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Blackberry's avatar

What is american culture?

Asked by Blackberry (31878points) October 19th, 2010

I don’t follow any traditions besides hanging out with people for the holidays, and I only do that because it’s something to do and I don’t work then. Am I just a part of american culture, and if so, what is that exactly? Is our multiculturalism a culture of its own or something?

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36 Answers

troubleinharlem's avatar

I’d say that the multiculturalism is a culture of its own… I don’t think that we have any “original” holidays or traditions, I think that they’re all mixtures of other traditions and such. I could be wrong, but the whole multiculturalism = american culture sounds right to me.

Mikewlf337's avatar

America culture is pretty much a mix of other cultures. There isn’t much we do that wasn’t at least influenced by the culture of another country. We do however have more freedom (for now) that many other countries. Some of the freedoms we have are part of our own culture that is uniquely our own.

thekoukoureport's avatar

Thanksgiving…. The greatest holiday ever is strictly American.

As for culture it is very regional, the culture in Philly is completely different from say Iowa, and within the area itself, the culture is so diverse that you could not possibly list them all.

JLeslie's avatar

Thanksgiving and July 4th are American holidays. We could also include things like Presidents day, Labor Day, Veterens Day, Memorial Day, and even New Years, even though New Years is done around the world. Any holiday that is not religious that the majority of Americans recogonize would be American to me. Halloween also, even though it is celebrated in many countries, is done differently from country to country (although as time passes more and more do celebrate similarly I think) but I would consider Halloween American in the sense that the whole country is out Trick or Treating and it is treated as a secular holiday.

Culturally it matters a little from one region o our country to another, depending somewhat on the immigrants in your area, and if they are new immigrants, and where they are from. In the New England Area I would guess almost everyone celebrates Christmas on the 25th, Christmas dinner is the 25th, but in FL probably half the state has Christmas dinner Christmas Eve, and open their gifts that night. Not that Christmas is an American holiday, I still consider it a religious holiday, but the majority of our country does celebrate it. It is more of an example of how immigration affects holiday celebrations.

The holidays bring ritual and tradition. The decoration, the food, it moves us through the year, and brings us together.

Americans do tend to be self centered more than other cultures in some ways. We are more of a me culture. We expect to be out of the house when we are 18, many cultures do not have this expectation at all. We expect to be financially independent from our parents fairly quickly after graduating school, many cultures do not have this expectation. We have the benefit of living in a vast country, with dessert, and prairie, mountains, shore, lakes, tropical climate, so much to choose from, and towns and cities that are very conservative to very liberal. It means we can find out niche in our country, and rarely look outside of our borders to settle, but of course some people do.

I think imbedded in our psyche, for most of us, is a feeling that we live in a great nation, not bound by ethnicity or religion, or simply that we all have been here for hundreds of years, but rather we are united by the ideals of our country and why it was founded. For some this goes to their head, and they feel a little superior I think, but for most of us we just feel greatful and happy to be here.

JLeslie's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir My husband’s uncle says the same thing, that we consume. I found it funny when he sid it, because my experience with Mexicans (my husband is Mexican) is getting all excited when they would walk into our store, because they spent more money than any other customers we had. They came to America to shop. The first long trip my husband and I took together was to Italy for his nephews baptism. When I first said to him, that I think we should go, his reply is, but we don’t have any money to buy stuff, to go shopping. Almost every trip his family has a story about involves consumption. 2 fur coats in Vail, a Mercedes and Lladro in Europe, Electronics and cars in America.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@JLeslie They come to America to shop because their culture isn’t one of consumerism.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

What is american culture?

An oxymoron, if there ever was one.

JLeslie's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I guess you can look at it that way. I think of it more as they are huge consumers at heart, their country just does not have the selection of goods ours does.

CMaz's avatar

Melting pot.

The_Idler's avatar

No one is saying consumerism doesn’t exist in other cultures, we’re just saying it doesn’t define & dominate them in the same was as it has done to American culture.

the100thmonkey's avatar


It’s certainly a part of culture in general. To equate American culture to consumerism is to equate schoolgirls with Japan. There’s an infinity more to it than that.

Why ignore the discourse of liberty that seems either a preoccupation or an assumption of the vast majority of American people on this forum? Why ignore the preoccupation with rights and responsibilities?

There is more to America than shopping.

The_Idler's avatar


Because the ideas of rights, responsibilities and liberty were born in Europe and taken to the USA, whilst mass consumerism was born in the USA and taken to Europe.

Also, the schoolgirls analogy is absurd. The American economy (and hence the structure of its society) is based on consumerism. The same cannot be said for schoolgirls anywhere …although, Bangkok, debatable.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Is consumerism the be all and end all of American culture? I fail to see how anyone can answer ‘yes’ to that question.

The schoolgirls analgy is intended to be absurd.

The idea of rights is a European innovation, sure. They were innovations, they didn’t form the basis of a document outlining the core principles of a would-be nation in Europe, though.

If you would seek to reduce American culture to consumerism (or make an essential claim about any culture), you are a fool.

Don’t forget jazz music.

absalom's avatar

America is Disneyland, or a hologram (Baudrillard holla!). We subsume and sterilize all cultures that contact us and this is achieved through the commercialization of those cultures.

@the100thmonkey: One would be a fool to reduce any culture to a word, but if it were necessary to do it then America would still be consumerism.

The language of liberty you’ve attributed to our country is just another currency.

The_Idler's avatar

@the100thmonkey I just meant that it is very, very American, as opposed to the many other things that define American culture, which are imports. And although the sum of them defines American culture as the crucible of multi-cultural fusion that it is, the individual elements are also inherently UN-American in some way, whereas there is absolutely nothing un-american about consumerism.

The_Idler's avatar

Oh yeah, and, due nod to a native I noticed writing for reminding me, what we’re discussing here is surely not true American culture, as that was systemically destroyed over the past couple of hundred years.

That gives a bit more depth to “What is American culture?”…eh?

YARNLADY's avatar

Education for all, regardless of income; ability to move about with nearly complete freedom; the ability to move up or down the class status freely; the right to vote, participate in government and speak out freely.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@the100thmonkey I think consumerism isn’t the be all and end all. When answering a question, sometimes one puts forth an addition to what has been said above, which is what I did. However, I agree with @The_Idler – consumerism is more America than a caring for rights. Think of 10 people you know – on a daily basis, are they more concerned with buying, saving, thinking about purchasing, etc. or with whether their next rally will be about the environment, animal rights or prison injustice?

mammal's avatar

@the100thmonkey read anything by Adorno and Horkheimer on the Culture industry, if you have already, re-read it and absorb it thoroughly, then explain it to me because i haven’t read the dialectic of enlightenment yet, but i’ve got a pretty good idea what it’s saying. Here’s the gist of it from wiki:

The theory

Although Western culture used to be divided into national markets and then into highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, the modern view of mass culture is that there is a single marketplace in which the best or most popular works succeed. This recognises that the consolidation of media companies has centralised power in the hands of the few remaining multinational corporations now controlling production and distribution.

The theory proposes that culture not only mirrors society, but also takes an important role in shaping society through the processes of standardisation and commodification, creating objects rather than subjects. The culture industry claims to serve the consumers’ needs for entertainment, and is delivering what the consumer wants. “The standardised forms, it is claimed, were originally derived from the needs of the consumers: that is why they are accepted with so little resistance. In reality, a cycle of manipulation and retroactive need is unifying the system ever more tightly”. [1] By standardising these needs, the industry is manipulating the consumers to desire what it produces. The outcome is that mass production feeds a mass market that minimises the identity and tastes of the individual consumers who are as interchangeable as the products they consume.

The rationale of the theory is to promote the emancipation of the consumer from the tyranny of the producers by inducing the consumer to question beliefs and ideologies. Adorno claims that enlightenment was supposed to bring pluralism and demystification but instead society is said to have suffered a major fall as it is corrupted by capitalist industry with exploitative motives.

JLeslie's avatar

@The_Idler These “Americans” you make reference to for destroying native american culture and taking their land; they were Europeans. Or, does that not factor in, because they were the Europeans who left the mother land? I am not defending what was done to the Native Americans, I’m just saying to look at Americans in history as more violent or domineering than Europe seems disengenuous. The Brits occupied and controlled land all over the place, dumped their criminals on land it laid claim to. Of course we know many of the original settlers to come to the Americas were Spanish, and later to the US in particular the British and Germans, etc.

@all It seems some of it is relative. It appears to me that the people who live currently or immigrated from another country have a different perspective than someone who is 3rd generation or more American. I feel like some of what is in our head and hearts does not show through to the world. Part of it is the media I think, how we are represented to the rest of the world, which I think is in some part our own fault. I don’t disagree that Americans consume a lot, but it seems to me when people all over the world get their hands on money and have opportnity to buy, they behave similarly; not everyone, but not everyone here either. America for many years had a flourishing middle class, and credit. Line of credit probably affected us the most. But, again, many of the immigrants I know were happy to have all of the “things” once they got here, made some money, and could get a credit card. I guess ironically, in a way, I am supporting the idea that it is the American way.

Meanwhile, my parents, who were born here, are very frugal, not material thing oriented at all. Keep their cars 8–10 years, live in their same small townhouse, they spend very little money. My Mexican husband, born and raised in Mexico, has three Porsches in our garage. He was given a new car every year growing up as a teen, they travelled and stayed in expensive resorts, his sister spends thousands on handbags, significant money on her hair, and being primped in general, clothing with designer labels. They were not and are not wealthy, but they like to spend on nice things, spend way more than I ever would, and desire more things than I ever do.

The other person I dated for a significant amount time when I was in high school, his family was from Ecuador. They loved nice things also, very similar to my husband’s family. Cars, watches, name brands, etc. My closest American friends have modest homes, moderate cars, and shop in the gap. So, that is my world I live in. But, I admit that Americans generally have too much stuff, and don’t understand quality. Buying one quality item, instead of three pieces of junk.

The_Idler's avatar

I didn’t refer to any “Americans”, except @YARNLADY, whose presence reminded me of the fact that true American culture has been systematically destroyed, which made me consider the question in a new light, as I said.

I was going to play dumb, but I know what you thought I meant, and it was a misconception.

I didn’t mean anything more by my statement than to highlight the fact that we’d all been arguing about what constitutes “true” American culture, and we hadn’t even mentioned the original inhabitants of the land, who have been living there for at least 15,000 years, to the Europeans’ 500.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@YARNLADY What America do you live in? Geez.

mammal's avatar

@The_Idler um didn’t someone 4th comment down mention the Lakota. speaking of which

YARNLADY's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir The very same one that you do, and if you haven’t taken advantage of the freedoms that are available to all Americans, you are truly missing out on an opportunity that residents of other countries can only envy from afar.

It’s all in the attitude of the beholder. People who want to see nothing but ruin and dispair will see exactly what they are looking for. Those of us who have hope and believe in the pursuit of happiness will find it.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@mammal – if you haven’t read something yourself, it’s pretty bad form to tell someone else to do the work for you. Read it yourself, and then summarise it yourself in this thread if you believe it’s relevant. I won’t comment on any argument you make asserting academic authority if you can’t – hand on heart – aver that you have read and understood it yourself. WTF.

@Simone_De_Beauvoir: think of 10 people you know anywhere. I would suggest that their primary concerns are exactly the same as most of the rest of the planet, except that perhaps they can afford to treat themselves occasionally.

Consumerism is more of an ideology than a behaviour, in my opinion. Moreover, it is a contingent set of beliefs rather than a necessary set; hence I believe that consumerism is not an essential property of an “American mindset”. Rather, it is a function of the American mindset. You can’t consume unless you are free to do so.

Finally, I find the question to be misleading in and of itself – it asks for a central principle or theme of American culture, when I strongly believe that it does the term ‘culture’ a disservice to speak of it in such terms. Culture is a glorious mess, and at best boiling it down to a pithy word or phrase is glib. At worst, it is counterproductive.

The_Idler's avatar

@mammal Sorry mate, missed that, due recognition.

The_Idler's avatar

“You can’t consume unless you are free to do so.”

Like, the serfs can’t till the land for the benefit of the local Lord, unless they are free to do so?

The freedom to serve the Establishment. Isn’t that a European invention, anyway? õ.O

mammal's avatar

@the100thmonkey suit yourself but, it is relevant to this question, Culture has been industrialised in America, or commodified if you like, that’s the point, and given way to mass consumption.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@mammal – if it’s so relevant, read it and make the argument!

@The_Idler – people, by and large, have to work in order to meet their basic needs. No-one points a gun at your head and forces you to buy that iPad.

The_Idler's avatar

@the100thmonkey The alternative to subscribing to that lifestyle, in which you serve the establishment in work, play & rest for your whole life, is living as a hobo, with little to eat, nowhere to sleep, nothing to do and no respect.

This is so, because the establishment has carefully structured society to create these pressures, as a motivation for people to subscribe to their “approved” lifestyle, which, obviously, benefits and empowers and enriches the establishment.

You might say “Well at least the establishment is sharing a minuscule amount of the planet’s wealth with the common people, more than in feudalism!” But that’s just saying “It’s fairer than feudalism!” which isn’t saying much, and the point remains that the vast majority of people’s behaviour is profoundly influenced by the contrived and selfish pressures, exerted upon them by a power-hungry establishment.

The ‘freedom’ is just part of a system of control and profit.

Besides, The USA is one of the most socially-backwards, divided and unequal nations in the ‘West’. The only ways in which Americans are particularly “free” are to have guns, and “consume”, which as I have just demonstrated, is contrived for the benefit of the elite and rich.

And, anyway, if you go to the vast, lawless, hopeless, poverty-stricken sections of the American cities, you’ll see that the ‘freedom to consume’ isn’t doing anyone much good, and the abundance of guns… well, the streets are ruled by violence, but that’s another story.

The_Idler's avatar

I just can’t see how anyone can hold up freedoms, equality & basic rights as defining values of American culture, when the USA has lagged so far behind, for so long, on those fronts.

I can only guess that these people just don’t know that most of the “American” freedoms already existed, rights were already guaranteed, equality was consistently higher, in European nations, maybe other places in the world, in many cases for hundreds of years before the USA was even born!

I struggle to see who the USA is being favourably compared to in these respects.

More freedom and rights than in Britain? Magna Carta (1215), Bill of Rights (1689), etc. Slavery was banned by the king in 1102, recognised as illegal via common law in 1772, the trade banned throughout the Empire in 1807 and slavery banned outright in the Empire in 1833. The British then proceeded to force rulers all over the world to abolish slavery, emancipate slaves, and policed the seas, punishing traders and freeing slaves. Yep, that Evil Empire. All, decades before half of the USA seceded to preserve their “right to own people.”

Same story all over Europe.

More equal than where? Map of GINI coefficients, measure of income disparity.

Oh look, the USA has a fairer distribution of wealth than, umm, Jamaica & Uganda… JUST.

Maybe one day they can be as economically balanced a society as somewhere like Vietnam or even Canada… haha.

thekoukoureport's avatar

And @The_Idler just look at some of the freedoms that are coming our way once the Republicans take back our fair country.

Freedom from health care
Freedom from financial regulation to include the consumer protection agency.
Freedom from an honest tax structure
Freedom from a secure social security system
Freedom from patients rights
Freedom from manufacturing jobs
Freedom from Unemployment extensions
Freedom from increased education for all
Freedom from the minimum wage
Freedom from mine safety and deep water drilling regulation

That should help us move right up the chart…

mammal's avatar

@the100thmonkey but there is social pressure, it is a coercive influence to partake of certain consumable products in order to feel included, look at kids they are the worst offenders, they make each others life a misery if they are in anyways excluded from the realm of movies, music, fashion and video games. i mean is this like a news flash or something to you? were you ever a kid?

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