American Culture: Symbols, Social Dynamics, Holidays and More

By: Marie Look  | 
While waving our flag and chowing down on foods like burgers and apple pie are indeed part of American culture, there's a lot more to the U.S. than these tropes. MAIKA 777 / Getty Images

People often describe America as a "melting pot" since the American population is a blend of so many different groups, each one with its own histories, traditions and customs. This makes the United States one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with this diversity reflected in every facet of American culture.

That said, some aspects of American culture have combined to make it a thing that's all its own, and certain practices in America may not be standard in other countries. These cultural differences range from small oddities to strange American traditions that international students may find downright confusing.


Let's take a look at some key aspects that make the third largest country in the world so unique.

Diversity and Equality

The term "melting pot" aptly describes how various ethnic groups, including Native Americans, Latin Americans, Black Americans and others, blend into the broader American society. Yet, each retains unique cultural traits.

From the Indigenous Americans, whose presence predates the founding of the nation, to the newest arrivals from nearly every region of the globe, the people who call this country home are continually reshaping and enriching the American identity.


However, just because America is a diverse nation doesn't mean it's a fair one. Minority groups, such as Indigenous Americans, Latin Americans and Black Americans, have struggled to exercise the same rights and freedoms that white citizens do.

In 1776, the country's founders drafted the Declaration of Independence, stating that "all men are created equal." Although there has been progress made toward the equal treatment of all American citizens, complex systems of oppression remain in place today, affecting individuals on account of their gender, race, social status and other factors.


Cultural Symbols

American culture is known for its symbols. Political symbols include the stars and stripes of the country's flag, the Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam, the White House, Mount Rushmore and the bald eagle (the national animal).


Certain landmarks or points of interest have also becomes symbols of America, such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles, the Hoover Dam on the border between Arizona and Nevada, the Grand Canyon in the American Southwest, the Strip in Las Vegas and the Empire State Building in New York.



Iconic foods in America include apple pie, potato chips and hot dogs. Hamburgers and hot dogs, in particular, are staples at every football game and federal holiday gathering (hello, Fourth of July cookout), along with beer and other alcoholic beverages.

Pop Culture

Encompassing television shows, American music, and Hollywood films, pop culture serves as both an export and a mirror of the societal values in the United States. Pop culture symbols can change frequently, as TV shows, songs and movies go in and out of fashion.

However, some people have had long-lasting appeal, such as Michael Jordan, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth.


Personal Space and Social Interactions

Americans cherish their personal space and value nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and basic signals in communication. For international students and others from different cultures, it's important to understand these subtleties in order to make American friends and, in general, foster connections with Americans.

For example, Americans like to maintain eye contact during exchanges so they can accurately interpret the other person's facial expressions. But outside of conversations, staring is considered rude. Also, Americans tend to bristle if people outside their family members stand or sit too close — unless, of course, the situation expressly calls for it.


The American attitude toward social interactions often includes a sense of openness and informality. Small talk is a major part of social etiquette that close friends and new acquaintances alike practice.

Topics like sports, the weather and pop culture are common and help bridge gaps between different backgrounds. However, bringing up topics like religion, politics, personal finances and other personal matters with people you aren't very close to might be considered rude. Americans generally consider these subjects to be more private.


Federal Holidays

The calendar in America features a range of federally recognized holidays:

  • New Year's Day (Jan. 1)
  • Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (third Monday in January)
  • Inauguration Day (Jan. 20; every 4 years following a presidential election)
  • Washington's Birthday (also referred to as Presidents Day; third Monday in February)
  • Memorial Day (last Monday in May)
  • Juneteenth National Independence Day (June 19)
  • Independence Day (also known as the Fourth of July; July 4)
  • Labor Day (first Monday in September)
  • Columbus Day (second Monday in October)
  • Veterans Day (Nov. 11)
  • Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November)
  • Christmas Day (Dec. 25)

Each holiday is intended to reflect the history or values of the American people and marks a time for family members and people in the community to gather.


Many Americans celebrate these holidays with a special evening meal or party. For example, people often cook and eat together on or around Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Traditional meals vary from family to family but could include sweet potatoes during Thanksgiving or barbecue on Labor Day, highlighting the diverse culinary heritage from different regions and cultures. Other holidays, such as Veterans Day, have fewer associations with specific foods.

In American culture, it's traditional to enjoy a Champagne toast and share a kiss with a loved one at midnight.


Other Special Days and Observances

Different groups of Americans celebrate various days throughout the year beyond just the federally recognized holidays. These days have a specific cultural, political or religious significance. A few include:

  • Lunar New Year (a day in January or February)
  • Super Bowl Sunday (second Sunday in February)
  • Valentine's Day (Feb. 14)
  • International Women's Day (March 8)
  • St. Patrick's Day (March 17)
  • Earth Day (April 22)
  • Cinco de Mayo (May 5)
  • Flag Day (second Sunday in June)
  • Diwali (five or six days in the autumn)
  • Yom Kippur (a day in September or October)
  • Indigenous People's Day (second Monday in October)
  • Halloween (Oct. 31)
  • Election Day (first Tuesday in November)
  • Hanukkah (eight days in December)
  • Ramadan (29 to 30 days; start date varies year to year)

While none of the above are official holidays in the U.S., they are widely known and celebrated among those who hold them significant.


Educational Systems

A traditional public education in America consists of kindergarten through high school (the 12th grade), spanning approximately ages 5 through 18. Parents also have the option of sending their children to private schools or educating their children at home. Some children also attend what people refer to as pre-kindergarten ("pre-k") or preschool.

Following high school, students may attend an institution of higher learning where they choose a specific area of study. Whether it's a community college, public university or private university, a student must fulfill certain admission requirements (usually an exam and a written statement) and pay fees to enroll and remain enrolled.


High schools and universities play a significant role in preparing students for various careers, including those in military service, professional vocations and even roles in a professional league as an athlete. Beyond this, many Americans consider going to college to be a rite of passage and a quintessential American experience.

English is the country's official language and therefore the official language in America's public school system. However, most high schools and universities require students to study a second language, with the most popular options being Spanish, French, German and Latin. Fewer schools offer Japanese, Chinese, Russian or other languages.


Community Structures

From a young age, many Americans learn the importance of community service, often participating in activities through schools and local organizations. Many children are also introduced to athletics when they're young, with children participating in their school's sports teams.

This fosters a sense of community in America's young people and, in many cases, reinforces their loyalty to the area in which they grow up.


Churches are another prevalent component of American culture, with many churches having built-in community networks. These might include shared mealtimes, gatherings for worship, volunteer events or educational opportunities.

With each passing year, fewer and fewer Americans belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. However, just under half of the people in the country's population still identify as churchgoers, and organized religion continues to influence many aspects of American culture and society at large.


Fast Food in America

Fast food restaurants are an emblematic aspect of American food and demonstrate both the fast-paced lifestyle and the entrepreneurial spirit that's prevalent in the country.

Fast food has traditionally included the following fare:


  • buffalo wings
  • chicken tenders and chicken nuggets
  • french fries
  • fried chicken
  • hamburgers
  • hot dogs
  • ice cream
  • nachos
  • onion rings
  • pizza
  • potato chips
  • soda

In recent years, the category has expanded to also encompass foods like tacos, burritos, pitas, sub sandwiches and other items.


Global Influences on American Cuisine

In addition to fast food, Americans love dishes that have origins outside their home country. By and large, American food is a reflection of the country's cultural diversity, with many styles of cooking available.

Some chefs even combine the culinary influences of two or more cultures in a style known as fusion cooking. These are just some of the other cultures from which Americans enjoy or borrow culinary elements.


  • Brazilian
  • Caribbean
  • Chinese
  • Ethiopian
  • French
  • German
  • Greek
  • Indian
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Mexican
  • Middle Eastern
  • Nigerian
  • Spanish
  • Thai
  • Vietnamese

Traditional American Food

There are certain styles of cooking that Americans identify with a particular region of the country. For example, southern cooking, which is especially popular in parts of the southeast U.S., features battered and fried foods, cornbread, fruit pies and other baked goods, jams, sweetened ice tea, and other dishes.

Another example of American food is Cajun cuisine, which people heavily associate with the region in and around Louisiana. Although Cajun cooking has its roots in French and African cooking styles, the area's early settlers evolved this type of cuisine into something wholly unique. Popular Cajun dishes in America include gumbo, boudin, jambalaya and boiled crawfish.

Closely related to Cajun cuisine is Creole cuisine, also called Louisiana Creole cuisine. Similar to Cajun food, Creole food is influenced by French and African cooking, but it also blends in elements from many other cultures and is not quite as spicy.

Specific dishes are popular in certain regions, such as baked beans in Boston, spam musubi in Hawaii and Texas toast in Texas, to name just a few. Additionally, barbecue is a popular American food in nearly every region in America, although the preferences regarding ingredients, flavors and cooking methods can differ depending on where you are.

Music and Entertainment

American music genres like jazz, blues, and rock and roll, have roots in the Black communities but have a universal following. Country music and pop music are also popular in the U.S., with the most successful singers and musicians gaining legions of loyal fans.

Similarly, professional sports leagues, especially American football, not only dominate the sports landscape but also serve as communal festivities that bring together American people of all social statuses and backgrounds.

The most popular sports in America are football, basketball and baseball. In recent decades, hockey and soccer have increased in popularity. Events for NASCAR, the American car racing series, may draw as many as 175,000 spectators.

In addition to concerts and sports events, entertainment in America includes plays, musicals, stand-up comedy, dancing and art exhibitions.

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.