As the great “melting pot” of cultures, the United States is known for being a nation where people from all over come together to live under the red, white, and blue. As a result, many Americans think of themselves as somewhat worldly and plugged in to cultures around the globe. This is a nice thought, but in truth, America is literally and figuratively a world away from the rest of the international community.
Through the eyes of people from other countries, America is a fascinating and bizarre land of inexplicable habits, puzzling contradictions, and a wholly unique national identity.
We Are Not "The World"
For a nation that has military forces stationed in 177 different countries around the world, one would think that Americans would be especially cognizant of the larger international community.
In fact, the reality is quite the opposite, says David, a native of Canada, who brings up an old John Cleese quote: “It’s not reasonable to host event called the ‘World Series’ for a game which is not played outside of America.”
I've met so many Americans who claim to have a worldly view but yet they've never left the U.S. in their entire life.
For a country whose foreign policy affects nearly every nation on Earth, the U.S. does indeed seem to have remarkably little self-awareness when it comes to remembering that there is a world beyond their “shining seas.”
American sports are the perfect example of this, as the champions of Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NFL are always referred to as the “World Champions” despite having only played other American teams (and maybe one Canadian team) to achieve such a lofty title.
The same thing happens during the Olympics says David: “When you watch the Olympics in Canada or Asia, the events are broadcast and replayed regardless of where the gold medal winner came from. In the U.S., it seems as if the only events broadcast are ones where the gold medal went to American athletes or if there was a world record broken or if the winner upset an American athlete." He continues, "In other words: the rest of the world shows the winner, while Americans only see U.S. winners and get ‘verbal results’ from Bob Costas for the other events.”
This insular outlook explains the uniquely American obsession with sports. It's not that other countries don’t love sports—ever see a relaxed stadium of Brits at a soccer match?—but instead that America has a prodigious proliferation of sports teams and leagues.
Darshan, a native of India, explains that in India cricket is very popular but there is just one team: India’s national cricket team. “There’s no individual teams or cities or states,” says Darshan. In America, however, he says, “Quite a few conversations with people are about what team they follow and where they’re from, because that goes hand in hand. I thought the constant talking about American sports was bizarre.”
The sentiment is echoed by Philippines native Robert: “The U.S. cares way more about sports than us [in the Philippines]. Sports! Sports! Sports! It’s like that one video from the SNL guys" (referring to the The Lonely Island’s “We Like Sportz".)
Meals With Too Much Food And Not Enough Time
There is a paradoxical element to the American restaurant experience that others have picked up on: In the U.S., portions are very large, but the meals themselves are usually rushed affairs.
This is the complaint of minimalist vlogger Sarah Nourse and her Swiss husband, Matthias Durrer, in a video they created titled "8 American Habits That Make My Foreign Husband Cringe.” Durrer says that American waiters are always very quick to clear plates while you are eating: “It can feel kind of awkward if you have just a glass of water and your wine and nothing else in front of you.”
The quick restaurant experience leads to another very American phenomenon: the doggy bag. “It’s impossible to finish the whole thing,” says Durrer.
When you go out in America you usually have such large portions that you have to take them home. This is so weird.
American portion sizes are truly something to behold. For anyone who has ever been to Italy, their reasonably sized plates of food bear no resemblance to the mountains of sauce and noodles one can expect at many Italian-American restaurants. Perhaps this is just a side effect of having all those “amber waves of grain”?
Nourse says that in Italy (where the couple currently lives), the very notion of taking food from a meal home would be met with a range of confusion and horror: “We’re in Italy right now, I can’t even imagine the looks I would get if I asked for a doggie bag."
Much of the rest of the world sees a meal as simply that: a meal. The practice of Wednesday’s dinner becoming Thursday’s lunch is just not something the rest of the world does. American ingenuity maybe?
The rest of the world’s more relaxed approach to eating may be why everybody else has no problem eating at 9 p.m. while Americans push themselves to get dinner on the table by 6 o’clock. “Dinner in India is 9 or 10 p.m.,” says Darshan. “In America people eat at 6 p.m., or 8 p.m. at the latest.”
On this there is consensus. As Robert points out, “Americans eat early, at like 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. Really, 9 p.m. is about right for dinner.” This seems to play into the American oddity of a meal as something to get through quickly, as opposed to letting it linger into evening hours.
A Casual Nation With Revolutionary Roots
Is America the most casual nation on Earth? Some international observances seem to suggest that. “People act more posh around the world,” says Robert.
There is an international desire to look posh and act correct that many Americans don't feel.
Whether it’s using liters and kilometers or wearing tailored slacks, if it originated in Europe, the knee-jerk American reaction is rejection.
Durrer has noticed that Americans are very casual when it comes to entertaining guests: “In other countries, like Switzerland, having company over is a very planned out thing. In America, people are always tell you to help yourself to a [drink] in the kitchen. It’s much more casual.”
David says the patterns of dress and etiquette in America are different and reflect differing national identities—“Canada is dressed up a little more. In the U.S. it’s ‘casual Friday.’ In Canada we have ‘dressed-down Friday’ because it is still work and wouldn’t be ‘casual.’” David argues that since Canada kept its ties to the UK for so long, it still has more of the etiquette of the European continent.
David thinks this is more than just style, but reflects some deeper truths about each country’s culture. “I think there’s a reason people have these stereotypes and say Canadians are overly nice. It’s wrapped up in the formality Canada got from being a part of the Commonwealth. Americans are rebels, so their whole thing is rebellion.” While that may be a simplistic view of the differences in culture, it's possible that he's not far off.
People to People
What about how Americans interact with one and another? In some ways, Americans are seen are more friendly—even annoyingly so.
Durrer says that the act of strangers having conversations is a very American thing—"If you’re in a public space, usually an American person comes up to you and starts talking to you." He says he finds the experience awkward and odd: "Swiss people don't do small talk."
Then there’s the loudness. “Americans are way too loud,” observes Robert, “Why is it that all American get loud when they’re excited?”
David thinks it comes back to the We’re #1 in the World attitude:
That pride and confidence and cockiness, always the "best in the world." Americans always have to show that.
But what about when it comes to interacting with the opposite sex? Robert has some pretty strong (and somewhat confusing) opinions.
“Americans don't know how to be sexy or seductive," he claims. "They only know how to look hot or valuable but are clueless when it comes to acting attractive. You don't need a BMW or a perfect 10 body to be sexy. It's an attitude.”
Does America have a sensuality problem? At least Robert seems to think so: “If you go to France, Italy, Brazil—everyone is in touch with their sexuality. Americans like things in black and white at the checkout counter: ’10 bedroom tricks that will drive him CRAZY’.”
It's a Grand Old Flag
Then there’s the patriotism. It’s one of the loudest complaints about Americans since we spouted off about declaring independence in 1776. People in other countries simply don’t go around wearing the flag of their homeland.
Durrer says of Switzerland that you would never see people waving around the Swiss flag—“That looks radicalized.”
David says there’s no equivalent of America's stars and stripes mentality in Canada, with one possible exception. He points to a Mike Myers quote that “There’s nobody more Canadian than a Canadian who no longer lives in Canada.”
Darshan also remembers on his first Fourth of July in America: “I started noticing people wearing the flag pretty excessively.” But, as Nourse points out, "Americans are proud people who love their country."
For a nation that fought two wars against Great Britain in 40 years to maintain their its independence, it is certainly possible that an inflated sense of pride helped it muster the resolve to stick it to the mighty Empire—and kept it up for the next two centuries.
One of a Kind
The notion of "American Exceptionalism" has been subject to plenty of critique and debate in the current political climate, but one fact that is apparent is that however America's exceptionalism is defined, there is little doubt that the U.S. remains unique among nations.
Think-pieces may be written about whether the United States is a "melting pot" or a "salad bowl" but perhaps it's best—if you're looking for a foodie metaphor—to think of America as "tonight's special": it could be too much, it could be fantastic, or you might not like it at all. But there's no denying that it stands alone as a wholly unique existence.