American Things Europeans Can't Understand
There are lots of strange cultural differences between America and Europe, but some American customs are so strange, Europeans can't even understand them.Society
While the culture of the United States is exported all over the world in films and on TV, it also abides by some laws and practices that many consider unusual. Europeans in particular seem to have a hard time wrapping their heads around some of them. From child beauty pageants to gun laws, let’s explore some American things that Europeans can’t understand.
Too Many Commercials
If you’re a European enjoying a cozy night in on the couch in America, some of the stuff on TV may shock and surprise you. And no, I’m not talking about Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I’m talking about commercials, which arrive so frequently it makes watching TV feel almost unbearable to anyone unaccustomed to it.
Especially pharmaceutical commercials, which usually show grumpy men and women turned into smiling, happy people by the product being sold. These are usually followed by an almost comically-long list of potential side effects, spoken at double speed. Like this Ambien ad:
These types of direct-to-consumer commercials peddle prescription drugs, which is an advertising standard that was rejected by the European Commission back in 2002. The commission stated that pharmaceutical companies were unable to provide impartial information on their medicines. If that’s the case, why is it practiced in America? To put it simply, there’s simply never been a federal law passed to outlaw the practice.
This is in no small part thanks to the fact that direct-to-consumer drugs and their accompanying ads are a huge business. And in America, whether it’s right or wrong, the rules tend to follow the money. Europeans might actually need a pill for the headache all those ads give them!
Homeowners Association Fee
Let’s say you’re a European who’s just moved over to America. You’ve found a house in a nice residential neighborhood, and you’re going through your bills. Rent, water, gas, and electricity all seem to be in order, but what’s a Homeowners Association Fee?
To a native, that’s a pretty obvious question. But for Europeans, it’s an unwelcome surprise. These fees contribute to the local Homeowners Association, which is somewhat like a neighborhood watch but manages funds to be reinvested into the community. It goes towards things like residential maintenance and common spaces, which keeps residents happy and property values up.
With around 24% of all Americans living under a Homeowner’s Association, they pay $200 to $300 dollars on average per month in fees to these entities. While some Europeans might struggle with this concept, it was a form of governance that was actually invented by France back in 1804!
The Condominium Law was exported to the US, where it became incredibly popular. So, for any European that wants to complain about homeowner regulations and fees, feel free to blame the French!
The USA has one of the largest economies in the world. But Europeans looking to get into the American world of work are often shocked when it comes to vacation time. US workers are not entitled to mandatory paid vacation at all. Usually, the issue of paid leave is left at the discretion of employers; and that does include national holidays.
According to research from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, in 2017 only 77% of American workers had access to paid vacation. And the reason that might leave Europeans slack-jawed is that mandatory paid vacation time in Europe starts at 4 weeks! In fact, America is one of the only Western countries where the law doesn’t enforce companies to give their employees mandatory paid vacation time.
Take a look at the map below breaking down mandatory paid vacation time by country; only the grey countries are known not to give paid time off. It’s a working culture that undoubtedly favors employers over employees.
If the American States could be looked at as a dysfunctional family, then Florida would be the weird uncle who once ran away with the circus and wrestled a tiger.
The Sunshine State is the third most populous state in the USA and receives over 100 million visitors year on year. With so many people living between Miami Beach, Disney Land, and Pensacola, a little crazy is bound to be found on the fringes of society.
But what Europeans aren’t prepared for are the crazy antics of Floridians that make daily headlines. From "Florida man believed that he was Half Man, Half Dog" in March 2019, to "Florida man robs bank, strips naked, then runs down the street throwing stolen money everywhere" in July 2017.
You can search the internet for almost any day of the year and find a headline announcing Florida Man has committed an utterly baffling crime. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for any European countries, although the UK comes close with some of its questionable journalism topics, like ‘Britain’s Fattest Woman Ate Fridge and Died’. By the way, we have a whole article dedicated to crazy Florida Man stories.
In Europe, like most of the world, tax is built into the price of items in-store and online; so, what you see on the tag is what you pay. But Europeans visiting an American store might be left doing a double take at their bill when they reach the register.
There is no national sales tax or value-added tax in America. Instead, American taxes differ by jurisdiction, of which there are around 7,000! Differences in these local rates, state taxes, or combined state and local taxes mean that final prices for the same item can differ from one street to the next! For first-time shoppers in the US, this unpleasant surprise is a rite of passage that no one asked for.
A meal at a restaurant can be a real treat, but Europeans visiting America sometimes stress about the tip! Although tipping anywhere up to 20% seems normal to most Americans, there’s no such obligation in Europe. Indeed, it’s mostly seen as a bonus reward for good service, and in some European countries, it’s even considered rude and excessive to leave a tip.
The American federal government, however, states that tips can be used to satisfy the difference between the employee’s hourly wage and the standard minimum wage. This means food servers, valets and in-house staff in certain states can be working for a federal wage of just $2.13 per hour, which is about €1.96. So, if you’re a European visitor to the States, you might well be contributing to a struggling waiter’s rent.
Child Beauty Pageants
If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have watched an episode of "Toddlers and Tiaras" on TLC, you might side with the Europeans on the next matter. Child Beauty Pageants are common across America and usually consist of dolled-up little girls being thrust onto a stage to entertain a crowd of screaming moms. It’s truly bizarre.
But what’s equally strange is how the craze got started! Child pageants originated from American "Better Baby Contests" in the early 20th century. Babies would be scored on characteristics like weight, quality of skin, and face shape, supposedly in the name of helping to educate mothers on best practices for healthy babies.
But of course, it wasn’t just for education purposes; there were also cash rewards and trophies for top-ranking toddlers. This has slowly devolved into the bedazzled tradition of pushing a child on stage in full make-up and styled hair to do a dance routine for prize money.
Although some European countries host similar but smaller events, others like France have gone as far as to ban all such pageants, claiming they’re an unhealthy way to treat young girls. If you ask me, their general creepiness alone should be enough to slam the brakes on child beauty pageants. Honey Boo Boo? No thanks.
Size is Everything
According to an old saying, Everything’s Bigger in Texas. But if you’re a European you’ll probably think that about all of America, right down to its people. It’s no secret that America has a little bit of a weight problem. Two-thirds of American adults classify as overweight and it’s estimated that almost 40% of adults in the US aged 20 and over are obese.
This contrasted with Europe, where a survey carried out in 2014 labeled just 15% of adults obese. That’s a king-sized difference, with a side of fries. The American tendency to overeat might have something to do with portion sizes in the States.
A study comparing portions in Paris and Philadelphia revealed food outlet portions were 25% larger in Philly. And a review of 17 different single-serve foods, like yogurt and candy bars, found that 14 of them were bigger in Philadelphia. While a one-state-to-one-country comparison doesn’t necessarily represent the whole, Europeans on social media often comment on how much bigger everything seems state-side.
Living in America can really give you a taste of the sweet life, but your teeth won’t thank you for it. Some American foods and drinks have been found to contain huge amounts of sugar compared to their European equivalents. Some common bread brands contain up to 6g of sugar per serving; 6 times the amount found in European counterparts.
But it doesn’t end there! Taking a look at Pizza Hut’s sugar content reveals most of their Stateside pizzas have close to double the amount of sugar per slice as European versions! And in Starbucks, a UK Venti White Chocolate Mocha will contain 62.4 grams of sugar, but in America that shoots up to 72 grams!
Public Bathroom Gaps
European standards of building a public restroom involve plenty of privacy, mainly in the form of cubicles with doors that are more door than gap. Seems obvious, but it’s a standard that Americans just can’t seem to adopt. With ridiculously large gaps at the top, bottom, and sides, it makes for a truly uncomfortable first visit to an American toilet for unwitting visitors.
On their first time, Europeans are left feeling particularly susceptible to unwelcome visitors and peeping toms. Some people even resort to tapping up the gap to prevent prying eyes from looking in! But as strange as the design seems, there are some theories as to why Americans build their stalls this way.
For a start, high floor gaps allow for easier cleaning, and they do make it simpler to pass toilet paper from one cubicle to another. On top of that, the vertical gaps act as a deterrent for anyone thinking of doing anything naughty behind closed doors. But there’s always the chance you might accidentally get a real eyeful. Maybe just close your eyes before entering any American restrooms.
Supermarkets Selling Guns
It strikes many Europeans as a bit odd that in America you can pick up your groceries from one aisle of a store, and a gun from another. Indeed, you can buy guns over the counter in places like Walmart, and ammo can be found in pharmacies.
But seeing as guns are still legal in many parts of Europe, what is it that Europeans find weird about the gun-loving, rifle-wielding, second-amendment-touting American citizen? It might have something to do with America’s gun-related death rates, seeing as – per capita – there were 12 gun-related deaths for every 100,000 people in America in 2017.
Very few European countries exceed 3 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, and none even come close to America’s 12 per 100,000. The causes of the problem are fiercely debated, but it might have something to do with how easy it is to buy a gun. Background checks are usually carried out, but a research survey from Harvard in 2015 estimated that a third of American gun owners have purchased a firearm without a background check!
In Europe, many countries like Austria and Germany require would-be gun owners to go through a rigorous seven-step procedure before owning a gun. High-caliber handguns are outright banned in the UK, and many categories of semi-automatic weapons are illegal to own across Europe. It’s simply much harder to legally purchase a gun in Europe than it is in the US, which is a trigger point for some!
If you were amazed at these American things Europeans can't understand, you might want to read our article about things Americans do that confuse the rest of the world. Thanks for reading!