National customs and traditions – the holidays people celebrate, the foods they eat, the clothes they wear and the folk tales they tell their children – have long been associated with national identity. But their importance in the public’s sense of nationality varies widely across countries.
For Hungarians (68%) and Greeks (66%), customs and traditions are very important to being considered a true Hungarian or Greek. Australians and Italians (both 50%) see them as of middling importance. But they are relatively unimportant for Germans (29%) and Swedes (26%).
Among Americans, the prevailing view is that culture plays a role in defining national identity. More than four-in-ten (45%) believe that for a person to be considered truly American, it is very important that he or she share American customs and traditions. Another 39% say such identification with U.S. culture is at least somewhat important. Only 15% voice the view that this embrace of cultural Americanism is not very or not at all important.
Notably, there is a significant generation gap when it comes to the importance of customs and traditions. A majority of people ages 50 and older say it is very important to have an affinity for American culture to be considered truly American. Just 28% of people ages 18 to 34 agree.
Education matters in a person’s view of cultural identity. More than half (54%) of people with a high school education or less believe that to be truly American it is very important that one share U.S. customs and traditions. Just 33% of those with a college degree or more share this view.
Similarly, Catholics (58%), white evangelical Protestants (54%) and white mainline Protestants (46%) are more likely than those who are unaffiliated (28%) to believe that adherence to U.S. culture is very important to being an American.
In Europe: The cultural roots of nationality
Most Europeans believe that adhering to native customs and traditions is at least somewhat important in defining national identity. But there is less intensity to such sentiment than there is about speaking the national language.
In only five of the countries surveyed do half or more say sharing customs and traditions is very important. In Sweden (36%) and Germany (26%), roughly a quarter or more actually believe that such cultural affinity is either not very important or not important at all.
In some countries, there is also an ideological divide over the relationship between culture and nationality, with those on the right significantly more likely than those on the left to link the two. In the UK, for instance, this right-left split is 30 percentage points. In France the gap is 29 points and in Poland it is 21 points.
Europeans of different generations also tend to disagree on the importance of customs and traditions to national identity. Those ages 50 and older are more likely than those ages 18 to 34 to say adhering to native culture is very important, especially in the UK (a 24-percentage-point generation gap), France (23 points) and Greece (21 points).
Educational background also matters in a person’s views of the link between culture and national identity. Europeans with a secondary education or less are generally more likely than those with more than a secondary education to believe that customs and tradition are very important to nationality. This educational differential is 20 points in France and Spain and 19 points in the UK.
Customs, traditions and national identity in Australia, Canada and Japan
Half of Australians believe it is very important to share national customs and traditions in order to be truly Australian. Older Australians (60%) are more likely than younger ones (40%) to see customs and traditions as strongly linked to national identity. People who place themselves on the right of the ideological spectrum (61%) are also more likely than those on the left (35%) to place great importance on culture as a marker of nationality. And Australians with a high school education or less (54%) are more likely than those with more than a high school degree (45%) to strongly link culture and national identity.
In Canada, 54% believe that adherence to their country’s cultural norms is very important to being Canadian. Generations differ on this issue, however. Roughly six-in-ten people ages 50 and older (61%) say adherence to traditions is very important to national identity. Only about four-in-ten of those ages 18 to 34 (41%) agree. There is also an ideological divide in Canada over the cultural roots of national identity: 65% of those on the right of political spectrum say these roots are very important, compared with just 37% of those who place themselves on the left. Notably, there are no differences between French and English speakers on this issue.
More than four-in-ten Japanese (43%) say following local customs and traditions is very important to national identity. Older generations (50%) in Japan are more likely than younger people (30%) to strongly link adherence to local customs and traditions with nationality. And Japanese with a high school education or less (47%) are more likely than those with more than a high school education (36%) to say culture is very important to national identity.