It’s hard to comprehend what’s weird about American culture from the inside. Sometimes, you need a foreign perspective to help you see the light. And in this case, “the light” is just “knowing better than to bring up controversial religious views in Italy.”
This is by no means an empirical study of what distinguishes American culture from everyone else’s. Something that might read as strange to a Chinese person about America may not actually be an exclusively American trait, but rather something that an Indian or Brazilian person would say is kind of true for them at home too.
Nevertheless, the list below is all based on actual observations someone, somewhere, had at some point about Americans and the darnedest things we say.
1. “How are you?”
Americans use “how are you” as a form of “hello,” but they rarely expect a real answer. Though Americans are hardly alone in this, it can definitely take some getting used to for people who hail from cultures that are much more literal and straightforward. In some places, it’s considered awkward and weird to make small talk with strangers.
2. “It’s in the same ballpark.”
Oh my god, America, do you like sports metaphors or what? “Hit it out of the ballpark.” “Be a team player.” “Same ballpark.” “Touch base.” We get it. And while we’re on the topic, the same goes for gun metaphors.
3. “So what do you do?”
For a lot of Americans, work = life, and there’s nothing altogether weird about defining yourself according to your career. It might be rude or kind of gauche to ask a total stranger “what they do” in another country as a cold opener, but it’s completely normal in the United States. It might beat talking about breathing, but who’s to say for sure?
4. “My anxiety’s been really bad lately.”
Mental health issues still carry stigma in just about every part of the world, but Americans might be slightly ahead of the curve when it comes to making it a normal part of everyday conversation. Though it’s becoming more acceptable to openly discuss one’s mental health issues in the U.S., it’s still not considered fodder for conversation in most other countries, at least beyond your closest relationships.
5. *Smiles at a random stranger*
American culture dictates that you don’t need a reason to be happy (and thus to project your toothy joy to everyone around you). Many other cultures dictate that you should probably save those smiles for the people who deserve them most. For many Americans it’s just a reflex, but it’s seriously weirding out the rest of the world.
6. “We should totally hang out sometime.”
Yeah, sure, how’s next Thursday sound? Let’s be real — flakiness has wormed its way into American culture, which means we don’t always really mean it when we tell someone it’d be good to catch up with them soon. Germans especially are very literal about plans. When they say they’ll see you tomorrow at 2:00, they don’t mean 2:04.
7. *Brings up religion or politics in mixed company*
Well, arguably, this is kind of taboo in America too. But we’re probably a little more numbed out to controversial topics than some other countries. In Italy, it’s a big no-no to bring up religion or politics unless you know everyone in the group has similar views. Many places in the world even have blasphemy laws in place that prohibit acts or words of disrespect toward deities, sacred objects or the local religion in general. If you’re wondering how to talk about politics when you’re traveling, we’ve got you covered.
8. “Can I crash at your place?”
When in doubt, dance around the topic — don’t make the ask directly. Arguably, this is a good practice in America too, but if you’re relatively close with someone, it’s not really weird to be upfront about your hospitality needs. It might be in some other places though, especially if cultural norms there dictate that it’s rude to say no.
9. “Can I take the rest to go?”
It’s a fairly uniquely American thing to serve so much food at restaurants that you can’t finish it all in one go. And so it’s also a fairly uniquely American thing to expect a doggy bag for your leftovers. While you can’t blame us for not wanting to be wasteful, you might get some rather special looks if you ask a waiter to wrap up your meal elsewhere.
10. “They’re playing beer pong in the next room.”
The gamification of alcohol is a most enduring American tradition (and perhaps even a British one too). But in many other countries around the world, the concept of drinking games simply doesn’t register. Wine is not a game in France. It’s just a more fun version of water.