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 (we’ll pause for a moment while you picture a bald eagle shedding a single tear). 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. Our habits and traditions aren’t exactly universal, as much as we’d like to think otherwise.
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.
The fact is that 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. Most American young people are geopolitically illiterate, per a 2016 survey performed by National Geographic and the Council on Foreign Relations. On average, the college-aged respondents scored a 55 percent on the survey, which tested knowledge of international events and economics.
But that’s just politics, right? You might think that Americans are pretty worldly when it comes to culture, particularly when that culture involves hitting a ball of some sort.
Americans love their professional sports franchises, so you would think that this would unite them with the rest of the sports-loving world; instead, and while they sometimes claim to be worldly, sports in America are fairly insular. Ever notice how most American sports teams are referred to as “world champions” when they win their mostly American league’s championship?
For more on that—and more from David—check out the video below.
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.”
America cares why too much about sports, particularly football
— Steve (@steveVogt84) November 21, 2013
“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 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”?
And those “waves of grain” aren’t just a bit of poetic license, either—on average, Americans exceed dietary recommendations for total grains and proteins, but we tend to prefer high-calorie snacks to nutrient-rich dishes. Maybe that’s why we’re one of the only countries in the world where “doggy bags” are a thing.
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.”
I still can't get over American portion sizes, even after 6 months here. Every time I order a meal which comes with 2 sides and end up with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
— ScarewareTech (@MalwareTechBlog) February 12, 2018
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.”
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. Americans are generally more individualistic than people from other countries, as evidenced by our belief in hard work and in individual liberties.
A Pew Research poll asked people from different countries to evaluate the statement: “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control”—57 percent of Americans disagreed with the statement, as compared to 38 percent of the global median. Pew Research partially attributed that difference to Americans’ emphasis on “individualism and work ethic.”
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.”
That’s a common perception, per the aforementioned Pew Research Poll; Americans were more likely to respond positively when asked how their days were going. We also tend to smile more than our foreign counterparts. We’re going to go ahead and call that a good thing—if we’re famous for being friendly, that’s certainly not bad news.
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.”
There’s actually some science to back that up. Research from Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction (as reported by The Atlantic) found that American fantasies fall squarely into the “spicing things up” category; our fantasies are more likely to be romantic than explicit, and 9 out of 10 American respondents said that their fantasies involved their current partners. Hey, that doesn’t sound so bad, either.
“We’re not trying to replace our partners,” Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at Indiana University, told The Atlantic regarding his research. “We’re just trying to amp our sex life up a little bit.”
(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.”)
A quick-but-interesting side note, because we had to figure out what Maura was referencing: Most Japanese public toilets are sunken into the ground, so to use them, you’d put your feet on either side and squat. The country’s metropolitan areas do have Western-style toilets, but they’re often equipped with extra features, per USA Today.
“The Western-style toilet looks almost exactly as you would expect in Western countries but is often electronic and features several buttons with various wash and dry functions for men and women,” Umiko Sasaki writes for the paper. Some of the commodes even have heated seats.
That sounds fantastic, and we’d love to say that American bathrooms are a close number two (no pun intended) to Japanese latrines. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, at least in the opinions of our international friends.
Many 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.
However, we’re not suggesting that people in other countries don’t love their flags. As Arnaldo Testi notes for Time, Americans are simply more active in displaying their flag; we’ll wear shirts featuring Old Glory or raise it at fast food restaurants, but that doesn’t necessarily make us more patriotic.
“People across Europe also have a passionate relationship with their flying colors, even if they are less conscious of it,” Testi wrote. Other countries, he explained, also display their flags zealously, but citizens don’t realize it because they’re so used to it. Regardless of where you’re from, you’re likely to see your flag as representative of your shared values with your fellow countrymen.
“And that is all you can ask of your flying colors—that they be associated with a society’s shared accomplishments and values,” Testi wrote. “Even if it’s flying over a fast food joint.”
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.
Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on where you’re from. Globally, about 49 percent of people have a favorable view of the U.S., according to Pew Research, but 58 percent of those polled said that they had a favorable view of Americans, and a substantial majority said that they appreciate American pop culture. Even with our cultural differences, we’re fairly well liked on a global scale.
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.