American Cultural Values

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According to, cultural values are defined as, “the commonly held standards of what is acceptable or unacceptable, important or unimportant, right or wrong, workable or unworkable… in a community or society”.

  • There can be a tension between ideal values and reality. The ideal of racial equality and the reality of American educational and housing patterns is one example of the kind of inconsistencies that can exist in a society.

  • A cultural value doesn’t mean that absolutely every individual in that culture believes in or always acts according to that principal.

  • U.S. society is made up of a diversity of ethnic groups and cultures that have helped shape American values.

  • Some individuals and groups have a set of values that are quite different from those of mainstream America; not all of these values are respected by mainstream America.

  • People's attitudes and behavior are based on their values.

  • Values change over time and circumstances.

So, what are some American values?


People can and should control nature, their own environment and their own destiny. The future is not left to fate. Anything is possible.

Result: An energetic, goal-oriented society.


Change is seen as positive and good. This means progress, improvement and growth. Children are often asked what they want to be when they grow up; college students are asked what they will do when they graduate; and professors plan what they will do when they retire. We value scientific approaches; they are a primary source of good and a major factor in change. Holding on to traditions seems to imply old and outdated way

Result: An established transient society geographically, economically and socially.


Time is valuable. Achievement of goals depends on the productive use of time. Americans take pride in making the best use of their time. In the business world, time is money. Being on time for class, an appointment, or for dinner is important. People are reprimanded, punished and fired for being late.

Result: An efficient and progressive society often at the expense of interpersonal relationships.


People have equal opportunities; people are important as individuals, for who they are, not from which family they come. We uphold the ideal that everyone is created equal and has the same rights. Because of this equality, we believe in helping others.

Result: A society where little deference is shown or status is acknowledged. Other cultures may perceive this as rudeness.


People are seen not group members but as separate individuals with individual needs. Americans are encouraged at an early age to be independent and to develop their own goals in life. They are encouraged to not depend too much on others including their friends, teachers and parents. Each person is unique, and special. There is premium on individual expression. Privacy is a fundamental right.

Result: Other cultures may see Americans as being self-centered and sometimes isolated and lonely.


Americans take pride in their personal accomplishments. If there is motivation, people can make themselves better. Every individual is capable of initiating in changing herself, her circumstances and her society. Risk taking is valued.

Result: Americans give respect for self-achievements, not achievements based on rights of birth.


Americans believe competition brings out the best in people and free enterprise leads to progress and produces success. Americans often compete with themselves as well as others. They feel good when they beat their own record in an athletic event or other types of competition. An aggressive and competitive spirit is often the motivating factor to work harder.

Result: Competition is emphasized over cooperation


Americans believe that, regardless of past or present, the future will be better and happier. Americans assume that human nature is basically good, not basically evil. The future cannot be better if people are not fundamentally good and improvable.

Result: Americans place less value on past events and constantly look ahead to tomorrow.


Americans believe that work is morally right. Americans seem to always be on the go, because sitting quietly doing nothing seems like a waste of time and it seems immoral to waste time. Often time, people concentrate on living to work, not working to live. Work is the basis of recognition and power. You are what you do. There is an emphasis on getting things done, a priority on planning and setting goals and measuring results. Leisure is the reward for hard work and many Americans value playing hard.

Result: There is more emphasis on doing rather than being. This is a no-nonsense attitude toward life.


Americans believe that formality is "un-American" and a show of arrogance and superiority. The American lifestyle and interaction with other people is generally casual. There is a tendency to be friendly towards strangers.

Result: A casual, egalitarian attitude between people is more accepted.


One can only trust people who look you in the eye and tell it like it is. Truth is a function of reality not of circumstance. Americans try to work out their differences face-to-face and without a mediator. They are encouraged to speak up and give their opinions. There is a self-assuredness.

Result: People tend to tell the truth and not worry about saving the other person's face or honor.


Practicality is usually the most important consideration when decisions are to be made. There is a focus on function and pragmatism and a tendency to be brief and business like.

Result: Americans place less emphasis on the subjective, aesthetic, emotional or consensual decisions.


Material goods are seen as the just rewards of hard-work, the evidence of "God's favor." There seems there is a prerogative to be well off and physically comfortable. People can be judged by their possessions. On the other hand, Americans are very generous and donate lots of time and money to charities.

Result: Other cultures may see Americans as caring more for things than people or relationships.

What do different cultures in America value about friendship? Family? Religion? Education? Have these values changed over time?

Adapted from “The Values Americans Live By”, L. Robert Kohls and Gary Althens’ American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States; Intercultural Press, 2003.]

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