The different cultures of North America

North America, the United States – one homogenous culture? Hardly.
First of all, Canadians are not U.S. Americans. In fact, many Canadians will tell you they’re quite different from their neighbors in the South. And just wait what the Québecois will tell you about the rest of the continent.
Then there’s the semantic detail that most U.S. citizens speak of themselves simply as “American” – neglecting the tiny fact that all inhabitants of the Americas (from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego) are technically Americans.
To avoid making this even more complicated, I will not go into much detail about the term “America.” Just this: A Cherokee Chief once reminded me that the native peoples of this continent never referred to themselves as Americans since that’s only the name a German cartographer gave the land across the big water (in honor of the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci).

No, the United States and North America do not represent a homogenous culture. Coming from Europe, some people may not realize this right away. After all, everyone in the U.S. speaks English, eats and shops at the same franchise chains, consumes the same media, and uses a uniform infrastructure throughout the country.

During my cultural training programs I dedicate ample time to correct this lopsided half knowledge. Since a big portion of the US-inbound expats I work with come to the Southeast, I find it especially important to prepare them for an America which may not fit the stereotypical image of this country. The South is different. And so are all other regions of the United States. Let’s take a look.

11AmericanNationsThe map above was published in the Fall 2013 issue of Tufts University’s alumni magazine and was developed by Colin Woodard, the author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Woodward claims that North America can be broken down neatly into 11 separate “nation-states”, where dominant cultures explain voting behaviors and attitudes toward everything from social issues to the role of government.

“The borders of my eleven American nations are reflected in many different types of maps — including maps showing the distribution of linguistic dialects, the spread of cultural artifacts, the prevalence of different religious denominations, and the county-by-county breakdown of voting in virtually every hotly contested presidential race in our history,” Woodard writes. “Our continent’s famed mobility has been reinforcing, not dissolving, regional differences, as people increasingly sort themselves into like-minded communities.”

Here is how he describes these 11 distinct cultural areas:

Yankeedom: Founded by Puritans, residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.
New Netherland: The Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world when New York was founded, Woodard writes, so it’s no wonder that the region has been a hub of global commerce. It’s also the region most accepting of historically persecuted populations.
The Midlands: Stretching from Quaker territory west through Iowa and into more populated areas of the Midwest, the Midlands are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Government intrusion is unwelcome, and ethnic and ideological purity isn’t a priority.
Tidewater: The coastal regions in the English colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware tend to respect authority and value tradition. Once the most powerful American nation, it began to decline during Westward expansion.
Greater Appalachia: Extending from West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas, the descendants of Irish, English and Scottish settlers value individual liberty. Residents are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers.”
Deep South: Dixie still traces its roots to the caste system established by masters who tried to duplicate West Indies-style slave society, Woodard writes. The Old South values states’ rights and local control and fights the expansion of federal powers.
El Norte: Southwest Texas and the border region is the oldest, and most linguistically different, nation in the Americas. Hard work and self-sufficiency are prized values.
The Left Coast: A hybrid, Woodard says, of Appalachian independence and Yankee utopianism loosely defined by the Pacific Ocean on one side and coastal mountain ranges like the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas on the other. The independence and innovation required of early explorers continues to manifest in places like Silicon Valley and the tech companies around Seattle.
The Far West: The Great Plains and the Mountain West were built by industry, made necessary by harsh, sometimes inhospitable climates. Far Westerners are intensely libertarian and deeply distrustful of big institutions, whether they are railroads and monopolies or the federal government.
New France: Former French colonies in and around New Orleans and Quebec tend toward consensus and egalitarian, “among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy,” Woodard writes.
First Nation: The few First Nation peoples left — Native Americans who never gave up their land to white settlers — are mainly in the harshly Arctic north of Canada and Alaska. They have sovereignty over their lands, but their population is only around 300,000.

Now, let’s overlap these regional cultural clusters with the findings of a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, called “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates.” According to the research team these three regions look like this:

3kindsAmericansMarina Koren at The Atlantic summed up this study nicely:

The “Friendly and Conventional” region. The first region features the states of Middle America, including South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa, known as the “red” states. People here ranked highly in levels of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, moderately low in neuroticism, and very low in openness. Residents of the region tend to be “sociable, considerate, dutiful, and traditional,” the researchers write. They are predominantly white with low levels of education, wealth, and social tolerance, and tend to be more religious and politically conservative than people outside of the region. They are also less healthy compared with other Americans.
The “Relaxed and Creative” region. The second cluster consists of West Coast states, Washington, Oregon, and California. Its personality profile is marked by low extraversion and agreeableness, very low neuroticism, and very high openness. Cultural diversity and alternative lifestyles are high, and residents are politically liberal and healthy, both mentally and physically. This region is richer, has more residents with college degrees, and is more innovative than other areas. These states cast fewer votes for conservative presidential candidates and are less religious compared with others. Here, the study’s authors write, people value tolerance, individualism, and happiness.
The “Temperamental and Uninhibited” region. The third and final grouping comprises of mid-Atlantic and Northeast states like Maine, Pennsylvania, and New York—the “blue” states. The region is low in extraversion, very low in agreeableness and conscientiousness, very high in neuroticism, and moderately high in openness. People here, the researchers say, are “reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive.” Residents are politically liberal and less religious, and are disproportionately college-educated individuals, older adults, and women. A good chunk of the “passionate” and “competitive” residents are leaving the area, according to census data, and heading south or southwest.

Add to all of this the different dialect (accent) regions of the United States and you’ll hear how heterogeneous this country and its people are. You may have already come across Joshua Katz’s work.
Just watch this clip: Dialect Maps Show Variety of American English

us-dialects-map-1What have been your experiences with regional differences in this country? Let readers know via the comments section.


ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!



6 thoughts on “The different cultures of North America

  1. Christian, this is an excellent article. It ties together several good pieces of research. May I share this with the students in my Multicultural Perspectives class next semester? Also, would you be available to come speak? The class usually has a very diverse population of around 50 students. It is at Southern Adventist University. Just a thought. Ben Judkins

  2. You do a service by posting these maps. We have the misfortune of being the New Yorkers in the family despite both (husband and wife) having grown up in Texas. Our sibs are more or less used to us but their spouses (mid-westerners) have great difficulty. They have grown up keeping their views to themselves and deal with our willingness to take a position with hidden (for the most part) hostility. Now try that on an international, cross-cultural stage. For Germany (the size of Montana) I recall asking a legal trainee from Munich who studied in Wuerzburg if she would stay there for her career, thinking, well, it’s all Bavaria. Nope. She couldn’t stand the Franconians. Duesseldorf vs. Koeln is famous. When we lived in Frankfurt and had FM plates, we learned how disliked Frankfurters are. There is a charming Moritz Bleibtreu movie that treats Bavaria as being as foreign for a Hamburger as Bulgaria. I am sure we could both go on with examples.

  3. “Dixie still traces its roots to the caste system established by masters who tried to duplicate West Indies-style slave society” This is what the Germans are after in the south. Cheap peon labor.

  4. Great article, you should also talk about the different value system and Religious view, which is very different in the south compared to some other areas.

  5. Pingback: Monday Mondays 6.28.15 | Swallows from my Kitchen Window

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