Things Americans Do That Confuse The Rest Of The World

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Here are some weird things about America that confuse Europe and the world.

The United States of America is the land of the free, the home of the brave, and also the home to a lot of weird stuff that most other countries don’t do. This former British colony has truly grown up to be its own, quirky person. The following ten things tend to confuse non-Americans, and you can find non-natives of the US of A discussing them all across the internet.

10. Tipping

America definitely isn't the only country in the world where tipping is a common practice. In fact, if you’re curious about what jobs get tipped in what countries, there’s a website called Who To Tip that breaks down the tipping customs of the world. But America is certainly the country where tipping is the most prevalent.

In most countries and cultures around the world, tipping is simply an 'optional charge', should you feel your server deserves to be rewarded for their efforts. However, in America, you should always give a tip of around 10-20%, especially at restaurants.

Benreis, CC BY 3.0 <creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Tipping is a big part of American culture, which seems odd to outsiders. People may dislike tipping, but it’s probably here to stay. In America, the unspoken system is that food prices in restaurants are lower than they should be because tips allow the restaurant to pay the wait staff less. They can then charge you less for food.

At least that’s what you can try telling your friend the next time he doesn’t want to contribute to the tip at a restaurant because he recently saw Reservoir Dogs.

Whilst a lot of people argue that tipping is a good thing because it increases the quality of service you receive, this isn't actually true. Cornell University published a study that revealed the real reason people tip, more or less, is basically random, and customers who receive great service, tip, on average, just 1% more than those who don't. Lots of people around the world look at America and ask: why not pay service workers a normal amount of money and just make the food more expensive?

9. Have Few Vacation Days

Americans don’t go on vacation as much as the rest of the world does. On average, we're given only 12 vacation days by our work, as opposed to Europeans, who get between 25 and 30. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Americans on average only use 10 of their 12 given vacation days, whereas Europeans tend to use all of theirs.

I guess Americans just can’t bring themselves to leave the office while there’s still work to be done. And whilst it may suggest Europeans are lazy, according to a mounting body of research, it's actually counterproductive not to take a vacation, as breaks help us rejuvenate, increasing our productivity over time.

Not only that, when us Americans do go on vacation, we also travel less internationally than citizens of most other countries, but that may be related to our limited number of vacation days. 12 days just doesn't allow for an international trip as well as 30 does; as the time and cost of travel to international destinations is so great.

According to the Department of Commerce, American international travelers spent 42% of the cost of their entire trip simply on the travel to and from their destination.

It's then not too surprising that most Americans don’t even have a passport. Only 42% of US citizens own a passport, whereas 76% of English citizens do. That means at least 58% of Americans haven't left the U.S., as you need a passport to travel.

To the rest of the world, this is an odd characteristic of such a prosperous nation. Whilst its partly due to limited vacation days, it may also be because Americans lack the desire to travel as much as the rest of the world.

8. Food Preferences

When you go to a restaurant in America, you’re probably going to get a lot of food; at least, a lot more than most other nations would serve. It's a popular topic of discussion amongst non-Americans online. Many European tourists admit they would frequently just order one item off the menu and share it with another person.

America does it big, and for non-Americans, the size options at fast-food restaurants perfectly illustrate this. Take a look at this image by a Japanese citizen in 2011, comparing the sizes of McDonald's drink sizes in America, Vs. Japan. The medium Japanese cup is the exact same size as the small American cup and the American medium is larger than the Japanese large!

Okinawa Soba - McDonald's USA vs Japan (Flickr)

But McDonald's is on the small size. Here are the 'small' sizes at a number of vendors, showing just how much larger a 'small' cup is in America.

Okinawa Soba - Japan McDonald's vs Usa (Flickr)

Whilst many around the world like to joke about how it proves Americans are fat; the truth is a lot of them take away their leftovers in carry-out boxes to eat throughout the week.

Still, American food is vastly different to food found in the rest of the world. For one, non-Americans are, on the whole, less obsessive about peanut butter. Brian Sternthal, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has said that “In many parts of the world, peanut butter is regarded as an unpalatable American curiosity.”

For example, according to statista, Americans eat a kilogram of it per year, compared to 100 grams eaten per-person, per-year in Europe. That's ten times the amount Europeans eat!

Other American food anomalies that have confused Europeans include comparatively small fruit and vegetable aisles full of fruits and vegetables that will cost you a lot more than they would across the Atlantic, as well as an overabundance of highly processed sweet and salty foods, and so-called cheese that can be sprayed out of a can.

7. College Sports

In America, college sports are almost as popular as professional sports. In some areas, they’re actually more popular. People will have barbecues outside of stadiums for hours before the games start, paint their faces, and hate on rival academic institutions.

College athletics are taken just as seriously by the fans, who don’t care that the players aren’t as good as the pros and aren’t even getting paid. This may be baffling to our neighbors, but there is an explanation for this American pastime of watching what are literally amateur games.

Unlike most fun-sized European countries, America is massive. There are lots of places that just aren’t anywhere near a major city where you could go and see a professional team play. Colleges are the next best thing, and there’s bound to be one of them nearby at least. College football and basketball also actually predate those professional leagues, so college athletics culture has been around forever.

6. Prescription Drug Commercials

Non-Americans who travel to the US are often surprised to find that there are advertisements for prescription drugs on regular television. You can’t go and buy them from stores, so the commercials urge viewers to ask their doctor about them.

Prescription Drugs Procon.org

In 2016, Kantar Media, a firm that tracks multimedia advertising, reported that nearly 800,000 prescription drug advertisements were aired on television, which was a 65% increase from just four years prior.

Basically, the reason these commercials don’t exist in other countries is because they aren’t legal in other countries. In fact, the only other country where these kinds of commercials exist is New Zealand.

The US pharmaceutical industry is huge – it generated 425 billion dollars in 2015. If they're allowed to advertise, of course they’re going to. And it works. Direct to consumer advertised drugs tend to sell better than drugs that aren’t.

But they're controversial, and it seems the reason America allows them comes down to our free speech protections under the first amendment. Governments of most countries around the world think they're dangerous, and the research suggests they're not wrong. Even the American Medical Association has called for a ban on them as these advertisements have been proven by studies to broaden the scope of who gets treated with prescription drugs. They also lead to patients being influenced to take newer, less effective drugs that often cost more. For example, Vioxx which was later withdrawn as it caused life-threatening side-effects such as increasing the risks of heart attacks and strokes.

5. Soccer

America, of course, isn't the only country that plays soccer, but we are one of the only countries that calls the game you play with your feet ''soccer'' and the one you play with your hands football. We stand with countries like Australia, Korea, South Africa and Italy in not calling the sport “football”.

u/reddripper on Reddit

Understandably, it confuses most of the world. So... what is the origin of this counter-intuitive name?

Soccer is an abbreviation of “association'', which came from ''Association football” - the 'official' name for the game. The suffix '-er' was added as a common jocular slang term of the time.

The reason the name has stuck is because American football developed in the mid-19th century, evolving from the British game of rugby. Back then, rugby was loosely known as football, but it was often called rugby to make the distinction.

Archives New Zealand Reference: AAQT 6539 W3537 113 / A97369

All these sports were about moving the ball forward, but as the game developed across the pond, Americans developed different rules about how you were allowed to do it and what you could wear.

The most popular ruleset in England ended up being the one where you can only use your feet. And the most popular ruleset in America ended up being the one where you get to smash into each other. Hence why the two totally different sports have the same names in the two countries.

4. Not including sales tax

Wherever there's a discussion of American sales tax on the Internet, you can find non-Americans telling their tales of being shocked at the final price because they didn’t realize that sales tax wasn’t included.

In most countries, the price tag on an item includes the part you have to pay to the government so they can build roads and other things. But not here in the US. This is because sales taxes in America can vary by county, so something could cost a slightly different amount just a mile away.

There are also very specific laws about what gets sales taxed. For instance if you order coffee to go, there will not be sales tax in California, but if you sit down in the café and eat a donut you will have to pay sales tax. Essentially, with all these rules, it becomes difficult to put things on a price tag.

3. Not use the metric system

The United States of America has no need for universally accepted and logical measurement systems because Thomas Jefferson said so.

In 1790, when the metric system was being developed, he simply decided not to bring it to America. So it didn’t happen.

America, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only countries in the world that use the imperial system.

Liberia uses the same units that America does, and Myanmar is a bit of a mess. They use a combination of their own totally unique Burmese measuring units, American imperial units, and metric units. So, they may have the distinction of being the only country with a bigger headache when it comes to this than America.

But surely now that Thomas Jefferson is long dead, we could just switch over, right? Well it isn’t that simple. It would cost a lot of money to switch over the country’s whole infrastructure to the metric system now that the US already uses their own unique imperial system.

The closest the US has gotten is that today, in US schools, kids learn about both the imperial and metric systems. So most of us do have a basic understanding of how the metric system works, even if we never really use it. Even if you buy a measuring tape in the US, it will have both imperial and metric units on it.

Throughout American history there have been various attempts to reform the system and switch over, but none have succeeded. It would seem as though Thomas Jefferson’s wish for an extra special system shall live on for the foreseeable future.

It hasn't come without its consequences though, as this confusion has led to enormous mistakes, like the mars orbiter that was lost by NASA because of a metric system mixup.

2. Month before the day

The United States is the only country that, when writing out the date, puts the month before the day - and it seems to extremely aggravate the rest of the world. Most other countries write the day, then the month, then the year. The majority of countries, and most of Europe and South America, do it this way.

It seems logical, as the units of time are then in order from smallest to largest. Also seemingly logical is how the date is written in China and Japan, which is year, month day; or largest to smallest.

So, why do we format time like this? Well unfortunately, there's no widely accepted answer as to why this is the case. The month day year order was used in Britain in the 1800s, but why we chose to keep it when Britain ceased to do so is something of a historical mystery.

The best guess is likely that the order reflects how Americans say dates verbally. An American would be more likely to say that it is “January first” than they would be to say that it is “the first of January”. Our notation, then, could simply be a way of writing out what would be the most conversational.

1. Having a drinking age of 21

A 20-year-old European may be in for a shock when they fly to the US and discover that they can no longer legally drink alcohol. While you may already know about this peculiar American practice, what you may not know is why it is the case.

In 1984, the US passed a law called the Drinking Age Act. It stated that if a state did not create a minimum drinking age of 21, they would lose up to 10% of their federal highway funding. The states all took the hint and made the drinking age 21. But, why 21?

Well, America has a long and storied past with alcohol, including prohibition. Lawmakers didn't just pick the number out of a hat. It dates back centuries to old English common law, which states a person becomes a full adult aged 21, at which age a person could, among other things, vote and become a knight. Still, as shown by this map, the U.S. is one of just a few developed countries to have a minimum legal drinking age over 18.

In fact, in some countries like Belgium and Germany, 16-year-olds are allowed to purchase alcohol.

Alcoholic or not, if you order a drink in America you’re probably going to get it with a lot of ice. In most other countries, you just won’t see the sheer quantity of ice that you’ll get in your American beverage.

Granted, you'll often get ice in your drinks in many European countries, but ice-cold beverages are the default option in America, whereas lots of people from other countries don't have the same preference and drinks aren't always served with ice.

Will Shenton, CC BY-SA 3.0 <creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This cultural difference is frequently debated online. It could be because in some countries you shouldn’t drink tap water, which is where that ice came from, and in others, it just isn’t common to automatically have ice with a meal at a restaurant.

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