33 “Normal” Things in the U.S. That Freak Everyone Else Out
From our portions to our PTO, here's where we differ from the rest of the world.
While every region of the United States has its own quirks and identity, there are also certain customs that are commonplace nationwide. But while these American traditions might seem normal stateside, they are certainly not universal. For example, the average American may be used to big tips and even bigger portions, but to foreigners, that’s all far from the norm. Curious about which things are considered freaky by foreigners’ standards? Here are 33 “normal” customs and habits in the U.S. that weird out the rest of the world.
Saying “how are you?” when we mean “hello”
When a store clerk or acquaintance in America asks, “How are you doing?” they aren’t actually looking for an answer. Instead, it’s meant as a simple greeting, similar to “Hi there!” A European, on the other hand, “will launch into a monologue about their health and wellbeing and ask [how are you?] right back and expect an answer,” Sophie-Claire Hoeller wrote for The Independent.
Smiling at strangers
Though this can vary a bit by region—we’re looking at you, New Yorkers—in general, Americans are much quicker than the average foreigner to smile at a stranger and offer a warm hello, even if they’re just passing each other on the sidewalk. These kind greetings can catch foreigners by surprise, and usually it takes a few “hellos” before they trust that it’s not some kind of scam.
Flying flags… everywhere
Americans love their red, white, and blue—even when it’s not the Fourth of July or Veterans’ Day. In fact, in a 2017 report from the National Retail Federation, 65 percent of consumers reported owning a U.S. flag.
So, traveling down any city block, suburban street, or rural road, a foreigner will probably encounter at least a few American flags flying high, which likely isn’t the norm in their home country.
Rarely taking a vacation
In most countries outside the U.S., vacation time is a highly utilized way to get away from work for a few weeks (or even months) every year. In America, on the other hand, taking time off is often treated like a sin. Many people’s vacation days tend to pile up as the months of 50-hour workweeks roll on. Our collective workaholism is totally bizarre to outsiders—and quite frankly, we can see why.
Drinking from Red Solo Cups
Red Solo Cups are the symbol of college keggers and backyard barbecues alike—and yet, they’re rarely seen outside of the U.S. At Slate, Seth Stevenson gave a good explanation of the appeal of the plastic cup: Its opaque color makes it impossible for authorities to casually tell what’s in the cup; its sturdy design makes it virtually spill-proof; and its newly created square bottom makes it easy to hold.
Getting free refills
Americans love their free refills. Foreigners, on the other hand, aren’t even familiar with the concept. In most other countries, when you buy a drink, that prince is for a single cupful of your beverage of choice. If you want a second soda in a place like Paris, for example, be prepared to dole out some extra cash.
Having a boring currency
For a country that’s the center of the global economy, America’s currency is pretty dull. While other countries boast colorful bills with cultural figures, the U.S. seems determined to keep their barely-green dollars as unexciting and indistinguishable as possible.
Carrying confusing coins
In many instances, the name of a coin will tell you something about how much it’s worth. However, while the quarter makes sense—seeing as its value is equivalent to one-fourth of a dollar—that’s the only coin whose name is at all logical in terms of its worth. If even we Americans don’t get it, we can’t expect anyone else to either.
Having 24-hour restaurants
While New York City famously never sleeps, it’s not the only city with 24-hour businesses. Foreign tourists might be surprised to find out just how many other destinations in the U.S. have restaurants that are open around the clock. We like to eat when we like to eat—and if that means going to Denny’s at 3 a.m., so be it.
Carding people who are obviously not under 21
Whether you’re heading into a bar or buying a six-pack at the grocery store, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked for your ID in the United States—even if you’re well into your 50s. This is baffling to many foreigners, especially since, by the time they’re in their 30s, they’ve been drinking legally for more than two decades.
Americans are nothing if not by the book about the little things, so most foreigners quickly learn that it’s wise to keep some form of ID on them at all times if they plan on having a drink.
Having cheerleaders at sports games
The concept of dancing cheer squads that help support sports teams (or compete against each other) is pretty odd for most non-Americans. You don’t see cheerleaders at the World Cup, do you?
Getting coffee to go
This might be less surprising these days thanks to the ubiquity of Starbucks, but Americans originated the practice of ordering coffee to go, and it still strikes many Europeans as bizarre behavior. After all, isn’t coffee meant to be enjoyed in a ceramic cup over conversation at a leisurely pace? Not in America it isn’t!
In most other countries, you take the time to at least park the car and walk through the front doors of the place you’re patronizing—not in America, though! Here, we’re far too busy to waste time, so we have drive-through restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, liquor stores, and more.
Always having the A/C running
Americans go nuts with air conditioning, cranking it up on hot days to the point that you might actually need a sweater. By the time you’ve been inside an American establishment in the summertime for just 10 minutes, you’ll be freezing cold and eager to get back out into the sweltering sun. In most other countries, however, an A/C unit is used sparingly, if at all.
Shopping in superstores
Costco, Wal-Mart, and other big-box stores that you need a map to navigate are a particularly American thing. Foreigners are constantly baffled by the volume of stuff Americans seem to think they need, and superstores are a perfect encapsulation of this strange sentiment.
Shopping at pharmacies that are mini shopping malls
In England, the so-called “chemist” is the place you go to for medicine and medical supplies—and that’s it. In the United States, pharmacies—the closest things we have to chemists—double as convenience stores, with aisles upon aisles of food, cleaning supplies, and even makeup products. Some even sell fresh fruit and prepackaged meals—but if you’re visiting the States from another country, we recommend getting your sushi elsewhere.
Eating super-sized portions
Why have an 8-ounce steak when you can have a 20-ounce one? Why go Tall when a Venti is just a dollar more? Yes, we Americans admittedly like to go big or go home—and when foreigners come to visit, this is a concept that they quickly notice.
“My one piece of American culinary advice: order the medium,” one New Zealander wrote in a piece for Stuff. “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.” Fair enough!
Dining with overattentive servers
Most European travelers expect to place their order and then be done interacting with their server for the remainder of their meal. It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, when these foreigners visit the U.S. and are checked in on every 10 minutes or so as they eat. For those who are used to a more leisurely meal with little interruption, all of those check-ins and the waiter’s eagerness to bring the bill can be a bit grating.
Getting constant water refills
One of the reasons why we see so much of servers in the States is because they are constantly refilling customers’ water glasses. This weird American habit leaves many foreign visitors asking, “How much water could you possibly need over the course of an hour or two?”
Putting ice in water
Americans really love their ice. Water, whiskey, soda—if it can be sipped, we put ice in it. Even when it’s the dead of winter, coffee shops are still serving up iced coffee. In other parts of the world, however, ice isn’t something you’ll see nearly as frequently.
Offering so many choices
In the U.S., every food order requires several decisions. White or wheat? Hash browns or home fries? Bacon or sausage? We love having lots of options in America, but sometimes for an outsider, ordering food can feel like a multiple-choice quiz.
Going big with tips
One of the hardest (or at least most expensive) things about being an outsider traveling in the United States is tipping. In most European countries, service fees are included in the price of a meal, and tips don’t usually go above 8 to 12 percent. But in America, you are expected to add upwards of 20 percent to your bill just to avoid a dirty look from your server.
Giving away our credit cards
Americans are unusually casual about handing over their credit cards in a way that tends to freak foreigners out. In restaurants in many other countries, your server runs your credit card through a machine table-side. But in the U.S., people are happy to just toss their card in a folder with the bill and let the server take it away for swiping. Evidently, we’re a very trusting sort.
Having lawyers that advertise
There are few countries in which you’ll encounter a billboard or bus ad for a divorce attorney or see several personal injury spots while watching half an hour of daytime TV. In America, however, these advertisements are everywhere—and unsurprisingly, they confuse foreign visitors.
And prescription drug makers that advertise
Another oddity of American advertising are those spots you see for prescription medication during every commercial break. Foreigners might not realize right off the bat that those soft-focus commercials featuring happy couples prancing through corn fields are advertising medications for diabetes and back pain. However, if the commercial itself isn’t clear, the long list of side effects the narrator rattles off at the end should at least tip them off.
Wearing pajamas in public
Whether we’re dropping by the post office or shopping for groceries, we Americans are surprisingly comfortable with wearing our clothes typically reserved for bed out in public. It’s not that we’re lazy, per se; it’s just that we like to be comfy—and despite the weird looks we get from European tourists, being cozy simply trumps looking put together sometimes.
Drinking wine from 3-liter bottles
No, this isn’t the standard bottle of wine in the States, but it’s a common sight at any American supermarket or wine store and something you’d rarely encounter in the wine countries of the world like Italy or France. As we said before, Americans live by the phrase, “The more, the merrier!”
Sure, fried chicken is hardly a foreign concept—but try explaining chicken-fried steak or deep-fried Oreos to a non-American. Finding creative ways to fry things that probably shouldn’t be fried is an American specialty and something that definitely confuses tourists.
Driving on wide roads
Like so much else in the United States, we go big with our roads, which are a huge contrast to the tight city streets of most European towns and winding mountain roads found in much of the rest of the world.
Having huge gaps in toilet doors
For foreigners, the excessively large cracks in the stall doors in public restrooms are just plain confounding. On TripAdvisor, one German tourist even commented on her love of visiting New York, save for these restroom door gaps. “It’s uncomfortable and I just don’t get why,” she wrote. To be fair, most Americans don’t either.
Eating grape-flavored Skittles
The particular Skittles flavor we call “grape” is an American curiosity of its own, but for those in the United Kingdom and Australia, this flavor doesn’t even exist. Instead, their purple Skittles taste like blackcurrant—and while this fruity flavor used to be popular in America, legislators banned the fruit itself in the 20th century because it served as a vehicle for a wood-destroying disease known as white pine blister rust.
Keeping eggs in the refrigerator
Eggs are a universal delicacy, but outside of the U.S., they are seldom stored in the fridge. That’s because, in America, we put our eggs through a rigorous washing process (which actually isn’t even necessary) that removes the egg’s protective layer, so harmful bacteria can get in if we don’t refrigerate the eggs. But elsewhere, there’s no reason why eggs can’t sit out on a shelf or counter.
Pronouncing the last letter of the alphabet as “zee”
In America, the letter Z is, well, zee. But if you were to use this pronunciation in conversation with an English speaker from another country, they’d probably give you a puzzled look. In most other English-speaking countries—like Canada, Ireland, or England, the letter Z is pronounced zed. And for more on why we pronounce this letter differently, check out Why the World Pronounces “Z” as “Zed” And Americans Don’t.
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