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Perhaps more than any other country in the world, American culture is a global mishmash of customs, traditions, languages and beliefs. Expats will find themselves already strangely familiar with fashions, entertainment, idioms, and even cityscapes thanks to the far reach of American culture and especially Hollywood.
The many influences and integrated cultural characteristics are too long to list, but each contributes a bit to the national ethos. This is particularly apparent in big cities rich with many ethnicities and cultures, whereas smaller towns often retain characteristics of their founding nationalities.
Still, despite its many inspirations, American culture still has a few distinct attributes of its own. In fact, there are a number of differences from other Western cultures that may take expats moving to the US by surprise.
Values in the USA
While the US is made up of a huge variety of different ethnic groups, each bringing their own distinct traditions to the country, expats will find that many Americans are very patriotic. This is especially apparent on holidays such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Labor Day. Expats should take any opportunity to get involved in these festivities and gain some insight into local culture.
Many people move to America with a view of the country being a particularly Christian country. However, this view is somewhat deceptive. While there are some parts of the US where religion is very important (such as the south with its famous ‘Bible Belt’), new arrivals often find that the vast majority of Americans hold quite moderate beliefs. Expats will find that Americans living on the West Coast tend to be more liberal, with cities such as San Francisco and LA being home to large artistic, bohemian communities. Big cities like New York, Chicago and Boston are also quite progressive.
Expats may notice that philanthropy is important to many Americans, who enjoy giving back to their community or those less fortunate than themselves. There are plenty of opportunities for people to get involved in various charity projects or volunteer schemes in the US. For expats, volunteering is a great opportunity to meet new people and get settled in their new home.
Some expats might find American culture to be materialistic. Americans are often seen as having a ‘live to work’ attitude, rather than the ‘work to live’ approach preferred in Europe.
Etiquette in the USA
Americans value punctuality and find it disrespectful for people to arrive late to an appointment. This is not only true in the workplace but also relevant in social occasions. Speaking of occasions, Americans like to rise to every occasion, be it celebrating Independence Day, dressing up for Halloween parties or participating in any sort of parade, so expats would do well to do the same.
Expats may find the American style of communication very direct and honest. While this can come across as rude to some, locals rarely mean any real harm.
While religion and politics are topics of conversation that may be passionately debated at social occasions in other countries, expats should take care around such subjects in the US. Americans often hold very strong beliefs and, due to the diversity of people in the country, expats can never really know what an acquaintance believes in.
►To learn about American work culture, see Doing Business in the USA
"Living full time in a country is not like visiting as a tourist. Many adjustments were required, particularly at the beginning, starting from speaking a language that was not my native one. I was fluent in English when I moved to California, but communicating constantly in English required a lot of mental energy."
Read Italian expat Simona's interview with Expat Arrivals for more about her new life in Northern California
Are you an expat living in The USA?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to The USA. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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