Things Foreigners Notice About America
People come to the United States of America for a lot of reasons: travel, business, study, and even to live. When most Americans aren't well-versed in life outside the States, they might be surprised to hear the things that foreigners often notice when they come. Perspectives can, of course, vary greatly depending on the country that the foreigners comes from, but for better or worse, here are some of the most popular observations.
1. People are generally more friendly or talkative toward strangers.
Americans have a stereotype for being loud and even obnoxious in foreign countries - and yes, we know that depends entirely on the person. But Americans really are more inclined to be friendly, open and chatty with people they haven't met. A Japanese woman once told me she felt shocked but happy when the American woman next to her on the airplane kept her company the whole flight (and that's a long flight!). Compared to some countries, especially Northern Europe and Japan, Americans can also be more touchy-feely with acquaintances.
2. Portion sizes are enormous, and food is cheap.
Let's get this one out of the way right off: food in the United States is A Big Deal. A restaurant will often serve plates with three serving sizes and more calories than you'll want to admit in good company. Even "healthy" food is all in name only, when salads drizzled with sauces can net you as much as a cheeseburger and no one bats an eye at the concept of deep fried sushi. One thing startling also to foreigners is drinks: most restaurants, including fast food, promise free refills on fountain drinks - though why you would need to refill that 30 ounce cup is anyone's guess. A glass of water is completely free. More than that, food also comes cheap. Typical family restaurants advertise the lowest of prices, and even food in the grocery stores gets you a lot for your buck.
3. The country is designed to accommodate cars, but not necessarily public transportation.
'From sea to shining sea' accounts for a lot of space. America is big, and that could be why cars are such a necessity everywhere except for the occasional large city that actually has reasonably efficient public transportation. For tourists, getting around without a car isn't far off from impossible. Car culture can be seen everywhere in the U.S. - from wide roads and big cars to drive-thru anything. Not only is driving easy, you don't even have to get out of your car to do many things. As much as we complain about gasoline prices, they are actually some of the cheapest around the world.
4. American society is much more patriotic than most other Western countries.
Foreigners, particularly those from other Western countries, are often shocked at how many American flags are strung up all over the place. Not only real flags, but in decoration and fashion. A British friend once snickered that if someone in London wore a Union Jack shirt, they would probably be a tourist, while Americans manage to wear their star-spangled garb shame-free. The recital of the Pledge of Allegiance so often was also a shock - and almost a disconcerting one to many foreigners at that, with schoolchildren reciting it daily, to some it came across very controlling and almost dystopian. Coupled with flags and anthems is the fact that Americans often believe very strongly that the United States is special and unique, and are proud of their nationality, even if they don't always agree with the government or political representatives.
5. American society tends to be self-focused and Americans are often ignorant about other countries.
Sure, there are jokes, fair or unfair, that the average American couldn't find the United States on an unmarked globe. But it is pretty cringe-worthy to know many, if not most people don't know Austria from Australia and we cling onto the belief that America is the most free, democratic and highest standard of living country in the world (probably not, on all accounts). A Norwegian friend who was studying in America once lamented that when people found out he was foreign, they all assumed he wanted to get a green card and live here forever. Most Americans have not even been outside of the United States and don't have passports. Of course, our ignorance is not without some reasonable basis: this is a huge country, and geography lends travel abroad being much more expensive. To be fair, if a British person has traveled to France, Spain, Italy and Turkey, Americans cover the same distance to get to Florida, New York City and LA.
6. Money-spending woes: Tax isn't included in the listed price, and don't forget to tip.
Oh, tax - perhaps impossible to simplify when chain stores set prices where states have different taxes. But a day of extreme shopping can lead some to grimace as the cashier rings up their order, hoping the tax won't be too merciless when the store price seemed so reasonable. But that might be minor to the headache of tipping. Tipping servers at restaurants is no longer "a little extra" as appreciation for their kind service, but a crucial part of supporting an employee who could very well earn under minimum wage. But the headache gets worse when factoring in delivery people, hairdressers, taxi drivers and even the hotel staff who bring your bags to your room. Even Americans don't know how to calculate the appropriate amount for each more obscure service, but unless the service is absolutely terribly, tipping is mandatory.
7. Americans are clinging on to nonsensical and outdated measurements.
Three teaspoons in a tablespoon. Sixteen tablespoons in a cup. Four cups in a quart, four quarts in a U.S. gallon. A foot is twelve inches, and there are 5,280 feet in a mile. Well, it might have made sense at one point in history, but the rest of the world (really: almost everyone else except for the United States) has switched from the outdated British Imperial system to the much more logical Metric system. To be fair, some countries combine measurements, but most countries are taking steps to fully integrating to the metric system. The United States? Well, we tried to convert everyone in the 1970s, but no one was too keen on that - hence, we've got a lot of confused tourists and immigrants.
8. So much space!
If a foreigner gets out of crowded cities, they are sometimes surprised at how much sheer open space there is. One can drive for hours in the Midwest without running into another soul, and even in towns, backyards can be gigantic and the space between buildings wide. As such a young country - and the fourth largest in the entire world - space is not the commodity that it is in smaller, thousands-years-old countries.
9. Clothes' size inconsistencies, and vanity sizing.
A size six dress can be roughly the same as another brand's size ten, which is a headache for Americans, too. Vanity sizing is another phenomenon - sizes have become bigger while the number stays the same. With no strict guidelines about what constitutes a "medium", it makes sense - customers, especially in America's weight-anxious society, want to buy brands that make them feel good, and unfortunately, "feel good" is often equated to a number on a tag.
10. The stereotypes: sometimes way off base, but sometimes true.
What image does the average non-American have of Americans? It's tough to say. American media - movies, music, books, etc - are available all over the globe - as well as our politics, military and scandals, which all come together to paint a veritable gallery of stereotypes. True, a stereotype exists of Americans being obese, gun-touting, Bible-clutching conservative and slightly undereducated cowboys. Another stereotype is the friendly American, or perhaps something off the set of Friends. True, America is more conservative than a lot of other Western countries - even the American "liberal" is somewhat conservative by international standards. America is also religious, but certainly not everyone. America is a divided land - or better yet, a huge country made up of many different people coming from many backgrounds, with many different beliefs and approaches to life. What we hope any traveler might realize is that no one stereotype defines us, just as no one stereotype defines citizens of any country. Wishful thinking? Maybe!