Common To Us, Confusing To Everyone Else: Things About America That Seem Odd To Visitors From Abroad

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The bread in the U.S. is too sweet. The chocolate? Not sweet enough.

And why is it when you see something for $9.99 on the shelves in American stores, the price is pushing $11 by the time you get to the checkout counter?


Why, when Americans ask how you are, do they not expect more than two or three words in response?

If you were born in the States, or if you’ve lived here for most of your life, these things don’t seem odd to you—in fact, they’re downright mundane. But if you’re a visitor from another country, these things are supremely strange.

We talked to professionals who work with international students on a regular basis—as well as Americans who have lived and studied abroad—to see what quirks they’ve come to notice about America.

The Differences at the Table

Stacie Berdan has worked in more than 50 countries, and she has written guidebooks about studying and living abroad. Her career in public relations and corporate communications has taken her to every continent except Africa—well, and Antarctica—but her most extended international experience came from working in Hong Kong and the Far East.

Whenever she spends an extended period of time overseas, it takes her a little while to get used to the food back home again.

“The food is so natural, and it’s not pumped up with steroids and antibiotics,” Berdan says of the food abroad. “You taste chicken [in the U.S.], you’re like, ‘This does not taste like chicken.’ It’s weird. It’s, like, nothing.”


Yes, American food is stocked with preservatives and artificial elements, enough to make even the most common foodstuffs taste drastically different.

“Each slice [of bread] looks photoshopped, feels like it’s been injected with air and tastes like ‘candy’,” blogged David Smyth, an Australian, about his time in New York City. “It’s perfect, except that it’s fake. American bread can sit in your cupboard for two months and taste exactly as it did the day you bought it. It is manufactured to perfection. I love it, and I hate it.”


Missy Gluckmann, an American who has lived in England, Switzerland, and Ecuador, grew to notice some shortcomings in cuisine from back home.

“The food, for me, in all of my travels, just tastes more clean, more direct to the source,” says Gluckmann, founder of Melibee Global and former director of international services at Western Connecticut State University. “There are laws in most of Europe that don’t allow a lot of genetically modified foods and things like that, so it does influence the flavor of food.”

“The chocolate in Europe was 1,000 times better than here,” she adds. “It’s not as processed.”


The uniqueness, you could say, of stateside food can leave some Americans listless when they’re looking for a bite overseas. Berdan advises these people to give up looking for taste-alikes for American staples such as pizza or hamburgers.

“Those things are really hard to find, even if you’re going to an Italian- or American-style restaurant,” says Berdan. “Things taste differently, and by the time you pull them all together, it’s a different end result.”

It’s just a matter of palates. Marina Gutierrez, who studied abroad in Italy for three weeks in the summer of 2016, says fellow students on her trip felt the absence of peanut butter, with nothing but Nutella on the shelves.


It didn’t bother her much. The milk was another story.

“I can go through like three gallons a week,” Gutierrez says. “Over there, their milk tasted different, and you could only get the half gallon.”

The Differences at the Register

On a small scale, Americans have hidden fees that can trip up people from other countries.

The European Union, for instance, has legislation enforcing the inclusion of all “taxes and additional charges for items.” So if that toothbrush you’re buying off the shelf at a shop in Brussels is listed at 2.55 euro, it will actually cost 2.55 euro when you check out.

In America, if it’s listed at $2.99, it’s probably going to end up costing you about $3.25.


Oh, and tipping. Say you’re at an American sit-down restaurant and your bill comes to $20. Your waiter is probably expecting you to put about $4 on top of that. In other countries, this isn’t the case.

Gluckmann says the tipping system caused confusion among the international students she has worked with in America.

“Tipping is a uniquely American act,” says Gluckmann. “Part of that is we don’t believe people who serve food should earn a living wage. We rely on tips to create that. What it also creates is confusion over why they’re rushed out of restaurants so quickly. [American servers] want to flip tables because that’s how they make their money.”


“You go to almost anywhere else in the world, you’ll have to ask for the bill for the servers to give it to you. Here, it’s put on your table before you’ve finished your pancake.”

On a broader scale, cultural norms also inform how people do business in different ways overseas than we are accustomed to in America.

In Berdan’s experience in Asia, for instance, a business card is never just a business card; it’s a small, paper manifestation of the person presenting it to you.


“You take it with two hands, look at it, read it, flip it over, since most of the time there is writing on both sides. Then you do a little bow, and you can put it down,” Berdan says. “Americans stuff it, throw it—I’ve seen people pick their nails with it, put it in their pockets, crumple it. It’s such an insult.”

Asian etiquette, too, dictates that in a meeting between two sides, the senior member on one side of the table address the senior member on the other. In turn, that senior member may bring a junior member into the conversation, but it is not appropriate for that junior member to insert himself or herself. It has to do with the concept of “face,” or maintaining one’s prestige or position in social interactions.

The Differences in Conversation

In America, “How are you?” doesn’t mean “How are you?” Not most of the time, anyway. It’s just a generic form of greeting.

This can come as a bit of a shock to people from other countries, Gluckmann says.

“They’ll start to say, ‘I have this really hard class. My grandfather is ill back in Taiwan, and I’m trying to get my student paperwork signed so that I can travel back home.’ Nobody cares. They will cut them off and continue on.”

“The other big one is ‘Have a nice day,’” she adds. “It’s not to be insincere, but it’s really a way of saying ‘goodbye.’ They find it really cold and insincere because [people who say it] don’t necessarily intend to follow up and see if the day was nice or don’t necessarily intend to see them again.”

So, Americans’ words don’t always relay our true intentions to internationals. And neither do our facial expressions—or at least the intentions we intend to relay.


In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior found that smiles don’t translate the same across all cultures. It found that people from countries with high levels of societal corruption tend to mistrust smiling people; it also found that respondents from countries such as Japan, Iran, South Korea, and Russia found people exhibiting smiles less intelligent than the ones who weren’t.

One of the few exceptions is Thailand, which is pretty unsurprising for a country referred to as “The Land of Smiles.” According to Culture Trip, the Thai tried to associate smiling with their country to encourage tourism. However, there’s a deeper reasoning to all the smiles there: “…Thais really do smile, or yim, a lot, even in situations where a smile is not always warranted. Saving face is important to many Thais,” wrote Kelly Iverson.

“Instead of showing an emotion like anger or anxiety, for example, some locals will simply slap on a smile and act as if all is well. While this may be a relief to some visitors who expected the Land of Smiles to fulfill its inherent nickname, others may find the smiling front confusing.”


We Americans tend to be a smiley bunch, too.

“We’re known as the culture that always has a smile plastered on our face, which is extremely confusing to people from other countries,” Gluckmann says. “It’s often why people who are American who go abroad, particularly women, feel uncomfortable at times. In certain other cultures, even smiling at someone is almost an invitation to date. The smiling thing is very specific to Americans.”

And, as Gutierrez found in Italy, other cultures sometimes express themselves in more tactile ways.


“They’re very touchy-feely,” she says. “The whole cliche of kissing both cheeks, my professor did that to me. Over here in the U.S., that would be a huge no-no.”

Whether you’re an American abroad or vice versa, learn before you judge.

Just like it would be foolish to lump everyone who’s not American into one set of characteristics exhibited by “foreigners,” it’s not accurate to assign some of the stereotypes listed above to every single American. Every country has its own distinct culture, shaped through the centuries and conditions in which its people have lived.


“It’s important that every culture is very specific,” Berdan says. “Broad strokes is tough.”

“There’s always a ‘why’ behind it. I’d encourage people to think about the judgment, ‘We do it this way at home,’” Gluckmann says. “Let’s try to understand the historical, behavioral reason for it. There’s usually one.”

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