broadway theatre scene (Image credit: Getty/ Martin Holtkamp)

The United States is widely known around the world as a leader in mass media production, including television and movies. According to the Select US (opens in new tab)A, the United States comprises one-third of the worldwide media and entertainment industry and is worth $717 Billion.

The television broadcasting industry took hold in the United States in the early 1950s, and American television programs are now shown around the world, according to PBS. The United States also has a vibrant movie industry, centered in Hollywood, California, and American movies are popular worldwide. The U.S. film industry earned a record $100 Billion in 2019, according to Forbes (opens in new tab), before dropping in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.

The United States' arts culture extends beyond movies and television shows, though. New York is home to Broadway, and Americans have a rich theatrical history, according to Arcadia Publishing (opens in new tab). American folk art is an artistic style and is identified with quilts and other hand-crafted items, according to the Folk Art Museum (opens in new tab). American music is very diverse with many, many styles, including rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, country and western, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll and hip hop.

Sports

An American Baseball player

An American Baseball player (Image credit: Getty/ Donald Miralle)

The United States is a sports-minded country, with millions of fans who follow football, baseball, basketball and hockey, among other sports. Baseball, which was developed in colonial America and became an organized sport in the mid-1800s, according to Sporcle Blog (opens in new tab), is known as America's favorite pastime, although its popularity has been eclipsed by football for the past three decades, according to the Harris Poll (opens in new tab).

American holidays

Many holidays are celebrated only in the United States. Americans celebrate their independence from Britain on July 4. Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May, honors those who have died in military service. Labor Day, observed on the first Monday in September, celebrates the country's workforce. Thanksgiving, another distinctive American holiday, falls on the fourth Thursday in November and dates back to colonial times to celebrate the harvest. 

Presidents' Day, marking the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, is a federal holiday that occurs on the third Monday in February. The contributions of veterans are honored on Veterans' Day, observed on Nov. 11. The contributions of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. are remembered on the third Monday in January.

Additional reporting by Alina Bradford, Live Science Contributor. 

Additional resources

Kim Ann Zimmermann
Kim Ann Zimmermann is a contributor to Live Science. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Glassboro State College.