Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the true uniqueness of our behaviors. Sure, Americans like to go big, whether it’s the size of our sodas or the amount we tip—cultural quirks that will always catch any first-time visitors to the U.S. by surprise. But in many other ways, we’re much more modest. Like, who knew that our currency was so dull?
It’s all too easy to believe that the way we do things is how it is for everyone. But that’s not the case. In fact, here are 30 things we do that strike non-Americans as very, very odd. So read on, and prepare to view your life in an entirely different light. And for more illuminating facts you probably didn’t know, here are the 20 Amazing Facts You Never Knew About Your Body.
Say “How Are You?” When We Mean “Hello”
Yes, this one always throws off first-time visitors when they arrive in the U.S. When a store clerk or acquaintance asks, “how are you doing?,” they aren’t actually seeking an answer. Instead it’s meant as a greeting meant to open up a conversation.
“No matter how often this happens to a European, they will launch into a monologue about their health and well-being and ask it right back and expect an answer,” writes Sophie-Claire Hoeller in The Independent. And for more on your health and wellbeing, check out these 40 Health Myths You Hear Every Day.
Fly Flags, Everywhere
We love the red, white, and blue, and it doesn’t need to be the Fourth of July or Veterans’ Day. Strolling down any city block, a foreigner is likely to encounter a few American flags flying—in front of homes, on cars, on lapel pins, you name it. One English friend of mine remarked that the American flag is emblazoned on beer cans in the U.S. Did it strike me as weird? No! But if you’re curious about why some foreigners may be turned off of such in-your-face patriotism, read up on Why The “American Bro” Is an International Embarrassment.
Eat Grape Skittles
The particular flavor we call “grape” is an American curiosity of its own, but for those in the U.K. and Australia, this flavor is known instead as “blackcurrant.” It used to be a popular flavor here, as well, until legislators banned the fruit because it served as a vehicle for a wood-destroying disease known as white pine blister rust. And for more fun trivia, check out the 20 Crazy Facts You Never Knew About One Dollar Bills.
Rarely Take Vacation
In most countries outside the U.S., vacation is a much enjoyed and esteemed way to spend a few weeks (sometimes months) out of the year. It’s celebrated and never questioned. In the U.S., taking time off is often treated as a dirty secret, or something done grudgingly, with vacation days piling up as the months of 50-hour workweeks roll on. Our workaholism is totally bizarre to many outside the U.S. And it’s also why we went to great lengths to provide you with the 35 Reasons You Need to Take Your Vacation Days!
Drink from Red Solo Cups
They are a symbol of college keggers, backyard barbeques, and all other types of social gatherings (usually where booze is consumed)—and rarely seen outside of the U.S. At Slate, Seth Stevenson explains some of its attractions: an opaque color that makes it impossible for authorities to casually tell what’s in the cup, a sturdy design, and, most recently, its square bottom, making it easier to hold. Also: Undeniably American!
Shop at Pharmacies That Are Mini-Shopping Malls
In England, the “chemist” is a place you go for medicine and medical supplies—period. In the U.S., pharmacies double as convenience stores, with aisles of candy and soda that will counteract most of the health-boosting things we are there for in the first place. At some pharmacies in New York City, for instance, you can buy sushi.
Writing for BBC, Jon Langford describes U.S. pharmacies this way: “In America, pharmacies are huge, kid-friendly places with shelves stacked full of crappy plastic toys and just about every conceivable candy bar. It is not a place little ones fear; on the contrary, a trip to Rite Aid is met from the backseat with a whoop or two of delight.” I hate to say it, but he’s right.
Get Free Refills
Americans love our free refills. In most other countries, when you buy a drink, you get one drink and you’re done. In the U.S., the refills just keep on coming—an endless stream of soft drinks way beyond what one meal probably merits.
Carry Boring Currency
For a country that’s the center of the global economy, the money we actually use to buy things is pretty dull. While other countries boast colorful bills with cultural figures (not just the same white men who have been there for decades), the U.S. seems determined to keep their puke-green dollars as unexciting as possible. And for more history, check out the 20 Amazing Facts You Never Knew About the White House.
Carry Confusing Coins
Generally the name of a coin will tell you something about how much it’s worth. A quarter makes sense, but what on earth does “nickel” have to do with five cents?
Have 24-Hour Restaurants
We like to eat when we like to eat, and if that means going to Denny’s at 3 a.m., so be it. While New York may be the City That Never Sleeps, foreign tourists might be surprised to see how often other cities have restaurants and other destinations that are open around the clock.
Cheer On Cheerleaders
Whether in the classic teen movie Bring It On or the NFL, the idea of dancing cheer squads to help support sports teams (or compete against one another) is pretty odd for most non-Americans. You don’t see cheer leaders at the World Cup, after all.
Get Coffee To Go
Okay, this isn’t all that surprising anymore these days, with Starbucks shops spreading quickly throughout Europe. But we originated this practice and it still strikes many Europeans as bizarre behavior. After all, isn’t coffee meant to be enjoyed over conversation at a leisurely pace…and in ceramic dishware? Not in America. And if you’re a coffee fan, check out the time our correspondent did a “coffee nap” every morning for a week. Spoiler alert: It changed his life.
Go Big With Tips
One of the hardest things that hits you (or at least your wallet) as an outsider traveling in the U.S. is the eye-popping the level of tipping that’s expected. Most European countries toss a few coins on the table for good service, in Latin America it’s more like 8 to 12 percent. But only in America will you be expected to add upwards of 20 percent onto your bill just to avoid a dirty look from your server. If you have some foreigner friends visiting, prep them right with the 25 Things You Should Always Do in a Fancy Restaurant.
Dine with Over-Attentive Servers
Most European travelers expect to place their order and don’t expect to see much more of their server. That makes it a big of a surprise when visiting the U.S. and being checked in on every 10 minutes. For many foreign visitors, the “how’s everything?” questions and eagerness to bring the bill can be a bit grating, especially if they’re used to a more leisurely hours-long meal with little interruption outside of a refill of wine.
Get Constant Water Refills
One of the reasons we see so much of servers in the U.S. is that they are refilling water glasses every couple minutes. Many foreign visitors are left asking, “How much hydration do you need with your lunch?”
Put Ice in Our Water
Americans really love their ice. Water, whiskey, soda—you name it, we put ice in it. Even when it’s the dead of winter, restaurants are serving up well-cooled beverages. Writing for Smithsonianmag.com, Lisa Bramen suggests that this might come from our “more is more” approach to life in general.
Crank the Air Conditioning
We go nuts with the A/C, cranking it up on hot days to the point that you have to bring a sweater when going to the supermarket in the summer—or else by the time you’ve been there 10 minutes, you’ll be freezing and eager to get back out into the sweltering sun.
Shop in Superstores
Costco, Wal-Mart, and other giant-box stores are a particularly American thing—giant, amusement parks of commerce that you need a map to navigate. Foreigners are baffled by the volume of stuff Americans seem to think they need, and superstores are a perfect encapsulation of that habit.
Eat Super-Sized Food
Why have an 8-ounce steak when you can have a 20-ounce one? Why go Tall when a Venti is just a few cents more? We like our portions huge in the U.S. As a New Zealander writing for Stuff puts it: “My one piece of American culinary advice: order the medium. If you learn how to stick with this advice, write to me and let me know how. Sometimes I enjoy ordering freakishly large things over here—it turns consumption into tourism and makes me feel as though I’m at a carnival. I also like a challenge. But seriously, don’t do it. It’s not good.”
Have Lawyers That Advertise
In few other countries will you encounter a billboard or bus ad for a divorce attorney, or see several personal-injury spots while watching a half an hour of daytime TV. But in the U.S., foreigners see tons of these.
As Well As Prescription Drug Makers
Another oddity of America is that our shows are full of ads for prescription medication. Foreigners might not realize that soft-focus commercial of a happy couple prancing through a corn field or an old guy helping his grandson fix his bike is advertising things you are supposed to let your doctor tell you need, rather than vice versa. But the long list of side effects the narrator rattles through at the end should tip them off.
Wear Pajamas in Public
Whether dropping by the post office or shopping for groceries, Americans are surprisingly comfortable wearing their bed clothes to run errands. It’s not that we’re lazy, it’s just that we like to be comfy—but it’s a habit that seems very strange to those from outside the country.
Drink Wine in Three-Liter Bottles
Sure, this isn’t the standard bottle from which we drink wine, but it’s a common sight at any supermarket or wine store—and something you’d rarely encounter in Italy or France.
Deep Fry Everything
Sure, fried chicken is hardly a foreign concept, but try explaining chicken-fried steak to a non-American. Finding creative ways to fry things that probably shouldn’t be fried is a specialty of Americans, and something that weirds out foreign tourists.
Smile at Strangers
Sure, this can vary a bit by region (New Yorkers are more likely to give a brusque glance than a greeting), but in general, Americans are much quicker to smile at a stranger and offer a warm hello, even if they just happen to pass each other on the sidewalk. This can catch foreigners by surprise—and usually takes a few “hellos” before they trust that this is not some kind of scam.
Drive on Wide Roads
Like so much else in the U.S., we go big with our roads, with far more space than any vehicle, even our beloved Hummers, could possibly need. It’s a “big” contrast from the tight city roads of most European towns or winding mountain roads found in much of the rest of the world, but at least it ensures foreign visitors won’t feel claustrophobic as they’re cruising.
Drive Through Drive-Throughs
In most other countries, you take the time to at least park the car and walk through the front doors of the place you are there to patronize. Not in America, where we’re too busy for such time wasters. So we have drive-through restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, liquor stores, and more, leaving foreigners scratching their heads in confusion.
Give Away Our Credit Cards
Though this is slowly changing with the rollout of “chip” cards, Americans are unusually casual about handing their credit cards out. While in restaurants in many countries, your credit card never leaves your person, in the U.S., we’re happy to just toss it in a folder with the bill and wait to get it back whenever the server returns. We’re apparently a very trusting sort.
Card People Who Are Obviously Not Under 21
Whether you’re heading into a bar or buying a six pack at the store, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked for ID in the U.S. This is baffling to many foreigners who are asked to show they’re of drinking age when they’re in their 30s and have been drinking legally for decades. But we’re nothing if not by-the-book about the little things, so some foreigners learn it’s wise to keep some kind of ID on them at all times.
Offer So Many Choices
Every order requires several additional decisions be made: white, wheat, or English muffin? Hash browns or home fries? Want to add bacon? We love having lots of options in the U.S., but sometimes for an outsider, ordering lunch can feel like a multiple-choice quiz.
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