The population of the United States (about 281 million) is the third largest in the world. English is the predominant language. Americans tend to be frank and outspoken. They voice their opinions and share their views on a variety of subjects. Americans value innovation, industry, and integrity. They enjoy a good sense of humor. Americans have the ability to laugh at themselves as well as at others. They are patriotic and believe the United States is one of the greatest countries in the world. Although fashion trends affect how people dress, Americans generally feel free to wear whatever they please. Both men and women usually smile and shake hands when greeting. The American handshake is often firm. Good friends and relatives may embrace when they meet, especially after a long absence. In casual situations, people may wave rather than shake hands. Friends also wave to each other at a distance. When conversing, Americans generally stand about 2 feet away from each other. However, they may spontaneously touch one another on the arm or shoulder during conversation. Members of the opposite sex may hold hands or show affection in public. To point a person extends the index finger.
One beckons by waving all fingers (or the index finger) with the palm facing up. Direct eye contact is not necessary for the duration of a conversation, but moments of eye contact are essential to ensure one's sincerity. Winking to children is a gesture of friendliness; when adults wink it usually means that they or someone else is kidding or joking. People may prop their feet on chairs, place the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other, cross legs at the knee, or sit with legs spread apart. Poor posture is not uncommon. People often hand items to one another with one hand and may even toss something to a friend. Holding up one's hand, palm in, with only the middle finger extended, is an offensive gesture.
Americans generally eat with a fork in the hand with which they write. They use a knife for cutting and spreading. Otherwise they lay it on the plate. When a knife is used for cutting, the fork is switched to the other hand. People eat some foods, such as French fries, fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza and tacos, with the hands. Resting elbows on the table usually is considered impolite. Each state is responsible for its educations system. Education is free and compulsory for ages, five through sixteen. Most children attend public schools but a growing number attend private schools or are schooled at home. Most students complete their high school education at grade 12 (at age 17 or 18). Many enter the labor force at that age or seek vocational and technical training. Others enter a university or college to pursue higher education degrees. Although nearly all Americans can read, functional illiteracy is a problem for many adults.
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