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. In turn, many Americans think of themselves as somewhat worldly and plugged in to cultures around the globe. Remember “We Are the World”?
It’s a nice thought, but in truth, America is a world away from the rest of the international community.
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.
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. For starters...
"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.
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 [an] 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," says David, "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.
... 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.
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 "world champions” despite having only played other American teams (and maybe one Canadian team) to achieve such a lofty title.
“When you watch the Olympics in Canada or Asia, the events are broadcast and replayed regardless of where the gold medal winner came from," says David. "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."
"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 America has a seriously impressive amount of professional sports teams.
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."
"[I've had] quite a few conversations with people ... 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 U.S. cares way more about sports than us," says Robert, a native of the Philippines. "Sports! Sports! Sports! It’s like that one video from the SNL guys.”
He’s referring, of course, to the The Lonely Island’s “We Like Sportz.’
Too Much Food, 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 said 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 nothing else in front of you anymore.”
The quick restaurant experience leads to another very American phenomenon: the doggy bag, said Durrer. “When you go out in America, you usually have such large portions that you have to take them home. This is so weird. ...“It’s impossible to finish the whole thing.”
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 mix 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 doggy 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 isn’t as common in other countries. 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.”
In America, a meal is often 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.”
Americans are rebels, so their whole thing is rebellion.
Durrer 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 telling 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—it 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 another? In some ways, Americans are seen are more friendly—even annoyingly so.
Durrer said 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 said he found the experience awkward and odd: "Swiss people don't do small talk."
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? 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.”
(Very) Public Restrooms
Prudes though we may be, we are remarkably at ease with privacy gaps in public restrooms. At least, that is, according to those lucky enough to have known a different way of life.
Acceptable conversation topics in the UK: 1. The weather 2. American bathroom stalls 3. The weather.
“My official opinion is that using public restrooms has been an equally disgusting experience that makes my humanity feel way too exposed no matter where I’ve been,” says Maura, a Canadian in New York who has lived in Germany, Scotland, and Australia and traveled to several more countries. (“Except for Japan,” she tells FashionBeans. “The Japanese have done bathrooms right.”)
But this is not the opinion of many others, who find the physical gaps in American stalls quite disconcerting. “I remember in Britain, complaining about American bathroom stalls was one of the top three things people would talk about,” says Maura. “Acceptable conversation topics in the UK: 1. The weather 2. American bathroom stalls 3. The weather.”
One fun thing to do after reading comments from Europeans who remain absolutely undone over the American public bathroom design (You can literally count the people outside and people outside are like "ok, now he is wiping ...") is to follow them up with the clinical, didactic explanations from the American Restroom Association (which really exists):
“To prevent unnecessary queuing, anyone entering the restroom should be able to easily determine the state of occupancy of stalls. This can be done with doors that do not fully close when not in use or by other devices that signal occupancy. The doors of stalls often loose [sic] alignment over time. Doors should have sufficient clearance and locks latch length to function as the stall frame becomes misaligned.”
Even in efficiency, though, America doesn’t stray far from its puritanical roots: “The latest version of the International Plumbing Code contains code that mandates partitions between urinals. If sufficiently high they also hinder person to person eye-contact that leads to nefarious activities.”
A Grand Ol' 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.
You would never see people waving around the Swiss flag, Durrer said—“That looks radicalized.”
“I started noticing people wearing the flag pretty excessively,” says Darshan, remembering his first Fourth of July in America. But, 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 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’s an anomaly.
Additional reporting by Anna Cherry.