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North American Culture
Geography and Land:
North America is formed of three independent countries: Canada, the United States of America (US) and Mexico. From a cultural standpoint, however, North America is generally considered to include the United States and Canada.
Both Canada and the US are spread over an enormous land area and are in between two oceans that impact both strategic vision and the culture. Commonly there are two types of travel in those countries: domestic travel and overseas travel. The expression “overseas travel” carries many meanings among Americans and Canadians. The North American landscape offers just about every climate found in nature except tropical rainforest. The weather can fluctuate from almost tropical in Florida to desert in Nevada to arctic in Alaska. People migrate frequently within the countries and travel is unrestricted and easy between most areas. The large size of the land and physical distance from any other countries has had a large impact on both the Canadian and US understanding of the rest of the world.
Agriculture has always been a foundation of the American and Canadian lifestyle throughout history. The land is extremely fertile in most areas and arable land mass is gigantic. Although in these two countries only a small portion of the population lives on agricultural pursuits, agriculture, forestry and ranching remain important parts of American and Canadian economy, identity and culture.
Most Canadian and US citizens are were descended from populations that immigrated from all over the world for various reasons with a common denominator being the search for personal, economic, and religious freedoms. Some exceptions to this are black Americans who came in largely as slaves and were freed officially in 1863 however have fought to make incremental gains in equality since then. Many groups arrived in the United States as indentured servants or searching for work. Some groups that fall under this definition in the early history of the area are the Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, and later on groups from almost every nation in the world that worked their way into the United States
and Canada for various reasons. North American society is usually termed a melting pot of cultures, however it is actually more like a puzzle society, having micro communities that keep their cultural identity within the body of a
larger American Anglo-Saxon culture.
Family Values and Spiritualities:
Unlike the world wide perception that is an open society with no moral values and ethics American society is a very conservative society. Americans value family life and their families, however their approach and family interactions
are different from other parts of the world for two reasons:
• Individualism: Americans are very individualistic and keep personal distance
with one another. Consequently, family interactions can be less emotional in
appearance which makes it look like they are careless about family issues.
• Distance: Because of the large spread of the country, families can be so
spread out it would take hours of flying for families to get together. This
leads to fewer interactions among family members, mainly limited to holidays.
Thanksgiving is a family day and families gather on that third Thursday of November to share food and spend the day or even the weekend together. If visiting the US around this time of the year and interacting with American friends, it will be a warm and nice opportunity to share in the culture. US citizens are very spiritual and for the most part have religious affiliations. However, there is a separation between religious belief and political system, so religious practices do not make the news and are rarely mentioned in the media unless there is a scandal. Also, because of the culture of freedom of expression, people are free in their thoughts and can express them, so whoever does not have a religious affiliation can freely express it also. Although the fact that there are open atheists in the United States grabs the attention of international media and gives the perception that Americans are mostly atheists, this stereotype is erroneous.
The first English settlers in the US split from under the rule of the British King through a violent rebellion beginning in 1775. This revolution led to the formation of the American government system which consequently has had a guiding
influence on the development of American society. In contrast, the Canadian government was formed peacefully and remained linked with the British, and the two countries have evolved along slightly different paths since 1775. The major events in US history that affected the culture are:
• Independence from the British Empire
• The Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion
• The American Civil War
• Abolition of Slavery
• Post Civil War Reconstruction and Occupation of the American South
• Immigration in the early 20th century
• World War One
• The Great Depression
• World War Two
• The Cold War
• The Civil Rights movement
• Women’s struggle for equality
• The Vietnam War
• The rise of American corporate culture
• The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001
The Allies winning World War Two thanks to the involvement of the US and the use of the nuclear bomb lead to an understanding of the value of technological supremacy in the United States, which helped fuel the era of globalization. In
contrast, the Canadian community made a smooth switch to independence and Canada has kept a lot of its founding European values and ruling model from its mother countries, Britain and France, and this heritage reflects in its culture as well as the demeanor of its people.
Like any other culture, language has great implications for the culture. There are three official languages spoken in Canada and the US: English, Spanish, and French. English is considered the major language of communication and has had the greatest impact on both cultures. Spanish is the second official language in the US, with several states using both English and Spanish in government publications in response to the growing number of immigrants arriving from Mexico, Central and South America. French is the primary language in Quebec, which maintains a strong French culture in this part of Canada. The French language is seldom spoken in the old French colony of Louisiana, however this state has kept some its French heritage and a French Creole language is spoken by some residents in this state. In certain urban environments, one may find immigrant communities that speak almost any language in the world, from Russian to Chinese to Armenian to Korean and others, reflective of the immigrant communities living there.
The Society of Numbers and Equality:
Unlike other cultures in the world, serial numbers are routinely used to identify you as a person in the US. They are an integral part of functioning in the society and telling others who you are. The social security number that every US citizen has is a unique 9-digit number that is used to explain everything about that person, as opposed to the family name of the person. Titled nobility and caste systems do not exist in the US. You are what your work
is and what you accomplish in your life. You are what the numbers on your driver’s license say. You are what the numbers in your bank account are. You are what the numbers on your credit report show, etc…when interacting with an American institution, one normally is not dealt with face to face before records are checked based on a number of some kind that identifies a person and his or her particular status in regards to the institution.
The US Constitution, common law, and the social system do not allow for the superiority of any one citizen over another. In theory, everybody is equal and deserves equal treatment and respect with equal rights to attain any position.
There are no legal or social objections for anyone to rise as high as they can in their career or activities. This is the concept behind how the US became famous as a “Land of Opportunities,” and these reasons are behind the world wide famous “American Dream.” Discrimination and privilege does exist within America, however, and there are
groups of people who face greater challenges in succeeding in the United States while some groups of people are very self sufficient socially and financially. In some areas discrimination is infrequent while in others it can lead to violence. Many people do not feel that they are treated as equals within the society and there are social struggles among many communities trying to live and work together, however the US government spends a great deal of time and effort
to recognize individual rights and the diversity within the country.
Meal sharing between friends and business contacts happens more often at restaurants than homes. There are various scenarios for meal sharing; here are a few possible scenarios for American dining etiquette that will provide some
useful tips for dining. Home or Restaurant? It is more common to be invited to a restaurant in the US
due to the variety of cuisines available in this industry. One can choose any cuisine in most large cities and go taste it, however expect that if you go to a restaurant offering cuisine from your home country, it will not be served exactly the same way you are accustomed to eating it at home; you will be offered an Americanized version of your home country food. What should I take as a gift? If invited to a restaurant, there is no need to take a gift. If you are going to a house, then it is a good idea to take a gift. Typical gifts are a bottle of wine or some sweet item to share, or you can
simply ask and you will be given a straight forward and honest answer informing you what you can bring. Most Americans will say that there is no need to bring anything with you when asked but some will give you explicit requests; if your host tells you there is no need to bring anything, it is still acceptable to bring a bottle of wine anyways and your host will appreciate the gesture very much. If you are given an explicit request, you should follow the instruction.
Another common meal sharing ritual in North America is to organize a pot luck, where each guest brings a dish to share with everyone, and the host provides the meeting location and refreshments or some other item. Generally, there are no
foods that Americans don’t eat, however remain conscious in case your host is a vegetarian, doesn’t drink alcohol, is on a specific diet, etc.
Who pays: No confusion in this matter; the one who invites pays the bill and the
guest does not need to offer.
How to return the invitation? You can offer to or agree on a date to invite the
person for a meal at a restaurant or some other social function.
Business meals? It is common that business is discussed around lunch or dinner
in the US, and this is usually done towards closing a deal if you are doing sales.
Using cutlery: if invited at home, people may use plastic cups and paper plates
in group settings and this is common to the culture, you don’t have to be
offended. For individual or small group invitations, expect the cutlery to be nice.
Smoking? Many Americans do not smoke, and smoking in restaurants and other
buildings is in fact prohibited by law in many areas. Government facilities also
prohibit smoking indoors. One should ask permission first before lighting a
cigarette; in most instances smoking outside the building is acceptable.
It is common to be invited to an American Barbeque which is a highly informal
event. There may be many guests, guests who bring their own food, sports games,
socializing, television watching and music which make the event fun. During
summer holidays many Americans like to enjoy barbeques.
The blue jeans trend came from the US. During the California gold rush of 1849, blue jeans became popularized by the entrepreneur Levi Strauss who sold them as utility pants for gold miners. Blue jeans remained popular and were integrated as representative of the American culture. It is common to be dressed casually in Northern America and it is not offensive to be wearing shorts or flip flops leisurely walking down the street, however, there are certain rules to apply while interacting for business or at a social level.
Official business is conducted within more restricted rules of dress code, and a suit and tie are mandatory for certain meetings. It is recommended to wear a suit and tie for the first meeting until you build a relationship with the
person, when dressed down events will be available. We have a full range of classes that can help you understand the proper dress code in the United States depending on the nature and location of your interaction.
Gift Exchange Etiquette:
It is not common to exchange gifts in the American and Canadian business world. Gifts are personal use items and Americans and Canadians may not understand what the reason was for the gift. In such individualistic cultures, gift exchange has to be approached carefully and there should not be any feeling that a return favor is expected. In most government and professional contexts, there are usually strict ethics regulations that prohibit accepting gifts in excess of
twenty or fifty dollars.
During holidays however, gifts are welcome from close friends and family members; it is the gesture and not the monetary value that counts. The following is a simple guideline for giving and receiving gifts:
How should I react when I receive a gift from an American friend?
• You open it and appreciate it.
Is it appropriate to take alcohol?
• Yes, when invited for dinner a bottle of good spirit is appreciated and a good gesture.
What about perfumes, lingerie and jewelry?
• Those are very intimate items; Americans may feel that you invaded their personal space if you are not a close friend.
When can one offer a gift?
• If a service has been rendered to you or for holidays or special personal events if invited.
I offered a gift and they told me: ‘Oh, this is very nice, you must have paid $50.00 for it! I want to invite you for dinner, is that ok?’
• Yes it is, Americans usually express themselves and return the gift soon after or promise some action of reciprocity.
Masculinity and Femininity:
Men and women are seen to be equal in the Northern American community. It is common to see a woman do what is considered exclusively a man’s job in other parts of the world. There are many women’s organizations calling for equality between men and women, and the gap between the sexes is getting narrower with each generation. In addition, long hair or earrings worn by men are common in many areas unless the area is very conservative. This is normal and does not affect their masculine image. On another note, the English language does not distinguish between female and male: i.e. a table in French is a feminine word and in English it has no gender article.
American society is a structured society and less emotional than others. Personal space while talking to an American is more than while talking to a Middle Easterner or Latin American, but may be similar to the personal space
when talking with an Asian or European. It is good to know and learn about personal comfort zones; this point is usually not noticed when the conversation becomes casual, however subconsciously it affects how the people interact
together. If Americans or Canadians are talking to someone and the guest is physically closer to them than their comfort zone allows, they tend to feel nervous without knowing why. In the same way, when a visitor is accustomed to a
close personal space and perhaps touching, the North American personal space may feel distant. While interacting, recognize this aspect of the culture and try to allow enough space for the other person to relax in their comfort zone.
Time Values and Management:
The American society was founded mainly by immigrant communities that learned to work hard and were rewarded based on results and work ethic. This is sometimes referred to as the Protestant work ethic which was derived from Puritan and Calvinist communities that immigrated from England during the early stages of colonialism of what would become the United States of years ago. Taken together with the economic principles of capitalism, the American way of life has a unique color to it because of the combination of Capitalism and the underlying Protestant work ethic. This combination, among others, highlighted the value of time within the US culture. Time is consequently a valuable commodity in the US and when one is given time to socialize or for a business meeting, it is a positive sign of the intent of the American to build a relationship. The North American sense of time management led to the commonly known expression about Americans that “Time is Money.”
North American society is an explicit society with a structured train of thought when analyzing and very little amount of emotional expression. This fact leads to the conclusion that when talking to an American one should not expect large
amount of bodily expressions, hand movements or hugging. Americans tend to be calm when talking to others, even if they are angry. Eye contact is important and one should maintain good and friendly eye contact that will set up the
nature of any kind of meeting.
The US and Mexico:
With the large flow of Latin Americans into the US, especially immigrants from Mexico, many states exist with a growing Latin influence in their culture, which is impacting their economy, society and political system. Among the many states with large Mexican immigrant populations are: California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Historically speaking, however, the US and Mexico have fought over land since the 1840s, when during the period of western expansion of the United States much territory was seized from Mexico and this became the present day American southwest and California. The state of Texas was annexed by the United States after fighting the Mexican government for independence, and again in 1916, the United States invaded Mexico. Although immigration is an issue of much debate today in the United States, Mexican communities have in fact lived and worked in US territories ever since the first days of American control, and both their indigenous and immigrant populations have steadily increased.
Illegal immigration into the US from Mexico has been a major concern of the policy makers for a long time and there is a discussion of building a wall separating the two countries in order to control this illegal flow. However, building such a wall will not be without impact on both societies and their long relationship. It will impact both economies on both sides of the border line. Although Americans and Mexicans seem vastly different, the two countries share several similarities such as a very independent mindset, a colonial past, religion as an important part of social life, large trade accounts with each other, and communities living and working together on both sides of the border. In the future, the US as an Anglo Saxon based culture that is growing into a puzzle of mini-cultures will have to find a way to coexist with Mexican
influence and its Hispanic culture Indian influence and ethnic composition.