A non-comprehensive list of weird US cultural things
US culture is strange. On the one hand, because of Hollywood and popular American* TV shows, a lot of the world thinks that they understand the US without having visited. On the other hand, it sometimes feels like the US doesn’t have a cohesive culture (believe me, I could spend about 5 posts talking about this, since it’s pretty much what I got my Master’s degree in). What’s interesting though, is that because of the perceived understanding of the US, American customs or habits can seem that much stranger when people from other countries and cultures come to visit the US or when Americans travel abroad.
Whether you’re an American traveling abroad for the first time, or a non-American visiting the US for the first time, you’re sure to notice some things that happen in the US that definitely don’t happen other places around the world. I’m writing this from the perspective of an American living abroad, but definitely think this topic is helpful for those going to visit or study in the US for the first time.
The strangest thing for me when I travel abroad is the lack of smiling. I didn’t notice it at first, but was then put in a situation where I was regularly working with Americans again. Walking down a hallway toward someone you don’t know? SMILE! See someone on the street that you vaguely recognize? SMILE! Going into an elevator with complete strangers? You guessed it- SMILE! The Atlantic published a story in 2017 about why this is the case stating, “It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication. Thus, people there might smile more.” This study from the National Institute of Health suggest that Americans might smile bigger than in other countries because we “value high-energy, happy feelings more than some other countries.”
In the back of my mind, I knew this was a thing, but until I saw it in action, I didn’t realize how much I missed randos smiling at me and how it was contributing to my culture shock and homesickness. For visitors to the US, I think seeing all the smiling so regularly could possibly contribute to their culture shock as well.
Look into my eyes.
In addition to smiling, I feel like making eye contact with strangers is also very common in the US, especially when in a work situation. I’m not talking about staring, which is perfectly acceptable in a lot of other cultures (I’m staring at you, Germany!), but making casual eye contact with someone who is walking in the opposite direction as you, or with a cashier at a store, etc. Along with all the smiling, this is another factor that makes Americans pretty easy to spot abroad and can make foreigners visiting the US very uncomfortable.
Another thing that always freaks me out when I go back to the US from living abroad is going to the bathroom in public. No, it’s not because of a shy bladder, but the fact that it’s not uncommon to make eye contact with someone while doing my business. In a public restroom, you usually have an 18-20 inch (∼45-51cm) gap under the door with about a (∼1.5cm) gap around the door (see picture).
Although Americans are generally considered to be a bit more prude than European counterparts, there is no clear explanation for why the bathroom stalls have such large gaps around the doors. Some reasoning offered include safety, cost, or making the bathroom easier to clean.
It’s generally pretty strange to the rest of the world that Americans often have one if not more credit cards that they use regularly. Stranger than that though, is that when dining at a restaurant, it’s completely normal to give your credit card to the server to pay for a meal and the card is taken away from the table to be swiped at a terminal to pay the bill.
For Americans, this is completely normal- but for many visitors to the US, this is a huge breach of security. Most other places around the world that I’ve traveled I have to remember to tell the server that I’d like to pay with a credit card and then they bring a portable terminal to the table and you use your credit or debit card, usually requiring a PIN.
If you’ve been to the US from another country, I’m sure that at some point you’ve asked or searched the internet for how much you should tip at a restaurant. I feel VERY strongly that the norm is 20% if you’re not a trash person. If the service is TERRIBLE, you still tip (if it’s awful and definitely the server’s fault, I’ll still only go down to 15%). In the US, servers are (usually) paid as little as $3 an hour and make the majority of their money through tips, and usually do not receive any benefits such as healthcare or retirement contributions. This also means that they’re likely to be more attentive- which will also probably be weird if you’re not used to it.
On the other hand, I almost never know if to tip or how much to tip when I’m traveling to another country. In either case- when all else fails, try to ask someone from the country you’re visiting.
While we’re still on the topic of buying things I’ll throw this one in there, too. Let’s say you’re in a restaurant and see a $5 burger- then you go to pay for it and it’s all of a sudden $5.50. What the actual hell? That’s how the US does taxes. It’s a super lame surprise, and to make it even more fun, the taxes are different in every state, and often even from one county to another within a state. Have fun with that!
Also called “drug stores”. There are a bunch of different ones across the country, but compared to what are considered pharmacies around the rest of the world, these are more like mini-malls. You can find everything from prescriptions (expected), to food and craft supplies (a little less expected), to cigarettes (seriously). There is usually a pharmacist in the very back of the store to dole out prescriptions, but they are very different than what I’ve experienced in my travels.
In other countries they often times act as mini-doctors and you can tell them your symptoms and if it’s not too serious, they’ll usually give you some sort of medicine to help out. This is especially strange for Americans who usually just stroll down the aisle and pick out whatever over-the-counter drug they think they need. Honestly, after living abroad, going into these stores causes me to have a bit of a panic attack because of the overwhelming amount of options and products sold.
In the US, you’re much less likely to get a kiss or a hug from someone you’ve just met- in a work or formal setting, you’ll likely get a handshake, and if it’s someone you know, Americans like to go in for the hug. This makes it SUPER awkward for me whenever I’m greeting someone outside of the US There’s the moment of trying to figure out whether it’s going to be a left-sided kiss, a right-sided kiss, two kisses, THREE kisses, or sometimes just a shrug and “hello!” This usually ends up with me almost giving a kiss on the lips to just about every person I meet. I don’t have any advice for you except to say- GOOD LUCK!
Personal space, please!
Outside of the kissing, we in the US are pretty avid lovers of a decent amount of personal space. Here are some guidelines- around 1 foot (30 cm) of personal space is only reserved for VERY close friends/ intimate relationships; over 1 foot to 3 feet (> 30 cm to 1 meter) is for casual friends and family; and a little over 3 feet (1 meter) is everyone else. Again, I never realized this was a thing until I started waiting in lines living abroad. It’s not unusual to have a stranger practically leaning on you while waiting to get on a plane or in line at a grocery store.
Right on red
Okay, it’s probably weird enough to people who don’t grow up in the US that we can start driving as young as 15 years old (14 in South Dakota!). So, I’ve been driving for over half of my life at this point, but it took me dating and marrying a Brazilian to realize that “right on red” isn’t a common rule around the world. Obviously this makes sense in countries where the traffic flow is different, but to me it just makes sense that if you’re at a red light, there is a clear view of the road and there is no oncoming traffic or pedestrians, just take that right turn!
Yes, some other countries around the world do follow the right on red rule, but the rules vary a bit, so if you’re an American who’s planning on driving in another country, make sure to follow the local traffic rules. If you want more info about Right on Red, here’s the wikipedia article…
How much money do you make?
This question immediately makes Americans feel awkward. I’m not sure why, and I’m working on getting over it because not knowing what our counterparts make in the workplace leads to wage disparity and I’m pretty sure that’s how we ended up with the gender pay gap. Back on track though, while living abroad and traveling, I have frequently been asked how much I earn or how much money I’ve spent on something. My recommendation to deal with this is to expect it and have an answer ready- even if you just tell the person that you’d rather not talk about it. Hey- you can even say, sorry, I’m American and we’re really awkward when it comes to talking about money!
*To clarify, I feel a certain kinda way about calling things American or saying that I’m American, but for lack of a better descriptor (since United Statesian or USA-dian doesn’t really exist as a term), I’m going to use the term American. I am considering writing another post about that- let me know if you’d be interested in reading it!