Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to take a time out from the rat race and go backpacking for 8 months around the world with my husband. Yesterday, as I was taking a trip down memory lane, I remembered the situations we found ourselves in during our travels that marked us as distinctly “American” and that in turn got me thinking about the American habits that foreigners visiting the U.S. may find odd.
I distinctly remember being surprised a number of times in many countries and continents at how disorderly things were in comparison to what I was used to. One of my more vivid memories took place in Egypt where a crowd massed around a Cairo bakery at opening time and people pushed and shoved their way to the front and yelled their order rather than wait in line or take numbers and wait their “turn.” I remember being highly annoyed on several occasions when someone cut in front of us in long lines at ticket windows at bus and train stations. In many countries, I marveled at how few traffic accidents there were given the lack of traffic signals or any apparent road rules. I also recall the realization that Americans are so accustomed to such an uncommon amount of variety woven into our lives that we take for granted the privilege of the choice we have.
It finally dawned on me, however, that the shock and self-realization I experienced would also occur for people of other nationalities visiting my country. From these recollections, I give you my list of top 5 “weird” American habits that foreign tourists should be prepared to encounter when visiting the United States.
Waiting Your Turn is Expected
Americans are big on waiting your turn. We wait to be seated at restaurants, we wait in line to buy things and we (usually) stay in street lanes and abide by traffic signals. I suspect it is the American notion of fairness that drives our need and expectation that others wait their turn. Since being back in the U.S., I have observed some hostile interactions of culture clash when a visitor from another country commits the faux pas of jumping ahead of a local waiting his or her turn for a service. We’re not trying to be mean or ungracious, but we can get a little rattled when we think common courtesy has been breached. I encourage foreign visitors to follow the lead of the local people and get in line or wait to be seated while you’re on your trip to the U.S.A. if you want to avoid ruffling feathers. If in doubt, ask someone with a friendly face what the custom is.
Queue Cutting = No No
Okay, this really isn’t that different from waiting your turn. However, I make special mention of it because queue cutting seems to be oh-so-common in other parts of the world. Yet it is fairly frowned upon in the U.S. Yes, Americans do cut in line, but it really isn’t the norm, and it is usually kids or teenagers doing it (and getting unhappy looks from other people in line). Perhaps Americans take the little things a little too seriously at times, but queue cutting is a surefire way to annoy your neighbors in line. The longer the line, the more likely it is that someone is going to get angry at a line cutter. So to maximize your chances of positive interactions with the local folk, don’t cut the queue.
Variety is the Spice of American Life
I personally believe that the melting pot experience has spoiled us and our expectations of variety. This country has such diversity of culture, and it has influenced what we are accustomed to. In many other parts of the world, the same foods are eaten every day as part of a daily routine and traditions are revered and enjoyed time after time.
While Americans do have traditions and favorite foods, we also have such a plethora of choice that variety is perceived as a right rather than a privilege. The number of items to choose from on a restaurant menu is almost endless. We expect various choices in entertainment, never ending wardrobe choices in our bedroom closets and copious television stations to choose from. Americans can get bored easily doing the same thing or eating the same foods because we have a notion of wanting to keep things fresh and interesting with variety. Be prepared for a number of choices and try not to be overwhelmed by the number of options, and don’t be afraid to ask for help to narrow your choices down if it feels like too much.
Bigger is Better
“Bigger is better” and “more is better” are common phrases in American vocabulary. Portion sizes are big, cars are huge, homes are large, theme parks are sprawling, and Americans demand the most they can get for their money. I believe that Americans want to feel that they are getting a good value for their money and that feeling has translated into a perception that bigger really is better, and more is better than less. I remember feeling quite overwhelmed by my first meal back in the U.S. after being gone for 8 months, taken aback by the copious amount of food on my plate and the oversized footprint of the building containing the restaurant. From this experience, I can imagine that it would be daunting as a non-native encountering the super-sized nature of American culture for the first time.
Cars Reign Supreme for Transportation
Sadly, America lacks the infrastructure as well as the public desire to have adequate public transportation. Cars are a right of passage in our country. Teenagers covet driver’s licenses and first cars as symbolic signs of growing up while adults select cars as one would fashion accessories or status symbols. A few major cities have good public transportation systems, but most of the country relies on cars to get, well, everywhere. If you want to see the U.S. landscape and history on your visit, you will need to rent a car or you will be very limited on accessing sites and attractions.
If you are a soon to be first-time visitor to the United States, hopefully this list of American oddities will help you know what to expect and make your trip a more enjoyable one!
After returning from her backpacking tour, Tracey Louis spent a few years in the Texas Hill Country as an innkeeper at a lakeside retreat. She fell in love with the peaceful Highland Lakes and now writes about and promotes this hidden gem in the Texas Hill Country.