Nov 01 2011

American Quirks for Authors

Published by at 11:14 pm under Americana,Comedy

This is an interesting compilation of things that foreigners found notable and/or quirky about life in the United States.  It could be useful if you’re writing about a foreigner visiting the United States or an American traveling abroad.

  • “Some places you can turn right on red — wait what YOU CAN DRIVE THROUGH A RED LIGHT if you’re turning WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE”
  • “Every employed person rates themselves middle class.”
  • “From the UK: much greater tendency to use text on signs – in Europe we tend either to use graphics or not to bother with a sign at all.”
  • “One language – I noticed in Europe most people speak more than one language and usually even 3 or more.”  (I suspect that linguistic heterogeneity makes it harder to use words on signs).
  • “Seconding flags, but particularly flags in non-civic settings. A French visitor, for instance, wouldn’t be surprised to see flags on city halls, but on car dealerships?”  February 1798 marked the Volvo Plot, a massive conspiracy of Swedish car dealers against the Republic and freedom in general.  Today, it is customary for car dealerships to fly the flag to remind their customers that they are not trampling the sweet cause of liberty by shopping there.  That’s also why BMW and Toyota ads emphasize how superlatively American their cars are.
  • “American flags everywhere.  AND IT’S NOT RACIST! Or even a sign that someone’s politically on the right! That’s taken a long time to get used to.”
  • “The Pledge of Allegiance.  The generic veneration of ‘freedom’ as a distinctly American virtue of unknown definition. American exceptionalism taken as a given.”
  • “Elaborate and structured dating rules.”
  • “No direct equivalent to a newsagents shop.”
  • “Fridges are HUGE compared to upright or under-the-counter European fridges. The default size for milk is the gallon, not the pint.”
  • “Roads that feel twice as wide as they should be.”
  • “Residential streets without sidewalks.”
  • “Endless handwringing about ‘the middle class,’ studied indifference towards the working class. “Socialist” as a dirty word — often one of the dirtiest. The fear of medical bills. Theism, and fear of atheism. These aren’t the requested tiny things but they’re everpresent and pervasive reminders that this place is different.”  Not the dirtiest.  That’s “Norwegian.”  The word “scandal” derives from the revelation that someone is secretly Scandinavian.  For further context, please note the Volvo Plot of 1798.
  • “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: the Oxford-Cambridge boat race is notable because it’s anomalous. That’s more ‘big and weird’, though it’s important if your character is headed to Nebraska or environs.”
  • “One thing that a visitor from Scotland pointed out as a small surprise was that the beverage we call ‘lemonade’ isn’t fizzy.”
  • “Hypersensitivity towards hygiene, especially in food retail. Disinfectant wipes at the entrance to supermarkets, washed vegetables, meat that’s invariably wrapped on styrofoam. Clotaire Rapaille talks a little about this as part of his marketing schtick — 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.”
  • “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. I did not find such a space in the american cities I’ve been to. And it prevented me from enjoying the place.”
  • “Riding a bike is dangerous and an enterprise, not a mindless means of transport.”
  • “People are not that tall.”  I blame Hollywood.
  • “I was at the Hollywood Bowl, and before the program began, everyone got up to sing the National Anthem. What? I mean, what? I associate this sort of thing with intensely patriotic occasions, not when I’m out for a concert.”  Yvan Eht Nioj
  • “People here are much more likely to invoke God and religion during a conversation.”  GOOD GOD, THAT SQUIRREL IS LARGE.
  • “AND people will talk religion in a place of business. Prayer before a business meeting.”  Personally, I’ve never heard of that in the U.S., and I worked for a Midwestern Catholic university.  Maybe it’s a Southern and/or Texan thing?
  • “Oh, I also want to mention another thing that was pointed out to me by my non-American friends: 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.”
  • “Americans are generally alot more comfortable with talking to strangers.”
  • “The U.S. probably has the best customer service culture in the world, but can rapidly descend into being the most aggressive if challenged.”
  • “If the characters in your book are moving to the south: Guns. And not just rifles or shotguns in Easy Rider rifle racks but pistols. Knives too but the guns — unreal. In Arizona bikers — and not just scum bikers but guys on Gold Wings — in Arizona people on motorcycles used to wear big pistols on their hip. In all of the states mentioned, a very good chance of seeing guns in cars or purses or wherever — I was blown away by it, the casual attitude toward it.”
  • “In northern California, catching the bus seems to be an activity reserved exclusively for disabled and poor people.”  Generally, public transit in the U.S. is limited to those that cannot afford cars.  I think New York and DC are the two main exceptions.
  • “Shops barely close, only on Thanksgiving day and Christmas Day does commerce really stop.”  I NEED COCOA PUFFS NOW.  I DON’T CARE IF IT’S ARBOR DAY.
  • “Also she said that 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.”  It is generally understood by Americans that universal access to ketchup is a birthright of all Americans.  Also, it is gravely impolite to offer an American a meal without also making ketchup available.
  • “That it’s not unusual to see soldiers travelling in full uniform in the USA (I’ve seen this often at Grand Central, and at various airports around the USA). In many parts of the UK, soldiers, airmen, etc. are unable to wear their uniforms off base due to the level of abuse they get from the public.” Well, the British are into that whole secret service thing.  After exhaustive research, I have discovered that every Briton is a spy, a butler or both.
  • “Everyone complains bitterly about the suckitude of government and is suspicious of it but they all follow the rules anyway even if nobody is watching.”
  • “Also, ads for drugs on TV. The only other developed country where this is legal is NZ.”  It is well-known that pharmacists and marketers are mortal enemies.  But not as much as marketers and parents.  The U.S. does prohibit TV advertisements for products in the same franchise as a cartoon show itself (e.g. no ads for Pokemon toys or games are aired during Pokemon episodes).  Why do Congressmen like Viagra more than Pokemon?  Well, besides the obvious reason, Viagra is basically the only product that pays for the endorsements of ex-Congressmen.
  • “People ask “How are you?” as a casual greeting, but no one really cares how you are. He feels like it’s too personal of a question to ask a stranger and doesn’t like the insincerity of it.”  It’s an insincere question, which allows for benign responses like “Fine. You?”  You’d probably be disturbed by any honest answer.  “I WANT COCOA PUFFS NOW.
  • “Tipping. It’s de facto required here. Even if the service was crap. Which it usually isn’t.”
  • “The sheer uselessness of the loose change. You can actually buy stuff with coins in the UK, but when the biggest coin is $0.25 it ends up in huge jars.”  After even more months of intense investigation and fevered guessing, I’ve discovered that pennies are a plot to discredit and abase Abraham Lincoln.
  • “The gap between the bathroom stall door and the floor (seriously, WTF?)” I’m guessing it’s a security thing to help make sure that people aren’t hiding in a store to steal things after the store closes.  That, and it helps cops easily tell at a glance how many people are in a stall.  If there are 2+ people in a stall, something unseemly is probably happening.
  • “Public-facing employees generally seem to enjoy their jobs.”  Maybe this is a bit different with the economic situation being what it is, but I think Americans generally have fewer compunctions about leaving a job they don’t like.  Also, it’s (somewhat) easier to get rid of unhappy (private sector) employees in the U.S. than in Europe.
  • “Nearly disposable clothes. I am amazed at how many clothes people buy, and how little time they usually last. When I first came here, I was happily surprised at how cheap clothes were, but adjusted my average spending upwards when I realized how little the cheap things last.”
  • “Striking up conversation with strangers, smiling at strangers, sharing stories and knowing/ empathizing looks with strangers.”  How do you date?
  • “Squirrels were everywhere in Savannah, Georgia. They were everywhere in Chicago, too. Those cute little Chip ‘n Dale type squirrels.”  Chicago squirrels are neither cute nor little.  They are murderous, thieving vermin.  Also, like us Chicagoans in general, they celebrate Valentine’s Day with a massacre.
  • “Americans are not as friendly as they think they are. This could simply be coming from small town Australia, which is pretty damn friendly.”
  • “Casual dress: It’s easy to spot American here; they will be the ones wearing sneakers and jeans or shorts.”  It’s harder to surprise a squirrel when dressed in business attire.  However, one advantage of formal attire is a tie, which can be used as an garrote for quickly dispatching a surprised squirrel.
  • “checkout clerks in the grocery store do their work standing, not sitting.”  Most U.S. positions where you’re serving customers in person (besides reception positions) involve standing rather than sitting.  Maybe sitting would look lazier/idler?
  • “As a British person, I was shocked by the way Americans will tell a stranger or acquaintance what I would consider to be deeply personal information, and ask questions that I would consider spectacularly inappropriate.”  Interesting.  Now I’m wondering what some of those are.  (In Korea, “how much do you make?” is a pretty routine question, but it’s impolite not to answer).
  • Also guys why is your 10c smaller than your 5c took me ages to stop giving dimes out as nickels”  When you need an emergency projectile (e.g. anti-squirrel ammunition), you should not have to spend a tenth of a dollar.  A twentieth of a dollar is more reasonable.
  • “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.”  If you are poor, it’s probably because you failed to deal with those accursed rodents squatting in your trees, stealing your acorns.  The U.S. already made nickels bigger than dimes, affording you cheap ammunition–what more do you want?

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “American Quirks for Authors”

  1. Milanon 06 Nov 2011 at 11:51 pm

    Spray cheese.

    With apologies to my American hosts, who probably found my laughing in the aisles a little embarassing.

    I suspect it is not cheese.

  2. Chihuahua0on 07 Nov 2011 at 6:12 am

    XD The commentary got more and more obsessed with the squirrels.

    My co-protagonist in my main project is a British exchange student, so this should be useful once I get back to it.

  3. O.R.on 07 Nov 2011 at 9:38 am

    I love how you started out defensively and then just gave up and chalked everything up to squirrels. Being Mexican (crime situation FTW!), I found myself agreeing on a lot of the claims (the ones that we Mexicans deem too ridiculous or too American to follow–it takes me twice as long to pay when skimming through my wallet for nearly-identical bills!) and justifying others (“the bulk of Americans basically like their food to be dead and hermetically sealed” Really? Do you buy chickens from a farm to kill them yourselves and then toss the remaints out to the street until you need them again?!).

    However, I do think it is a matter of cultural perceptions. I find it very interesting to read how Europeans perceive the U.S., even if it’s not really relevant in my current WIP. These tidbits will come very handy whenever I get around to earning enough money to travel to Europe.

  4. ekimmakon 07 Nov 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Did you just call Australia a small town?

  5. BMon 07 Nov 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Ehh, I wasn’t trying to defend the United States or criticize those nefarious Finns. I offered amusing asides where I could and idle speculation in a few (maybe 5) of the others. For example, when someone observed that American bathroom stall walls don’t go all the way down to the floor, I guessed it was a security/crime-reducing feature. If I were trying to defend one country or another, I probably would have ignored ones as innocuous as the height of bathroom stall walls and focused on more substantive ones.

    I think the only remotely accusatory one I offered an explanation on was the lack of passports, which surprises a lot of Europeans. For most Americans, it’s a long, long way to a warm-weather tourist destination outside of the U.S., and the sensational crime issues in major tourist destinations (notably Acapulco and Cancun) are probably discouraging U.S. tourism.

  6. EvilpixieAon 08 Nov 2011 at 12:13 am


    Love the exchange student idea. I was one myself just half a year ago in America and this list was a little trip down memory lane. 😀

    Driving on the right is unnerving the first few times.

    Midwest beef is AMAZING!

    But why does no one eat lamb except in the big cities? I missed my lamb.

  7. BMon 08 Nov 2011 at 4:35 am

    “The commentary got more and more obsessed with the squirrels.” That’s basically the story of my life in a sentence. 😉

  8. Mynaon 08 Nov 2011 at 4:15 pm

    I can attest to the South=guns thing. We shoot air rifles in school. xD

  9. B. McKenzieon 08 Nov 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Speaking of regional/national specialties, I really liked the sushi when I went to see P. Mac in Japan even though I usually hate fish. (I have a near-superstitious belief that any sushi prepared by people not trained in Japan is probably fatal, which sort of limits my sushi-related enjoyment in the United States).

    “Midwest beef is AMAZING!” If you’re in the Chicago area specifically, I’d also recommend checking out Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizza, Portillo’s, Al’s Beef* and, umm, Hanabi Sushi (run by a Japanese-trained chef–I checked!)

    *Al’s Beef is so good at Italian beef sandwiches that the menus at Mike Ditka’s Restaurant say something like “Italian Beef Sandwich–What, are you crazy? We’re like a block away from Al’s Beef.”

  10. Indigoon 10 Nov 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Also I noticed that in Europe they make you pay to use the public restrooms-what a scam! At least the stall doors actually reach the ground 😉

    And I’m really curious about your squirrel encounters, B.Mac 🙂

  11. ShyVioletson 11 Nov 2011 at 12:42 am

    SQUIRREL! lol ^_^

    I’m from a family who likes their guns and religion. My great uncle is a priest and my second cousin shot a 23 point buck on his first hunt when he was 13. We are also great fisherman 🙂

  12. Indigoon 20 Dec 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I just now saw that comment, Violets. That is hilarious 🙂 Try randomly saying that at school, work, the store, etc and see how many people get it. 😉

  13. ShyVioletson 20 Dec 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Haha I shout squirrel in public as often as possible

  14. acharaon 08 Dec 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Hmm…. Some of these seem to be kind of mainland Europe -> America quirks. For example, over here we have writing on our signs (bilingual, but whatever), and the greeting of “How are you?” is the same as “Hello”. For example, here is an example of a conversation I had earlier.
    Person 1: How’re ya?
    Person 2: How’re youse?
    Person 3: How are you?
    Person 4: I’m grand, and ye?
    Person 1, 2 & 3: *give person 4 very weird looks*

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