There’s no place like the U.S. of A. Just ask foreign visitors. Here are some of our foibles that seem super-weird to our friends overseas.
1. The Tipping Economy
No one in the United States wants to go out to dinner with the friend who refuses to tip well. While that friend is a villain here, he’d be right at home in most European countries.
The French even have a helpful term to remind American visitors that they don’t need to tip for that cappuccino: “Le service est compris.” It means the tip is included in the price.
How do they get away with it? They just pay their servers a living wage in the first place.
2. An Early Dinner
Most families in the United States sit down for dinner at 6 or 6:30.
Again, the Europeans do things differently.
It’s not unusual to eat the final meal of the day at 9 p.m. or later in Europe. We don’t like to go to bed with a full stomach, but that’s a particularly American preference.
3. The Star-Spangled Everything
Americans are a proud people, but we sometimes show it in strange ways. Like putting American flags everywhere and on everything we see:
Seriously, you name it: coffee mugs, bumper stickers, T-shirts, face paint. We drape the stars and stripes over everything in sight. That comes off as a bit strange to visitors from other nations.
For other national cultures, the flag belongs on a flagpole, and that’s pretty much it.
4. Ads for Legal Services
Lawyers are as American as apple pie, and advertising is the vanilla ice cream on the side.
Many nations don’t allow their lawyers to advertise on television or billboards. People should only seek out legal help when they need it, these governments reason. Not in the United States.
Here, if you can convince someone to give you money for something, you’ve got free reign. That includes ambulance-chasing lawyers.
It’s no coincidence that we’re the country who brought Better Call Saul to the world. That seems like a fair trade-off.
5. Sales Tax Surprise
If you’ve lived in the U.S. all your life, this one will blow your mind. In many other countries, retailers figure out the sales tax and add it onto the price tag.
Here, as you know, you don’t really know what the total price will be until you’re already at the register. Imagine how confusing that would be if you’re from a country where price tags are totally accurate.
This might be one area in which we could learn from our neighbors.
6. The Fruits of a Litigious Culture
Americans put warning signs and labels on everything. That cup of coffee in your hand? Be careful! It’s really hot. Those scissors? They cut things!
It makes sense for American companies to cover their bases with copious warning labels. After all, our lawyers advertise aggressively. We live in a litigious culture and warnings protect businesses from lawsuits.
Sounds great and all but it looks a bit odd to people in other countries.
7. Loud and Proud
Overseas, the stereotype about Americans is that we’re all loud, talkative, and extroverted. We ask about your personal life. We invade your personal space.
Well, there’s a kernel of truth in this stereotype. Maybe it’s because we have so much space—we’re used to hollering across the room. Maybe it’s because of the value we place on friendliness; even ending a text with a period instead of an exclamation point borders on rude these days.
For whatever reason, people in other countries tell us we speak loudly. Who are we to argue?
8. College Sports As Professional Entertainment
Ask the average Brit if they’d watch a university soccer match. “Why would we?” they might say. “It’s just students having a laugh.”
Then talk to your average American Notre Dame football fan. You’ll get a very different response.
In the United States, we’ve built college sports into a professional entertainment industry. We’re unique in that.
9. Free Refills (As Long As There’s Corn Syrup Involved)
Recently, health advocates in the United States have raised the alarm about sugar-laden soft drinks. But we live in a culture of the free refill.
People in other countries are confused by the cognitive dissonance here. If you know that drinking three gallons of soda a day leads to adverse health outcomes, they ask, why make it so cheap and easy to access sugary drinks?
10. Supersize It All
Along similar lines, restaurants in the United States tend to offer much larger portion sizes than their peers in other countries.
We suspect the invisible hand of the market is at work in this phenomenon. How do you compete with the other eateries on the block? Offer more food for a similar cost.
Nations with less devotion to capitalism never got into the Portion Size Wars. So they tend to offer more manageable meals.
11. Pickle Applications
The United States is hardly a world-leader in pickles. The Italians have their giardiniera. Indians pickle their mangoes. And where would South Korea be without their kimchi?
But Americans do treat pickled cucumbers a little differently than other nationalities. We slice them and put them on everything. Hamburgers, sandwiches, even the odd specialty pizza—they all get a little extra zing from a few pickle slices.
As delicious as that is, it’s a strictly American thing.
12. Allegiance to the Pledge of Allegiance
A lot of ink has been spilled over the Indian government’s decision to prosecute citizens for sitting through that nation’s national anthem—which is a mandatory part of every movie shown in a public theater.
But in a way, that’s not so different from the way Americans treat their school children. We make them stand, put their hand on their hearts, and pledge their allegiance to the flag every day.
They may not get arrested for sitting out the practice, but you try crossing Ms. Yost first thing in the morning when you’re in the second grade. See where that lands you.
13. National Bathroom Design
Americans really can’t win when it comes to public restrooms.
People from some countries point out that squatting toilets are actually much better for your body than the good old Western throne. Other Westerners claim that our stalls lack privacy. We’re catching it from both sides.
Shoot, we even get criticized when we gold-plate our toilet bowls. Which…actually, that makes perfect sense. It’s a toilet, people. No need for gilding.
14. Slang Doesn’t Translate
Every nation has its own colloquialisms and slang phrases. America is really no different. If anything, we excel at novel uses of language that confuse the heck out of non-native English speakers.
Try asking a newcomer to these shores if they want to “hang out.” They will be baffled.
Add the complexities of our texting abbreviations and the new English speaker doesn’t really stand a chance. What a drag! (See, that is a colloquialism, illustrating the point).
15. Two Words: Easy Cheese
France is renowned for its fine artisan cheeses. They love to indulge in a creamy Brie or Camembert, and nothing goes with a glass of Côtes du Rhône like a morsel of Beaufort. Well, they can keep all that stuff.
People in other countries don’t get why we would put liquefied processed cheese-food product into a hairspray can. At least not until they try it. Pro tip: Chicken in a Biskit crackers.
16. Sweeten the Deal
The American palate is famous for preferring sweet flavors. We put sugar in our bread. We put corn syrup in our beverages.
There isn’t really any category of food that we don’t like to sweeten up, and that includes carrots. We’re not kidding. Have you ever tried glazed carrots? Go eat a plate of those and tell us that a roasted root whatever tastes better.
17. Water Usage
People in some countries are shocked when they hear about Western flush toilets. “You do that to clean water?” they ask. “Why?”
Well, the short answer for Americans is, “Because we can.” And also, it sure does feel clean and convenient. But some people overseas claim that Americans waste water more than people in other nations.
We don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but don’t let your exchange student catch you leaving the faucet running while you brush your teeth. They’ll jump to conclusions.
18. Refrigerating Butter
In the United States, we like our butter like we like our judicial system: hard and cold.
That’s weird to people around the world. Guess where they keep their butter: On the table in a butter dish.
It makes practical sense. That way, your butter stays room temperature, and you can spread it on bread without a handful of greasy crumbs. But we’re stuck in our ways, and our butter’s staying in the fridge.