America is described as an extremely complex conglomeration of cultures, possibly even the most complex society in the modern world. The fact that it is made up numerous states, heavily populated with people of different ancestry and origins, gives rise to a unique cultural situation. American culture's chief characteristic is thus referred to as diversity .
"American" implies a citizen of the United States of America. The notion of culture, and American culture, creates a focus and exploration into what it means to be an American. Cultural diversity, multiculturalism, racism, cultural sensitivity and political correctness add to the plethora of considerations in determining what this culture is.
American culture comprises a pattern of real cultural diversity. "Mainstream culture" implies the homogeneous cultural belief systems of all its members, all striving to be part of the whole. "Mainstream American culture" would imply the sharing of belief systems as a whole, irrespective of the origins and cultures they might be part of as well. The complexity of the American situation is the cohesiveness of American culture, with the simultaneous cultural manifestations of the origins of many of its peoples.
While there are significant distinctions between the social groups and cultural categories of Americans, there is also an overall feeling of what it means to be an American. Certain norms of American society might be considered to be pervasive within American culture. Thus, the informal and friendly nature of social interactions can be seen to be "American" --greeting people enthusiastically and casually, not waiting to be introduced, being direct, speaking to strangers in a friendly manner and using first names. The official language of English or American English is a shared mode of communication. Time is considered an important commodity and the term "time is money" is an American-coined phrase. The nuclear family is generally small, outside of certain ethnic groups, and extended family might live miles from each other.
Americans are said to see themselves as individuals first. They might not perceive of themselves as part of a larger group sharing belief systems and practices, thinking rather that they are unique to themselves. Culture, however, is considered to be a "set of shared values, beliefs, perceptions, attitudes, modes of living, customs and symbols" (Payne).
Multiculturalism is a pervasive aspect of American culture. There is also now a change that has taken place within cultural perceptions given increased personal contact through the ease of travel, the media and Internet. Religion, family values, sports, generational replacement and demographic changes likewise play a significant role in the cultural interplay. Multiculturalism depicts an American culture that is composed of a conglomerate of many cultures, both European and non-European. Thus a pluralistic view of American culture also exists. Ethnic groups may celebrate their own values and maintain separate identities according to their cultural heritage. At the same time, they also form part of the broader American culture, embracing American values.
The issue of race is also relevant. While there is a celebration of African American heritage in the United States, at the same time the African American population has integrated largely into mainstream American life as well. Originally, American culture was seen to be primarily European derived (predominantly from Irish, German, Italian and Scottish descent). Americans were described as Americans with European ancestry. A non-European was considered "other." The "Black Power" movement served to change that perception. However, it also created the construct of polarization that came about by separating black and white people. There is still a call in some sectors for black solidarity and the promotion of African-American culture. Yet the interaction between blacks and whites lends American culture a quality of fusion. This may be seen broadly in the culinary market, in the symbiosis of African and American jazz music and an interplay between artistic cultural traditions.
The interconnections that exist and the complex interweaving of attitudes and values, communication and contact, infuses culture with meaning. It is not one-dimensional, but a significantly rich complexity made up of all the components of the cultures comprising the American society. American culture, with its "American dream," elevates the individual and focuses on his or her uniqueness. American culture also unites individuals into the group collective of America, and American culture.