30 American Activities That Are Bizarre to Foreigners
Land of the free, home of the brave—and realm of the strange.
Fact: Americans are weird. Though we may not realize it—since, you know, we’re in it—the good ole U.S. of A. isn’t the haven of normalcy you might believe. In fact, if you measure our country up to the rest of the world, Americans might as well hail from the moon.
From unusual habits to unique hobbies to ubiquitous sports and holidays that straight-up don’t exist elsewhere in the world, the U.S. is full of quirky “Americanisms.” It often takes an outsider—someone who wasn’t raised on our strange amalgam of history, cultures, and obsessions—to point out how strange things actually get. Herein, you’ll find 30 such Americanisms that a foreigner may balk at due to sheer oddity. It’s the land of the free and home of the brave, indeed—but also, apparently, the realm of the strange. And for more on our wonderful country, don’t miss the 40 Most Enduring Myths in American History.
We commercialize our holidays.
Every culture has a handful of holidays they celebrate every year, and plenty that they make a big deal about, but many visiting foreigners are startled by just how commercial American holidays are—tying every event to a sale or some kind of required purchase, from Valentine’s Day chocolates to Mother’s Day cards to Labor Day back-to-school supplies.
“There’s a special occasion that can be commercialized almost every month,” one foreigner wrote on Reddit. “My roommate’s mom is awesome and she’ll send us care packages every month. I was amazed there’s a special occasion every month and there’s always cookies, knick knacks, candy, accessories, clothes, etc. that’s made just for it.” And if you find yourself at any festive celebrations, don’t miss the 30 Biggest Holiday Party No-No’s.
We approach squirrels (and they approach us).
Squirrels are hardly unique to the U.S., but it’s the particular type and quantity of them that foreigners have noted.
On Reddit, the top comment in a thread asking non-Americans what is the weirdest thing about the U.S. that we don’t realize is weird, was simply “That there are a lot of squirrels,” followed by the response, “Some of them are terrifyingly bold.”
Another user noted that in New York City, “I’ve seen one eating a burger in a park. I couldn’t’ tell if it was actually eating the meat because it was staring and gave me the finger.” That last bit is (probably) untrue, but generally they get our urban wildlife about right.
We celebrate the World Series.
The hubris of calling a game that involves teams that are all-American (with one Canadian exception) has caused plenty of non-Americans to scratch their heads. Tal Barak, writing for NPR, describes his first encounter with the term after arriving to the United States: “Just when the 2001 World Series was about to start, someone asked me to pick a team, and make a bet. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘What countries are participating?’ The person organizing the affair was so confused by my question that he was not sure whether to laugh in my face or to use my ‘baseball naiveté’ to his economic benefit.” And for more hilarious American knowledge, check out the 30 Words That Have Different Meanings Throughout the U.S.
We work through vacation.
One activity Americans don’t do as much as Europeans and many other countries is embrace the importance of vacation, with just 23 percent of Americans taking all their eligible time off. A big part of this is the relatively few days of vacation we actually get—while taking a month off is not unheard of in many other countries, here we rarely take more than a week at a time. Americans are less “work hard, play hard,” and more “work hard, work hard.”
We go to the drive-thru for everything.
Our car obsession has led to another oddity of America: the ubiquitous drive-thru windows—“Drive-thru everything!” as one Redditor puts it. “Even liquor stores in some states,” another adds, with a third pointing out that Louisiana even offers a drive-thru daiquiri stand: “They just put tape over the lid and that’s somehow legal?” Oh, and we even have drive-thru funeral homes.
We talk VERY LOUDLY!
Whether just chatting over coffee or having an important business phone call, Americans go about their business loudly. “To a foreigner, the American speaking volume sounds approximately 27 percent louder than any other person’s,” writes Thrillist’s German associate travel editor, Sophie-Claire Hoeller. “Inside voices are actually a thing. You just have to let everyone know about all that freedom you have lying around.”
We dress up for Halloween well into adulthood.
Americans tend to go big with their holidays, and Halloween may be the weirdest of them all, with elaborate costumes, candy from strangers, and a weird mix of scary and scintillating. As one Turkish international student studying at Iowa State said to the campus paper, “We thought it’s mostly for children and we didn’t know that adults are also enjoying it a lot.” And if you need inspiration for dressing up for this uniquely American affair, see the 27 Scary Good Celebrity Halloween Costumes.
We spend an arm and a leg on Black Friday
Every country has its special sales and discounts, but nobody makes it as epic as Americans do with the day after Thanksgiving. Foreigners visiting the United States in the fall are startled by how all-out Americans go for Black Friday. “Black Friday was really weird,” as the same Iowa State student said the to paper. “All these lines, the crowds, it was really surprising.”
We drive enormous vehicles.
As with so much else in the country, Americans like to supersize their automobiles. While Hummers are a rare sight these days, we still have a soft spot for SUVs and gigantic cars.
One Australian commented on Reddit that, “We did a driving trip from Seattle down to LA (via Portland, Bandon, Fort Bragg, SF, Santa Barbara) and then across to Vegas. I rented a Ford Taurus, which by Australian standards would be a ‘family sedan,’ but I felt like I was driving a go-kart. Everywhere I looked there were massive pick-ups with dual rear-axles. I’d look out my side windows half the time and all I could see was hub caps.”
We answer questions to which we don’t have answers.
An English teacher in the U.S. pointed out on Reddit that they had heard from foreign students that something odd about Americans they’d noticed was, “When we aren’t sure of the answer, Americans are much more likely to give it a shot anyhow. It’s a quality which I first though was embarrassing but later learned to be proud of. It’s better to occasionally sound stupid than to be boring.” And for questions we know don’t have any answers to, learn the 21 Mysteries about Space No One Can Explain.
We predict the weather based on a groundhog.
Another weird ritual Americans make a big deal about: letting a subterranean-dwelling critter help determine their weather for the next six weeks. While most Americans take Punxsatawney Phil’s predictions on Groundhog Day with a grain of salt, it nonetheless captures national attention every year to a degree most foreigners could not imagine happening in their countries.
We love the great outdoors.
Whether camping, hunting, or hiking, Americans are fans of getting out into nature, an observation made by a number of foreigners, including one European redditor who noted how “the average American seems a lot more attuned to the outdoors than we are. I’ve seen Americans sporadically ask their friends if they want to go on a night hike or go hunting. Generally if you hunt animals in the UK you’re part of the nobility.”
We shop with tons and tons of options.
Whether at the grocery store, hardware store, or convenience store, we like to have way more options than we probably need. One Canadian wrote on Reddit that they were blown away by “just how much choice you guys have in everything at the grocery store. Like you don’t just have the standard koolaid flavours we do (grape, fruit punch, lemonade), you have, like, 40 flavours. Coffee creamers, we get French vanilla, hazelnut, and Irish cream. You have Cinnabon coffee creamer and pumpkin spice and gingerbread and who knows what else.”
We drive everywhere.
While we love cars, biking seems to be far less common in the U.S. than in many other countries, according to a redditor, who writes that “Outside of city centres, you almost never see public buses or people on bikes.” Even in the suburbs of bike-friendly cities, the culture is all about cars.
We party with red solo cups.
These are ubiquitous at parties in the U.S.—and rarely anywhere else. One redditor recalls meeting a guy from Switzerland who “couldn’t believe that we were all actually drinking out of red Solo cups, it blew their minds. They kept on taking pictures and saying ‘It’s just like the movies!’”
We play baseball.
There’s a reason baseball hasn’t actually caught on in outside of the states: the sport moves relatively slow (compared to soccer) with long pauses and complicated statistics and rules (compared to soccer) and inspires such reverence among Americans that it can keep outsiders from feeling the desire to embrace it (compared to soccer).
When an Australian tried to break down his understanding of baseball for Buzzfeed, the result was some understandable bafflement on points like, “The balls are either super cheap or the MLB is super rich. Balls go into the crowd non-stop and never come back,” and “Tries is the operative word. There is a lot of playing and missing.” And for more on the American way, learn the 23 Freedoms Americans Totally Take for Granted.
We eat enormous portions.
Meals in the U.S. tend to be the size of what might make two or three meals in many European countries. “The size of food servings in restaurants is 50-100 percent bigger than in Europe,” one redditor writes, describing the things about the U.S. that their European parents find odd about it.
We attend county fairs.
An odd custom in the states is the county or state fair, which bring together fried foods, games, music, and lots of livestock for a uniquely American outing. And while it’s no secret Americans like large portions, but one type of food that stood out especially to outsiders was “the raptor sized turkey legs sold at amusement parks,” as one Canadian puts it.
Another Canadian added, “When I went to Disneyland on a band trip, me and my bud each got one. About halfway through the grease was sickening, and I like to think that I enjoy grease.” And for more insight into these wacky festivities, don’t miss the 40 Craziest Facts About Summer Fairs.
We have it our way at restaurants.
It might be something as simple as asking for ketchup or hot sauce, or as high-maintenance as asking for half the ingredients be switched out for something else entirely, but when ordering food, Americans have a habit of tailoring their meals to their particular likings. This is an odd habit to many outsiders, who believe the chef, not the customer, is the one who should be calling the shots at a restaurant.
We take food to go.
Equally baffling to visiting foreigners is our habit of eating half our meal in the restaurant and taking the other half to go. As writers for Redbook put it, “It might seem terrible to let food go to waste, but many European eateries turn their nose up at the idea of taking food to go—in their view, it’s a health hazard that could potentially lead to food poisoning.”
We turn commercials into events.
When it comes to strange American habits around commercials, nothing beats the way we turn them into the annual event of the Super Bowl. Writing for How Stuff Works, Jessika Toothman describes how Americans, “eagerly await breaks in the big game to see which commercials wow them the most. In the days that follow, those ads are debated and hashed over, rated and discussed, with gusto and ad nauseam, maybe even more than the sometimes lackluster game.”
We engage in small talk.
Americans are friendlier than we realize, with a habit of starting up small talk with complete strangers that can throw off a newcomer who is not used to chatting about the weather or other random topics. “After living abroad and speaking to people from many different countries I realized that the small talk/overly nice attitude towards strangers Americans have is considered odd and often ‘fake’ to non-Americans,” one Redditor says. Another comments that it seems weird to be “Asking strangers ‘how are you?’ without expecting an actual answer.”
We recycle seemingly by random.
While you’re starting to see recycling bins in an increasing number of stores and cities, what you aren’t likely to see in the U.S. is much logic to it. Many places toss all the recyclables—paper, glass, plastic, whatever—into the same bin and the garbage—I mean, recycling—collectors follow suit.
In Europe and Canada, you’re far more likely to see exacting rules about what can and can’t go in a given bin—and more likely to feel confident it’s actually getting recycled, as opposed to feeling like you’re doing something nice for the environment.
We send greeting cards.
Whatever the occasion, we love our greeting cards and how many variations there are—birthday cards for a brother-in-law, Christmas cards for a hairdresser’s cousin, you name it. “What is it with Americans and cards,” asks one redditor. “There’s an entire shelf in every supermarket just for cards. People actually get offended if you don’t give them a card for a special occasion. Sometimes the card is more important than the gift.”
We love football (but not the real thing).
Perhaps no mystery confuses Europeans more than the fact that Americans don’t seem to care about the World Cup or football—ahem, soccer—but are obsessed with a completely different game they call “football” in which feet almost never touch the ball.
“Sure, players use their feet to run,” writes Hoeller. “And there is a ball. But realistically, the guys closest to playing anything resembling football (i.e. using a foot on the ball) are the punter and kicker.”
We have ubiquitous advertisements.
Many foreigners comment on how much advertising is done in the U.S., with “commercial breaks interrupting the program every 5 minutes,” as one redditor puts it. But as odd as the quantity of ads is to outsiders, the content of them strikes many non-Americans as weird, too.
One redditor puts it: “Medication / surgery / other medical commercials are done like commercials for luxury items; instead of being like ‘here’s how to be healthy,’ it’s like ‘you deserve a beautiful flu-free body! Buy this fun new pill today.’” Another: “All the commercials for lawyers. On the side of the road… In television… In hotel rooms.”
We adore inflatable tube men.
You know the ones—the crazy inflatable figures outside used-car lots and discount stores with air shooting through them as they fly up and down and fold into themselves before straightening out again. One redditor exclaimed, “my cousin from Europe lost it when she saw a wacky inflatable tube man for the first time in America.”
We deal with high-water toilets.
A surprising bathroom-related thing that outsiders pointed out on Reddit was the high level of water American toilets. “The water in the toilet is too high,” said one commenter, with another chiming in: “At first I thought the toilet was busted or something, because the water level was too high, then realized they were all like that.” A third adds that he’s baffled at how, “your toilets are full right up with water; how’s a guy supposed to tend to his business quietly?”
And with gaps on toilet stalls.
More than one redditor commented on the weirdly wide gaps between the doors on toilet stalls. “What is with all the gaps?” asked one, while another complains, “you could look someone in the eye through those a bit too comfortably!” Though one American helpfully points out: “Americans hate those too.” (Fun fact: It’s because it makes restrooms easier to clean.)
We’re generally cheery!
Americans strike many outsiders as surprisingly cheery, friendly, and optimistic. One foreign visitor writes on Reddit about how they were visiting a friend in New York and got endless comments about their hair, dyed red. “I live in Scotland and we’re a fairly friendly, cheery, chatty bunch when we want to be, but it’s usually during an ongoing exchange. Such as when you’re being served by someone in a shop or restaurant, after having established base contact you might then venture out with ‘Oh I love your hair/clothes/bag’ whatever. It’s pretty rare (though not unheard of) for someone to just pass you in the street and make comments like that.” And for some stuff that’s actually strange to the citizens of this country, learn the The 40 Most Enduring Myths in American History.
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