What are America's quirks?
November 5, 2011 10:06 PM   Subscribe

Calling all non-USAans: Can you give me some examples of tiny, weird things you discovered about the United States only when you got here?

I'm writing a story which involves a character who comes to the states from Europe. It would be useful for a certain scene to have a couple examples of small, weird things about America that he noticed when he came over here.

Obviously there's lots of differences. But I want to avoid cliches, and it's hard for me to put myself in his shoes, being American.

I did stay in Ireland for a while though, and an example of the kind of things I'm talking about in reverse would be the popularity of panel shows on British TV and the existence of the Commonwealth Games*.

So yeah, that's the type of thing I'm looking for, not the huge things you know are different going in and aren't surprised by to find: American football, 4th of July fireworks. More like the little things that everybody here knows about but which you'd never heard of before you came.

*which part of me still can't get over: Britain started up an entire mini-Olympics just so their former colonies can kick their ass at pretty much every athletic endeavor known to man? Really?
posted by Diablevert to Society & Culture (292 answers total) 237 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 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.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:20 PM on November 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

From a Canadian perspective - being able to walk into a store at 3am and purchase a can of beer the size of my head.
posted by mannequito at 10:23 PM on November 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

From a Canadian perspective - being able to walk into a store at 3am and purchase a can of beer the size of my head.

This is only true in some states. In California you can't buy alcohol between 2:00AM and 6:00AM, for example.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:25 PM on November 5, 2011

From a Canadian perspective - being able to walk into a store at 3am and purchase a can of beer the size of my head.

That's very state-by-state specific - I live in an area with a relatively strict alcohol regime, and it's a minor ritual for my friends who move to more booze-friendly areas to go through a period of 'my god, there's beer in the gas station!"
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:25 PM on November 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I dated a guy from Austria and he asked why we have those concrete things in parking spaces.

I explained it was to keep us from running into the car in the opposite spot.

And then I bumped the concrete thing with the tires.

That seemed to make him nervous for some reason....
posted by bilabial at 10:26 PM on November 5, 2011 [12 favorites]

Ass gaskets.
posted by benzenedream at 10:28 PM on November 5, 2011 [17 favorites]

American flags everywhere.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:28 PM on November 5, 2011 [9 favorites]

Every employed person rates themselves middle class.
posted by arse_hat at 10:30 PM on November 5, 2011 [44 favorites]

Oh, and the round things that mark highway lanes. Someone told me that the guy who invented them licensed them to the Dept of Hwys for 10c each. Whenever I go to the US, I try to count them and estimate his riches.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:31 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 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.
posted by rongorongo at 10:34 PM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: 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.

Drive-through everythings. Drive-through ATMs, drive-through bank tellers, drive-through pharmacies, drive-through liquor stores in some states. On the flipside, the paucity of sidewalks/pavements in many parts of the US, where your European would receive funny looks from his hosts if he suggested walking to a relatively nearby destination, and might even be stopped by the cops if they spotted him strolling along a residential area.

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?

Cigarettes behind the counter in drug stores. (And by extension, the lack of something filling the "tobacconist/newsagent" role in many cities.)
posted by holgate at 10:39 PM on November 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

Best answer: People use checks here much more than in other countries.
posted by peacheater at 10:44 PM on November 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

From an English-in-California perspective:

- 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.

- Power sockets/electrical plugs seem very flimsy compared to the tank-like UK ones - I have to pull really hard to get them out, and sometimes I see sparks (wtf!). Sometimes the prongs bend. It's very discomforting.

- 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 shit about pedestrians. And the multi-lane intersections... aaah. So confusing.

> "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.
posted by saturnine at 10:44 PM on November 5, 2011 [13 favorites]

The Pledge of Allegiance.

The generic veneration of "freedom" as a distinctly American virtue of unknown definition.

American exceptionalism taken as a given.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:45 PM on November 5, 2011 [12 favorites]

I was startled to find out that "God Save the Queen" has alternate lyrics.
posted by keeo at 10:45 PM on November 5, 2011 [39 favorites]

Elaborate and structured dating rules.
posted by peacheater at 10:46 PM on November 5, 2011 [9 favorites]

Someone once posted here about different dishwashing behaviour - that in Europe/UK dishes are soaped and set out to dry whereas in the US it's customary to rinse the detergent off before drying.
posted by unmake at 10:49 PM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

For me, UK-to-US:

1) 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

2) no direct equivalent to a newsagents shop

3) drugstores that sell groceries

4) some places you can't buy booze at the supermarket SAY WHAT NOW

Also, in general, the scale of things is 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.

Driving: Many 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. (There was an AskMe on that I think.)

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.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:49 PM on November 5, 2011 [40 favorites]

Ass gaskets are seen sometimes in Australia.

The fact that so much American cheese is coloured orange surprised me.

People using checks is antiquated in terms of other developed countries.

The ignorance of Americans about the rest of the world, which is heard about but still surprises us. My landlady in Houston, TX asked me honestly where Australia was in the world. She was a teacher. A mate of mine was asked honestly if we have electricity in Australia.

The quality of the New Yorker and other US magazines that are not available in the rest of the world.

People without passports.
posted by sien at 10:51 PM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Two things I found really odd while watching TV in my hotel room during my last visit: the barrage of advertising for prescription medication (which is against the law in basically every country in the world except the US and New Zealand) and the weirdly aspirational yet condescending tone of advertising voice-overs (described by my British husband as "I'm Great; What's Wrong With You").

> American flags everywhere.

Oh yeah, that too. National flags invoke a feeling of revulsion in me as I associate them with xenophobia and jingoism. It took some getting used to in the US.
posted by hot soup girl at 10:53 PM on November 5, 2011 [34 favorites]

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 eqiuvalent sundry things from my country of origin.
posted by emilycardigan at 10:54 PM on November 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

Having lived in Canada for 15 years now, I can't get over the cheque thing. Every time I'm back in the US it shocks me how often people pay with cheques. I cannot remember the last time I say somebody pay with a cheque in Canada.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:54 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

"American cheese."
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:55 PM on November 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

"It's the law" signs made me chuckle the first dozen times I saw them.
posted by dhoe at 10:57 PM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

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.
posted by ke rose ne at 11:03 PM on November 5, 2011 [13 favorites]

One thing that a visitor from Scotland pointed out as a small surprise was that the beverage we call "lemonade" isn't fizzy.
posted by baf at 11:04 PM on November 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm American, but I was recently doing web searches on why people jarringly don't say "bye" in TV shows and movies after a phone call, and there were comments from people in other countries saying they thought it was something Americans actually did. It even made me consider a MeFi question just like this, but I guess you beat me to it.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:04 PM on November 5, 2011 [8 favorites]

Best answer: My English ex was thrilled by bottomless cups of coffee.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:05 PM on November 5, 2011 [12 favorites]

An American: I haven't seen anybody pay with a cheque in over a decade, and I (unfortunately and embarrassingly) work in retail, so I see people buying shit five days a week. Most people use debit or credit cards. I've never used a cheque, myself, though I have some because my credit union gave them to me. Maybe it's something that's unique to certain parts of the country.
posted by Redfield at 11:06 PM on November 5, 2011 [13 favorites]

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.
posted by holgate at 11:06 PM on November 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Dutch guy who's been to SF and NY. And knows US americans through mefi:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. you don't need to drive far from a major city like SF to reach endless expanse of nature. Amazing.
4. riding a bike is dangerous and an enterprise, not a mindless means of transport.
5. people are not that tall
6. working people are afraid of medical bills.
7. social customs seem to involve more euphemisms and things you're not supposed to talk about.
and yes
8. socialism is a dirty word, no working class that assert their interests, the nationalism
posted by joost de vries at 11:09 PM on November 5, 2011 [33 favorites]

> My landlady in Houston, TX asked me honestly where Australia was in the world. She was a teacher.

Similar anecdote: 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.
posted by matlock expressway at 11:11 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Leave 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." I ran into this several times in Midwestern states and have never seen it in Canada.
posted by arse_hat at 11:13 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm American, but I've just returned to LA after living abroad for a period of several years. The US is a seriously weird country.

This is what I've found particularly disorienting:

- The cars here are huge! I've stood eye-to-eye with a bumper.

- 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.

- People here are much more likely to invoke God and religion during a conversation.

- 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.

- 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. Which brings me to...

- Walking in LA is a dangerous sport, at least in the eyes of other Angelenos.

- There are these really complicated consumer...things...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...thing...I still can't explain it. But it was weird.
posted by so much modern time at 11:13 PM on November 5, 2011 [9 favorites]

"People here are much more likely to invoke God and religion during a conversation." AND people will talk religion in a place of business. Prayer before a business meeting.
posted by arse_hat at 11:17 PM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

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.
posted by so much modern time at 11:27 PM on November 5, 2011 [6 favorites]

1. 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.

2. That Americans are generally alot more comfortable with talking to strangers.

3. That they probably have the best customer service culture in the world, but can rapidly descend into being the most aggressive if challenged.
posted by ryanbryan at 11:30 PM on November 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


That you can post your stuff in your own mail box.

That's pretty nifty.
posted by sien at 11:33 PM on November 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

Wall electrical sockets have no switches; just plug in and go.
posted by Gyan at 11:33 PM on November 5, 2011 [8 favorites]

Best answer: That in many places it is forbidden to hang your laundry outside to dry. Dryer sheets. Seriously into ziplock bags in a way that other places don't seem to be.
posted by AnnaRat at 11:36 PM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

If the characters in your book are moving to the south:
US citizen here, blue-collar from white-bread suburb of Chicago, moved to Florida, then married a girl from Arkansas, then moved to Texas, and spent time in Arizona: 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.

My next-door neighbor had a friend from the Netherlands visiting, for a fun field trip we took her to a gun show, here in Austin. We walked in the door, she immediately stalked out -- she was absolutely furious. Outraged. She couldn't believe it. We calmed her some, we went back in, ended up she had a lot of fun, handled tons of guns, asked zillions of questions of everyone. Of course everyone there loved her, wanted to show her guns and about gun culture. You may not know this but you can buy a single-shot .22 rifle, cut real short, for your grandkids or whatever, and you can get it in a regular wood-colored wood stock or with a pink stock, if it's a girl you're buying for...

Also, cheques -- I have used tons of checks, but never one cheque. I'm assuming that is the metric spelling of check, kind of like grey, or colour?

posted by dancestoblue at 11:42 PM on November 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

The Noble Lawman.
posted by rhizome at 11:44 PM on November 5, 2011

Not sure if this is a comment or a question. Mobile phones aka cellphones. If I am in the UK or Ireland and I have a mobile phone it works anywhere regardless of whether my "own" carrier has a tower nearby--they all use the same standards and frequencies etc and talk to each other. But I get the impression that in the US, the carriers not only use different frequencies but are different standards, and they can't talk to each other--so that if I am on AT&T, but they have no coverage where I am, but Verizon do, I can't use my phone? (This is just an impression i'm getting from reading questions about cellphones.) If I've got this right, I think this would be a serious weirdness.
posted by Logophiliac at 11:55 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

In northern California, catching the bus seems to be an activity reserved exclusively for disabled and poor people.
posted by kithrater at 11:56 PM on November 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

Sales tax not being included in the marked price on retail items. Gaah!
posted by the duck by the oboe at 12:00 AM on November 6, 2011 [29 favorites]

Over the top single person servings in restaurants - then the reverse shock in Europe of receiving a meal and wondering "That's it?"

SMS and text used very differently between US and Europe (tho' with the iPhone and all that this may have changed some since I left in 2007)

One language - I noticed in Europe most people speak more than one language and usually even 3 or more

Very little awareness of the larger world beyond their own hometown and its foibles and celebrities

Celebrity culture
posted by infini at 12:00 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by infini at 12:01 AM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Uh huh" is an appropriate response to "thank you" (!)
You can drive your car on the beach (!)
It's called a restroom here, not a washroom or bathroom.
Mail is delivered on Saturdays.
Shops barely close, only on Thanksgiving day and Christmas day does commerce really stop.
Ice tea is sugarless (an improvement over the Canadian version).
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).
posted by crazycanuck at 12:03 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My girl friends from Ireland and the UK find it strange that the bathroom stalls have such wide gaps between the wall and door. I never noticed it until they talked about how bizarre it was. To this day, my only guess for why is that maybe it's so that you can tell a stall is occupied. Hmmmm.
posted by HeyAllie at 12:04 AM on November 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Mod note: Reminder: please stick to answering the question; fewer refutations of other answers, please, and fewer rants about what you don't like about the U.S.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:44 AM on November 6, 2011 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Amazing trust of retailers when you want to exchange a product - almost impossible to do here in Italy. I bought some medication for a friend in SFO, but when I got back to Italy it turned out I had bought the wrong variety. I shipped them back and the store refunded me on my credit card with no argument, and even apologetically emailed me some photos to prove that one of the six bottles had been damaged in the mail - here I would have had to throw them away and swallow the loss.
posted by aqsakal at 12:51 AM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

People in cities on both coasts were a lot more friendly and likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger (ie me) than I expected.

Various toilet-related things as others have mentioned.

posted by vanar sena at 12:53 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

aqsakal: "Amazing trust of retailers when you want to exchange a product - almost impossible to do here in Italy. ... - here I would have had to throw them away and swallow the loss."

US again -- I dated a woman from the Philippines and she was really adamant about what aqsakal said here -- you buy something there in the Philippines, you now own it. Period. No returns there -- "I'm sorry your TV doesn't work, now buzz off."

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.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:07 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Only in America would we have a Mexican Sushi place that is actually called "Casa Sushi".

Of COURSE guacamole is the appropriate alternative to wasabi. How stupid of me to suggest otherwise.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:08 AM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

And oh man the surbuban parking lots! Yeah everyone's heard of them, but nothing will prepare you for the overwhelming size and quantity.
posted by vanar sena at 1:10 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Uber friendly waitresses.
24hr phamarcies, that sell all sorts of other stuff too.
Starting a tab at a bar.
Lamps instead of overhead lights. Makes coming home at night, or even changing rooms so complicated!


The size of the food
The size of the cars
The similarity of the money
The grid thing
posted by kjs4 at 1:12 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As others have said, portion sizes. Ridiculous.

Getting leftovers boxed up to go. When an American friend of mine asked to do this when she was in the UK, it caused some consternation, and they eventually had to wrap up her food in tinfoil due to the absence of suitable containers.

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. (Yeah, WTF?)

The blatant patriotism displayed by Americans is disconcerting to Britons. There are Stars & Stripes everywhere and it's seen as perfectly normal to display the flag on your home. In England the only houses I see flying the Cross of St George are ex-council houses bought by their Thatcherite former council tenants in the 1980s, and that have been done up to the nines with leaded windows and ornate garden statues. The flying of the Cross of St George is more usually associated with right-wing sympathy to the British National Party than a display of patriotism or national pride.

The importance of team sports in American schools is surprising. My friends' children were involved in football, wrestling (unheard of in British schools), football, basketball, baseball ... with coaches for all those sports and a massive amount of parental involvement. There's a lack of competitive sport in UK schools (due to the 'no child is a loser' mentality introduced over the last 30 years or so) and most schools will have just one or two PE teachers.

Drive-throughs for everything. I expected them for food, but banks, post offices, etc. really surprised me.

The lack of pedestrians. A couple of weeks ago I got off the bus in Worthington, OH and walked about a mile up High St and then down some residential streets back to a friend's house and I did not see another pedestrian - this was at 5pm on a weekday, on a street with wide, wide sidewalks. When I told my friend where I'd walked from, she was truly shocked. She thought I was weird to get the bus downtown in the first place because only poor people take buses.
posted by essexjan at 1:33 AM on November 6, 2011 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I cannot imagine why nobody yet mentioned root beer. From a German perspective, that is the single weirdest thing to learn about, tightly followed by the taste of "grape" juice.

I guess, "noteworthy" or "different" should be your word really.

In the seventies, especially the huge cars and enormous street width in some places made you loose your entire framework of size and perspective. That was also the time when safety regulations made that European cars all were fitted with us-conform enormous bumpers and headlamps, so even familiar car types looked wildly outlandish. That's all changed.

What remains is (for example) funny brass-colored turning handles with little flips to block the bathroom door, squeaky porch screen doors, nightly cricket concerts during the summer, the smell of wooden houses made of unfamiliar kinds of timber, air-refreshing products that smell like cheap chewing gum, fighting raccoons during the night, skunks as roadkill, groundhogs eating peaches in the garden, blue-jay screeches, four-way stops at crossings, and slow motion trains at street level that make a lot of a racket all the time.
- The question "how do you like America so far?", to be answered by "oh it's just great. I'm having a great time."
- The size of the food portions in restaurants.
- funny springy, angled pins sticking up at the end to parking lots to prevent people from driving out the wrong way, by threatening their tires.
- a readiness to order pizza at 10 p.m. although one has had a full meal at 6:30.
- the expectation that someone who orders a coffee or a sandwich actually has an informed view about what of the gazillion choices is best for him just then, and the baffledness by the personnel when you say "uh, just give me something uh regular, like."
posted by Namlit at 1:35 AM on November 6, 2011 [10 favorites]

Best answer: My Norwegian friend visiting right now says,

4700 kinds of toothpaste.

Surprisingly clean big cities.

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.

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. (see also rule-following above)

He finds these last two especially jarring given the U.S.'s high incarceration and violent crime rates.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:44 AM on November 6, 2011 [10 favorites]

He adds, cops always armed is weird, and he cannot get over the awesomeness of fresh sweet corn, which is rare in Oslo and much tastier super-fresh in the U.S. Midwest.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:47 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ads for legal services.

1-800-HEAD INJURY really surprised me and the 2 other Australians I was with.

Also, ads for drugs on TV. The only other developed country where this is legal is NZ.

The warning at the end of the drug ads is a trip, i.e. may cause incontence, madness, vampirism, zombification, loss of libido, suicidal thoughts, annoyance at flowers etc.
posted by sien at 1:44 AM on November 6, 2011 [44 favorites]

Someone once posted here about different dishwashing behaviour - that in Europe/UK dishes are soaped and set out to dry whereas in the US it's customary to rinse the detergent off before drying.
I'm in/from the UK and we were always taught to rinse before putting them on the drying rack... I don't do it, except for glasses but I just figured that was because I'm lazy. I'm not sure its a 'thing' that people here don't rinse.

The biggest differences for me:

You can turn right when the light is red
Price tags in shops don't always include sales tax.
Coins - quarter is obvious, nickels have 5 written on them but dimes just say One Dime (or they did last time I was there) - as a tourist, how am I supposed to know what that's worth?
You write your dates differently to everyone else in the world. (instead of dmy or ymd you have mdy). It made filling in our travellers cheques fun!
Your chocolate is nasty, a lot of people would say the same about your cheese but I happen to like 'cheese food product'
Too much choice when ordering food - I'm English you get what you're given and you'll like it! Going in to a subway late at night was a bad idea... all I wanted was a cheese sandwich.... so many questions. Same thing at breakfast, I ordered fried eggs and toast... fried eggs have kinds?
So very many adverts, I don't know how you can even follow your TV programs when there are so many interruptions
And speaking of TV - 'mid-season' break - wtf is that about? (a lot of shows have started showing here in the same week as they air in the US and they stop halfway through, without explanation for months at a time. Most recently, Glee showed 3 episodes and then stopped for a month)
The width of roads is just frightening!
posted by missmagenta at 1:56 AM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm Canadian, and it's weird that Smarties in the USA are not these candy-coated chocolates, but these chalky pill shaped things. The first link says that the Smarties found in Europe are the same as the ones found in Canada.

My husband is Norwegian and has visited the States many times, including a summer internship in California. Many of the things he finds strange about the States are things that he finds weird about North America in general, but I'll list them anyway:

- 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.

- Tipping as an obligation. He doesn't understand why restaurants don't pay servers a better wage and do away with tipping altogether.

- Stop signs everywhere, especially four-way stops. He finds roundabouts much more efficient and sensible.

- The size of the vehicles, and enormity of the engines. People who purchase trucks just because they like the look of them, not because they actually need the trucks for work.

- Flags on everything. In Norway, flags fly on government buildings and they get out their little flags on their national day and maybe on some other very important holidays. But in the USA, flags fly from atop Walmarts, they're stuck on bumpers, etc.

- Almost everything stays open on Sundays, and most stores and restaurants are open even on holidays.

- Bathroom doors are so small and leave huge gaps from the floor and ceiling.

- Things like socialized medicine and gay rights are still such. a. big. deal. in the States, and that many people so frightened of social progress ruining America, when it's been done already in so many other countries and everything did not go to hell in a handbasket.

- There isn't a pedestrian area in city centers where you can stroll between shops and cafes and not worry about getting run over by a bus.

- General ignorance about other places and cultures, and how awful many native English speakers are at reading/writing/speaking their one and only language, yet have little tolerance for non-native speakers who may speak several other languages.

- Portion sizes of food. He is obsessed with Cheesecake Factory, and is really upset that they have not expanded their restaurants to Canada. Every time we go to Seattle, he insists that we must go to Cheesecake Factory, where he marvels at how many things are on the menu and how huge the plates of food are. Olive Garden's endless salad and breadsticks did not appease him.

- That the BAC limit for drunk driving is so high. To this day, he refuses to get behind the wheel after having only one beer.
posted by keep it under cover at 1:56 AM on November 6, 2011 [17 favorites]

American eggs are surprisingly, extremely, wait-this-came-from-a-chicken? pale in contrast to the brownish-pink eggs we have in the UK (and anywhere else I've seen in Europe).
posted by Catseye at 2:18 AM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm surprised no one has mentioned the volume of sound in everyday conversations. I had to train myself to shout (I felt) after a month of being talked over. I actually only noticed when I overheard a colleague say "the new Brit seems a good guy but really quiet". I also had to slow down my speech to a surprising degree, and on several occasions had to resort to American pronunciation to get stuff done (quarter/"corder" was the most common).

A few other things - ATMs that sometimes give you cash before giving your card back cause Europeans to lose their card in the machine at least once in the first month; half-and-half ("this milk is awesome!") and the lock-open position on gas pumps which is disabled on UK pumps (not sure about the rest of the EU) by law.
posted by cromagnon at 2:25 AM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: My one visit to the U.S. confirmed the thought in my head that Americans ate way too much. The fact that you have defibrillators in your malls? Yeah. Oh, and one Filipino restaurant I passed by on Glendale had this sign - "1 serving good for 1-2 Americans or 3-4 Filipinos". Serving sizes are way too big; that's from an Asian perspective, at least. Don't know if a European sees it the same way.
posted by micketymoc at 2:42 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Brit living in LA for 11 years:

undertaking on the freeway, right on red, absolutely no idea how to "zipper merge" (could be just an LA thing though)

jaywalking - seriously - you're going to ticket me for crossing the road?

really big single-ethnicity ghetto neighborhoods

restaurant health ratings right on the window in CA (yay!)

smog check stations.

really crispy and very thin bacon. yeucch!

maple syrup and icing sugar on everything at breakfast. sweet/sugary breakfasts in general.

Thanksgiving being as big as or bigger than xmas.

miniscule amount of paid vacation per year

in god we trust, religious society

more than three lanes on the motorway / freeway

many Americans I have met really cannot distinguish between UK/Australian/South African(!) accents. They cannot understand the Scots AT ALL. I had heard that Trainspotting was subtitled in America before I came here, but thought it was apocryphal anti-US propaganda. Wrong.

soda refills that you do yourself.

people in shops, restaurants and public places shouting their personal business to one another for all the world to eavesdrop on. This DOES NOT HAPPEN in the UK.

you can't drink alcohol in a car here. Even if you are just a passenger.

ooh - swearing (cursing) - Americans seem to loathe it. The workplace is far more straight-laced than what I was used to in the UK. Suppose it's the still pervasive puritan influence, hard at work.

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.

Very few Americans know the meaning of "cheeky"

customer service in the UK is almost non-existent. Here people will actually respond to complaints (and praise!) and you will probably be able to return things you have bought. Not so much in England.

Portion distortion. Meals in restaurants are bloody huge. Took me a while to learn to leave stuff on my plate so I wouldn't get fat, having been brought up in a fairly typical austerity/frugality themed household in the UK.

Can I get a box for that? Taking home your restaurant leftovers is totally normal here.

Lots of Spanish prompts on telephone menus.

Tipping. It's de facto required here. Even if the service was crap. Which it usually isn't.

In the US, cops aren't there to help or ask directions from. They are there to ticket you or arrest you. At least that is the overwhelming perception they manage to give off.

no diphthongs or circumflexes or other fun linguistic marks.

paying for gas before you fill up. How are you supposed to know how much you need in advance if paying cash?
posted by juiceanddoom at 3:08 AM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

That Americans are generally alot more comfortable with talking to strangers
Absolutely. And very friendly as well. 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.
posted by joost de vries at 3:31 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is from the perspection of a British person visiting Texas.

American lemonade is brilliant stuff. In the UK if you ask for lemonade you get Sprite. Bleh. In the US you get something close to proper cloudy lemonade.

The fact that things get priced in round numbers and then have tax added on top, which makes it impossible to give exact change unless you know the rate of tax and do the sum in your head. This leads to you ending up with lots of coins, which leads me onto...

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.

I find tipping culture very difficult.

American drivers are far more likely to stop and let a pedestrian cross the road, even when there is no marked crossing. Possibly due to the novelty of seeing someone on foot.

The US seems to have far more of an eating-out culture than the UK. Restaurants are everywhere.

Bald assertions of American exceptionalism.

The roads are just huge. A dual carriageway/divided highway is a big road in the UK, but it's every other street in Texas. Never have I seen so many huge, multi-level junctions.
posted by Urtylug at 3:58 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I was shocked to find that hired help is not the norm in such a wealthy nation. When I was a kid I thought all Americans had a butler, a housemaid and a cook.

Other things that threw me for a loop:

No uniforms for public schools and even some private schools

Unless you live in a big metro area, if you don't drive or at least have a car, you'll be hard put to get food or other necessities

Tipping is expected even if the service wasn't exceptional

Sales tax varies by state - quite frustrating whe you happen to be visiting and picking up a few things

How so few natural-born Americans speak other languages or even have passports

The gap between the bathroom stall door and the floor (seriously, WTF?)

Eating on the run - cup holders in cars, drive-thrus everywhere

Having to be employed just to have insurance or pay through the nose to get it on your own

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, gold digger, etc.

Lack of vacation days (guess that explains the lack of passports?)

Quantity over quality, especially with food (large portions of unhealthy food, buffet restaurants, buying in bulk)

How faith or religion of some sort is tied into everything - will there ever be an atheist or agnostic president?

Ads for drugs/medications

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; also the safety net for such ones that might as well not exist (one illness or layoff can put you out on the streets)
posted by Anima Mundi at 4:16 AM on November 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

Two things that a non-USAan friend mentioned to me after spending a year studying in the States:

- 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.

- There is a huge culture of self-help / self-improvement.
posted by seriousmoonlight at 4:18 AM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Homeless people. But I've only visited San Francisco and apparently there's more services there for them there than in other posts of the country, so there's more?

Under 21's can't drink in their own homes. Seriously? Not even a glass of wine with dinner?

Oh yes. The cash before cards thing at ATMs. And showing id when you're paying with credit cards.

Having to say warder to get a bottle of water. Me and the girl in that coffee shop could've been there a long, long time if I hadn't once had a conversation about the punctuation of water with an american flatmate.

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.

Huge cars.
posted by Helga-woo at 4:57 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Exclamations from my French fiancee:

-Tipping, closely connected to...
-The service expected and delivered at commercial institutions in the U.S. is a continuing source of amazement. We've mused that this is tied to tipping, but it's found equally in non-tipping establishments, and is connected to...
-Public-facing employees generally seeing to enjoy their jobs.

-American flags everywhere
-Windows that only open straight up (and not in/out)
-The abundance of very good teeth
posted by benbenson at 5:11 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Even educated people don't know how to use knife and fork properly. Everything is cut into pieces and then forks is switched to right hand and everything is just scooped into mouth.
posted by zeikka at 5:11 AM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think most of these are covered already but just in case:

Turn right on red (being honked at as a driver, frightened as a pedestrian).

Lack of sidewalks, even within large shopping malls (I have to drive in from the street? I have to DRIVE between buildings in the same complex?!)

People in New York really are brash and rude.

The sheer amount of SPACE there is, outside major cities.

Flags, pledge of allegiance, etc.

Largeness of cheap motel rooms.

Low price of cars, car hire, gas.

Portion sizes, FWIW, were not a surprise.
posted by dickasso at 5:44 AM on November 6, 2011

A few more things, some repeated from above:

The American sweet tooth continues to astound me. I have never seen such an amount of cakes, cookies and pastries being consumed on a daily basis. Very often, it seems to me, the same exact thing can be renamed and it is now an acceptable breakfast item i.e. muffins. People just seem to go from one sweet fix to the next, along with consuming astounding quantities of caffeine.

Gigantic drink sizes -- seriously, if I drink that much soda during one movie, I'm going to have to pee in the middle and probably wind up with diabetes at some point in the near future as well. Speaking of movie theaters, people eat candy(!) in movie theaters -- why??

The overwhelming obsession with hygiene often gets to me. The toilets at my university automatically flush. This wastes insane amounts of water, because it goes off at the least movement, so sometimes it will accidentally flush a couple of times unnecessarily. It would be more sensible to just institute some sort of refractory period on the sensors, so that if you've just flushed, another flushing would require pressing the little black button yourself. But no, that would just be unhygienic. Along the same lines, paper wrappers on straws, antibacterial cleanser everywhere and so on.

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.

I would also reiterate that customer service people here must be super well trained or something, because 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.
posted by peacheater at 5:45 AM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

there is 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.
posted by krautland at 5:47 AM on November 6, 2011 [27 favorites]

My Spanish friend was amazed at all the houses made out of wood in New England.

So many things like sales tax and traffic laws vary from state-to-state, especially in the East where states are smaller and you're likely to be crossing borders more often. "How are you supposed to know?"
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:04 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Food size. By which I mean not portion size at restaurants, but size of things like fruit or turkeys. And how easy it was to shop at absurd hours (the full grocery store was open at 3 am! I was a big fan of this). The assumption that people should be very mobile for a job (though perhaps this is less surprising for an immigrant).
posted by jeather at 6:06 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

It might also help to say where in europe the character is from. Not all differences will be relevant. (eg. Candy in movie theatres wouldn't be surprising for someone from england and the lemonade thing wouldn't be for someone from many parts of mainland europe where they have the same thing)
posted by missmagenta at 6:06 AM on November 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Missmagenta is bang on.

Within the question there is a hint of one quirk that your character will most likely encounter, namely the tendency of Americans to refer to 'Europe' as if it is a single fairly culturally and socially homogeneous area which its inhabitants identify with.

In reality, your character will most likely think of himself firstly as belonging to a particular nation, secondly a region or city (though those two might be reversed) and only after that as a European. The first time an American asks him about some aspect of 'European' attitudes or customs, he will find it hard to answer, since he probably isn't familiar with every European country and even if he is, there isn't a lot to link Albania, Switzerland, Sweden and Portugal.

Note that this also means you will need to double-check that the American quirks you finally choose are not normal in the specific part of Europe your character is from. Many of the examples given above are not common in most European countries, but some are particular to particular countries. For example, there are plenty of places in Europe where plates are rinsed after washing, goods are sold with an 'honesty box', diners share food in restaurants, electrical sockets have no switches, most people speak one language, pupils don't wear school uniforms, there are homeless people on the streets etc.

You should also be careful about some suggestions above which are indeed differences, but are fairly widely known about the USA. For example, most people have heard that the portions there are huge and that people drive everywhere in a lot of places. However, the reality of it can still be astonishing; despite having heard a lot about huge servings, I remember being amazed that my partner and I couldn't finish a single starter and main course between us.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 6:13 AM on November 6, 2011 [23 favorites]

American here, but since I went to the Netherlands this summer, there's one thing here at home that I never thought about before but that now seems Very Very Weird to me: checkout clerks in the grocery store do their work standing, not sitting.
posted by JanetLand at 6:18 AM on November 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

Entrée means the main course?!?
posted by Tom-B at 6:32 AM on November 6, 2011 [20 favorites]

As an American ex-pat, been living in western Europe for over a decade, I'd like to nth a few things said already.

- The surfeit of choice is something I find more and more astounding with every trip back. Not only in supermarkets and restaurants, but in bars, expresso bars, bagel and breakfast places. I get positively flummoxed when faced with what is on offer in the States and how it may be combined. This may also be partly down to the organization of all that information.

- Americans waiting in line is just preternatural! Recently, waiting for a bus from dc to philly, there was no waiting area or anything foreseen (one of those bus companies that doesn't use stations). 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 strectched back. It gave one faith in the waiting process, brought the stressiness of the sitch way way down.

- 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.

- 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).

- 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.

- The mediative-state or torpor inducing languor of driving on [most] U.S. interstates [ok, not i95], 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. yet with this, amazement at the umpteenth speed trap you've passed and the road-rage frustration you have at the fact that not one, but three cars are boxing you out in lanes on both the left and the right.
posted by rudster at 6:33 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. I should have known this from film and tv shows but the long single rings of the (landline) telephone surprised me (two shorter rings in the UK).

2. Paying cash for a c. $150 total at a supermarket (Safeway in the Watergate complex) was seen as suspicious. The manager was called to okay it!

3. I had been very keen to try Oreos... woah, I don't think I've ever eaten a more foul tasting biscuit cookie.

4. Loved being able to take the remainder of my restaurant meal home to eat the next day.

5. Being greeted so warmly by sales staff in smaller boutiques. The first couple of times I genuinely looked behind me to see who they were talking to, thinking a friend of theirs had come in after me.

6. The price of books. Oh good Lord, the price of books. I cry a little when I remember the low, low, low cost of books.
posted by humph at 6:34 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Police, fire, and ambulance sirens sound different.

Having bag boys pack your groceries at the supermarket (it was pack-your-own in Germany). Paper grocery bags in addition to plastic.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:39 AM on November 6, 2011

Oh, yes, having groceries packed in the supermarket. A friend who came to live in the UK frequently caused mayhem in Waitrose by just standing there, waiting for her groceries to be packed, while the checkout assistant put item after item through the till, letting everything pile up.
posted by essexjan at 6:42 AM on November 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Four-way stops also flummoxed me. As a UK driver I'm used to roundabouts where you know who has right of way. Working out who has right of way at a four-way stop is a recipe for an accident. (In Ohio, it appears, the truck with the biggest tyres tires has right of way.)
posted by essexjan at 6:45 AM on November 6, 2011

As a UK driver I'm used to roundabouts where you know who has right of way.

As an American driver in the UK, I had no idea who had the right of way in roundabouts!

One thing I'd never considered before driving elsewhere was the huge amount of text-based road signs we have in the U.S. Every mile or so you're barraged with information about the speed limit, the next exit, the name or route number of the road you're on, and other miscellaneous information. In the UK you can drive for miles with no signs at all, and when you do see them they're likely to just be symbols of some sort.
posted by something something at 6:49 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From my Australian perspective:

The traffic lights are different.
Those yellow school buses from the movies are everywhere.
The water in the toilet is frighteningly high up in bowl.
The moon looks different.
Squirrels were everywhere in Savannah, Georgia. They were everywhere in Chicago, too. Those cute little Chip 'n Dale type squirrels.
People talk about Christianity a LOT.
Customs people, security officers and the police are incredibly poe-faced.
I was startled by the broadness of the accents when they're everywhere around you.
posted by h00py at 6:49 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In the UK, if you're stranded somewhere without a car, you might call a close family member for a lift but if not then you'd probably get the bus or call a taxi, depending on your finances. On American tv programmes, people are constantly calling their friends to come and pick them up. I thought it was just a tv thing but I had a conversation about it with an American girl once and she told me that a lot of smaller towns don't really do taxis and most people don't get the bus.

Texting. In the UK, you pay to send a text (or, probably, it comes out of your monthly allowance) but receiving them is free. In the US, it seems you have to pay to receive a text someone has sent you?

The volume of conversations seems a lot higher in the States. The Americans I know are all lovely people but they do tend to talk very loudly.

A lot of homes and hotel rooms don't seem to have kettles for boiling water. In the UK and in much of Europe, most hotel rooms will have tea/coffee-making facilities with a kettle.
posted by badmoonrising at 6:50 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Those cute little Chip 'n Dale type squirrels. those would be chipmunks ;)
posted by missmagenta at 6:59 AM on November 6, 2011 [16 favorites]

I'd like to share a story from an American perspective that gives an example of the difference in customer service.

I was in the Netherlands, at a nice restaurant with two people from Norway, one person from Italy, one person from France, several people from the UK, and several Dutch people. We all placed our orders, and one of the Norwegians ordered a steak medium-rare. When served, it was clear that they had overcooked the steak to well-done. He called over the waitress.

The waitress told him that he was wrong -- the steak was cooked correctly, the way steak should be cooked. Being an American, I suggested that we speak with the manager (because how could the customer be wrong and that steak was almost burnt!). The manager came over. The other American and I thought we knew what would happen -- of course his meal would be comped for the inconvenience, whisked away, and replaced with a new steak. Maybe even a free dessert or glass of wine, too, since it was a nice restaurant. Nope! The manager berated the Norwegian for the way he prefers his beef cooked and informed us that if we didn't like it, we could go to another restaurant. The other American and I grabbed our purses because of course we were leaving? Nope! He looked chastened, and proceeded to eat the shoe leather that was his steak. Nobody else at the table (except the other American) seemed to understand that this was terribly, terribly wrong (to our expectations).
posted by Houstonian at 7:04 AM on November 6, 2011 [16 favorites]

Grocery store packing. First time I packed my own groceries in the U.S. the clerk looked at me as if I were insane.

Billboards--I hate them.

High school sports: my local high school charges money to see them play (American) football and the games are recorded and reported on TV.

Churches in the phone book. I just counted and there are thirty-four categories of churches in the phone book with many churches in each category.

What others have said about the police.

Walking across the road in the wrong place can be a crime.
posted by idb at 7:10 AM on November 6, 2011

The penchant Americans seem to have for talking over one another. Honestly, I can't parse what the other person is saying when I'm trying to formulate a sentence of my own.

The volume at which Americans talk.

The customer service thing, that others have mentioned. When WalMart first came to Ottawa, they had greeters at the front of the store as they do in the states. Patrons recoiled at the aggressiveness of the greeters. It was very in-your-face to us.
posted by LN at 7:16 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine from the UK was amazed to hear that in the US a fair percentage of the houses are made out of wood (and that we build actually nice, acceptable houses out of wood.)
posted by geegollygosh at 7:17 AM on November 6, 2011

the round things that mark highway lanes

Like a lot of the comments here, these are state-specific, a feature of roads in California (and they're named Bott's Dots, after their inventor). That wikipedia article says they’re used elsewhere, but I've only seen ’em in the Golden State. And

ATMs that sometimes give you cash before giving your card back

This must be bank-specific; I’ve had accounts with several and never known an ATM that didn't return the card until after you've retrieved your cash. Of course, you may then forget, and depart before retrieving your card; the ATM then waits a bit and eventually sucks the card back inside. 
posted by Rash at 7:18 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You've got a lot of stuff here already, I guess (although much of it seems like stuff I knew from TV programs and films before I came here; anything that relates to Americans being patriotic/religious/fat/wasteful of resources etc. will inevitably come across as pretty cliched). One "small" thing that surprised me when I got here was the weird complexity of American bath plumbing. There's never anything so simple as just a plug to put in the plughole. No! Instead there will be a little lever you deploy or a little button you push or something. There's never just a separate set of taps for the shower (or a dedicated shower mixer). No, you'll have to pretend you're filling the bath and then (if you're new to the bathroom in question) spend a few minutes figuring out whether you need to pull up a little plunger on top of the bath faucet or turn a third tap handle or pull down a little ring on the end of the bath faucet or maybe sacrifice a goat to the gods of plumbing in order to get the water to come out of the shower head.

I had certainly never in my life experienced a bathroom where having a shower involved solving a puzzle of any kind before coming to the US.

Oh, and while we're in the bathroom, the enormous swimming=pool like quantities of water in US toilets was impressive the first time I saw it as a kid--but I think these days I'd have seen enough US loos on film/TV (they were shown more rarely when I was a kid) that that wouldn't be a surprise.
posted by yoink at 7:22 AM on November 6, 2011 [18 favorites]

My wife has been to the States several times now, but she still isn't used to several things. We took her parents to meet my family a couple years ago. For my mother-in-law, it was her first trip out of Japan, and for my father-in-law, it was his first trip outside of Asia.

The highways astounded them, as did the speed we drive at. In Japan, the posted limit on the highways is much, much lower than in the States (or Illinois at least). The size of houses, and of yards was amazing to them. My aunt who we were staying with lived in a townhouse, but one that dwarfed their house back in Japan. All of te grass everywhere was a bit of a shock. My wife, when she and I took a road trip to see family in Kalamazoo, was pretty stunned by how vast the Midwest is, with all of the farms and spaces between cities.

Physicality is dramatically different as well. A lot is made about personal space in America, but people are still very touchy-feely, as my f-i-l found out when, as a way of saying hello, a female friend of the family gave him a massive bear hug when they first met. That we called her Aunt mystified them a well, since she wasnt actually a family member.

And of course, food sizes, the size of people in general (the, uh, fatness. It's nice to come home and feel relatively normal, even smaller than other people for a while), sizes of clothes, variety of food and choice thereof in the supermarket. Of course, coming from Japan, the customer service isn't nearly as good, yet in America there's a great deal more warmth in the transaction than there is in general in Japan.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:23 AM on November 6, 2011

Grocery store packing. First time I packed my own groceries in the U.S. the clerk looked at me as if I were insane.

This is very site/store specific. Some stores expect you to pack your own, and others expect you to wait for a guy (the bagger) to go from checkout to checkout and bag your groceries. I go to a grocery that still does the "we'll put it in this numbered bin and shove it out out on the runners to a boy outside who will meet your car at the curb and load your trunk for you" routine.
posted by RedEmma at 7:29 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Things I've found moving from Australia to US so not sure if super relevant for a European.

Americans are not as friendly as they think they are. This could simply be coming from small town Australia, which is pretty damn friendly. ie whenever I planned to do errands I had to mentally allow time for the chatting with people that would happen. I've tried starting conversations in say a supermarket line or waiting room like I would back home and all I've gotten is strange looks. Maybe compared to people in Europe they would seem it though I don't have a lot of experience with traveling in Europe.

Prayers at company events. A woman praying before taking my blood for a blood test (2 different women 2 different times). God everywhere, Australians are pretty secular though.

People not realizing that a lot of the rest of the world puts the day first then the month, so when I first got here someone asked me if we had 17 months in Australia when they saw my drivers license.

Getting tripped up all the time by certain words. I've had to explain to people that yes to me it's a Supermarket Trolley not a cart, It's a fence paling not a picket. (took me 10 minutes to get what I needed to repair a fence as the guy at Lowes just kept looking at me blankly like he could not for the life of him work out what I could be explaining). My BIL still teases me about the word fortnight.

Money all the same colour is a pain. I liked just being able to grab what note I needed without having to double check. (Australian money has very distinctly coloured denominations). Also guys why is your 10c smaller than your 5c took me ages to stop giving dimes out as nickels.

People in the part of the midwest I am living now don't honestly meet a lot of foreigners so get flustered thinking I am going to do something weirdly foreign and they won't know what to do (I think this relates to Midwesterners putting a big store on manners and not wanting to be put in a situation where they won't know the polite thing to do. I have been introduced to people from as wider ranging places as India, Mexico, Trinidad and Italy with what seemed the assumption as we were all from this strange place called "overseas" we'd all know each other or have something in common.

BTW not meaning to sound bitchy about any of this. For the most part I find it cute and half the fun of living in another country and love my new homeland. As I was exposed to so much US culture via TV/Movies before moving here I thought I knew so much and would just fit in, I didn't realist that people here would not be as exposed to other cultures. It is always the little things that trip me up, not being able to think of the American word when faced with a blank stare gets tiring fast, especially as I had thought we all spoke English.

I now live in a small town deep in the Midwest I am sure there would not be so many problems in a bigger city on the coast.

I have a million more little "stories" of misunderstandings etc if you want more feel free to memail me.
posted by wwax at 7:36 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm an expat in China for several years, and China is obviously different from the European viewpoint you are looking for, but here are some things I have noticed that seem very "American" (also based on observation and talking to Europeans). :

-American sweet tooth: Chinese eat many fewer sweets and even the sweets they do eat are not as sweet as American desserts and candy.

-Americans are often friendly and proactively helpful to strangers, smile and make small talk. This is not so true in China, not sure about Europe.

-I really notice the largeness of American bodies when I go home.

-I've heard some people say (Europeans too) that Americans seem overly friendly to those they don't know to the point where it rings false to them.

-Sizes of food in packaging are much larger in American than in China, even for American brands. (huge candy bars and potato chip bags don't exist here)

-Casual dress: It's easy to spot American here; they will be the ones wearing sneakers and jeans or shorts.

-peanut butter and jelly: uniquely American
posted by bearette at 7:37 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Which university did you go to?"

I've never met an American who talked about their university. In my experience they talk about their college meaning university which is different vs.what college means in Canada.
posted by dismitree at 7:45 AM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

From a Frenchie:

That people can eat anything at any time. A full meal at any time, even 3 in the afternoon! Mac and cheese for breakfast!

That people will leave the house in pajamas and sweats. It's not that people aren't fashionable, just that sometimes they don't care.

The pervasiveness of religion. Europeans know that Americans are religious, but you don't get a sense for how pervasive it is. Everyone mentions God all the time like it ain't no thing. People would lose their jobs over that in France!
posted by ohio at 7:45 AM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

wwax's story about the paling/picket reminds me of the time I went to our local supermarket trying to buy what I call "clothes pegs" but Americans call "clothespins." I still remember the utterly blank look on the poor assistant's face as I asked him where the "clothes pegs" were: a blank look that remained as I explained that they were things you used to hang up clothes to dry ("you know, with a little spring in them that clips the clothes to the line?"). When he finally twigged he took me to the place where they "might" be. The store didn't sell them.

Given that hanging out your washing to dry is illegal (no joke) in this city, I guess I should have been prepared for that, but it did kinda blow my mind.
posted by yoink at 7:50 AM on November 6, 2011

Best answer: 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.

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.

And the obvious one: 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'.
posted by jack_mo at 8:17 AM on November 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

On candy:

US Milky Way == UK Mars Bar.
UK Milky Way == US Three Musketeers

It seems almost deliberately constructed to confuse British tourists.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:18 AM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Also guys why is your 10c smaller than your 5c took me ages to stop giving dimes out as nickels

Our coins used to actually be made out of precious metals. Nickels were originally made out of the metal nickel; which is less valuable than silver, so it took a larger amount to be half the value of a dime.
posted by spaltavian at 8:18 AM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I dont think these are here already but;
Parking cars all the same direction on each side of the road
Red Solo Cups at parties etc
Take a penny ; Give a penny for change
Free pouring liquor in any bar ( non Vegas )
Being able to easily buy a keg of beer
Beaches have opening and closing times ( Sate beaches ); police enforced
posted by stuartmm at 8:20 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

the carriers not only use different frequencies but are different standards, and they can't talk to each other--so that if I am on AT&T, but they have no coverage where I am, but Verizon do, I can't use my phone? (This is just an impression i'm getting from reading questions about cellphones.) If I've got this right, I think this would be a serious weirdness.

Here in the US we have two standards for cell phones: GSM, like in Europe (though we use a different set of frequencies), and which is used by AT&T and T-Mobile; and CDMA, which is different (no SIM card etc) and which is used by Verizon and Sprint. Different smaller carriers will use one or the other. Sometimes you can roam on the networks of other carriers that use the same technology, sometimes not, depending on the deals the companies have with one another.
posted by dhens at 8:35 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

God, yes, I and another (also foreign) friend were caught out by the opening and closing time for swimming at the local lake. We went there a bit after dark and were paddling and swimming in the shallow water near the shore only to be sternly told to get out of there by park officials who drove around making sure everything was fine, before closing up for the night. I found it rather ridiculous -- this was a placid calm lake and we were hardly engaging in reckless behavior.

When swimming is allowed, it's in a carefully fenced off area, that tells you exactly how deep the water is at each point, with diving boards (!) and lifeguards(!!) and a toddler pool (!!!). It takes all the fun out of outdoor swimming for me.

Even when we went camping, we went towards the end of the summer season and were informed that no swimming was allowed any more since the lifeguards were back in college and the season was almost over. We swum all the same, in this amazingly beautiful crystal clear water (in the thousand islands area) with fish literally all around us -- would have been a shame to miss out on that and I was perfectly fine with the risk level.
posted by peacheater at 8:35 AM on November 6, 2011

Response by poster: Some great answers, here, y'all, though I confess to scratching my head a bit about how Americans being fat and ignorant are a widely known stereotypes and yet our portion sizes and lack of passports remain consistently shocking.

Also, Catseye --- New England has a regional preference for brown eggs over white. You can get both but there's more brown. If you're that homesick for a dark egg.

Also: The moon looks different.

Really? How so?
posted by Diablevert at 8:48 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

The things that come to mind when my European friends visit and after living in Europe for a while:

The sheer volume of selection at the grocery store. And not just the different kinds of food, the 27 different kinds of rice, 45 kinds of soda, entire aisles dedicated to slight variations of a single product (here I'm thinking of the bottled water aisle in my local supermarket).

Stores like Wal-Mart or Target where you can buy everything you need for a week. It was a tremendous relief to go to Target again after spending Saturdays running all over the city for all the bits and bobs we needed.

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.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:53 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding Ghostride the Whip -- 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".

Surprised no one has mentioned this: no CCTV monitoring on public streets, but occasionally "smile, you're on camera" anti-shoplifting signs at stores.
posted by andhowever at 8:57 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of things that people have said above, but the thing that amazed me the most was going to places, large places, that have no center.

If you want a funny look, stop someone in Boca Raton and ask them where the main street is.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:58 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and fitness! Everyone is expected to have SOME kind of regular fitness activity. It's considered part of being a responsible adult.

(But people will drive two miles to their gym and run on the treadmill. . .)
posted by andhowever at 8:59 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a lifelong American, but one thing that's really stood out for me about the perceptions of foreigners that I think some are confused about is that the US is gigantic and in some ways, very very diverse.

A lot of these observations about the US are pretty foreign to me, too, despite having lived in several different parts of the country. I am lolwutting some of these observations as much as any Norwegian is.

Observations about the food, culture, dress, and social rules that apply in one area of the country do not necessarily apply to others. You can often identify people from out of state just based on the way they dress or drive.

The thing I've seen non-Americans struggle over the most is the scope of influence of local government. Our local (state, and even city or other municipality) governments have a lot of power and influence over day to day life, so there's no one standard for how US law enforcement, zoning, city planning and traffic management, utilities, animal control, and public works are run. Liquor laws, trash pickup, and even criminal laws might seem just as bizarre and foreign to someone from the next state or city over as they are to someone living halfway across the world.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:59 AM on November 6, 2011 [29 favorites]

Billboards. I'm from Canada, I'm used to billboards, but in the US there seems to be so many more of them, and larger, and taller! Not to mention signs for restaurants, etc off the highway that are several stories higher than the building itself (I guess so you can see it from a long way off). Also billboards for purely religious messages.
Also, your iced tea is unsweetened, even in McDonalds, which I adore. Absolutely adore.
posted by sandraregina at 9:00 AM on November 6, 2011

The banking system feels clunky and antiquated to anyone who is used to seamless one-day electronic banking. Which explains the next point which is how often people use credit cards. Oh, and the first time someone showed me their wallet with eleven credit cards in it I nearly fell over.

With food one huge difference to me is making things from scratch, like pancake batter or cakes. But also other things like risotto or soup, people seem surprised that I would even bother when you can buy these already made.

Simple things seem very complex here. Buying a car - I thought once I had chosen a car and agreed a price that the hard work was done. But instead of the five minutes of contract-signing I expected, I had to sit in the dealership for four hours meeting various people and signing different pieces of paper. (Paying cash, not financed).

On the other hand when I found out I could buy a gun without a licence, I thought that some simple things could do with being made more complex.

Online shopping is deliriously easy here.

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.

That I have a checkbook after 19 years of not needing one.


Tipping feels bizarre and a little scary outside of restaurants. Tipping parking attendants or manicurists is challenging - apparently I am uncomfortable handing money to people for tips. In restaurants when I can leave it on the table it feels much easier.

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 number of different taxes that are taken out of your paycheck.

Fruit as part of a savory meal - like fruit in a chicken salad, or on the side of a meat plate.

This might be a California thing - but taco places EVERYWHERE.
posted by yogalemon at 9:04 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jeez, this thread is hot! And fascinating.

Also: The moon looks different.
Really? How so?

For someone from the southern hemisphere, it's upside down.

My 2 cents ... (Australian) .... many of the things that have already been said (huge meals, bottomless coffee, turning on red lights, high water in toilets), but I'll add... fractions in petrol/gas costs. xx and 7/8ths of a cent per gallon? Really? It's all decimal here.
posted by Diag at 9:04 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Just remembered something else from my trip to Texas. I only took $100 in US cash (and about another $200 in GBP), intending to change the rest at the airport when I arrived - of course after the first leg of the flight I went straight through to check the status of my connecting flight and was then in the 'domestic' part of the airport (a concept I was not familiar with) with no bureau de change (and no idea how to ask for one - I still don't know what you call them). And then most of that $100 was wiped out by the taxi ride to the hotel. I knew it would be more than in the UK but I wasn't expecting it to be so much more (not because taxis charge more - it was just a really, really long way!)
posted by missmagenta at 9:09 AM on November 6, 2011

"Sir", "Maam", and "Miss" are disconcertingly formal when used in almost all customer–service situations.
posted by Jehan at 9:18 AM on November 6, 2011

Stores have their own parking lot and you cannot run errands in medium towns without driving between different shops.

The people in passport control the airport and the people in the highway toll booth wear disposable, bright blue latex gloves and use huge quantities of antiseptic gel.

You get your eyes scanned and your fingerprint taken to enter the states from Europe, but you can drive to Canada by merely waving your passport to the officers.

Shops have about 30% of the stock on sale, you never have to pay full price for anything.

Gas stations have about fifteen sorts of protein bars.
posted by ye#ara at 9:22 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't read the whole thread but a search tells me no mention of litigation or suing. I find that surprising.

I've noticed when visiting Europe there's essentially no "you almost hit me". People in America will stop dead in the middle of the street or shake their middle fingers at a perceived near-collision.

Other than that, the general fuck-up-ed-ness of everything. I can't wait to move to The Netherlands.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:23 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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. Take some of the weirder aspects of the American political scene, such as overwhelmingly private health care or the invisibility of the working class or of the general trend of people identifying with their work and their purchases: these make much more sense when you see them through that filter.

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.

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.

Of course, we all know that Americans switch their forks from hand to hand as they eat. The apocryphal story I've heard behind this tradition is that switching forks was a shibboleth during the Revolutionary War to indicate that you were a Colonist. Irrespective of whether or not this claim is true, I've heard his story at least twice, and either way, of course, switching forks is no more "correct" or "incorrect" than no switching forks.

You should pick up a book like Culture Shock: USA, which is targeted at people visiting or moving to the US from other countries. It's full of helpful hints such as "attention all Russians, don't grab men's legs when you're being friendly with them."

Americans are crazy about their lawns in suburbia. Chemlawn and all that crap. Landscaping is a big deal even among the middle class.

Plus: homeowners' associations are a "thing" in America.

I dont know if this is uniquely American or not, but I do like Zizek's observation that there are many consumer choices where charitable donations are bundled in to the purchase price, e.g. Project (Red).

I haven't read the whole thread but a search tells me no mention of litigation or suing. I find that surprising.

This is a very good point. 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.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:28 AM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Just dropping in to say that the turn-on-red thing is, like a lot of other stuff here, very regional. It may be illegal in a given state; it may be legal at some intersections, but not others if there's a sign that says "No turn on red." In San Francisco, you can turn left on a red light if the street you're turning left onto is one-way (with traffic going the direction you're turning, of course).

As with Europeans who get irritated when a non-European assumes that customs in Europe are the same across the region, Americans may find it irritating when non-Americans assume that what's common practice in Chicago is nearly unheard of in Spokane.
posted by rtha at 9:38 AM on November 6, 2011 [8 favorites]

> Uber friendly waitresses.

That's because pay in service industries is so low that tips are essential.

Other things include: light switches the wrong way up, unswitched power sockets that you can pull on the cable to remove the plug (what!?), low voltage domestic wiring that gets warm in use, being able to test if an electrical is hot with a tap of the fingers (do that in the UK = dead), hot/cold taps being unlabelled and the wrong way round, only mixer taps (eww, you drink out of the same outlet that hot water comes from?! bleargh) ...
posted by scruss at 9:39 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

We recently had some Brit visitors in our office. For lunch we ordered Chinese takeout. They were absolutely enthralled by the little Chinese takeout boxes. They were just like in the movies! They even took cell phone pictures of them to send back home I guess. They refused plates because they just HAD to eat straight out of the container.
posted by sanka at 9:43 AM on November 6, 2011 [11 favorites]

The "God" thing depends on the region. In New England, you might get somebody referencing the Big G, but it's going to be pretty rare and almost never in a workplace. This is something that as a New Englander, shocks me when I spend time in the South or Midwest. "Oh yes. The Bible Belt. Right. THAT."

As an American who has spent time abroad, the thing that takes me by surprise on re-entry every. single. time.: grocery stores. Even now, I find myself wandering the aisles sometimes looking for the four things I actually need and find myself thinking "NO ONE NEEDS ALL OF THIS!" My thoughts are quite often in all-caps. I am American after all.

The flags also shock me if I've been gone for more than a few weeks. Even now, sometimes I think the giant American flag's purpose is to remind me where I am - just in case I forgot.
posted by sonika at 9:44 AM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

They were absolutely enthralled by the little Chinese takeout boxes

Small joys but yeah, something so mundane to you seems near enough iconic to us. Our takeaways come in foil or plastic containers but in US TV shows they always seem to order chinese and they always come in those little boxes.
posted by missmagenta at 9:48 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Monolingual signage, and resentment of signage in other languages. In NYC, of course, you have signage in Spanish, Polish, and Chinese, among other languages, and no one cares, but whenever I travel to smaller cities or the suburbs, it's hard not to notice how everything is English-only.

Outside of diverse areas, there really is open, stated resentment of phone trees or official paperwork in other languages. Making English the official language of the US is actually a well-supported plank in some areas. Obviously, this is meant as a repudiation of (largely Spanish-speaking) immigrants.

This isn't necessarily uniquely American, but in some areas, if you're non-white, people will assume that you either do not speak English or that, if you do, you speak with an unintelligible accent, even if you obviously do not and are speaking to them right now this very second in English as clear as theirs.

Another observation: you will often be on a first name basis with your boss, even though obviously you are not your boss's "friend."
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:50 AM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Others have alluded to it but I'd like to make it explicit: many Americans have no notion of a "passing lane" and "cruising lane" on the highway. It's all to common to have a car enter the highway and immeadiately change to the leftmost lane, regardless of their speed or the need to pass slower traffic. Accordingly, it's also common to see people choose to (forced to?) pass on the right.

The notion of the left lanes being for passing is taught in a vague way in driver education classes, but no one takes it seriously. If you ask why, often the reason given is to avoid being slowed down by other cars entering the highway. This makes sense if US highways in fact have a lot more entrances than motorways in other countries.

But it drives me nuts.
posted by werkzeuger at 10:04 AM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lest these wind up in your story:

Having lived in Canada for 15 years now, I can't get over the cheque thing. Every time I'm back in the US it shocks me how often people pay with cheques. I cannot remember the last time I say somebody pay with a cheque in Canada.

It doesn't really seem like Americans use checks any more than Canadians. I haven't seen anyone in the U.S. write a check in a decade or so that wasn't: a gift to an individual, payment sent through the mail, or used as a deposit and not really intended to be cashed.

people are not that tall

Not really true. The U.S. is one of the taller countries in the world, and is a whopping 1 cm shorter than the Dutch.

Wall electrical sockets have no switches; just plug in and go.

That is not unique to the U.S. Electrical outlets in Germany don't have switches.

Sales tax not being included in the marked price on retail items. Gaah!

Also true for Canada.

Also, your iced tea is unsweetened, even in McDonalds, which I adore. Absolutely adore.

In the southern U.S., you have to ask for unsweetened ("unsweet") tea or they'll assume it should be sweet tea. Even at McDonalds.

That said, there are a number of things that, even from Canada, stand out: huge portion sizes, free refills, cheap gas (which everyone says is so expensive), cheap consumer goods, and American exceptionalism.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 10:06 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

The silly warnings on products to prevent lawsuits. When I moved here 15 years ago I was surprised by the warnings on soda bottles:

posted by L. Ron McKenzie at 10:11 AM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Not really true. The U.S. is one of the taller countries in the world, and is a whopping 1 cm shorter than the Dutch.

Not according to Wikipedia. Pretty much all the northern European countries (barring the UK) are taller, on average, than the US, and there is an average difference of two whole inches between Dutch men and US men. That is actually pretty striking.
posted by yoink at 10:14 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wall electrical sockets have no switches; just plug in and go.

That is not unique to the U.S. Electrical outlets in Germany don't have switches.

This will depend, of course, on where OP's character comes from, but it is certainly true that if you come (as I do) from country where ALL electrical outlets are switched it seems utterly bizarre that your only recourse to completely power something down is to pull the plug out of the socket.

Oh, and thinking of electricity (and this, too, will depend on the particular country your character hails from, OP), one classic "small thing" that you are not at all prepared for when you come to the US (or Canada) is that switches go UP for ON rather than down. That really is one of those things that seems intuitively "obvious" until you encounter a culture that does it the other way and then you suddenly realize that it is pure convention.
posted by yoink at 10:19 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

From a French perspective: the person who grins broadly at you for no discernable reason is more likely to be doing so because he is friendly than because he is simple.
posted by rongorongo at 10:23 AM on November 6, 2011 [20 favorites]

I'm Southern European. This is shameless stereotyping for the sake of illustration.

I had never heard of food allergies until I visited the US. I had never heard of food fads until I met American people. Organizing dinners with groups of american people can be a nightmare juggling of diet restrictions - including the ones motivated by religion in non-practicing people. In fact, as someone pointed above, everybody seems to be a bit too obsessed about chemical and nutritional properties of food especially if you take into account how few people seem to actually cook (from scratch).

Lack of critical judgment (or expression of). Everybody is satisfied with everything. I have the feeling that 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.

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.

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.

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.

Giving credit cards to people with no income.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 10:26 AM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

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.
posted by werkzeuger at 10:26 AM on November 6, 2011

On the upside, the readiness of American people to explain something to you or show you how some weird contraption or gadget works - things simple to a american but that a european might have never seen - without seemingly poke fun or look down at you is very heart warming. So, lack of cynicism and apparent moral generosity are the greatest American qualities as far as I'm concerned.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 10:31 AM on November 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

A lot of these observations about the US are pretty foreign to me, too, despite having lived in several different parts of the country.

Lest these wind up in your story...

I'm sure lots of Americans are feeling this way reading through the responses. Probably the poster is, too. However, it's interesting to see how one or a handful of interactions, or a brief period of time in only one area of the US, is interpreted as cause for a stereotype of all Americans. I don't mean that in a bad way -- we all do it when we travel and Americans even do it with Americans in other regions of the US. Maybe some of these that seem incorrect can make their way into the story as a stereotype that the character makes of all Americans (kind of like we see here).

I went to the grocery store and remembered a story told to me by a Dutch man. He was amazed about how the grocery cart system worked. At least in Houston, you pick up a cart at the store entrance, and leave it in a designated area of the parking lot or just anywhere in the lot (assuming the sacker didn't take your groceries out to your car for you -- another difference he mentioned), and store employees collect all the carts from the lot and move them back to the store front. He felt it was wasteful to pay employees to do this for customers, and that left the store open to the possibility of cart theft.

In the Netherlands, they insert a coin into a machine that releases a cart. If you return the cart to the machine, it returns your coin. Apparently you could sometimes cheat the machine by using a coin of a similar shape but from a country where it is worth much less, and then receive the correct amount back when you returned (thus making a few cents). I think he and I both learned something about each other's culture and customs that day as we both blinked at each other in amazement.
posted by Houstonian at 10:53 AM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

sonika: As an American who has spent time abroad, the thing that takes me by surprise on re-entry every. single. time.: grocery stores. Even now, I find myself wandering the aisles sometimes looking for the four things I actually need and find myself thinking "NO ONE NEEDS ALL OF THIS!" My thoughts are quite often in all-caps. I am American after all.

I have not spent time in grocery stores abroad. But I still find myself wandering around grocery stores thinking "HOW THE FUCK AM I SUPPOSED TO CHOOSE ONE OF THESE!" It doesn't help that I'm afraid of running into somebody I know while looking confusedly at all the toothpastes and being forced to make small talk with them, which is another thing we do in America.

Maybe America is not for me.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:18 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

My German cousins took photos of the handicap-enabled toilets before the took photos of the Golden Gate bridge - much to our amazement.

After they returned to Germany, one of my young cousins grilled me about our ADA laws and how they came into being. He entered and won a contest about things Germany and the US could learn from each other.
posted by rw at 11:44 AM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Not according to Wikipedia. Pretty much all the northern European countries (barring the UK) are taller, on average, than the US, and there is an average difference of two whole inches between Dutch men and US men.

Sorry, I misread the chart, but the difference between U.S. men and Dutch men is still less than an inch, according to Wikipedia. Not exactly an eye-catching difference.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 11:46 AM on November 6, 2011

Oooh, this is my speciality! Note that... my specialIty, not my specialty. :-)

As a Brit who has spent years in America, here are a few of the less-than obvious quirks (toMAYto, toMARto) I noticed.

1. Backward reading.



Those words, painted on the roads. You weird people do them the wrong way round. See, we Europeans are sensible. We write signs on the road the way we write words on a page. Top down. We write:



Well, we don't actually write "FIRE LANE", because we don't have "fire lanes" here. But that's the way we'd write the words on the road if we did.

2. The adverb thing. Why do you hate them so much?

I see an ad on the NYC subway. It's an ad for a college. It says "How bad do you want to be good?" And the fact that it says "bad" instead of "badly" hurts my British soul. And this is a college, for pity's sake! I have to admit, however, that this vile practice seems to be becoming accepted even here, amongst the younger generation. I fear it's a lost cause. But to people of my age, it still hurts like nails down a blackboard. I mean chalkboard. Whatever.

3. Man hugs. Woah. That seriously freaked me the fuck out. As a normal Brit male (insofar as such a thing is even possible) I feel frankly violated if a woman I don't know hugs me. If a man does it my flesh crawls like worms on LSD on a worm-patterned carpet. Don't touch me, man. Don't touch me. A "Hi, y'alright?" is perfectly adequate. This is nothing to do with any sort of homophobia or similar creepy unpleasantness. It's to do with what we see as decorum and appropriate interaction. Seriously. Respect my personal space.

4. Therapy. Yeah, I know you asked for non-cliches but seriously, this is major. You need to understand that this is extremely weird stuff to us. When we see our nice, normal-seeming American friends proposing therapy as the solution to all life's ills we get one of those moments where the words "alien culture" impinge forcefully on our consciousness. We really do. We start thinking things like "Oh for fuck's sake, toughen the hell up, sort yourself out and be an adult instead of making a charlatan rich by listening to you whine like a little baby." Oh, and then we get our American girlfriend to handcuff us to the bedpost so that we don't actually say things like that on AskMe and get ourselves banhammered. Probably.

5. Buy a coffee, have it endlessly refilled for no money. This is like magic heaven stuff to Brits.

6. Tipping bar staff. Bloody hell, that's weird. You just poured me a drink. That's your job, right? You want me to pay for that and give you a dollar? Is this some kind of Mafia shakedown?

Disclaimer: I get it. As I say, I've spent many, many years in the US. I am not that British lousy tipping guy. I am very generous. But it still seems wrong, and strange.

7. The whole puritan thing you guys have with alcohol. 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? That's just... why, that's damned near fascist, as far as I'm - I mean we're - concerned! 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? Lighten the hell up!

8. Your breakfast cereals. Man oh man. I walk into Key Foods or even Whole Foods and it's like a wall of "Chocolate sugar puffed wheat and raisin sugar shit with candy coated shit sugar". And you wonder why you have an obesity problem?

9. 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! You can go buy a chocolate sugar puffed wheat and raisin sugar shit with candy coated shit sugar bar! And your car keeps filling up! Brilliant!

We don't have those. Europe? Nul points.

10. Paradoxically, although you guys have this disgustingly puritanical attitude to alcohol, when 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.

11. People in supermarkets and grocery stores actually put your purchases into bags for you, instead of expecting you to do it and get a move on and get out of the way of the next person.

I'm starting to bore myself and probably you too, but seriously, I could write a book about this stuff.
posted by Decani at 11:49 AM on November 6, 2011 [51 favorites]

Another one: 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.
posted by werkzeuger at 11:51 AM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

1. Backward reading.

Those words, painted on the roads. You weird people do them the wrong way round. See, we Europeans are sensible. We write signs on the road the way we write words on a page. Top down.

The explanation I got when I asked my mother about this is that most Americans can't read more than one word at a time. (She may have said "people", not "Americans".)
posted by madcaptenor at 12:18 PM on November 6, 2011

the difference between U.S. men and Dutch men is still less than an inch

How do you make the difference between 6 foot and 1/2 and 5 foot 10 and 1/2 into "less than an inch"?
posted by yoink at 12:19 PM on November 6, 2011

I'm Canadian and my twist on the "your money all looks the same" is that I only realized on my most recent trip to the US that your money all looks the same to YOU, too. I have always felt like such a lummox, pulling bills out of my wallet and having to examine them to find the number and know how much they are worth before paying. So, while I was out for dinner with my brother and his friends I asked "Hey, what's the trick to telling all your bills apart?" AND THERE ISN'T ONE. You all actually look at the numbers on the bills. I thought I was just a dumb foreigner, but no, that's the system. Totally surprising to me.

When I lived in Belgium in the 80s, I remember they were obsessed with big American smiles. They talked about it A LOT and wondered whether Canadians also had big teeth and giant grins.
posted by looli at 12:20 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, apparenly we've previously covered upside-down writing on roads.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:20 PM on November 6, 2011

From Ms. Vegetable:
Tractor trailers. Boggling when I returned from a semester abroad. They're everywhere.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:33 PM on November 6, 2011

3. Man hugs. Woah. That seriously freaked me the fuck out. As a normal Brit male (insofar as such a thing is even possible) I feel frankly violated if a woman I don't know hugs me. If a man does it my flesh crawls like worms on LSD on a worm-patterned carpet. Don't touch me, man. Don't touch me. A "Hi, y'alright?" is perfectly adequate. This is nothing to do with any sort of homophobia or similar creepy unpleasantness. It's to do with what we see as decorum and appropriate interaction. Seriously. Respect my personal space.

You've got to admit, Decani, that the whole "no touching" thing is more British than European. My Portuguese wife is, conversely, freaked out about the formality of handshakes. For her, and for Spaniards and Italians, it is customary for a greeting among men-women or women-women to involve hugging and kisses on the cheek. Men still shake hands though there still may be touching - grabbing by the arm, etc.
posted by vacapinta at 12:35 PM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

How do you make the difference between 6 foot and 1/2 and 5 foot 10 and 1/2 into "less than an inch"?

The difference between 1.799 m and 1.776 m is 2.3 cm, which is less than an inch. (I'm using the lower of the self-reported figures because people tend to overestimate their own height.)
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 12:42 PM on November 6, 2011

On the highway, Americans pass on the right all the time, which is connected to the fact that people do not treat the left-hand lane as just a passing lane, but rather will stay in it at 60 MPH for miles.
posted by benbenson at 12:46 PM on November 6, 2011

I could be wrong about this - I'm American - but here's one I haven't seen on the thread: ATMs.

In American cities, non-bank, fee-based ATMS are ubiquitous. Nearly every deli, convenience store, drugstore and gas station has one. Most coffee shops and diners have one, as do some bars. Even random little stores, like the dinky party goods shop around the corner from my apartment, will sometimes have one.

I do not recall seeing ATMs at these kinds of places in Europe, even Western Europe. They seemed to be only in banks, or maybe in airports or train stations.
posted by breakin' the law at 1:08 PM on November 6, 2011

I do not recall seeing ATMs at these kinds of places in Europe, even Western Europe.

Do similar places in Europe accept debit or credit cards? (I'm not asking you, but anybody else who might stumble across this.)
posted by madcaptenor at 1:32 PM on November 6, 2011

ATMs are ubiquitous in convenience stores, like 7/11 type stores. They are not only in banks. Hotels will comonly have them. Everywhere accepts debit and credit cards.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:47 PM on November 6, 2011

another one that always amused my Civil engineering friends.
Really rickety scaffolding. Almost hand made from lumber rather than assembled from a kit of metal poles.
posted by stuartmm at 2:05 PM on November 6, 2011

I asked "Hey, what's the trick to telling all your bills apart?" AND THERE ISN'T ONE. You all actually look at the numbers on the bills.

Yes and no. I think over time you internalize the differences in the bills so that you can recognize them at a quick glance without consciously reading that-one's-a-$10 etc. At least that's how it's seemed to me handling money over here; very oh-god-they-all-look-alike awkward at the beginning, but after a while it gets easier and quicker and less bothersome.

Another jarring difference, maybe California-specific: motorcyclists in jeans and T-shirts rather than in full leathers.

Oh, and yellow school busses are, like takeout containers, quintessentially just-like-the-movies American.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 2:20 PM on November 6, 2011

Motorbike and scooter riders not wearing helmets and people talking on cell phones while driving. Not being able to buy alcohol in stores on a Sunday. Though those may be specific to Indiana

How career oriented people are. Only 2 weeks holiday a year, it's a lot more in Europe and I know it's 4 weeks in Australia, plus we have a lot more long weekends, Easter and Christmas days off. In a lot of European countries people work to live, instead of the live to work attitude I see in the Midwest, though the current economic climate may have messed that up I don't know what it was like before.
posted by wwax at 2:35 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

On the highway, Americans pass on the right all the time, which is connected to the fact that people do not treat the left-hand lane as just a passing lane, but rather will stay in it at 60 MPH for miles.

This again is region-specific. In my experience, this is encountered far less frequently west of the Mississippi. On the other hand, I've come to think of Highway 37 from Indianapolis to Bloomington as the I Hate Hoosiers Highway, from the propensity of the locals to drive the same damn speed in both lanes, two abreast for miles. And miles. And miles.
posted by bricoleur at 2:36 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend from Mexico was surprise at the toys in a playground we were at: toy trucks, plastic buckets, that sort of thing, all in the sandbox for anyone to play with, of no fixed ownership. She said that in Mexico those toys would've been gone in an hour.

(This might've had more to do with where she lived in Mexico City and the rather wealthy neighborhood we were in near Seattle than any international differences.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:39 PM on November 6, 2011

I have a lot of international friends and I get comments about these all of the time (I've read the thread as closely as possible, so I don't think I'm repeating too much).

Americans put a lot of ice in our drinks - many of my friends from overseas thought they were being cheated until they realized that they got free refills. They still ask for "no ice" or less ice in their drinks though.

Iced tea. It's just not done in many parts of the world from what I understand.

Power lines above ground.

Small talk - especially about the weather or about jobs. From what I understand, asking about someone's line of work is pretty personal in some parts of the world.

Selling guns in Walmart (not sure if this is done everywhere, but it's common here in the South). My German friends took pictures and emailed them back home.

Doggie bags - or as they call them now, take home boxes. Someone mentioned these up thread, but yeah, taking home leftovers just isn't done in a lot of places.
posted by patheral at 2:58 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Australian here.

Condiments. Here, they're carefully packaged in little squeeze containers, stored behind the counter, and you have to pay for them (I've been hit up 40c for a squirt of sauce). When I first went to McDonalds and saw that there were condiment stations, and that you could help yourself to as much as you wanted of whatever you wanted, I thought that was pretty weird.

Black and Hispanic / Latino people. I remember being in some part of DC (can't remember the details - there was some sort of celebration, and a bunch of Ethiopian restaurants nearby). Something felt weird, and I couldn't figure it out. It wasn't until I sat on a small wall near a kerb to drink a Coke that I realised I was pretty much the only white dude around.

For some reason, I expected everything to look NTSC in real life. I felt a bit ripped off standing in the street and having it look like PAL.

Signs in Baltimore indicating the snow line. As in, 'if you park here, you might not be able to get into your car when you get back.'

Street performers. Here there are two extremes - a bloke with a guitar, or a one-man spectaular that takes 20 minutes near major tourist icons (like Darling Harbour in Sydney). I was amazed at the number of Americans doing seriously entertaining shit in the street - the two guys singing a duet, the kid with the plastic bucket drum set, the most amazing violin solo I've ever heard, dancers. I was also a little annoyed that I couldn't stand and watch them without being barrelled over by pedestrian traffic.

You have shops for very, very specific things. We spent half an hour walking around a place that sold decorative light switch covers. (Incidentally, your light switch covers are different, and your switches are upside-down.)

Bricks. There seem to be many more brick buildings in the US than there are here, and the colours are different.

I don't think I saw a school uniform the whole time I was there, whereas here, they're everywhere.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:03 PM on November 6, 2011

One last thing - seriously awesome shit that's taken for granted.

There was an aircraft carrier docked someplace we went - I can't even remember where it was, because the aircraft carrier was the most mindboggling gigantic thing I'd ever seen. People sort of stopped to see what we were staring at, slackjawed and drooling, raised an eyebrow when they realised it was the ship, shrugged and moved on.

Another time we pulled off some random highway on to a random road to a small, non-descript building. No signs, no fanfare...for the NATIONAL CRYPTOLOGIC MUSEUM. There are Enigma machines in there YOU CAN TOUCH. A CRAY YOU CAN SIT ON. That guy telling you about that telephone used to work for the NSA. Why is there not a line out the door around the block?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:22 PM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Americans may find it irritating when non-Americans assume that what's common practice in Chicago is nearly unheard of in Spokane.

One of things that surprised by British SO was yes, the size of the country (he says it still freaks him out that you just need to drive a bit outside of a major urban area and end up IN THE WILDERNESS with apex predators on the loose or just the Idea of being that far from the ocean) but also how different parts of the country where from each other. He spent almost all his time in new England and just going to say, L.A was a major culture shock. Louisiana was practically another planet.

Water is served at every meal, and unless specifically told not to, all drinks will contain a ton of ice, even in winter.
posted by The Whelk at 3:26 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oregon specific, but the whole 'you can't pump your own gas' thing throws me for a loop everytime I'm down there.
posted by mannequito at 3:45 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

New Jersey has a similar law regarding "you can't pump your own gas". I always assumed this law exists because of lobbying on behalf of gas station attendants who would lose their jobs if it did not.
posted by MattMangels at 4:20 PM on November 6, 2011

As for the height debate: I've lived in Iceland and Germany and spent a lot of time in Portugal. I'm a 5'6" woman. In the US, I'm pretty much average. In Germany, I'm near average, maybe a little short. In Iceland, I'm almost invariably the shortest woman in the room. In Portugal: I'm the tallest person in the room. I can reach my hand up and touch ceilings. My husband is only an inch taller than I, and he's a GIANT among his people. I'm as tall as his father and several inches taller than his brother. Most Portuguese women I've met come up to my shoulder.

Something I thought of while driving to the OVERSIZED GROCERY STORE that I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned: COLD beverages. Americans seriously have a love affair with ice. In some European countries, beverages that don't spoil aren't even kept in the fridge. Also: in quite a lot of European countries, milk is something that you cook with and babies/children drink. An adult having a glass of milk is seen as a terribly "American" thing. (Though seriously, what else are you supposed to wash chocolate cake down with, I ASK YOU.)
posted by sonika at 5:05 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Abbreviations on signs, e.g., "Park HDQRS -->", "Watch for Peds" (like waat? watch for pedophiles!).
posted by waterandrock at 5:14 PM on November 6, 2011

What do you consider polite conversation and what do you consider "small talk"?

This was an absolute minefield for me in the US. In the UK you might meet someone for the first time and have - and thoroughly enjoy - a long, involved, angry argument about politics. This seems to be considered rather bad form in the US.

Conversely, as I mentioned in passing above, I've had Americans tell me stuff about their health and relationships on first meeting that had me slack-jawed with amazement and/or blushing - stuff that I wouldn't talk about with people I've known for years, unless we're both very, very drunk. Oddly, I am perfectly happy to talk 'American style' with Americans over email/via chat, just not in person.
posted by jack_mo at 5:15 PM on November 6, 2011

1- Many of us don't like being called USians.

2- Ten dollar bills are sort of orange-ish now. I think they are colorizing them all, eventually.

3- I am amazed at the surprise at the friendliness of Americans. I live in a suburb of Chicago, and there is a marked difference in friendliness depending on what direction I go in. Towards the city, much more reserve and lack of conversation and eye contact. Towards the rural areas, much friendlier. I was vacationing out east, and was put off by the lack of eye contact. Is the rest of the world really that rude?
posted by gjc at 5:20 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Many of us don't like being called USians.

I think it's quite common for people from any culture to not take kindly to being called made-up words.
posted by MattMangels at 5:23 PM on November 6, 2011 [25 favorites]

"Lawyers have much more cultural cachet than in almost any other country."

In the U.S., lawyers have to get graduate degrees (J.D.s). In most of the world, they only require bachelors degrees (LL.B. or similar). That accounts for part of it.

(Also the UK poster above who mentioned short history and young buildings? There's that old saying that in the UK, 100 miles is a long way, and in the US, 100 years is a long time. I remember visiting some parish outside London to see the "new parish church" that was built in 1400. WHUT. The very oldest (European) buildings in my state date to the 1720s-1750s, and those are pretty much all owned by the state as important historic sites. There are much older Native American ruins -- like 10,000 years old -- but they're archaeology, not things peoiple use.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:31 PM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

I am utterly stumped by the fact my apartment complex (In Texas) takes neither cash nor credit cards. I mean, I've payed for a car and a gun with a credit card... but rent requires a check? Urgh.

United Kingdom candy can be different. Actual honest to goodness honeycomb is usually found only in specialty sections of a few grocery stores here. There, it is in candy. Huh.
posted by Jacen at 6:17 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

what else are you supposed to wash chocolate cake down with, I ASK YOU.

I grew up on a dairy farm in NJ, but I have to say that I find Framboise a treat with chocolate cake.
posted by fings at 7:06 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

The extent to which TV is censored surprised me.
It's effectively impossible to buy food items without answering a barrage of questions.
Being unable to pay rent by automatic payment, the only option was to provide a 'check' every month.
Anything involving the government is like making a trip to Soviet Russia.
People look at you weirdly if you tell them you walk to work.
People say stuff like 'bathroom' to avoid saying [gasp] toilet.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:44 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Links to this thread at Marginal Revolution and Hacker News; in particular the Marginal Revolution comments mention some things I don't think have been mentioned here.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:20 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

One thing that one of my Lebanese friends continually remarks upon is the American conception of time; he claims that we're all obsessed with schedules and timeliness here in the US. He himself was routinely 30 minutes late for everything (except classes) when he first got to the US. I don't know how that stacks up Europe though.
posted by cirgue at 8:31 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find that the "who bags your stuff" thing seems to depend on whether or not it's a hippie grocery store that encourages you to bring your own bags or not. When I'm at one of those, I get the feeling that most checkers won't, don't, or can't want to go through and put stuff in my bags/backpack somehow, and usually I do have to pack my stuff myself. But if it's their grocery bags, they'll do the work. I bet there's some kind of lawsuit rule about messing with people's stuff somewhere that leads to that rule.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:07 PM on November 6, 2011

You've got to admit, Decani, that the whole "no touching" thing is more British than European. My Portuguese wife is, conversely, freaked out about the formality of handshakes. For her, and for Spaniards and Italians, it is customary for a greeting among men-women or women-women to involve hugging and kisses on the cheek. Men still shake hands though there still may be touching - grabbing by the arm, etc.

this is so true. i once had an englishman with whom i had just spent an intimate weekend get freaked out when i kissed him goodbye (on the cheek) before getting on a train. he said i was "making a fuss." seriously? you just had your mouth, never mind.

conversely, i thought the portuguese were all hitting on prudish little american me.
posted by patricking at 9:29 PM on November 6, 2011

- One thing I haven't seen mentioned is the way Americans often refer to space and location. If I'm in DC, and someone says they're from a nearby district or town, they often describe their location in terms of how you'd drive to get there. So "Oh, you're from Bethesda, where is that in relation to here?" and instead of saying "oh, a little northwest from here, still on this side of the river but about 20km away" they'd say "Well from here, you'd take the 190 about 9 miles out and a right on 614."

- Paying rent with checks/cheques - almost nobody here does electronic money transfer between people. I regularly see people paying for groceries with a paper check.

- Political and legal differences between the U.S. states, e.g. marriage, abortion, major tax differences, etc. It's extremely rare to have states or provinces with SO much power.

- healthcare. It completely boggles my mind that so many Americans think that nationalized healthcare is the literal equivalent of Becoming Bolshevik.

- volume of everyday conversations. Sometimes I can feel my jaw clenching up and my head kind of recoiling back, because it feels so abrasive and demanding.

- not just food sizes, but food choices and decisions. There is this simultaneous fear and obsession with "fat" in food. People will buy disgusting half-fat splenda ice cream, but drink a Frappucino, or eat something else that is comparatively high-fat.

- Baked goods, are, on the whole, terrible here. Average bread from the grocery store, the croissant at a bakery in the morning, the bagel at the average cafe, all just disgusting. Cardboardy, dry, with no flavor, and never the right consistency.

- strange zoning outside of major urban areas. A single street might have a small ice cream shop, a tire shop, a large pharmacy with a drive-through window, next to a bank, and some sort of large semi-industrial metal building.

- in general, people don't really seem to have a great understanding of "power relations" such as systemic and generational racism and poverty, massive corporate finance and its involvement in politics, and ongoing, insidious, by-the-books forms of sexism. Of course there are tons of folks who Get It, but even good liberals/Democrats are surprisingly "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" type people without acknowledging all of the ways the system continues to funnel different people into different tracts.
posted by barnone at 9:39 PM on November 6, 2011 [11 favorites]

The explanation I got when I asked my mother about this is that most Americans can't read more than one word at a time. (She may have said "people", not "Americans".)

It's because as you're driving you come upon the first word, SCHOOL, and then the second, XING. It might make sense the other way 'round if we all had helicopters, I suppose.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:19 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

As an Australian, (which seems to be a mix of Europe and the USA), who has been to the USA twice, had an American girlfriend for some time, and just returned from my first trip to the UK and Europe, this thread continues to fascinate me.

Another observation: you will often be on a first name basis with your boss, even though obviously you are not your boss's "friend."

Wait, what? You call your boss Mr or Mrs Surname? That would freak me out. The very first minute of the very first day of my very first job (I was 18), I walked into the boss' office and, being unsure, said "Hello Mr Surname. It's good to ..." and he interrupted me with "Just call me Andrew". I don't think I have ever referred to anyone as Mr or Mrs Surname ever since.

Regardless of size, any currency takes time to get used to. I still had to individually check each note and coin with British currency and Euros at checkouts. But I can pick my local currency instantly (although our notes ARE very distinctively coloured). But our second smallest coin has the largest monetary value - $2. It's just what you get used to.

On the subject of currency, Australia eradicated 1 and 2 cent coins ... maybe 15 years ago. Our smallest coin is 5 cents. At the checkout, if the total is not a multiple of 5 cents, it gets rounded up or down. So I'm sure that seems weird to visitors here (I don't know if any other countries have done that). But to me, when I've been in Europe or the USA, I always end up with bucket loads of 1 and 2 cent/pence coins that I can't do anything with. My ex-pat friend who moved to London said he puts them in jars to hold doors open.

I should stop now, since I'm just meta-meta-commenting. C'mon... let's start "What's weird about the UK/Europe/Australia?" threads!

I'll start: Apparently, Australian peanut butter sucks compared to American peanut butter. But we have ATMs everywhere, like the US - trying to find an ATM in European cities was a complete pain in the butt. I have never written a cheque. I once had to get one to put a deposit on a car, so I went to a bank and paid for them to write me a bank cheque. Everything in Europe is so close. 65 pounds (sorry, I don't have a pound key on my Australian-American keyboard) and 1 hour from London to Amsterdam? Yay!

Oh, that's right ... I said I'd stop.
posted by Diag at 11:23 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Work focus - I have worked with many of my US colleagues and their focus and dedication I am in awe of - seemingly no matter what the task they are on it - it doesn't surprise me that the US economy is number 1.

Scale - you seen that show 'Extreme Makeover Home edition'? If that was in the UK you would maybe have a fat plumber umming and arring and saying possibly he could redo the shower room by next Tuesday. In the US they knock a house down and build a new one. IN a week. For Charidee. And make it advertisingy cryee fun TV as well. It's the big ambitions people have.

Spirits - a lotta shooters and hard booze there, when they're 'on it'.

Drinks - everyone seems to be always drinking something - a bottle of water, a can of 'soda', coffee.

The sales culture - people will pitch a product at you out of no where.

Friendliness - Oversharing maybe, but it's nice. Also waiters/wairesses/barmen/supermarket workers just cannot do enough for you. Like an anti-France.

The lack of sarcasm and irony. Not necessarily a bad thing either.

The politics - that democrat/republican thing is vicious and nasty and no one seems to have any shame about slagging off the others, no matter how bad it makes them look.

The fact that 'class' is directly associated only with 'money'. I find that one really odd.

I love America though.
posted by fatmouse at 12:09 AM on November 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

oh yeah - TV talk shows hosted by 1 person. There are LOADS of them.
posted by fatmouse at 12:15 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

For the perspective Germany -> USA (but I believe pretty much Europe -> USA) I can add these observations:

Laundry Machines seem to be mostly top-loaders rotating around the y-axis. You do not find that in Germany, it's mostly front-loaders (rotating around the z-axis) or top-loaders rotating around the x-axis (with a door at the washer-drum to actually put your clothes in). I wanted to get an American-style laundry-maschine in Germany and was told that they are not on sale because they require different, stronger detergent and use more energy than the European variants. This assessment might be based on stereotypes.

Also, you will rarely get complimentary tap-water at a restaurant while in the US this seems to be standard.

Finally, you will find differences in toilet paper between the US and Germany, with German toilet paper being more sturdy. I read an article about Procter & Gamble, which is big in toilet paper in both countries, and it stated that this difference is due to a different way of actually using toilet paper, Germans being labeled "folders" and Americans "crumblers" (or something along these lines.
posted by skrodolies at 12:24 AM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have lived for several years each in US, UK and a country in Asia, so here goes:

When describing addresses, Americans use intersections rather than actual addresses (i.e. Queens and York Street).

Credit cards and debit cards. Yeah, in the UK, people use credit cards a lot, but I have never known a society who can pretty much get away with not using cash in day-to-day life.

When I went to college in the US, almost everyone (not in maths or sciences) used laptops in their classes to take notes. And everyone could touch type. And emails were used SO much. It's much less common to use laptops to take notes in the UK, not many people can touch type, and emails are slightly less ubiquitous in the UK.

Doggie-bag. Not as common outside the US.

Chain grocery stores are pretty crap in the the US (think Walmart, Shaw's, etc). There are places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, but it definitely caters to a certain niche crowd, rather than the population at large.
posted by moiraine at 2:17 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know many of these (yet-- two months until I begin learning more) and I come at it from the opposite perspective. But as an American in the UK, I noticed a couple of differences I haven't seen mentioned yet, and it would be easy enough to flip them.

The most fun is the fact that recorded voices, as in elevators, are recorded in the accent appropriate to the country. In the US it's all SAE, and I would assume that in the UK it also doesn't vayr from region to region. But it was somehow hilarious to me that the elevator talked to me in an English accent.

Also, soda is a lot more expensive and less widely-available in the UK and Ireland. I know it's an American product to begin with for the most part, and it may just be that we're obsessed with it. (I am going to miss my cheap diet soda, I admit.)

Literally the first thing I noticed about England, while still on the plane, was that the fields are not square. They're not divided into vast things with straight lines on all sides like you get in the US, especially the middle and western parts. They've been settled and owned for much much longer, so the borders aren't so arbitrary and recently-slashed. Also, we have a lot more cows here, and they have a lot more sheep.

One thing to note about pedestrian culture vs. car culture is that, if you're a fast walker, it's really nice to be the only one on the sidewalk, or be easily able to pass the few others you encounter. Not being crowded on sidewalks is great, and since I do walk quickly and tend to get quite frustrated when stuck behind people who don't, I am appreciating this while I've got it.
posted by Because at 2:51 AM on November 7, 2011

Just a note on the loudness - this is going to depend on where your character is coming from. Americans are freaking loud, it's true. However, I get headaches in Portugal from volume. My goodness but they make me look quiet.* My experiences traveling indicate that Spaniards and Greeks are also much with the loud.

(*Note: I have never in my life been accused of being quiet.)
posted by sonika at 4:32 AM on November 7, 2011

There are so many straight lines on maps in the US. When I first came here as a kid (while my parents were in graduate school), we studied the US map in school and I remember being astounded that it literally looked like someone had used a ruler to mark off the state boundaries. Most other places have much more irregular edges.
posted by peacheater at 4:45 AM on November 7, 2011

eating with one arm under the table. i find that intensely bizarre. looks like people are playing with themselves while eating.

(i've never been to the US but this habit seems to be omnipresent in US shows so i find it hard to believe it's not an actual habit, could be wrong though)
posted by canned polar bear at 5:46 AM on November 7, 2011

I've seen a lot of people shopping in pijamas. Young and old.
posted by Tarumba at 6:31 AM on November 7, 2011

I've never lived in the US, but I have visited (I had an American boyfriend at the time) and spend far too long on the internet.

- Taxes. Only the self-employed do their taxes here, otherwise it comes out of your paypacket. That you can essentially get paid for donating to charity is a foreign concept.
- Healthcare might be obvious, but it did shock me when people with serious injuries that would have me going to A+E (the ER) without thinking would avoid doing so because of the cost. Also, that if you want to see a dermatologist, that you could just go and do so without being referred via a GP. Most women don't see a gynaeocologist here unless they get a hospital referral - it isn't a routine thing and the routine stuff is done by your doctor. Oh, and getting paid for blood donation.
- I work on advertising regulation for TV here, and the amount of stuff that can be advertised in the US that can't be in the UK, and the way it can be, is interesting. Cigarette advertising of all types was phased out ten years ago, and cigarettes were never specifically marketed to women.
- You can't get a refund or exchange on cosmetics/toiletries, not even if they are sealed, unopened, and returned an hour after purchase. It always surprises me that people can return things over there because they've tried them and don't like them.
- Tipping barmen - here you only tip waiters and maybe taxi drivers.
- Patriotism, as others have said. Seeing people actually stop and place their hand on heart as the anthem is played. In a similar fashion, that most Americans have never met a Muslim - about 20% of my home town were Muslim or Hindu.
- Nobody gives a shit about school or college sports here, it's all about football youth academies which are very separate to educational institutions. The 'no child is a loser' thing is a bit of a fallacy (I am dyspraxic, so trust me on this, I felt like a loser an awful lot during PE) but really, you won't even be famous in your own school or college, never mind across town. We have proms now though. Sororities etc. have no equivalent in the UK at least.
- Massive thrift stores. Also, yard sales and estate sales. We just take that stuff to the charity shop here. Craigslist isn't a thing. I secretly want to go to one of those big estate sales and buy 90000 pieces of vintage fabric. Couponing to the extent that it's done in the US.
- 'The holidays'. Actual decorations for St Patrick's Day. Not even Irish people really do that here.
- Dishwashers and air-con being expected rather than optional features in homes.
- Drinking at 15 here is mostly normal, not a sign of child alcoholism. If still illegal.
- Bands and other count noun entities being referred to in the singular rather than the plural as though a mass noun ie. 'U2 is an Irish group' vs 'U2 are an Irish group'.
posted by mippy at 7:21 AM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and getting paid for blood donation.

Most blood in the US is given for free. Maybe they give you cookies afterwards. In fact, the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates these things) doesn't allow blood donors to be paid.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:39 AM on November 7, 2011

Ah, I thought you did get paid? I do know that if you lived in the UK for six months or more in the 80s you can't donate, so guess I'll never find out.
posted by mippy at 7:44 AM on November 7, 2011

You get paid for plasma, not blood.
posted by chara at 7:48 AM on November 7, 2011

Canadian here talking about Philadelphia.

- security guards outside of/in banks and banks having very high counters
- casual conversations on the street being quite loud
- facilities where all the people behind the counter were black and almost all the ones on the other side were white (i.e. Starbucks, University library, grocery store). This was not the case all the time, but enough to make me notice. *maybe this is the case in some parts of other Canadian cities; I don't know...
- only being able to speak to government workers behind plastic partitions
posted by kitcat at 11:01 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wearing shoes in the house.
posted by kitcat at 11:02 AM on November 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

US-ian here, with two tiny things other non-US-ians I've met have reacted to: submitting it because it was news to them, so it may be to you.

1. Creamed corn, corn niblets, popcorn, and corn on the cob all come from the same plant. (This blew the mind of the German exchange student at my high school. It took my showing him pictures of an ear of corn and a dish of corn kernels side-by-side for him to get that "oh, you get THIS by scraping them off THAT. Huh, I never knew that.")

2. Calling ourselves "Americans" instead of "US-ians" -- or, getting upset when others use the term "US-ians" and not getting why calling ourselves "Americans" would annoy people in Canada or Mexico, say.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:02 AM on November 7, 2011

Saying 'soda' instead of 'pop'.
posted by kitcat at 11:04 AM on November 7, 2011

Saying 'soda' instead of 'pop'.

That's regional. Some parts of the US say "soda." ...Then you have the parts that say "tonic".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:05 AM on November 7, 2011

Basketball on the TV in bars. I love the game but, here in the UK, its almost impossible to find a bar that shows any.

Your love of stats for any game.

What you call football is a twisted version of rugby with helmets and a lot of padding.

Excessive advertising everywhere. I find it odd that in TV shows that you have a commercial break only to come back to the closing credits.
posted by mr_silver at 11:11 AM on November 7, 2011

When my husband and I were first married, I came into the kitchen and found him standing there, baffled by a twist-to-release ice cube tray.
posted by tizzie at 11:19 AM on November 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wearing shoes in the house.

This is regional.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:19 AM on November 7, 2011

Saying 'soda' instead of 'pop'.

That's regional. Some parts of the US say "soda." ...Then you have the parts that say "tonic".

It's definitely regional. Here in Florida we ask for "coke" and then are (on the rare occasion it comes up) whether Pepsi is ok. To me, every soda is coke and you specify if you want Dr. Pepper or Sprite, other than that, it's all coke.
posted by hollygoheavy at 11:35 AM on November 7, 2011

and not getting why calling ourselves "Americans" would annoy people in Canada or Mexico, say.

Seriously, exactly none of my Canadian friends are upset that they are not called Americans. They are delighted to not be known as Americans, in fact!

The shoes thing - definitely regional. I grew up in Hawaii, and you don't wear your shoes in the house. When we moved to New England (Boston), we found that in the winter, people generally didn't wear shoes in the house - not your outdoor shoes, at least. You left your boots by the door and put on your house shoes. In the summer, it seemed to be generally accepted that you kept your outdoor shoes on indoors.
posted by rtha at 11:43 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Peanut butter and chocolate is a very American thing.
posted by peacheater at 11:46 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Canadian here - Things I find weird:

How inexpensive things are, especially clothing, books, and liquor.

Alcohol content often isn't printed on beer packaging.

Black Friday.

The gun thing.

All the money looks the same.

The whole "illegals" from Central and South America thing the second you cross the border. Like, INS agents in the Detroit Greyhound station rousting all the Latinos. La migra no se ve en Canadá... and there's hardly any Latinos in Windsor.

How incredibly willing the average American is to believe the most preposterous lies about other countries, and how little they seem to know about anything but a really specific American take on history and geography.

How sincerely friendly people from the South seem. It's a bit unnerving, especially knowing they might shoot you.

How comic Americans seem to find Canadian accents, even if they have ridiculous accents of their own.
posted by metameat at 11:56 AM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Others have mentioned this about the United States, but it bears repeating: It is big. What this means is that much of what I've seen in this thread is very regional. I grew up in the midwest, have lived on the west coast, and have visited many other areas of the US, and I can tell you that there are huge differences even within the US that do not apply to us as a whole. People have mentioned that where your character is from is a big deal, but where in the US he will be going is just as important.

Please realize that in my list below, I am mostly comparing a fairly liberal/dense city (Seattle) to a more spread out city in the bible belt (St. Louis), so the extremes can be more jarring than is usual, but the point is that you will find many cultural differences in the US itself.

- check usage. With the exception of paying rent and mailing money for birthday gifts, I haven't had a regular use for them in over a decade. Even then, I don't think it is regional so much as my landlord is the guy next door, not some big real estate corporation that I can pay in credit card online every month.
- homeless people. I've seen far more homeless people in San Francisco or Seattle than I have in St. Louis. They do exist, but aren't nearly as prevalent. Weather and quality/quantity of programs for the homeless play a large role in this, of course.
- languages on signs. People feel very strongly about Languages That Are Not English in the midwest, whereas in parts of southern California and Florida, Spanish can be regularly be seen on signage. While you likely aren't including this in your story, Hawaii is part of the US, and Japanese is often seen on signs there.
- Religion. When I lived in Seattle, people were very careful to stay away from the topics of religion (and politics) at work. In fact, I don't remember having many conversations at all about religion in Seattle. After moving back to the midwest, it was a big of a shock for me, an American who grew up in the midwest to find that people bring up God in everyday conversation all the time, whether at work or not. I'm Christian and have nothing against this; it is just very different.
- American flags. Again, midwest wins here. You may see them on the west coast, but not nearly as much as in the midwest. And they are on everything you can think of to put a flag on.
- Public Transportation. Many cities do public transportation right, and everyone including high-class lawyers, software engineers, mayors, homeless people, construction workers, etc. take the bus. Many cities do not do public transportation right, however, and it is generally the poor working class who use them. When my wife and I moved to St. Louis from Seattle, we were surprised to find that our neighbors had not only never used the bus, but they were scared to! This kind of attitude seems to lead to a viscous funding cycle for transit. In fact, people vote against upgrades to transit, because it might bring the riffraff into their neighborhood.
- Drinking and driving. It still astonishes my wife and I that some people we know in St. Louis and occasionally party with will drink and drive all the time. Once, we took a taxi back because we were all way too intoxicated to drive, and they still insisted on driving to Jack in the Box for some late night "food". We have not ever been successful at talking them out of this, though we refuse to ride with them in these situations, too. Of course, this probably goes along with the public transportation note - in Seattle we either took a bus back if it was early enough, or just cabbed it if not.
- Drinking and walking. In Seattle, if I want to drink at an event, I would be cordoned off in a "beer garden". This beer garden is usual in sight of the main stage only, usually not right next to said stage, and usually is crowded or has a long line to get in. In St. Louis, the rules are much more lax: I can buy a beer half a mile away from the stadium and drink it on the way to the game. People laugh when we tell them about beer gardens.
- ethnicities. Probably not too surprising, but you'll find a larger range of ethnicities in cities than outside them, especially in the midwest.
- Soda. I call it soda. Some call it Pop. Others call it coke. It's all the same (though asking for a Coke to get a Sprite is weird to me, since a Coke is a Coke and a Sprite is a Sprite).
- Ice Tea. As mentioned, in the south, you have to specify unsweetened, or you will get it way sweeter than is ever necessary. I've just gotten used to asking for unsweetened everywhere, as a result. This also helps the employee on the other side of a drivethru speaker box to not confuse "ice tea" with "Hi C".
- Shoes in the house. I wouldn't even call it regional. Some people come from other cultures and have always done it, others adopt other cultures, and still others just had new carpet put in. If anything, I've found taking off your shoes to enter a home to be an exception to the rule, and I find it to be counter to the whole "make yourself at home" aspect of having guests over, but I won't complain if someone asks me to do it, either.
posted by mysterpigg at 12:09 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

America has few 'great bars' where 'great bar' means a public space where you sit outside to drink with friends, ala Pont des Arts or Jardin Tino Rossi in Paris. Drinking outside is very occasionally legal though, like in Savannah GA for example.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:21 PM on November 7, 2011

Canadian with USian extended family here. The thing I recall the most from my childhood visits: your guys' Special K is our Rice Krispies! And vice versa! It's cereal craziness!
posted by Kurichina at 12:58 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, a Danish classmate once expressed surprise over the North American tendancy to overuse the word "Awesome": "Why is everything awesome? I return a library book and it's 'awesome'. You decide on a pub to get a drink at and it's 'awesome'. Are you actually in awe over these things? How can all these tiny things really be 'awesome'??"
posted by Kurichina at 1:12 PM on November 7, 2011

holgate: "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."

Stephen Fry at a College Football Game.

Every time there's a game in my hometown, forget trying to get anywhere by car (or bus, if you prefer) because every major thoroughfare is packed with cars sporting team flags.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:36 PM on November 7, 2011

Shoes in the house. I wouldn't even call it regional.

It is regional. Very common rule in the Northeast, where I've lived all my life.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:20 PM on November 7, 2011

I remember my mom's sister and her husband coming over from Ireland to stay with us back in Summer 2002, and her husband found dragonflies quite intriguing. You just don't see those things in Ireland. He called them "helicopters".
posted by MattMangels at 3:29 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Strongly regional again, but: hummingbirds are not native to Europe and still astonish me. I'd never seen one before moving to California and found them jaw-droppingly beautiful and fascinating.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:39 PM on November 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

FDA food labels are huge on most foods.
posted by benzenedream at 4:19 PM on November 7, 2011

mysterpigg's comment on the shoes is the most accurate, in my experience. I'd tag it to family tradition, with ethnicity a big factor.
posted by Rash at 4:34 PM on November 7, 2011

I work on advertising regulation for TV here, and the amount of stuff that can be advertised in the US that can't be in the UK, and the way it can be, is interesting. Cigarette advertising of all types was phased out ten years ago, and cigarettes were never specifically marketed to women.

Cigarette advertising has been illegal on U.S. TV and radio for 40 years. Most Americans have never seen or heard a TV or radio ad for tobacco.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 6:19 PM on November 7, 2011

Some more things I've remembered:

Queueing at supermarket checkouts. In the US I don't think I ever saw a supermarket with all the checkouts open, no matter how bad the queues, similarly banks with vast number of teller stations, no more than a handful of which are ever open.

Obsequious in-your-face waitstaff. Just give me my food & quit brown-nosing for tips.

Fast-food joints are nation-wide - banks aren't.

The use of indicators appears to be illegal.

Shops advertising 'check' cashing.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:42 PM on November 7, 2011

American college student here, wanted to offer some insider perspective.

College sports are pretty amazing when your college is big and your team is halfway decent. I went to Virginia Tech and every Sunday our dorm would gather in the lounge to watch the game on TV, or go to the game if they had tickets. I was never a huge sports fan until I went to a school with televised games, it's a completely different experience. Watching college football on TV when you've graduated gives you a sense of nostalgia, and many fans take it to the next level by driving from out of state (we had Nebraska fans at a HOME GAME once. wut.)

Grocery choices are pretty absurd, I'll admit. Honestly once you find something you like, then that's Your Brand and it's the only brand you'll buy at a store. Re: sugary cereals, yes Count Chocula is a big reason Why We're Fat. But Wheatabix is NOT FOOD. It might as well be a main ingredient in plywood.

The religion thing is regional, it's much bigger in the Midwest and South than it is in the Northeast or West Coast. You might have heard of the Bible Belt, which is the Kentucky-Alabama-Louisiana-Mississippi-Georgia-Carolina general area. People are generally nicer there, but confirm a lot of US stereotypes, esp. regarding fatness, fondess towards guns, and huge portions of food.

Race IS a huge thing here. I had an Au Pair from Nottinghamshire who called black people "colored," which is a racist (but probably the least racist) term. The way Brits have to learn about Irish history (and the bad things done to them) in school, we have to learn about slavery.

The thing about police is very often true, but still changes state-by-state. Police from NYC are generally more aggressive and unfriendly compared to police from Virginia, because New York cops have to deal with gangs and drug wars and other really unpleasant things, whereas the worst thing that the average Virginia cop in the boonies has to deal with is a drunk-driving redneck.

In fact, pretty much anything you can say about America is different in another state 1000 miles away. Like in Texas, the drinking age is still 21, but a parent can order a beer or margarita for their 16-year-old in a restaurant. Delaware and New Hampshire don't have sales tax. Even I learned in this very thread that New Jersey is not the only state where it's actually illegal to pump your own gas.
posted by aegon01 at 6:44 PM on November 7, 2011

There's one thing that I haven't seen mentioned and is somewhat similar to the social trust mentioned above : the comparative difference in pickpocketing / theft. In Europe, you leave a bag somewhere, or your wallet at a bar, and you'll just never see it again. People just seem to have their eyes open for an easy score; and someone will have spied it and grabbed it no question.

In the U.S. its very likely that someone will turn it in, or figure out a way to return it.
posted by stratastar at 8:54 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Pants", "knickers", "suspenders", "engaged" (wrt telephone calls): all words which risk a plunge into a tar pit of humiliation for Brits talking to Americans - or vice versa.

Train whistles: only in the USA do these make the right sound.

Large state-by-state differences in the understanding of "as far as the eye can see": compare Montana with Iowa for example.

People take warnings of impending thunderstorms very seriously (usually with good reason).

The comparative shittiness of broadcast media in rural areas (in the UK, for example, we can pick up the same national radio station as we drive about any part of the country - with automatic switching between transmitters). In the USA the cool stations seem to fade to static and psychopathic talk radio as one heads for the wild blue yonder.
posted by rongorongo at 9:16 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

The excellence of "member-supported" classical music broadcasters (WQXR and KUSC). Better in some ways than the BBC (less up themselves, etc).
posted by Logophiliac at 10:29 PM on November 7, 2011

Last week I saw a driver in Houston curling her eyelashes and talking on her phone at the same time. My local host said she's seen the most incredible amount of texting whilst driving since she's lived there, and pointed out the 'no texting' signs that have sprung up on the sides of roads.

Traveling from Europe to NY, I was gobsmacked at the filth and poor repair of the subways. It feels like the bowels of some third world mine after the swish, clean, decorated, well signed subways of Paris. Even London presents a 'face' to locals and tourists that reflects the city and life around it - something missing from the NY subways.

All made up for HALF and HALF creamer. Wow, I am never drinking espresso again.
posted by honey-barbara at 11:39 PM on November 7, 2011

"Pants", "knickers", "suspenders", "engaged" (wrt telephone calls): all words which risk a plunge into a tar pit of humiliation for Brits talking to Americans - or vice versa.

Don't forget "fanny". I'll never forget the time when a sales assistant and I were reduced to a heap of helpless, tears-running-down-our-faces-and-unable-to-speak mirth in a women's clothes shop in Guildford when my American friend said she didn't know what UK size she took, but she knew she had an enormous fanny.
posted by essexjan at 2:08 AM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

From a UK perspective:
Strange paper sizes (i.e. ISO sizes versus "letter" and "legal").
Use of serif fonts in formal documents - in the UK legal profession the feeling is that this is either a mark of amateurism or being archaic and thrawn.
Significant use of ALL CAPS in legal documents for apparently important clauses.
Use of ALL CAPS on street signs.
Paperback books in sizes that deviate from standard UK paperback proportions.
Apparently slapdash book cover design - to my eye book covers tend to be overly busy and often feature murky colour combinations.
posted by my face your at 4:58 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

- When Americans tell you a story about their childhood they will rarely tell you what their age was at the time, such as "when I was seven, I...". Instead they will say "in sixth grade, I...". As a Brit, I have no idea what that means and so have to ask how old they were.

- Extremely high standards for most things; their service, their car. An inability to see just how awful TV news is to the point that I sound like a foil hat wearing conspiracist. The low-level of dislike of people from the south if you live in on the cities, and vice versa.

- Saying "hil-ar-i-ous" out loud instead of laughing.

- There's actually a difference in describing freeways, for example a native Los Angeleno will say "take the 101" whereas a northern Californian will say "take 101" - this may seem trivial, but I have noticed passionate opinions over this.

- This could be L.A. specific, but there's quite a lot of natural racial segregation. I've been to work parties where the black and white people gather themselves into separate sides. White people in LA will barely acknowledge that South LA exists.

- The level of passionate hobbyism never ceases to astound me. The entrepreneurial spirit that created Bill Gates, Francis Coppola and other creative geniuses is right now creating others. You see it if you look hard enough. So the quirk here is that some Americans obsess over their interests like I've never seen anywhere else whether it be fitness, film making, construction etc.

- The prevalence of sexually confident women.

- I have a theory that the local mail man carries with him 80% junk mail and 20% mail. Poor guy, must be very soul destroying.

- I'll never get used to the road-written signs that - to me - say "Lane Bike" because they're written for people moving towards them, assuming you'll read the "lower" word first.
posted by rocco at 10:34 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

From a NZ'er, only visited Cali, Oregon, Nevada:

- Entree's are not the appetizer, but the main (It's a french word. Y'all did that just to screw with us, right?).

- First time I tried some soda, I thought it was off - tasted rotten-sweet. Tried another, and another. Figured out it was the HFCS.

- Thought people were joking about the cops and donuts. Going through town on a greyhound at 3am, and the only thing open was a donut store with a cop car.

- No, seriously - a donut store? Why would I want donuts at three in the morning? Give me chips, burgers, pies, kebabs, anything with FOOD in it!

- The Corner store, and America in general, have not discovered the convenience of a meat pie.

- Instead, at a 7-Eleven, the only food/dinner type thing they had was corn chips, with cheese-ooze, and mince-stuff that came out of a spout. A *spout* people. Meat shouldn't come out of a spout.

- While there is a much wider variety of food, and junkfood, the standard basic level stuff is often... crap. Cheap chocolate, cheese, and icecream here actually taste *good*. American standard chocolate tastes like brown wax.
Which leads to the lack of delicious-chocolate coated biscuits. Everytime I've gone over, I've been told to carry as many tim tams etc as my bags will hold, for copious bribery.

- The immigration form coming into the US is about as long as the NZ one, but they only have a couple of questions in common. The american one is all about - are you a terrorist? Criminal? Nazi? Are you carrying a bomb?
The New Zealand one is, have you been camping? do you have dirty shoes? Do you have any food, fruit, mud or wood in your posession that might be harbouring pesky insect pests that will ruin our environment? (If unsure, alway say yes - they'll just fumigate and hand it back to you, or check it's wrapped well).

- New cars. Barely any cars older than 10-15 on the road. Virtually no Classic cars (30+ years).

- Bars stop selling at *2am*? Are you freaking kidding me? In a big hip city like San Francisco? At home, we don't head out til midnight.

- Racism. Had a couple of people come pick me up from a house I was staying at, and in broad daylight, they were acting like a 2 person swat team. It was a nice street, little kids playing down the road, an old lady tending her flowers across from me. It was not the damn ghetto. It's just I don't think I there were any other white people within 4-6 blocks.

- Fast food chains actually being as cheap, or cheaper than the corner store. That explains a lot. Here, malaysian or a kebab is actually cheaper than getting McDonalds, so I have no idea why you'd get it.

- Being asked where in America my accent was from (first time in the US, after 1 week, on a greyhound).

- After mention I'm from NZ, and that it was winter there, explaining to a Security Guard in a supermarket using cans as demonstration, the earths tilt and the sun, showing different seasons in the different hemispheres.

- Having a few people ask or presuming I would be wanting to live in the US. And when I said I was having a lovely time visiting the US, but I loved my own country, and had no plans to live in the US, get offended at me. o_O?

Links to:
- People who would talk about awful things happening to their freedoms, their political system, the poverty in their country, and then finish off with the total non-sequiter "but thank god we live in the freeest/greatest country in the world".
Disconcerting break with reality. Very 'Brave New World'.

And finally, the realisation years ago -
- That the people in San Francisco couldn't understand how they got Bush as a president either The country is too big - too many people are living under the yoke of cultural norms that are just as alien to them, as they would be if we in NZ were suddenly part of the states.
I dunno, I know people from both sides of the political spectrum in the US, who'd like a more EU type arrangement. Might not be a bad idea. Probably never happen though, it looks like it is very, very hard to modify your own political system.

- Taqueria's are the best, thing, ever.

- Roads! Roads and Cars! And car-accessed Mall-type building!
I get the impression that The Bay Area is one of the most walkable/bikeable places, and there were so many multilane roads with no way of walking or biking. Getting out of town and all these Hy-uuuge signs, steering onto buildings only accessible by motorways.
(Bonus: Very smooth, flat roads).

- Different dress standards. People dressed way up for work, and it looked a lot less appropriate to have dyed hair, dreads, piercings, etc, or anything unusual within a work setting, and people really dressed up to go out, but then way more people walking around or going to the supermarket in clothes that looked like trackies or glorified pajamas.
NZ'ers are more casual about something, but it also seemed more appropriate to have a personal style at work etc, and you'd rarely see people dressing as far *down* as I saw.
(And then, you notice whatever's different: Had an american friend complain about NZ's not dressing up, and I just stared at them, and pointed out that the average NZer looked better all day long).

- Begging. I know it's worse in San Francisco. Getting worse here, still nothing like that.

- Women looked shorter? Can wiki back me up, or was I in some odd subset? I didn't notice the men being much taller or shorter, but the women looked shorter, which was odd, and especially in comparison to the men. Lots of tall guys, and short girls.

- The USA doesn't use A papersizes! It blew my mind! But they're so elegant! You can fold A4 in half, and have A5. It's easy to shrink or magnify pages. The complications that must ensue from using paper sizes like 'legal' seemed ridiculous.

- Imperial versus metric. (Was expecting that).

- Tipping. I was constantly asking people if I was supposed to tip them, with people looking at me funny if I wasn't, but better that than being thought rude. I was bewildered that I wasn't supposed to tip in a taqueria, even though they obviously earn less for the really decent food, than at the restaurants I went to (therefore I did there too, often). I did a straight 15% for everything (this game is exhausting enough as it is). Personally, didn't notice much difference in service. I order my food, the food is delicious or not, I leave. Yes?
Did have a couple of restaurants tell us we would have to wait for a table, and then went we went to leave, got us a table immediately. ? Dunno what that was about.
NZ has pretty much the opposite culture to tipping, to the point where it feels uncomfortable to me, like tipping a dentist or police officer. Made a big mental note to tip everywhere with service workers though, because I know they're trapped in that economic game.

- Taxes, taxes on everything, that aren't added til you get to the counter. Ridiculous.
In NZ, the advertised price, is what you pay. Taxes included, no tip.

- Drugstores. Snort, snort. Here, they're called chemists or pharmacies. If they have food, it's a dairy/corner store. (I know the Dairy term doesn't make sense to anyone else, either).

- Apparently people go to Starbucks because the coffee is often better. Bwahahaha! Ok, well, the local cafe's deserved to die then. Starbucks in NZ isn't gaining that much traction. (Famous last words?)

- Oh yeah, not drinking til... 21? Is it? 18 here.

- Power sockets without switches, yes, strange.

- Misleading advertising. Not actually allowed to to that here.

- Cheap things. *sigh*. Like books. You could buy a book an hour on the average wage!
Although, luckily for us, US dollar has gone way down, and way more places offer international shipping. Getting better here (but we are still on an island in the middle of nowhere - stuff is expensive here).

- Small mammals! We've only got the small pests we inherited from England (rabbits, mice, rats, etc), & possoms from australia. I saw a squirrel, a chipmunk, and a gopher!

Ummm, can't think of anything else right now.

Also, people are nicer to tourists, most places you go. People were nice to me for that reason - if they realised I was a tourist!?!
posted by Elysum at 1:57 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

> Women looked shorter? Can wiki back me up, or was I in some odd subset?

Wikipedia says the average height for women
is the same in NZ and the USA when we look at women as a whole -- 5' 4" -- but Mexican-American women are a tad shorter than that, which might be throwing you off.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:18 PM on November 8, 2011

We lived in Germany for seven years and never once were we asked, "Would you like to see our house?" This has to do not only with privacy - most parts of the living quarters are not for "outsiders" - but also with not having the need to show off one's possessions. It took us almost a year to learn this and were embarrassed once we realized how many times we had forced our reluctant guests to "take the tour."

We enjoyed the quiet background-buzz of people talking in European restaurants and cafes, unlike the loud shouting and overpowering music in American establishments. Even American airports are cacophonous.

All-smiles Americans seem phony after looking at beautiful, somber, calm European faces for seven years. And Europeans are not afraid of eye contact nor of just looking at people with simple interest. Old people are not "invisible" in Europe.

Customer service is almost unheard of in most of Europe. So is ice water!

We miss being able to park our car at home in Germany, walking to the corner for a streetcar and taking the train to the airport for international travel.

People in Europe don't mind being brushed up against in public, and only in America do you hear "Excuse me" when it happens.

America's emphasis on shopping and owning stuff seems to exclude the joy of just being with your friends and neighbors, enjoying conversation and time together. You're never hurried out of a restaurant or cafe in Europe, as there's only one "seating" per night. If the owner fills his place for that night, he's happy.
posted by dorle2you at 2:56 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

- 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.

One of my friends swears that there was an American English phrasebook where "you should come over sometime for dinner" was translated as "goodbye."
posted by en forme de poire at 9:45 PM on November 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

Mod note: Hey, guys this is obviously a question that tempts a lot of discussion, but we need to try to stick to answering the question as asked as much as possible. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:38 PM on November 8, 2011

From the UK here and I've spent a couple of weeks on the east coast and a few months living in Brooklyn.

Particularly in LA I noticed lots of people driving cars that were pretty smashed up. I don't know whether it's the quality of the roads, the way insurance works there or what, but it was certainly to an extent I had never noticed in the UK or most parts of europe that I've been to.

Also a really common one was people regularly not understanding words with T in them. Asking for "watermelon" took quite some time as every time I was asked I would try and pronounce it "better" as in more like the queen's english making the word more and more alien to the person I was speaking to. Frankly, there were only 2 things on offer, lemon or watermelon so I think I can possibly chalk this up to one dumb individual, well 2 if you count me. A couple of other examples but I'll spare you the tedium.

People have mentioned great service a lot and that was true but it made the contrast going into kinkos or the post office very much more obvious. I'm surprised there isn't a phrase "going kinkos" those guys seem so stressed out.

"People in Europe don't mind being brushed up against in public, and only in America do you hear "Excuse me" when it happens."

Speak for yourself.

Being English in NY I became painfully aware of how frequently and involuntarily I casually said "sorry" and "cheers" to people and left them flummoxed.
posted by pmcp at 4:41 AM on November 9, 2011

You're never hurried out of a restaurant or cafe in Europe, as there's only one "seating" per night. If the owner fills his place for that night, he's happy.

This was not my experience in some restaurants in France (Paris; Toulouse). It has been my experience at some restaurants in the U.S. And if my flight isn't at some ridiculously early hour, I can leave the car at home and easily take public transit to the airport (this has been true here in San Francisco, and also Seattle, Portland OR, Boston and DC - if I'm flying out of National or BWI, at least). So - very regional!
posted by rtha at 6:25 AM on November 9, 2011

My British co-workers find the affirmative noise "mm-hmm" that we make with our throats strange/hilarious. I never noticed it before one of them commented on it, but now I am hyper-aware. We seem to especially use it in place of "you're welcome."
posted by earlygrrl at 6:44 AM on November 9, 2011

Eye contact! Americans make it.

Americans are socal optimists. They assume all interactions will be pleasant until they are not. Brits are social pessimists. They assume all interactions will suck until they don't.

Americans have a robustness that Brits don't. I don't really know why but they seem much more healthy - perhaps it is the American approach to food enrichment and abundance of sunshine.
posted by srboisvert at 9:46 AM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Weather: in the UK we get just some corner of a weather system - and there is a general tendency for everywhere to be having broadly the same sort of weather. By contrast the USA is big enough to accommodate entire frontal systems and there is the expectation that different parts of the country will be living through, basically, different seasons at any one moment.

Volunteers: Anywhere where there is art to be appreciated, nature to be savoured or local history to be understood it seems there is an abundance of super-friendly, well organised people donating their time to explain and answer questions. They seem to be motivated more by love of particular institutions than by anything else.

Mobility impaired people: The relatively high degree of care to which the environment has been designed to accommodate them - and the apparently high number of people who fit into this category.
posted by rongorongo at 10:45 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

- Mobility impaired people: Yeah. Maybe this is just the places I visited, and a self-selecting bias, but...
There were so many more people who were visibly maimed in some way. In wheelchairs, missing a leg, arm, or some other visible disability.
I'm wondering if say, San Francisco has better support services, and therefore more people with disabilities move there?

I'm really hoping that was it, because it was really, shocking and terrifying (even if there are problems with the health care system over there, are they really that... visible?).

(And when I said begging, I also meant homelessness)

- I can't believe I forgot one of the biggest! Toilets!
a) People look at you like you've said a bad word when you ask where to find the Toilets. You should say bathroom, even if they clearly have no bath/shower. Or someone above pointed out, you should even go for 'restroom'. Toilet is apparently a bad/naughty/impolite word.

b) The bowl shape is different. You are disconcertingly, a lot closer to the water (be careful when you wipe!), and yet they're generally wide and shallow to the point where things go round and round, rather than just straight going down. Less flushing power. Strangely inefficient.

- Cheese. I mentioned cheap cheese doesn't taste as good, but the other thing is, it's often dyed orange. It's literally just had orange dye added, for no reason, but it's such a tradition, it's familiar now and the color of 'proper cheese'.
posted by Elysum at 1:03 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perspective from England:

That 'regular' is used when we would use 'normal' or 'ordinary' - as in 'he's just a regular guy'

That buttermilk is sold in cartons like milk, and is an everyday household item. I already knew the word, but didn't really know what it was. I took a swig of it, thinking it would be creamy - then spat it out because it was sharp!
posted by Bradfordian at 1:18 PM on November 9, 2011

Another English perspective; I've visited the US on holiday but never lived there.

Things that came as a complete surprise to me included the oversweet Coke, the wildlife (hummingbirds in San Francisco, chipmunks in the Nevada desert, anoles and night herons in Waikiki), the gaps around public toilet doors, the size and comfort of the cars, the cigarettes in CVS, the number of disabled people (though perhaps we don't see many disabled people in the UK because provision for them in public spaces is so bad that they're essentially trapped at home?), the predominance of ethnic minorities in service roles (I noticed this especially with hotel maids), and the sweetness of the bread.

Things that I already knew about but still found startling or shocking to experience included the sheer number of beggars, the impractically low-denomination coinage, the last-minute ambush of sales tax, and the constant low-level disquiet that arises from knowing that you're supposed to tip lots of people and that their wellbeing depends on your doing so, but not knowing exactly which people, or how much to tip them, or how to hand it over, or what you're supposed to do about it when you've just arrived in the country and you have nothing smaller than a $20 bill.

The take-a-penny, leave-a-penny thing really threw me; the first time I encountered it I thought "Oh no, you're supposed to tip shop assistants here too, and I didn't know!" and dropped a couple of quarters in.

Here are a few more things that I haven't noticed anyone else mentioning yet:

- Use of car horns. Visiting New York during my first trip to the US, I was shocked by how often people used their horns. In the UK you hardly ever hear them; in New York they made a wall of noise.

- Non-ironic use of the word "beverage" in ordinary conversation. In Las Vegas, during that same first trip, I was very startled to hear a man ask his wife if she wanted a beverage with her food; I'd have asked if she wanted a drink with it. In the UK, at least in my experience, beverages might appear on menus, or perhaps in books, but they're very unlikely to turn up in a conversation.

- Cinnamon as a flavour for sweets (candy), and the sheer number of kinds of breath "mint" available.

- Use of the word "through" (or "thru") with regard to time. Filling in a form, I actually had to ask someone to translate the field "paid thru" for me; the only meaning I could come up with was "through what medium (cash, credit card, ...) are you paying this fee?" which didn't make a lot of sense, given that the form was intended to accompany a $5 bill to pay for a day's parking somewhere.

- Use of the word "pavement" to mean the surface cars drive on, not the surface people walk on. Startling sign in San Francisco: "Park only on the pavement". What, and block it completely?

- The strength of the sun! Coming from the south of England to New York, in June, I got the worst sunburn of my life because, seldom needing sunscreen at home, I assumed I'd be fine without it.

- Possibly related: how pasty and pallid the paler kind of English skin looks compared with American skin.

And something I was surprised not to find: "everyone knows" Americans are fat, but everywhere I went on the mainland, with the sole exception of Las Vegas, I saw mostly slim, healthy-looking people. Regional thing? I visited New York, Boston and Cambridge, Washington DC, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:55 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

> hough perhaps we don't see many disabled people in the UK because provision for them in public spaces is so bad that they're essentially trapped at home?

Everything I know about people in the UK with disabilities comes from Ouch!, which has given me the impression that public spaces are much more accessible in the US (curb cuts, elevators, etc.).
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:14 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

public spaces are much more accessible in the US (curb cuts, elevators, etc.).

Thanks to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), public buildings pretty much have to be accessible. As an American, I actually really do notice the lack of both accessibility and the disabled out in public when I travel in Europe. Not only do I never see anyone in wheelchairs, but I don't know how they'd even get into most places.
posted by sonika at 4:25 PM on November 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

If you thank someone, they say "uh huh" instead of "you're welcome".
posted by anthill at 5:17 PM on November 9, 2011

I've always had this suspicion, but maybe I'm wrong (non-USians feel free to chime in): the US has to be the only country with an insane internet culture. Yes I know of PhotoExtreme and I hear planking originated in GB, but really, do any other countries go through memes as quickly and as rabidly as we do? Nyan-cat, lolcat, forever alone... American humor at it's...simplest. :D

Also- common to Asia and South America (don't know about Europe): variety shows. We don't have any!
posted by mschief at 5:50 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

-peanut butter and jelly: uniquely American

Slight understatement there. The rest of the world finds it repulsive enough to function as America's answer to Vegemite.
posted by ocschwar at 5:51 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Things I noticed when traveling and living abroad that was markedly different for me, an American:

* root beer is a highly unusual flavor
* peanut butter and the general absence
* cinnamon as a flavor for mundane things as candy and toothpaste
* lack of vitamin enrichment of foods such as, breakfast cereals. I was astounded by the lack of detailed food ingredient listings
* size of packaged goods being smaller. I assumed that was related to expected frequency of shopping and size of white goods like refrigerators
* In parts of the US there are places that take apples as seriously as the UK but it is fewer places that focus on the differentiation of eggs from types of chickens and potatoes
* Living without HCFS -- that was SO nice. I lost 20 pounds in ten months
* Lack of accessibility for the handicapped or just someone with a pram
* mass transit had a wider array of users i.e., it was not just the poor who used the bus
* Much fewer stops on UK bus lines and that was lovely too
* One's class and social standing seemed more apparent to me or I was made more conscious of it even in the UK
* Lack of 24 hour pharmacies even in places like London
* Cobblers, I saw many more cobblers in the UK then in all my travels around the US

There is a lot more, but this is just from a few minutes of thought.
posted by jadepearl at 6:09 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

As someone who grew up in Israel:

1. Timber houses instead of cinder blocks: how can they be so poor that they must live in shacks??
2. Wood parquet flooring. How can be so wealthy that they can afford that instead of marble chip tiles??
posted by ocschwar at 7:22 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

MLC's comment reminded me - one of my Italian friends once said something to the effect of, "what is it with Americans and cinnamon? It's in everything!" The thing that set him off was tiramisu, but I have to admit I have since noticed it really is in everything -- pastries, lattes (sprinkled on top), cereal, etc.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:38 AM on November 10, 2011

"common to Asia and South America (don't know about Europe): variety shows. We don't have any!"

Saturday Night Live is a variety show! Comedians, bands, celebrity guests.

Also, we go through memes a lot here too. The talkboard I used to post on (which was British) had several, and b3ta is British, FFS. I think memes are a lingua franca on the internet rather than just confined to one country. I don't speak Japanese, but I think there are numerous memes popular over there too that haven't crossed over.
posted by mippy at 4:32 AM on November 10, 2011

Regional thing? I visited New York, Boston and Cambridge, Washington DC, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.


I love the description "last-minute ambush" for sales tax, which definitely catches out visitors from countries where there's an emphasis on paying with exact change where possible, and it's not even easy to estimate what the post-tax total will be, because of the intersection of state, county and city rates, with the odd exemption or reduced rate for certain items. While online shopping largely dodges around sales tax, it's one of the few retail environments in the US in which you can come away certain that the total cost is accurate.
posted by holgate at 7:55 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Regional thing? I visited New York, Boston and Cambridge, Washington DC, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.

In some sense the big contrast in the US is between the coasts and the interior, so despite a map looking like these places are far apart they are actually close together.

While online shopping largely dodges around sales tax, it's one of the few retail environments in the US in which you can come away certain that the total cost is accurate.

Unless you have to pay shipping. (But the majority of my online shopping is from Amazon with the free, slow "super saver" shipping, so I don't worry about this.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:58 AM on November 10, 2011

Unless you have to pay shipping.

That's a discrete, specified amount. If you're buying at a physical retail outlet, the receipt may list the various levels of sales tax charged, but you're basically going on faith that the aggregation of state and local rates is accurately calculated.
posted by holgate at 9:01 AM on November 10, 2011

The use of indicators appears to be illegal.

I'm guessing this refers to what we call our "blinkers" or "signals" (the blinking lights at the car's corners) which I've also heard can be called "trafficators" in UK English. I've heard this problem is more pronounced in California -- once in an idle chat about traffic signalling here, which including California natives as well as transplants like me, a native mused "Aren't they illegal?" It's one of those driving regulations that are never enforced, so inconsiderate drivers don't bother using them.

If you thank someone, they say "uh huh" instead of "you're welcome".

The current fashion among the young has become saying "No Problem" instead of "You're Welcome" (which grates on older ears).
posted by Rash at 9:13 AM on November 10, 2011

From the UK, lived in USA for 5 years

- FOX news. Until you see it up close, you don't really believe it.
- Extremely right-wing talk or extremely religious talk radio. I was amazed to find out this was real.
- The NFL draft and salary caps are regularly argued for. Any other labour market restrictions are fiercly competed
- That sports teams can go from one city to another, whilst people are sad, the owner is allowed to do this - we don't really think of owners as being able to do that
- seconding cinnamon abundance
- No labour movement
- No national newspaper apart from USA Today
- The localism of TV news
posted by eyeofthetiger at 9:19 AM on November 10, 2011

In the UK we had a golden age of prosperity which left a high water mark on culture and buildings some time around the late 1800s and early 1900s; the time when the "sun never set" on the British empire. In the USA - despite all the modernity - it strikes me that the equivalent period was the 1950s and 60s: the era of the moon landings, anashamedly huge cars and Peanuts cartoons.

Less seriously the words "Puma" and "Ranch". In Britain we have neither of these things - but we still have our own ways of pronouncing the words.

Finally:catalogs: The USA is the absolute world leader in the provision of joyfully non-essential products.
posted by rongorongo at 10:07 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love the description "last-minute ambush" for sales tax, which definitely catches out visitors from countries where there's an emphasis on paying with exact change where possible

As an American, I've always seen this in reverse: traveling in a number of other countries, I've run up against countless cashiers demanding I use smaller bills. (Aargh! If I had any, I WOULD.) So for someone coming to the U.S., I'd think the general propensity of cashiers willing to make change would be something of a relief. But that's my bias.
posted by psoas at 10:28 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

which I've also heard can be called "trafficators" in UK English

Not since about 1950. Conversely, saying 'blinkers' sounds oddly infantile to people from the UK- it's what toddlers call them.
posted by Brockles at 6:17 PM on November 10, 2011

When I was in London I told a friend I was in the mood for a PB&J. You would not believe the look of revulsion on their face when I explained what it was.

I'm American, but recently traveled a lot in Germany. Differences:

1. We have waaaay more car transportation than they do. They have waaay more bikes.
2. Public transportation can get you pretty much anywhere.
3. Cuisine is often limited in Europe to the country you are in.
4. The plates and glasses look like they are made for children.
5. Everyone speaks English. More so than in the States!
6. A work life balance only dreamed of in the states.

Another story. I was in a cosmopolitan restaurant in Paris and was asked why so many Americans only visit Paris around Christmas. I explained that most of get around 2 weeks vacation a year and that's often when we take our vacation time. The entire place, all activity, stopped cold. Jaws dropped. Looks of pure pity surrounded me. I thought the reaction was totally overblown until I met a German man who told me he had two paid years off because his wife just had a child.... You could have knocked me over with a feather.
posted by xammerboy at 5:51 AM on November 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

"Cuisine is often limited in Europe to the country you are in."

Not sure about Germany, but in Paris we ate Vietnamese food and British people pretty much never eat what US folk think of as 'British food'. Remember that much of Western Europe has been a hotbed for immigrants from various lands, bringing their cuisines with them.

And yes, the two week thing is insane. Also: having specifically allocated days for being sick. What happens if you use them all up? Come in bleeding?
posted by mippy at 8:27 AM on November 11, 2011

I can't believe this hasn't been mentioned already, but the way retail stores have their a/c set to sub-Arctic temperatures was baffling to me. I was visiting a Southern state in the summer and spent a fair amount of time in a B&N cafe, and the temperature would drop from the high 90s to what felt like 15C (60F) or colder when I entered. I don't know how the people working there could stand it; I was freezing, and I'm Scandinavian!
posted by Bukvoed at 10:21 AM on November 11, 2011

I've been penpalling with a friend in Italy and we've spent a lot of time playing the cultural comparison game. I think she's spent all of a week in the US, and I've spent all of a week in Italy. Here are some of the things that have come up for us:

- the fact that it's acceptable to order a slice of cake the size of your head for breakfast - although, as others have pointed out, that cake will almost certainly feature too much cinnamon
- how much information you have to present about yourself when applying to college here
- everything's open on Sundays (she is from Rome so this was pretty shocking)
- I told her I'd bought ice cream for my dogs and it took me actually sending her a link to the website of the brand for her to believe me that there is such a thing as ice cream for dogs
- all the holidays are artificially on Mondays or otherwise positioned to create a "long weekend"
posted by troublesome at 10:02 PM on November 11, 2011

Apropos the moon looking different, here is my incredibly unscientific impression: Over here I can see the Easter Bunny on the moon (shadows that look like rabbit ears - I've been passing this on for as long as I can remember because I'm incredibly daggy) but over there I couldn't. That really caused me to consider exactly how far away from home I was.

It was the first thing I noticed when I got to my friend's place after a slightly traumatic and completely unnecessary holdup in Customs at the airport in Atlanta followed by getting lost in the airport and then a long drive to Savannah. There was a massive full moon and I had enjoyed a quick smoke and was in the backyard watching and enjoying the scamperings of squirrels on the top of the fence when I happened to look up.
posted by h00py at 7:09 AM on November 12, 2011

> Also: having specifically allocated days for being sick. What happens if you use them all up? Come in bleeding?

Well, yes, but this is rare.

Some jobs you could not come in, if you'd used up all your paid sick leave, but you wouldn't be paid for the time you missed. Some jobs would require you to use up your vacation time. Some jobs you would be fired.

And a whole bunch of people don't have any paid sick leave at all.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:31 AM on November 12, 2011

Love of pills: at the breakfast table there will something like a fruit bowl full of them. Perhaps one per family member. And this for people who are basically healthy.

If I found myself tele-ported to an economy hotel, government office or hospital corridor to see a dark brown wood effect color scheme then I would feel pretty certain I was in the USA. Perhaps this is a hangover from the days when everything was built from proper wood.
posted by rongorongo at 12:41 PM on November 12, 2011

The ice-cream for dogs reminded me that I've been told we in the US spend an extraordinary amount of money on our four-legged furry friends. Heck, *most* of my international friend (those from Asia, Africa, and South America) are astonished we have critters in the house, let alone special food, bedding, toys, grooming supplies, etc... for them.
posted by patheral at 7:41 AM on November 13, 2011

No national newspaper apart from USA Today

The New York Times.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:58 AM on November 13, 2011

Deep suspicion of "energy efficient" devices. America literally shook the world with inventions like the Saturn V rocket, drag racing, the Chrysler air raid siren and the Humvee. Anything that runs quieter, cooler or less thirstily than its predecessor seems liable to be seen as somehow unsatisfying at best - or un-american at worst. I am writing this from a room in a recently built hotel in Las Vegas: all of the light bulbs are incandescent - no "light bulb socialists" spoiling the fun here yet.
posted by rongorongo at 2:36 PM on November 13, 2011

Some food-related things I, an Irishman, noticed on my two visits to North America (Toronto a decade ago, and New York last summer):

- Food, in general, is far too cheap - even at sit-down/non-fast-food restaurants. Great for travellers on a budget, sure, but it does make one think about the wastefulness it encourages.
- Something like 80% of your popular chocolate bars and confections contain peanut butter. WHY?? I expected at least some variety (Surely not everyone likes peanuts? I can't stand the taste of them myself).
- Same goes for biscuits: it's all Oreos and chocolate chip cookies and variations thereof. Nothing like a Fox's Crunch Cream.
- It's impossible to find Hostess Twinkies and the like in Manhattan. Aren't such things American cultural staples?
posted by macdara at 12:00 PM on November 14, 2011

[Oh but I MISS chocolate-y stuff with peanuts. Come on.]

When our package with vitamin D from some US-based online pharmacy finally arrived the other day, I found another one: large jars called "economy size". Reminded me of the old days, Wrigley's Cinnamon gum strips, packaged in these huge bricks, too big to carry around in your pocket. God, and my gums got sore.
posted by Namlit at 12:06 PM on November 14, 2011

I'm a Brit that spends a few weeks a year in the US. My observations:

- Not being able to cross a road wherever the hell I like
- Turning right on a red. Why haven't the rest of the world cottoned onto this? This would save hours and hours in London.
- Your metro systems aren't really underground. Putting them directly under the road is cheating!
- Applies mostly to NYC: You guys really, really need to redesign your subway map.
- UK: Subway = Pedestrian road underpass, US: Subway = Underground metro system.

- Hersheys chocolate. I mean, seriously? Is this stuff for real? You guys actually like this?
- The lack of food options from the Indian subcontinent. There are very few Indian restaurants or take aways in most cities.
- The sheer cheapness of fast-food. In NYC I got (pretty good, tasty) hotdogs for 75 cents from a street vendor!

- The scale of business competition: How is it possible for there to be a CVS on one corner of an intersection when there is a Duane Read on the other and a Walgreens on another? This seems to happen everywhere in the big cities.
- The concept of TV networks. Local broadcasters appear to re-brand and rebroadcast the big networks, merging in their own local (mainly news and weather) content. Eg. in San Francisco, CBS is 'KPIX5', ABC is 'KGOTV'. Maddeningly confusing.
- And, why are all TV and radio stations prefixed with a K?
- Customer service. You guys totally get it. We totally do not.
- Bars. As much as I love the cosy British pub, it is totally kick-ass to prop up an American bar, making small talk with the barkeep and the clientele. Americans are social animals, and anyone will speak to anyone in a bar, without the automatic assumption that the enquiring person is trying to get into the other person's pants.
- UK: Pants = underpants, knickers. US: Pants = Trousers. Bizarre.

I'm sure more will come to me if I have a little think.
posted by metaxa at 12:56 PM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

And, why are all TV and radio stations prefixed with a K?

They're not; rather, they are only west of the Mississippi. East of the Mississippi, they are prefixed with a W.
posted by rtha at 1:35 PM on November 14, 2011

Donut shops; and the boggling range of donut types.

(And that they're rarely labelled, at least in non-chain donut shops; natives know the lingo, outsiders have to point, guess, or ask.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:40 PM on November 14, 2011

I want to chime in here, as an American, on how regional most of this stuff is. Also on how regional the expectations coming from Europe are. Hell, even just in Italy, I spent a good deal of time in both Rome and Florence. In Rome, I generally found outright hostility from locals unless it was a blatant attempt to screw me out of money. In Florence, strangers would go out of their way regularly to help tourists as much as they could (this cultural difference almost certainly tied to the way tourists are thought of in those cities, but still.)

But yeah, regional things. I grew up in Houston, so it took me a while to realize what "culture" actually means, because in Houston it mostly means "make things as big as they can conceivably be." In Oklahoma the Native American influence is clearly there, and class (in terms of money) means a lot less than elsewhere. New York is extremely walkable, Connecticut isn't at all unless you're on the few blocks of main street of whatever town you're in, etc.

Which gets to another thing. Driving in NY, LA or DC is a nightmare to the uninitiated, but in very, very different ways. To an American driver, DC is probably the most frustrating, traffic-wise. But to a European driver, it would maybe be the most sensible - it is, after all, a town designed by a Frenchman to be a paramount of Continental status. So, lots of roundabouts and such things which drive Americans bonkers. LA's freeways may be insane but at least we're used to that sort of thing. And NY driving isn't so bad if you have an American's instincts of where and where not to try it.

Meanwhile, I had been driving for over a decade before I first encountered a Michigan Left. Not in Michigan, mind you, but in New Orleans, where they are the basic way of turning left everywhere. NY prohibits right turns on red light, except in a few spots like the Rockaways where they put signs up saying it's cool there. You can also carry open containers of alcohol in New Orleans, which you can't do many other places.

The work ethic, and general sensibility, is something I'm currently discussing with my ex-GF as I write this (she's first generation Chinese-American.) Work-as-identity is very, very big here. More than I ever really understood. Her parents are both chemists who came over as University staff, and have the mentality of doing the 40-hour work week so that other things can be done with that money, and off-time can be spent well. She is a lawyer and looking for any way into another profession right now, because the six-figure salary doesn't mean anything to her if she hates the job. I think job-dissatisfaction is just a very different thing in the states than it is in Europe. On the flip-side, I think Materialism is a very different thing here as well. Live-to-work vs. Work-to-live, as has been said.

In any case, America is too big and Europe too big and both too diverse to answer this definitively without knowing more about the character's origins and where in the US he or she lands, but if nothing else, this made me rethink a moment of Doctor Who's last season. At the beginning of "The Impossible Astronaut," Amy and Rory set off for America and we cut to them arriving via a yellow school bus in Monument Valley. At first, my only thoughts were to the way that non-Americans think of the unsettled west as equaling America, the same way that those of us here think of the Outback as being Australia. No matter how much we instinctively know that there's no one out there, we will always flash to that image of that foreign place.

But now I know there was something else, something deeper going on there. The Yellow School Bus, which I'd never recognized as a quintessentially American thing before today. Yes, but of course it's been seen all over all visual media the world over. Yes, of course it's a US thing. In exactly the same way that the blue police box is a ubiquitous, but extraordinarily, iconically British thing.

Amy and Rory arrived in an American TARDIS. That alone was worth the price of admission to this thread.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:21 PM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

> It's impossible to find Hostess Twinkies and the like in Manhattan. Aren't such things American cultural staples?

Something went horribly wrong, or you weren't looking in the right places. It's not America if you can't buy a Twinkie in it.

Many non-American friends have told me that they are amazed at how efficiently and unconsciously Americans will stand in line / queue up. And yet there are other forms of spontaneous organization that elude us. When I was traveling in Germany, I found it strangely reassuring to be in a country where strangers will yell at you for walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk. I wouldn't advise taking the same approach in the U.S., however.
posted by a small part of the world at 6:44 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Something went horribly wrong, or you weren't looking in the right places.

Well Manhattan is a weird place. You don't seem to have supermarkets in the city centre like we do (yeah there's Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, but they're own-brand). There are bodegas here and there, and a Gristedes now and then, not to mention the drugstores, but none stocked cakes like Twinkies. A few even gave us funny looks when we asked, as if they'd never heard of such things. Madness.
posted by macdara at 12:49 AM on November 15, 2011

American audiences seem to have a greater tendency to applaud than those from, say, the UK. This can be most clearly seen on game shows where contestants clap enthusiastically at mentions of their competitors, jokes made by the presenter and even the end of commercial breaks.

T shirt size discrepancies: French "Extra Large" corresponds to UK "Large" and to US "Medium".

As somebody who is not very used to driving on the right, the "WRONG WAY" signs placed at freeway exits are the stuff of nightmares.
posted by rongorongo at 9:09 AM on November 15, 2011

The yellow school buses can be seen in other countries, as old American ones migrate. I had a friend whose church bought one and drove it down to somewhere in Central America, for use by a school they were helping. I saw one in Havana years ago.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:26 AM on November 15, 2011

American audiences for live TV game shows and such are told when to applaud. There are signs in studios that light up with "Applaud" when the cue calls for it, and there are (I have read) also production people standing off-camera encouraging the applause.
posted by rtha at 9:37 AM on November 15, 2011

rtha/rongorongo: that's not specifically an American thing. I can speak from personal experience that British game/quiz shows have applause-leaders, and will ask the audience to applaud in between recordings so that they can tape it and use it as fill-ins. The amount of applause is tailored to the expectations of the audience and genre.

But, on the subject of quirks -- the number of disclaimers on advertising and packaging. "Portions of this show have been edited." "Professional driver, closed course." "Simulated action. Do not attempt." "Warning: contains peanuts" on a jar of peanut butter. I don't want to get into the old tale of McDonald's coffee, given the facts of that specific case, but there's a dovetail of a perceived hyper-literalism and the defensiveness of a litigious society.
posted by holgate at 9:53 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

California Proposition 65 requires warnings on products worded as follows: "WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm." A lot of businesses post signs saying this, as well. It was a bit strange moving to California from a US state which does not have such signs -- surely California is no more cancer-causing than Pennsylvania!

A lot of businesses in California also post signs above their front doors saying "THIS DOOR TO REMAIN UNLOCKED DURING BUSINESS HOURS", which I don't remember seeing back east. California likes signs.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:58 AM on November 15, 2011

Fear of roundabouts (unless one lives in Carmel, Indiana)
posted by rongorongo at 10:06 AM on November 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

From Canada:

Churches and church-propaganda. Televisions playing Fox/CNN/CNBC everywhere. Extremely wide roads. American flags everywhere. Being much more disadvantaged without a car. Stability and scale of systemic racism. Low prices for consumer goods. Dinginess / broken-down-ness of public infrastructure. Expense and luxury of conspicuous consumption. Food portion sizes.
posted by ead at 4:09 PM on November 26, 2011

Thinking about the original question, a couple of things I found disorienting when I first arrived in the US from the UK in 1989 were: how I couldn't understand the supermarket, and I couldn't understand body language in the city.

By 'understand the supermarket', I don't mean that I was confused by the concept of a supermarket, but rather by the design, naming and colouring of all the products on display. It made me realize how much I'd internalized British brand names, packaging, product options, slogans, et cetera, when it took me about twenty minutes to choose a toothpaste, and another twenty to choose a loaf of bread, and so on. It was like I had to do a crash course at shopping school, reading all the packages to find out what the options were. It also made me realize just how ridiculous and arbitrary most product names are.

By 'understand body language in the city', again, I don't mean I was confused by the concept or scale of one -- I grew up in cities -- but by how differently everyone (and I mean *everyone*) looked, dressed, stood around and moved compared with anything back home. It made me think about how much I relied on stereotypes of who was approachable, who was a threat, and what was expected of me as I moved through the city myself, and again it felt like I was having to take a Social Appearances 101 course to become comfortable with it all.
posted by fcw at 7:08 AM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

It was like I had to do a crash course at shopping school, reading all the packages to find out what the options were. It also made me realize just how ridiculous and arbitrary most product names are.

It manifests itself in a few different ways: you're simultaneously ignorant of the brand associations, because you don't have the same exposure to print and TV advertising, while having a child-like susceptibility to their appearance on the shelf.
posted by holgate at 8:03 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

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.
posted by ke rose ne

Even educated people don't know how to use knife and fork properly. Everything is cut into pieces and then forks is switched to right hand and everything is just scooped into mouth.
posted by zeikka

I've never noticed this. I keep the fork in my left hand all the time and use the knife in my right to cut the piece I'm about to eat. Then again, I'm a left-handed American, so suppose I'm a bit more ambidextrous than righties.

Either way, I am apparently oblivious to what other people are doing though, because I've never noticed it here or when I've dined in other countries...

How should people be using their utensils? Am I doing it right?
posted by hankscorpio83 at 11:28 AM on December 9, 2011

Two handed eating (as in knife in one hand, fork in the other and no switching) is 'normal' to me. The hand swapping thing was a source of much amusement to me when I came to the US and my wife (american) was taught it was 'proper' to swap hands as a child.

I have no idea why people think they can't put their left hand to their mouth at all (or feel they shouldn't. Never did get a proper explanation, and I have seen it all over the US.

I eat with a fork in my right hand if I don't need a knife at all, though.
posted by Brockles at 11:37 AM on December 9, 2011

my wife (american) was taught it was 'proper' to swap hands as a child.
posted by Brockles

WEIRD. I am definitely going to watch people eat WAY more closely now. This intrigues me.

I have never heard of it, but if Wikipedia says so...

Also mentioned there and here, I always thought that the "hidden handle" grip was weird for a fork, but I've apparently mixed etiquette styles.

posted by hankscorpio83 at 11:51 AM on December 9, 2011

Coming to this thread super late!

Some Americans have a passive-aggressive type of humor.

e.g They're handing plates out to everyone for dinner and when they reach you, they say, "Nope, none for you," and go on passing plates to other people with a stoic expression. And then there's 10 seconds of angst and confusion on your part before they come back and say, "Just kidding!"

Is that supposed to be funny? It's not witty or anything. And how do you respond to something like that?

So many amazing supermarket deals. I had to tear myself away from a "10 for $10" Snapple deal a few days ago.

Male, white, nerdy young adults: loose t-shirt, khaki pants that end right above the knee, long white socks that go mid-shin, and sneakers.
posted by facehugger at 6:07 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

For posterity's sake, here's a FPP discussing travel advice to those visiting the US from abroad with some potentially apt observations from both sides.
posted by maryr at 7:26 AM on June 13, 2012

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