Travel is necessarily colored by our backgrounds and personalities. These factors along with many more shape our travel experience and ultimately decide for us what we think about new destinations. Being American, I’m somewhat blind to our national eccentricities and so I wanted to find out what foreign visitors think about us as a people and nation. I reached out to some of my favorite non-American travel bloggers and asked them each the same question: What do you think is strange or odd about the United States? I think you’ll love the responses as much as I did.
Deb Corbeil and Dave Bouskill: The Planet D
Being Canadian and growing up with American TV and news, we like to think that we know a thing or two about our big brother to the South. We have many American friends that we know and love and we spent many vacations road tripping around the country. Many times we feel right at home in America but then again, some states feel completely foreign. In the end, there are many differences between Canada and the US, but what do we find the most odd about the United States? The fact that their drinking age is 21! People can be sent to war at the age of 18 and own firearms at 18. They can star in an adult movie at 18 and they can help choose the ruler of the most powerful nation on earth at the age of 18. What’s the deal with having to wait another three years to be allowed to drink legally? I’m sure many University students will agree with me, this is a rule that is made to be broken. If you are adult enough to do all of the above, I would think that you are adult enough to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at the ball game.
Dave Dean: What’s Dave Doing? and Too Many Adapters
One of the things I find particularly odd in the US is the way that advertised prices never seem to include taxes. It’s actually illegal to do that where I come from (New Zealand), so I remember being very confused when I would walk up to pay for my $1.99 item at the checkout with two bucks in my hand, only to be told the price was $2.13 or whatever and I’d have to start scrambling through my pockets for loose change. Even now, 15 years after I first went to the USA, it still catches me out more often than not whenever I’m back.
Keith Jenkins: Velvet Escape
How-ar-ya (?)(!) My very first visit to the USA was to New York City. From there, I travelled solo in a loop around the country. One thing that quickly grabbed my attention about American customs is how often they ask “How are you?” Everywhere I went, from the immigrations officer at the airport to taxi drivers, shop assistants, waiters, bartenders and hotel staff, everyone wanted to know how I was doing, or so it seemed. I found myself saying “Fine, thanks” countless times each day and it started to get annoying. I simply wasn’t accustomed to it. Having lived in various parts of the world where this custom isn’t prevalent, I was used to only asking people I know how they were doing. I watched how Americans reacted themselves – it varied from a nod or a smile to the start of a lengthy conversation! I wondered if it was meant as a real question or a simple greeting (“how are you?” instead of “welcome” or “good morning”). Probably somewhere in between, I concluded.
Jiyeon Juno Kim: Runaway Juno
When I first went to the US I was fascinated by funny signs around the country. I like the sense of humor people have here. On t-shirts, street signs, informational billboards and names; I liked them all. My favorite so far is: “Drink Coffee! Do stupid things faster with more energy.” Also the cute ‘x-sing’ series cannot be missed. I took a lot of photos of the signs and even my friends sent them to me. Some of my American readers said that it’s good I find these interesting when they find it embarrassing. We had a lot of fun sharing. I continued searching and I have quite a selection now. So far I’ve been to 24 states, and now I have to visit the rest of the country to search funnier signs!
Abigail King: Inside the Travel Lab
Ice. The need to force so much ice into a glass that it’s near impossible for anything else to go in. Water so cold it sends jolts of pain through your teeth and tortures your thirsty soul with the promise of hydration that’s in one way so near and yet in another so very, very far away…
Chris Richardson: The Aussie Nomad
I took a road trip through Florida recently and as this was my first time driving on the WRONG side of the road I was obviously cautious about the whole process. It was going well until I stopped at a stop sign saying “stop 4-ways”, WTF is that? Back home in Australia this would have either been a round about or a give way sign where you allow people to your right to go first. The problem compounded itself when all of a sudden there were 4 cars all sitting and looking at each other… All I could imagine was the free for all sales I see happen in the US where everyone is all in trying to race each other. Seeing I was in a rental car I sat and waited for the others before driving off. I’ve since found out whoever gets there first has right of way but damn is this not a crazy road rule to have. What happens when someone else decides they were first and not you?
Claudia Saleh: Aprendiz de Viajante
The need to have an invitation for everything and well in advance. As Brazilians we are much more spontaneous. Usually if you visit Brazil you can certainly expect to get invited to someone’s house/party or for a drink hours later. Friends drop by without announcing it weeks in advance. You would be happy if they call a few minutes before getting to your place. And nobody sweats about it. Here, everything has to have a formal invitation, I don’t know how many days in advance and people get really annoyed if you decide to do something at the spur of the moment and invite them.
Janice Waugh: Solo Traveler
I really had to think about this because, while there are many differences between Canadians and Americans, they are more at an attitudinal level than specific quirky things. I think it is language that’s the most interesting. For example, I always thought calling a bathroom a restroom was quirky. How did this euphemism come about? Do people really go in to rest? When I ask for the bathrooms or toilets or washrooms, people seem quite thrown off. Oh, and some parts of the country just naturally call me “hon”. I like that.
Yvonne Zagermann: JustTravelous
The Non-Walking Thing – I like to walk and I think there’s no better way to explore a city than by foot. But in the US in many cities there’s no such area where you can walk for hours and hours to see all the different stuff and sights. Or just stroll through the streets to see where it will take you. I remember when I’ve been to Memphis and just wanted to walk around in the city center and everyone gave me a strange look. They always take the car or a cab, even to the supermarket around the corner. Ok sometimes I also take my car to the supermarket.
Dima Zemsky: Dima’s Corner
While growing up in Ukraine, I heard stories about gigantic grocery stores from everyone who visited the US. After all, I still remember the days when grocery stores in the Soviet Union had two choices of milk – the one delivered today and the one left from yesterday (if any). Sure, now there are supermarket chains in larger cities and some very progressive people are getting used to the idea of credit cards. Still, the vastness of Walmart (or even a regional retailer such as Safeway, Kroger, HyVee, or Publix) remains one of the main draws for people visiting the US. To that extent, one of the most prominent memories I have of the first few months after moving to Columbus, Ohio are our trips to Meijer’s. Sure there was an awesome THE Ohio State campus, a cool downtown, new language, new culture (first thing I saw on TV – Teletubbies). However, all of that paled in comparison to wandering down the aisles upon aisles of… food. Fifty different yogurts, about as many different brands of canned beans and gadzillion varieties of candy. And then the home goods department. And sports. And auto. And toys! And it was not even a Walmart!
I love these impressions of the US, what are some things you find quirky about the United States?
40 thoughts on “Weird America – What International Travel Writers Think About the U.S.”
The in advance invitation is really a good one. Is it always this way? I heard this custom is actually something new only developed in the last a couple of decades.
No, if anything it used to be more strict
Living in Canada within 100 kms of the border, you’d think that we’d be quite similar to the US, or least with the northern states. Once you cross that border though, it’s just a different feeling. The streets have more lanes, the billboards are bigger, and the messages louder and prouder. What we always find amusing though are some of the names for their hotel chains – they’re cheesy at best! C’mon Inn. Lakeview Inn (with no lake view, usually concrete parking lots. Happy Host. Settle Inn. Staybridge Suites (what the heck is a ‘Staybridge’?), and my favourite, the Super 8 Motel. What’s so super about the number 8? I guess we’d have to stay there to know, so for now, it’ll have to remain a mystery!
LOL I laughed about the Staybridge comment :)
haha.. love this! Great selection Matt!
And Keith, I got annoyed by the number of Thanks Americans say all the time. For a meal, you better thank the cook at least a dozen times, or they will be offended (at least is the case with my mother in law). :)
And Abigail… the Ice is true.. but I got so used to it, that now, I can’t have anything if it is not filled with ice.
Yes, we use a lot of ice. Some is fine, but I get annoyed as well when it’s too much.
I’d have to agree with that ice one… I get annoyed by that as an American. Dima’s point really surprised me though. To think that the Wal-Mart down the street I go to to buy beer on the weekends is a draw to come allll the way to the US! Nice job.
@Keith. If you think the weirdest thing in America is that people say “how are ya?” than I guess it’s the most normal country in the world…
I think Keith’s point is a good one, we tend to use pleasantries as a greeting which is not the case in many countries. Nothing wrong with it, just a societal quirk.
I love the “how are ya” one! When I lived in Japan, it took me so long to get used to the notion that in Japanese, there isn’t a general” how are you doing?” question. They say good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, and that’s their greeting. I felt so… bare without asking how someone was. It opened my eyes to how truly american those phrases are!
That one was a surprise to me as well LOL
Chris’ point about 4-way stops is a good one. The problem is that vast majority of drivers treat all other intersections with STOP signs the same while the rules are actually different (right of way, and so on) but the 4-way rule is so basic that I got flamed pretty bad on FatWallet (where there are usually reasonable people) when mentioning the right of way rule.
Eric – people don’t come to the US for Walmarts just as they don’t come here for ice, but it is certainly one of the first things that come up whenever I meet anyone who has just arrived.
Claudia Beatriz said it right. Why do us Americans say thanks about a hundred times a day?
I’m shocked nobody mentioned the size of Americans. Especially in the southern states, the amount of fat people carry around with them is astonishing. There are some tanks here. Oh and not to mention the size of the cars and SUV’s. They’re gargantuan!
The authors kept things polite Dave, I wish you could have as well.
In the US, if you are getting an early invitation it usually means that’s it’s actually for an occasion where things need to be prepared such as drink, food, music, etc. We Americans do not like to waste money nor be properly prepared. If we invite you over by saying something on the lines of “cmon on over whenever want” then don’t expect anything except just in god coming over and hanging out.
I’m pretty offended by your mention of fat people as “tanks”. Noting that Americans are bigger is one thing, (even though they’re not even close to the “fattest” country in the world) but that’s just rude to name-call. It’s really none of your business if someone is fat or not. It doesn’t affect you in the slightest.
I do agree with you about the giant cars though. After living abroad for some time, I go back to America terrified of driving amongst all the giant pick-up trucks and SUVs, especially in my hometown in Alabama where Ford F-250’s with extended cabs are common fare.
Just a note here that Kaylin is referring to a comment and nothing written in the post itself.
I really enjoyed this post–very interesting perspectives and comments. My sister lives in Sweden and is married to a Swede. They often point out things they find funny when they visit us. One thing I find odd about our country is regional differences. For example, a stick of butter is fatter and shorter on the west coast than it is the east and the box is shaped differently. (At least it was when I lived there 10 years ago.)
I really liked this post Matt. Always interesting to hear what others think when visiting. The small things that even for those of us who think about them sometimes forget. I can imagine soda, pop and coke can be confusing.
Chris Richardson’s comment made me laugh out loud. Ha, four way stops! We’ve got them too and I can’t imagine what foreigners must think when they come upon one. I could just picture his face as he sat there wondering what to do next.
As far as Keith’s comment, I love how American’s ask you how you are. People often say other countries are friendly, but everywhere we go in the States, we feel at home. I like having someone get in an elevator and say hello. When we were traveling through Europe, we missed the friendly ‘hello’s and how are ya’s” More countries should follow suit.
And Abigail, you are so right about the ice. Two sips and the drink is gone. But hey, in most places in America, they have free refills, so you don’t mind getting a lot of ice:-)
Great idea for a post Matt! Very entertaining.
My teeth can’t handle the ice! Shooting pains straight to the head. Maybe that’s because I have British teeth? Au naturel…;-)
What a great post Dave, is very inforamtive as well for things to look out for those that haven’t been there. Especially if they need to add taxes to everything… I have many american friends and not to forget that they find things as quirky as we do when they visit Europe etc. I guess this is the beuaty of travelling and expereinces that you gain.
I’ve lived in America most of my life but every time I return from an international trip, there’s certain things I notice.
One is that people will wait an extra few seconds to hold a door open for whoever is behind them.
Another is the general effectiveness of customer service, be it restaurants, stores, transportation or other things; Americans usually make a point of being prompt and polite, many times going out of their way (there are individual exceptions to this).
Also, American’s are quick to organize when things happen. Great examples are when there are emergencies and disasters; many people share a mentality of “leave nobody behind” and there’s always somebody who steps up as an impromptu leader to coordinate things.
I’m surprised no one mentioned the spelling differences between American English and the rest of the world. Even Canada uses English spelling, although Canadian’s pronounce and spell ‘Aluminum’ just like they do in the States.
Ha! I never realized how often we say “How are you?” in the US. I think it’s a good thing. Why not be friendly? It’s just like saying “hi” :)
Born and raised in NY here, still here now…. although I have traveled many places I found the funniest thing was when I went to Las Vegas and I tried to order seltzer. No matter where I was the waiter or waitress would look at me like I was nuts!!! I forget what they ‘call it’ but it wasn’t seltzer…. something like bubble water, or something… who knows. Case and Point, you can find these funny things just by traveling around your own country, by jumping states lines. :)
Oh, and I am pretty sure that the US is known to have the heaviest people and is know as the most overweight country in the world. It is a major problem, an epidemic even, that we should all take note to. I have many friends from around the world and they notice that for sure when they visit.
Wow…there’s a wake-up call for Americans! Sometimes I find myself frustrated by what I can’t find at the grocery store. Just the right sort of salt or special Mediterranean ingredients or… I suddenly feel very spoiled. And Yvonne is so right: we need to get out and walk a bit! Maybe then obesity might have a bit less of a problem? Not that it’s easy to get around on foot or bicycle. We need to pressure local and regional governments for safe walkways, bike lanes and efficient mass transit. Sorry… stepping off the soapbox now. Great idea and awesome article! I think it would make a fun series!
So interesting! I’ve never heard any of these before, except the huge grocery store thing. Since I started traveling, finding small local markets have been one of my favorite things about landing in a new location. Fruits and vegetables are all over the place in every country except America, its no wonder we are junk food addicts!
Deb and Dave @ the Planet D hit the nail on the head with their comment: ‘If you are adult enough to do all of the above, I would think that you are adult enough to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at the ball game.’ I’m American and I’ve had a problem with the drinking age since it was changed to 21. It’s ridiculous! I wish things could be a bit more consistent from state to state, at least in regard to some road issues, like ‘stop signs -vs- no stop signs’ or ’round-abouts -vs- 4 way stops’. In response to Chris (the Aussie Nomad), now you know one of the reasons personal law suits are popular in the US ;-)
I’ve been living in Europe (the Netherlands) for almost 5 years now and there’s really not much, besides family and friends, that I miss about the US. I’m enjoying the smallness of things here, especially cars and stores, and love having the chance to walk or bike more than ever!
Great comments and you’re right on about the drinking age. So weird!
This drinking age madness is the fault of one group…
MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). They are special interest group against, among other things, teenagers drinking. They helped pushed through a law which mandated that states raise the drinking age to 21 lost federal money earmarked for road construction. Ruthless!
It’d be fun if you put the nationality of each author by the name. Many self-identify, but some are a trick to figure out.
Good point! I’ll do that this evening :)
As an American I can sympathize on the ice thing, but in the opposite direction. When we travel abroad, it’s impossible to get enough ice in our drinks! Of course here at home I tend to be rather extreme in this; if I want a small iced tea I usually ask them to put it in a large glass or cup so they can cram more ice in.
LOL, that would be another good post, what annoys us about travel :)
The one thing that I always notice when I’m down in the US (coming from Canada) is how crazy Americans go over their school spirit. I was down south in Baton Rouge, where Louisiana State University is located, and everything… from bars to restaurants to drinks to clothing shops to merchandise, EVERYTHING was Tigers themed (their mascot). Even when we drove to the middle of the state, mom & pop corner stores were Tigers-themed and everyone wore clothing from the school. Same thing in other states, I know someone who refuses to wear red articles of clothing because that was the colour of his rival university (and he’s about 65 now…) Sports teams and athletes are adored in a way that just doesn’t happen in Canada, you have to get to the professional level for that. I also got the feeling that the alumni network is a lot stronger down there.
That’s true, but it’s also regional to a certain degree. It’s a long thing to explain, but where you visited is amongst the most fanatic about their teams. :)
We tend to have this idea that America is this golden country where everything is just…better. I come from a place in North America where we were quite late entering the 20th century, that didn’t really happen till the 1960s. We just assumed that everybody else in North American was more sophisticated and richer than us. Imagine my shock when I first went to the US and found that the roads were actually worse than ours, the ordinary run of the mill motels were only about as good as anything at home, and there was so much poverty, which was something for a guy who comes from the poorest part of his country. That and the fact that I can’t escape the feeling that everyone around me is carrying a gun and I could be shot at any minute. And I come from a place where everybody hunts to supplement their food supply and every house has a gun for that purpose. And the arguments people make for it! They need to defend themselves. I’ve got to say, if I lived in a place that was so screwed up that I had a reasonable fear that I would need a gun to defend myself when I went to buy my groceries, I’d move. That is not a fit place to live.
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