What are American values?

Understand American values and learn about what is important to Americans.

What are American values

What are American values?

In your country, you probably had strong traditions and culture that you valued. In the United States, there are also important American values. These are the things that are most important to Americans.

Independence

One of the main values in the United States is independence. Independence is sometimes referred to as individualism. Americans are very proud of being self-reliant, or being able to take care of themselves, and they tend to think others should be self-reliant as well. When someone reaches a goal, that is typically seen as the result of his or her own hard work. This is different than in many other cultures which are more collective. Collective cultures tend to see accomplishments as a reflection of an entire family or community.

Here is an example of how Americans value independence:

  • American children tend to leave the home earlier than in other cultures. For example, after graduating high school, many children move out to go to college or start working. If they continued to live at home, they might be asked to pay rent or contribute to the house.
  • Americans expect anyone who is able to work to do so in order to support themselves.

Privacy

Americans value privacy and their own space. While in some cultures wanting privacy may be seen as a bad thing, many Americans like to have alone time and may be private about certain topics.

Here are a few situations related to the American value of privacy:

  • In conversations, many Americans are private about certain things and do not want to talk about them, such as their age,  how much money they make, or their political, sexual and religious views. Some people do not like talking about these subjects in public because they are worried it will cause people to argue. However, if you have questions about these topics, you can ask us. Most Americans will be happy to teach you about how Americans view the world.
  • Americans often give each other more space in public situations than people in other cultures. They tend to stand with a bit of space between them, typically the distance of an outstretched arm.
  • Many Americans have fences around their houses to ensure they have privacy. If your children lose a ball or other toy over a neighbor’s fence, it is generally a bad idea to jump over the fence and retrieve the toy. Instead, go to the front door and knock or ring the bell. If there is no answer leave a note on the door, asking permission to retrieve the toy between 8am and 8pm. This is both respectful and safe, as some people have guard dogs or may be very protective of their privacy. Elders in particular typically need more peace and quiet and may not want to be disturbed. If you open a gate you must close it. However, if you come to an open gate, leave it open.
  • Bedrooms are usually considered private spaces. Neighbors and friends are entertained in the kitchen, dining room or living room. Parents and children tend to have their own bedrooms, and often, American children each have their own bedrooms.

Those are just some examples of privacy that may be different in your culture.

Directness

Americans are often very direct. This means they often tell you what they think and they will be assertive about what they want. Being assertive is generally seen as a good thing in America.

Here are some examples of American-style directness:

  • In some cultures, it is rude to decline an invitation – for example, if someone asks you for lunch, you may say yes, but then not go to lunch. In America, it is almost always better to say, “No, but thank you” or, “Thank you, but I have another commitment.” If you say yes to an invitation but do not go to the event, the person might get upset.
  • In conversation, if an American disagrees with your opinion, they might tell you. This does not mean they do not like you, just that they may have a different idea.
  • The idea of “losing face” is not the same in America. The translation for “losing face” would be “embarrassed,” which is less serious. Americans may be embarrassed if they are criticized or make a mistake, for example. So Americans may point out mistakes or criticize you, simply intending it as a correction or useful information.
  • In classes, Americans may challenge their teachers’ ideas. In some cultures, it is impolite to disagree with your teacher.
  • It is never is rude to ask for help. If a friend or neighbor asks you if you need anything, they truly want to help. Feel free to say, “If you are going to the store and you walk by the oranges, please pick me up a bag, and I’ll pay you for them.” Or, if you need winter clothes for example, and you’re not sure where to buy them, it is OK to ask, “Do you have any suggestions for where I can buy inexpensive coats and boots for my children?”  Most Americans love to help, and need very little encouragement to become good friends and neighbors.

In general, it is good to remember that what may appear rude is not intended that way. Americans are not trying to be rude – they are just being direct.

Equality

The US Declaration of Independence declares, “All Men Are Created Equal.” In reality, some people in the United States do not always treat all citizens equally, but many Americans feel very strongly about the idea of equality. There are many examples in American history where all people were not treated equally such as slavery of African American (black) citizens. However, Americans like to believe the idea that all people should have equal opportunities. This idea is a part of what is called the “American Dream.” Many early immigrants moved to America to follow the American Dream. They believed that if you worked hard, you could move up in society.

Today more and more people realize the American Dream is not true. Many people who work very hard do not have very much money. Often people who come from privileged backgrounds have an easier time moving up in the world. Still, the idea of equality is an important part of US culture.

Here are some examples of equality in American culture:

• In legal situations, all Americans should be treated equally and all Americans have a right to representation by a lawyer.

• In a classroom, all students should be treated equally by their teachers. No student should be favored.

• Men and women should be treated equally, and men are not viewed as better than women. In reality, many women still do not have the same status as men in American society, especially in terms of how much money they can make.

• In America, there is not a strongly embedded social hierarchy or caste system. Sometimes people who you might expect to treat you with respect may treat you as an equal. For example, children may call an older adult by their first name. If this happens to you, try to remember they are not being rude, but they have a different cultural value.

• Sometimes Americans will tell you how they prefer to be addressed when they introduce themselves. If a teacher or a doctor introduces herself as “Lucy” or “Doctor Lucy”, that is how you should address her.  If she introduces herself as Dr. Wilson, that is what she prefers to be called.

It is useful to know that there may still be invisible hierarchies among people. These tend to be based more on individual success: for example, someone’s job, wealth, or education.

Informality

American values
American culture is informal. Americans often even wear jeans to church. Photo by Amancay Maahs.

American society is often informal and relaxed.

Here are some examples of how the United States is an informal culture:

• Americans may dress casually, such as wearing jeans or shorts even at work, school, or church. When you first start a job, it is a good idea to dress more formally and then to choose your attire based on what the people around you are wearing.

• When greeting someone, Americans tend to say, “Hi” or, “Hello.” You use the same greeting no matter who you are talking to: your son or your son’s teacher. The langauge does not have formal and informal forms of greeting.

• Americans tend to call each other by their first names. In some situations, however, it is better to be more formal and to use last names until you are asked to use a first name – for example, in a business situation or at school.

While the informality of US culture may surprise you, it is not meant to be rude. In fact, if someone greets you informally and calls you by your first name, it probably means they think of you in a friendly way.

Competition

Americans can be competitive and often work hard to achieve their goals. Competition often leads Americans to be very busy. Many Americans view competition is a good thing.

Here are some examples of the American value of competition:

• Competition in business is due in large part to the capitalist economy. America’s business model is to compete for customers and for the best prices.

• Americans will schedule lots of activities. Even young children participate in lots of activities outside of school, such as sports, music lessons, and volunteering. Sometimes you may feel like Americans are “rushing around” with little time for relaxing. But many Americans they feel good when they get a lot done.

• Competition can be seen in school, in the workplace, and in sports. For example, students may work hard to achieve the best grades. Sometimes competition involves groups, such as a soccer team or a school study group.

• Americans may also “compete” with themselves. Many Americans work hard to keep improving at what they do. For example, they may want to run a race faster than they did last time or they may want to sell more items at their job than they did the year before.

Overall, the value placed on competition may cause you to feel some culture shock, especially if you came from a culture that is more collaborative than competitive.

Time and Efficiency

Americans place a lot of value on their time. Americans may feel frustrated if they think someone or something has wasted their time. Some Americans plan out their time carefully, using daily calendars for both their personal lives and their work lives. There is a saying in America: time is money. This  means many Americans like to use their time “efficiently” – they want to get the most done in the shortest amount of time.

This may be different from what you are used to. When making a business deal, you may spend time getting to know the other person, maybe while drinking tea or coffee. In the United States, this is often not the case.

Here are some situations in which you might want to be aware of time:

  • Meetings, especially for work: You should try to be on time – probably even 5 minutes early.
  • Appointments: If you have a doctor’s appointment or some other kind of appointment, you need to arrive on time. You may still have to wait for the appointment. However, it is important you are on time or you may have to reschedule the appointment.
  • Activities with friends: If you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, try to be on time – you can be 5 or 10 minutes late, but if you are much later than that, you should probably call and let them know.
  • Parties: For a small party, arrive within 15 minutes of the time given. For a large party with many people, you can be 30 to 40 minutes late.

A good rule is that anytime you are going to be late, you should call and let the person you are meeting know you will be late. If you can’t call, you should tell the person you are sorry for being late when you arrive.

Sometimes, you may feel like someone is leaving very quickly or is in a hurry to leave. This may be because they want to be “on time” for their next appointment. It does not mean they do not like you.

Being on time and being aware of time is a cultural difference you will probably need to adapt to because if you are late, you could lose your job, miss your appointments, or hurt someone’s feelings. If you have a hard time adjusting to the American sense of time, you may want to get a watch or phone that has an alarm to remind you of the time, especially for getting to work.

Work Ethic

Americans can be very focused on their work. Sometimes people from other cultures think Americans “live-to-work” or are “workaholics.” This means they think Americans work too much. Part of the reason Americans are work-oriented is because being busy and active is often seen as a good thing. People also tend to identify strongly with their jobs. For example, when you first meet someone, one of the first questions they might ask you is “What do you do?” They mean, “What kind of work do you do?”

Men or women who work at home taking care of the family often call themselves “home-makers” and deserve respect for this occupation as much as any other.  When filling out an application of any kind, it is OK to write “home-maker” as the occupation for someone who does not have a paying job outside the home.

Consumerism

As a newcomer to the United States, you may sometimes think Americans seem materialistic – focused on owning and buying things. Part of the reason for this is that many Americans value competition and work. Because Americans value competition, they want to “keep up” with those around them. This means, for example, if your neighbor got a new car, you might want a new car also. Americans call this “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Many Americans value work and have a strong work ethic. Many Americans view material items such as TVs or shoes as a way to show they are successful at work. Americans may think of material items as rewards for their hard work and efforts.

Another reason Americans may be object-oriented is because many Americans value newness and innovation. So even if they have a phone that works, they may want a new phone because it has new and exciting features. You do not have to feel you must have lots of possessions to be respected.  You should feel comfortable living simply or any way you prefer, maybe saving more money for emergencies, education and retirement rather than spending on objects to impress others.

All of the above statements are generalizations of American values. Generalizations are not always true, but things that are often true. The goal of the RCO is to provide generalizations to help you better understand why an American may be acting in a way you do not understand. Remember, neither way is better than the other way – just different.

Do you have more questions about American values? You can ask for help or share your story on our Forums.

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