Observations About Quirks In American Culture

Part I. Observations About The Comments
Part II. Comments from Metafilter

1) Religion
European atheism is tied to the desire of the emerging middle class to sieze economic power, political power, and social status from the church. The USA never had the relationship between the aristocracy and the church, nor did the churches have political power. Puritanism is, like judaism, a personal religion that had more moral rather than institutional origins. Furthermore, the founders saw christianity as a moral teaching system for good citizenship, not a means of oppression or political influence. So the darwinian revolution in the USA was one of changing the way americans looked at religious content more than it was a necessary political and economic conflict as in Europe. The benefit of that puritanism is evident everywhere though: people obey rules, and they don’t engage in petty theft on the scale that europeans do. The violent crime in the states is a product of minority violence. “White” violence in the states is about the same as in canada and western europe. And for long standing reasons it is unlikely that the problem will be solved. Although increased jail times and policing have drastically reduced US crime over the past 20 years.

2) Patriotism
American Patriotism is simply an expression of puritanism. Weapons are a civic puritan duty. Since there is a conflict between the minorities and their political urbanite public intellectuals, against the white christians and their entrepreneurial sponsors, this is an unresolvable problem. The left becomes more radical, and the right more conservative and reactionary. Until the demographics play out I doubt this will change.

3) Scale
The consumer society, the customer service ethic, and the luxury of scale rather than quality is how americans express civic virtue with one another. The french for example behave as if they took over the roles and habits of the nobility in public. Americans see the merchant-consumer relationship as the civic virtue.

4) Class
Americans are very classist, but demonstrate it by their signals (homes and cars) and their language. What is difficult for europeans to grasp is that we have many many universities and colleges and tehy are not formally ranked in any way. So, you can get an engineering or law degree many places but without knowing the institution that granted it, you don’t know how good it is. So to some degree, your college or university tells someone your IQ and social class. Americans also view social class as highly mobile (at least from lower middle and middle to upper middle. They will often support small businesses and tradesman as demonstrations of their beneficence. Americans tend to trust people in their class and less so in other classes. In the postwar era, americans had a temporary privilege of having the only industrial economy left standing. This allowed a lot of cheap but not good quality goods to be made at high profit. THis also allowed working class people to live a lower middle class lifestyle. But as this situation has been eroded by worldwide recovery and the end of world communism, these people are experiencing a loss of status and economic power. This is creating social tension in a way that is different from the same process that is occurring in europe during this period of deleveraging.

5) Police
Police can lose their jobs pretty easily in the states, and unlike europe, they are not assumed to be in the right. They are literally ‘afraid’ a lot of the time. (The side effect is that the USA tends to invent all the investigative technology in the world.) Ticketing is a profit-making activity for many police departments so the cops prey on people rather than help them. In the USA we joke that they allow the crack heads to roam the streets committing dozens of crimes so that they don’t have to pay to house them, while at the same time ticketing the mom in a mini-van so that they can have new shiny lights on their cars. This leads to public resentment.

5) Military
So, here’s the reality. Americans pay for policing the western world’s system of finance and trade through their military. They then sell debt to the world. They then inflate the debt away. They do this rather than tax countries directly for the service. That’s how it works. In exchange, there is higher demand for the dollar, which then allows american citizens to have a much higher standard of living than everyone else, and the US gets a profitable military complex. The military is americas largest industry and it’s actually incredibly profitable.

6) Health/Fitness
American middle and upper class people signal their social status by their fitness interests.

7) The continent is very big. The concern of most american administrations during the 1800’s was that they needed to populate the west not only to profit from it, but to prevent the ‘warlike’ europeans from causing problems. The civil war was fight between the industrial north and agrarian south over the whose political power that would result from the westward expansion – anti-slavery was simply a populist excuse.

8) If America broke into regional ‘countries’ each would be quite different, and americans would act a lot more like europeans. (I suspect that’s the future of the USA. Rather than a united europe, I suspect we will have a regionalized USA, and a western-nations defense network.)

9) Crime is a highly controversial in the USA because it is so predominantly in the black community. The white community crime rate is about that of europe. The reasons for this are varied and controversial. But the idea that ‘americans’ are more violent than europeans does not survive scrutiny. In particular, a few urban centers account for a disproportionate amount of of violent crime. To some degree there are class culture and race problems in the USA that cannot be solved because the subject is simply too taboo to address it, the historical animosity to entrenched, and the political advantages of manipulating the minority are too valuable.


An aspiring author was looking for ideas on how america would be perceived by europeans. I put the following list, which is anglo-weighted, together from selected comments.

– The concrete wheel blocks in parking spaces to prevent idiots from running into each other.
– The round reflectors that mark highway lanes.
– The use of text on signs – in Europe we tend either to use graphics or not to bother with a sign at all.
– Some places you can turn right on red and others not.
– Drive-through everything. Drive-through ATMs, drive-through bank tellers, drive-through pharmacies, drive-through liquor stores in some states.
– The paucity of sidewalks/pavements in many parts of the US, especially residential streets without sidewalks. A European would receive funny looks from his american hosts if he suggested walking to a relatively nearby destination.
– The first time I tried to cross a road by myself, it took me at least 15 minutes to get the rhythm of the traffic lights and how much time I had to make it to the other side. Streets are a lot wider, so the timing is completely different. And drivers in Southern California do not give a sh__t about pedestrians. And the multi-lane intersections….
– Fewer small cars. No roundabouts. Stop signs and the awkward negotiated dance of who has the right-of-way to go next. Speed limits that feel way too slow — 35 limits would often be 45 or 50 or 60 back home. Freeway exits sometimes every quarter-mile — UK motorways have very much fewer exits.
– Writing on the road is the wrong way around: LANE BIKE not BIKE LANE.
– Cities where streets follow a grid. And almost all streets allow cars. As a European I’m accustomed to look for the city center; a place where there are no cars, where streets are meandering, where there are terraces to sit outside and have a coffee. A place that’s amenable to walking, to hanging out and enjoying the atmosphere.
– Riding a bike is dangerous and an enterprise, not a mindless means of transport.
– The buses in LA make a stop every block. During a one-hour bus trip, the bus might make 66 stops. That is more than a stop a minute.
– Walking in LA is a dangerous sport, at least in the eyes of other Angelenos.

– Power sockets/electrical plugs seem very flimsy compared to the tank-like UK ones.
– Europe/UK dishes are soaped and set out to dry whereas in the US it’s customary to rinse the detergent off before drying.
– The cell phone carriers not only use different frequencies but are different standards, and they can’t talk to each other
– That in many places it is forbidden to hang your laundry outside to dry.
– Even people of modest means may own a slew of gas-powered lawn maintenance tools. That stuff is cheap in the US. Reel mowers are still a rarity.
– The American notion of Do-It-Yourself, particularly with regards to construction and home repair/improvement. It’s fairly trivial in most parts of the US for the average person, with no special training or credentials, to rent skid-steer loaders and other heavy hydraulic equipment, order ready-mix concrete or truck loads of construction materials. Chain stores like Home Depot and Menards sell (along with a lot of crap) top-notch professional equipment. The old system of distributors that sell “to the trade only” is breaking down. My sense is that in much of Europe, this is not common and in some places illegal due to safety regulations, trade protectionism, and a greater regard for formal credentials.

– American flags are everywhere. And flags in non-civic settings. A French visitor, for instance, wouldn’t be surprised to see flags on city halls, but on car dealerships?
– The generic veneration of “freedom” as a distinctly American virtue of unknown definition.
– American exceptionalism taken as a given.
– The degree of nationalism
– I was at the Hollywood Bowl, and before the program began, everyone got up to sing the National Anthem. What?
– Guns. And not just rifles or shotguns in Easy Rider rifle racks but pistols. Knives too but the guns. A very good chance of seeing guns in cars or purses or wherever — I was blown away by it, the casual attitude toward it.
– That it’s not unusual to see soldiers travelling in full uniform in the USA
– Thanksgiving being as big as or bigger than xmas.
– The importance of team sports in American schools.
– College sport: the intensity of the following, the rivalries, the bands, the huge attendances, the tailgates. You get an inkling of it in film and television, but while the major professional sports get global broadcast coverage, and some of the accoutrements are covered in film and television, college sport largely stays under the radar. There’s nothing directly comparable in Europe.

– Every employed person rates themselves middle class.
– studied indifference towards the working class.
– “Socialist” as a dirty word — often one of the dirtiest.
– Theism, and fear of atheism.
– Social customs seem to involve euphemisms and things you’re not supposed to talk about.
– Working people are afraid of medical bills.
– The bus seems to be an activity reserved exclusively for disabled and poor people.
– Americans are obsessed with which university they attended, even if you have all been out of school for years. Americans are much more likely to ask “Which university did you go to?” as part of the usual getting to know you questions.
– Panhandlers/beggars.
– Being a stay at home parent, or just a non-working partner or spouse is frowned upon and you’re accused of being a parasite.
– Not separating what you do from who you are, as seen when someone falls into the spiral of shame when they are out of work.
– All those things you’re seen on tv or in films which you assume are overplayed for effect or are tv cliches, are actually real- like the homeless people on the streets or the underage drinking.
– Fitness! Everyone is expected to have SOME kind of regular fitness activity. It’s considered part of being a responsible adult.
– The U.S.’s high incarceration and violent crime rates.
– really big single-ethnicity ghetto neighborhoods
– America has a pervasive culture of “if you are poor, it is because you deserve to be poor,” whether that view is subtle or explicit.
– Americans are much more self-aware and self-reflexive about racism, in both good ways and bad ways. Race is a very, very, very touchy topic in America. Especially in the north, people will jump through hoops to avoid appearing racist, despite being actually quite racist.
– There’s an ingrained american optimism or feelgoodism that prevents one from criticizing anything in a social situation, eg saying a movie sucked when asked always elicits a quick change of conversation.

– People are much more likely to invoke God and religion during a conversation.
– Religion is respected.

– Advertising for prescription medication (which is against the law in basically every country in the world except the US and New Zealand)
– Giving credit cards to people with no income.
– The weirdly aspirational yet condescending tone of advertising voice-overs.
– Leaving your money in the mailbox. You drive onto a persons home property and they are selling something (small bundles of fire wood, home grown produce, or home made Adirondack chairs) and a sign tells you “If no one is home just leave the money in the mail box.”
– Starting a tab at a bar.
– The sweeteners and condiments and creamers and napkins laying around in restaurants and just about everywhere else would be gone in a heartbeat back home.
– Everyone complains bitterly about the government and is suspicious of it but they all follow the rules anyway even if nobody is watching.
– Surprisingly clean big cities.
– How supermarkets not just let you wander off with carts into the wild blue yonder but will set up displays of firewood, plants, pumpkins, etc., out front with nobody watching and trust you’ll bring it indoors to pay for it.
– Paying cash for a c. $150 total at a supermarket was seen as suspicious. The manager was called to okay it!

– That they probably have the best customer service culture in the world, but can rapidly descend into being the most aggressive if challenged.
– That you can post [send mail] from your own mail box.
– Sales tax not being included in the marked price on retail items.
– Mail is delivered on Saturdays.
– Shops barely close, only on Thanksgiving day and Christmas day does commerce really stop.
– Amazing trust of retailers when you want to exchange a product. Everywhere else you buy it, you now own it. Period. No returns there — “I’m sorry your TV doesn’t work, now buzz off.”
– There is a huge culture of self-help / self-improvement.
– Honestly friendly waitresses.
– Customer service people here are well trained. They are uniformly pleasant and helpful.
– Every person seems to take a lot of pride in their work, the US is definitely a very strongly work-centric culture. People seem to talk a lot more about slacking off, than actually slack off.
– Public-facing employees generally seeing to enjoy their jobs.
– Online shopping is deliriously easy here.
– Having and actively exercising the right to give static to salespeople, waitresses, bartenders, others in the service industry. Asking for the manager, and getting him or her – wow, almost unheard of! Demanding returns for purchases on very feeble premises, sending food back for reasons that may seem precious or fussy.
– miniscule amount of paid vacation per year
– Having groceries packed in the supermarket.
– Those little catches you have on your gas pumps. The ones that allow you to start filling up, clip the pump so it keeps filling… and you can walk away!

– Perceptions of American phoniness are off the mark in a crucial way, IMHO. America’s tradition of cheerful customer service and loud, friendly small talk is all part of a culture of making every moment seem very happy for others. It’s not so much false as it is all part of a shared show that everyone is making for everyone else. Americans are perfectly aware that they can’t be everyone’s best friend. I can think of many other cultures where there are similarly vigorous shows of forced humility or “oh, but I couldn’t possibly intrude” or whatever.
– Elaborate and structured dating rules.
– Everyone eats with one hand and keeps the other hand on their lap all through the meal. Also, sometimes they go through an elaborate switch-fork-to-left-hand-pick-up-knife-in-right-cut-up-food-then-switch-fork-back-to-right-hand dance.
– People in shops say things that in Europe would be privvy to personal conversation. To a dutchman like me that felt inappropriate and a little creepy.
– That it seems to be completely ok to share (and is often suggested) in a restaurant. You can certainly *do* it in most other countries, but is rarely suggested, and usually met with some disdain.
– That Americans are generally alot more comfortable with talking to strangers.
– People will often say “we should get together” or “you should come over sometime for dinner” but don’t actually mean it, they just say it to be polite.
– That Americans are very friendly. I’d be fumbling with my map of SF on a corner and get startled that somebody would address me with friendly advice on directions.
– “Uh huh” is an appropriate response to “thank you”
– Americans waiting in line is just preternatural! Recently, waiting for a bus from dc to Philly, there was no waiting area. It was Friday night and the buses were all booked solid. Tons of people were showing up, and yet everyone was till queueing up perfectly politely, waiting their turn, inquiring where the line started and how far it stretched back.
– People write dates using numbers. I thought people said 9-11 because it was close to 9-1-1 and a reminder of emergency. But people actually talk dates that way.
– People ask “How are you?” as a casual greeting, but no one really cares how you are.
– The volume of sound in everyday conversations. I had to train myself to shout (I felt) after a month of being talked over.
– The workplace is far more straight-laced than what I was used to in the UK. – When Americans kid one another, they will wait a few seconds and then let the kidee know that they were just kidding. Every time. This shocked me for a while.
– Under 21’s can’t drink in their own homes. Seriously? Not even a glass of wine with dinner?
– Striking up conversation with strangers, smiling at strangers, sharing stories and knowing/ empathizing looks with strangers. This also throws me for a loop, especially all the smiles and random hellos. Cheerfulness is an indefeasible social onus. On the other hand, people in the U.S. are in my experience very polite when it comes to staring (i.e. not doing it).
– The penchant Americans seem to have for talking over one another.
– Tipping as an obligation.
– Take a penny ; Give a penny for change
– People in America will stop dead in the middle of the street or shake their middle fingers at a perceived near-collision.
– You will often be on a first name basis with your boss, even though obviously you are not your boss’s “friend.”
– “Sir”, “Maam”, and “Miss” are disconcertingly formal when used in almost all customer–service situations.
– Fear of silence. Chat, chat, chat about the most inane subjects to avoid embarrassing silences. Which could explain why nobody is interesting in expressing criticism (see above) when all they want to do is fill a gap and not to have meaningful conversations.
– “Networking”. The easiness at making social connections – in a non corporate or business setting – with a blatant view to future business relationships but making it look like the people involved are befriending each other. It’s like watching a play where all the actors know the only reason they look like they care for each other is money.
– I’m not sure people in other countries calculate their or other’s “net worth” or mention it casually in social settings. Not necessarily the amounts, sometimes just the fact that they know it.

– Hypersensitivity towards hygiene, especially in food retail. Disinfectant wipes at the entrance to supermarkets, washed vegetables, meat that’s invariably wrapped on styrofoam.
– For all the recent interest in farmers’ markets and ‘active cultures’, the bulk of Americans basically like their food to be dead and hermetically sealed, like the places where they buy food to project a sense of clinical sanitation, like putting food in the fridge whether it needs it or not, and like their dishwashers to run like autoclaves.
– Seriously into ziplock bags in a way that other places don’t seem to be.
– bathroom stalls have such wide gaps between the wall and door.
-The abundance of very good teeth
– restaurant health ratings right on the window in CA (yay!)

– The tendency of the police to go absolutely nuts at the slightest provocation, and for their default setting to be extremely rude and aggressive. This is more disturbing than the guns thing, for me – plenty of European police forces walk around armed without being scary.
– There are police everywhere in the US and they are not friendly or helpful, yet they display slogans like “protect and serve” without a hint of irony on their cars. also: they drive like complete idiots.
– Cops always armed.
– In the US, cops aren’t there to help or ask directions from. They are there to ticket you or arrest you.
– American courts are stereotypically more plaintiff-friendly than anywhere else in the world.
– Lawyers have much more cultural cachet than in almost any other country. The idea that lawyers are on a par with doctors as far as people with high-class occupations. Note the perennial appeal of law school, or of lawyer shows on television. Also, a majority of elected officials have at least graduated from law school, whether or not they actually practiced as a lawyer for any significant amount of time. (Compare this to the number of engineers in power in China.)
– jaywalking – seriously – you’re going to ticket me for crossing the road?
– smog check stations.
– you can’t drink alcohol in a car. Even if you are just a passenger.
– I can’t but a bottle of wine and walk down the street without hiding it in a bag? I can’t open the wine and drink it in Central Park? What the hell is up with that? And you have to be 21 to drink? And I, as a fifty-plus-year-old guy can still occasionally get asked for ID before buying drink?

– Some food differences: the cans of coke are slightly larger. Crisps (chips) don’t often come in small bags, it’s massive ones that you’re supposed to share, or nothing – and then you end up eating them all by yourself.
– And bread tastes obnoxiously sweet. I still don’t know how anyone can eat the majority of breads available for purchase.
– The fact that so much American cheese is coloured orange.
– Candies are full of corn syrup (so a Cadbury or Kit Kat bar in the US will taste significantly worse than the original version from abroad).
– Only in America would we have a Mexican Sushi place that is actually called “Casa Sushi”.
– Ice tea is sugarless.
– The awesomeness of fresh sweet corn.
– maple syrup and icing sugar on everything at breakfast.
– Fruit as part of a savory meal – like fruit in a chicken salad, or on the side of a meat plate.
– I had never heard of food allergies until I visited the US. I had never heard of food fads until I met American people.

– Bottomless cups of coffee.
– Over the top single person serving portions in restaurants – everywhere.
– Getting leftovers boxed up to go.
– I go into an American bar and ask for a shot of scotch I get a major shot of scotch. I love the way you just put a glass down and fill it instead of measuring a miserly 1/6 or 1/4 gill shot via an optic.

– You can walk into a store at 3am and purchase a can of beer the size your head.
– Cigarettes behind the counter in drug stores.
– People use checks instead of cash.
– No direct equivalent to a newsagents shop
– Drugstores that sell groceries
– Some places you can’t buy alcohol at the supermarket???
– Money: The bills are all the same color and size!
– Shops will not give change for the parking meter, even if you buy something from them.
– You can buy mouthwash to whiten your teeth in the endless drugstores.
– There are these really complicated consumer programs that you can take part in. For instance, I ended up wandering around CVS for an hour to find something that would fulfill my CVS cash back membership.
– And oh man the surbuban parking lots! Yeah everyone’s heard of them, but nothing will prepare you for the overwhelming size and quantity.
– People pay Psychics? Really?

– The cars here are huge! I’ve stood eye-to-eye with a bumper.
– In general, the scale of things is mind boggling to Europeans for a while and continues to be boggling in small ways for a long time. Fridges are HUGE compared to upright or under-the-counter European fridges. The default size for milk is the gallon, not the pint. Endless agonizing choices in the supermarket — which of these 30 types of canned beans do I want now? Roads that feel twice as wide as they should be. Bank lobbies the size of railway stations.
– The size of engines.
– People who purchase trucks just because they like the look of them, not because they actually need the trucks for work.
– Largeness of cheap motel rooms.
– Being able to watch every episode of US TV shows whenever you want without having to download them illegally.
– Super fast unlimited internet access.
– The enormous quantity of wasted energy. Too many lamp posts even in the remotest places. Driving around at night and noticing how many people leave their living room and porch lights on.

– The ignorance of Americans about the rest of the world.
– People without passports.
– The realization that while you may be familiar with American celebrities, journalists, politicians, and geography from it’s broader worldwide audience, no one in America has a clue about equivalent elsewhere.
– The most shocking lack of geographical knowledge I’ve ever encountered was from a university-educated Californian couple in their 50s who didn’t quite know where Montana was. I was speechless when they asked me [Canadian] for assistance in the matter.
– People only know one language
– Americans to refer to ‘Europe’ as if it is a single fairly culturally and socially homogeneous area which its inhabitants identify with.

– You don’t need to drive far from a major city like SF to reach endless expanse of nature. Amazing.

– The sheer size of the country. One of them rented a car one time and was planning a road trip of something like Savannah-New Orleans-San Antonio-Phoenix-LA, but he really wanted to stop in all those cities and see the sights and have a good time, you know. He’d planned to do that in five days. I had to break it to him gently that he’d spend most of that time driving.

– It’s an incredibly BIG country and so things that many Europeans take for granted like using bikes and trains for transportation or having easily walkable city centers are less viable/harder to implement. Many people think nothing of driving 45 minutes to a mall or an hour to work, or would consider two relatively distant suburbs of the same city to be “the same place”.

– Everything is new. I’d never experienced a physical craving for old buildings before visiting the US! Possibly related: I got the impression that ‘the past’ is more recent in the US, events in living memory are seen as ‘historic’.

– That it’s real hard to find a decent cafe or terrace once one gets about 10 miles outside the city centers. Like one where you can take your kids to and just chill out at for a bit before getting some dinner.

– The fact that you have defibrillators in your malls?

– The mediative-state or torpor inducing languor of driving on U.S. interstates where there only seem to be vast expanses of road and nature in all directions, with hardly a worry at all that you will be smashed from behind by some German-fabricated auto.

– Parking is AMAZING – even in San Francisco / Chicago / New York, there is so much parking at a reasonable cost. But outside the major cities, everywhere you go there are acres of carparks. The supermarket – any supermarket – is a tourist destination. Anywhere you can see 95 different kinds of frozen pancakes stacked up next to each other.

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