As you likely already know, the U.S. is a large and incredibly diverse country. It is hard, if not impossible, to talk about one U.S. culture because the people and places that make up this country embody such a wide range of histories, values, beliefs, and behaviors. If you have just started exploring U.S. culture –welcome! There is a lot to learn and we are so happy you are here.
Generalizations vs. stereotypes Heading link
When talking about the culture of a particular group is it critical to address and understand the difference between a cultural generalization and a stereotype. Generalizations should be used to promote understanding and foster equitable relationships. Stereotypes serve to limit understanding and often help maintain the power of one group over another.
We ask you to hold generalizations lightly and challenge the stereotypes you may have heard about your own or another group’s culture.
- Emphasize similarities of a group
- Allow for difference
- Used to promote understanding of others
- Applied to everyone in the group
- Do not allow for difference
- Used to limit understanding
- Often carry negative connotations
Common generalizations of U.S. culture Heading link
Use the generalizations below to begin your exploration of U.S. culture but remember to keep an open mind and avoid stereotyping. You may meet a U.S. American who is not at all like the descriptions below, and that is normal, exciting, and to be expected!
Individualism & extroversion
Explanation Example U.S. Americans are typically raised with a strong sense of individual identity and responsibility. Decisions are made based on self interest rather than deference to the group. Extroversion and self-confidence are considered positive character traits. "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is a common, albeit contested, expression that suggests that a person should overcome challenges relying solely on themself and their own hard work.
Strong action & work orientation
Explanation Example U.S. Americans love to be busy! If there is a problem, discussion quickly turns to a solution. Weekends are spent doing activities and having "no plans" can be perceived as a negative. Careers are important and often give people a sense of identity. Sports are a common hobby and many people follow a particular sport, team, or athlete. Students in the U.S. are expected to participate in extra curricular activities like sports, clubs, and volunteering. These items are listed on resumes and applications.
Time, schedules & punctuality
Explanation Example Since U.S. Americans like to be so busy, time is a valuable commodity. Many people keep detailed schedules and expect others to be punctual to meetings, classes, and gatherings. Arriving late in the U.S. can communicate disrespect for the other person. In U.S. English there are many common phrases that represent time as a valuable commodity such as, "time is money," "spend time," "waste time," and "save time."
Explanation Example Unlike many cultures, U.S. Americans do not have a strong concept of "saving face." Speaking directly and openly is valued, even when delivering bad news or criticism. Direct eye contact is also the norm and can communicate that you are paying attention and are trustworthy. In academic writing, it is standard in the U.S. to place a clear and concise thesis statement near the beginning of the paper. Long introductions of multiple paragraphs are generally not favored.
Rules vs. relationships
Explanation Example Rules and regulations are valued over relationships in U.S. American culture. Meaning, a U.S. American will not give preference to or break a rule for someone of close relation. Nepotism, or the practice of those in power of giving favor or opportunity friends or relatives, is prohibited in many U.S. workplaces.
Explanation Example The U.S. is a diverse country and that diversity extends to religious belief and practice. Many U.S. Americans belong to a faith group and U.S. laws protect their right to practice. Although the U.S. is considered a secular country, and a growing segment of the population is not religiously-affiliated, religious references (largely Christian ones) appear frequently in everyday life, including sports and government. Despite separation of church and state and the many religions practiced in the U.S., "In God We Trust" is the motto of the nation and appears on all forms of currency.
Equality & fairness
Explanation Example U.S. Americans value equal and fair treatment for all. While these beliefs are often challenged by obvious inequities experienced by many people living in this country, U.S. laws and society are increasingly inclusive of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and religious beliefs. Discrimination, whether structural or interpersonal, is generally not tolerated and in some cases can be punishable by U.S./State law or UIC disciplinary policy. UIC, along with many other organizations and companies, maintains its own nondiscrimination policy and complies with all federal and state nondiscrimination, equal opportunity and affirmative action laws, orders and regulations.
Small talk and making friends Heading link
Some people from outside the U.S. have said that it is hard making friends with U.S. Americans despite them seeming so friendly. Why do they say, “Hi! How are you doing?” if they do not want to wait for an answer?!
“How are you doing?” or “How’s it going?” are common greetings and examples of small talk – friendly chatter without the expectation for a continued conversation or relationship.
Instead, a lot of U.S. Americans will build friendships around activities such as playing or watching a sport, eating at a restaurant, visiting a museum, creating something, or participating in an organization. If you want to build a relationship with a U.S. American, don’t ask them about the weather, ask them to do something fun!