What Surprises Foreigners About the USA? PART 9

american-flag-2aToday is Wednesday, September 18, 2013.

More things that are surprising to foreigners about the United States:

Cultural Practices

One of the hallmarks of life in America is its casual nature.  Foreigners are continually surprised that some people address their boss or their university professor by their first name.  It doesn’t seem to matter here how much older the person might be.  I don’t think this is universally the case, but it does happen often enough to make an impression on foreigners.  In the last couple of years I have made friends with a great many young people from Africa, and they often call me “ma’am” until I tell them it’s OK to use my first name.  Of course, if they were my students, and not my Facebook friends, I would have them call me Miss LeBoutillier, or Miss L.

I do believe there are some social boundaries, although they are much weaker than in other countries, and we don’t take social class quite so seriously here, but I would disagree that there are no social boundaries at all.   The social boundaries in other countries are like a high fence around a small corral.  Social boundaries in the U.S. are like a very low fence in a vast corral.  The corral is so big and the fence is so low that you might not realize it’s there.

Another thing that amazes foreigners is our social mobility.  One fellow explained that he had lunch with a couple of very well-known advertising executives one day, and at the end of that same day, he was playing a pickup basketball game with his homies in “the projects” of New York.   I don’t believe most of us have quite that much social mobility, but it certainly is possible in this country.

People who come from countries where social class is more structured, and where the various races just don’t interact socially are often surprised that Americans socialize with their co-workers in the evenings, mingling easily with people of other races or social classes.

Depending on the practices in their home countries, many foreigners are surprised at the push for American kids to get married in their early 20s.  This seems especially true in the smaller towns and rural areas.  I do remember feeling that if I didn’t marry soon, I would be left out or left behind, somehow, so I married only days after my 22nd birthday.  Given my underlying reasons for rushing into marriage, it’s not exactly surprising that the marriage didn’t last.  That’s another thing that amazes foreigners: the prevalence of divorce in this country, and the relative ease with which it is accomplished.   The fact that women have several babies with different fathers is also shocking.

A couple of social practices involving food surprise foreign visitors and immigrants.  Americans eat while walking, which is considered very rude in some countries, and when we are in a group, if we have a small individual package of potato chips, for example, we might consume it without offering anything to the others in the group.

American Fashion

Americans are habitually underdressed for the weather, especially in the big cities.  For many Americans, the outdoors is what you run through to get from your car to the house – or to work, or to the mall.  It’s true that when I quit taking the bus and finally learned to drive, I began to wear lighter coats, even in the coldest weather, because I didn’t have to stand outside for very long.  Then again, I did notice some people waiting for buses who were not well-dressed for the weather.  These were the types who would swear at the bus driver for being a few minutes late, never taking the time to consider that they might have thought of putting on a few more layers of clothing before venturing outside for the day.

It seems to take quite a bit of time for foreigners to get used to the cold weather in our Northern and Midwestern states.  Many of the kids start wearing parkas and snowpants even before the snow flies.

America is home of the T-shirt, and Americans love their T-shirts, especially if they are free, and especially if they have a good message.  When I lived in Japan, I wore blouses.  Now, most of my “tops” are T-shirts.  Mine don’t have messages, though.

In general, the casualness of our dress is sometimes surprising.  Some foreigners apparently don’t understand the concept of women wearing sneakers with a business suit.  Perhaps they don’t understand that the woman does have her high heels or dress shoes with her; she is just not going to put them on until she gets to the office.  People who wear sweatpants everywhere, and women who go around without makeup and without styling their hair seem to surprise some foreigners.   It’s true that Americans, in general, tend to value comfort above being “in fashion.”

Europeans often notice that Americans tend not to wear much perfume.  When I was young, I heard about how the French girls pick out a signature scent, and I did that, too.  It took a while to find the right one.  And I wore it everywhere.  People noticed.  I got good at putting on just enough but not too much. Now, it’s a luxury that I can’t really afford anymore, and with my allergies, I’m not sure I could even wear it.  I do know that there are a lot of places in the U.S. where people are asked not to wear perfumes and hairsprays for allergy reasons.


It’s not the fact that Americans have pets that is surprising to foreigners.  It’s the fact that our pets eat special “dog food” and “cat food,” rather than human food.   Here, we actually avoid giving our pets “people food.”

American Fascination with Sports

While the rest of the world watches soccer (what they call football), Americans just don’t seem to care that much about the sport.  We get our jollies watching American-style football, basketball, and baseball.  Football season here runs from September through late January or early February.  Basketball season gets started in early November and ends in late April.  Baseball season goes from April to late October or early November.

Foreigners comment that Americans seem to love marathon races, and it does seem true that there are more and more of these events nowadays.  Runners pay upwards of $100 to enter races that they have trained for all year.  (The money usually goes to charity, another fact that impresses foreigners.)

One person commented on the “institutional” obsession with sports.  By this, it seems he means that Americans like to cheer for high school and college teams, and many parents and grandparents make a point of attending games that their children or grandchildren are in.  By contrast, this person commented that his parents rarely watched him play soccer.   I’ve noticed that, especially in smaller towns in the U.S., high school football and basketball games, especially, are social events for adults, even if they don’t have any kids or grandkids who are on the local high school team.   As a former high school teacher, I was required to show up at football and basketball games to cheer on our students.  Teachers in other countries seem shocked to learn this, especially since we don’t get paid extra for attending. 🙂



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3 responses to “What Surprises Foreigners About the USA? PART 9

  1. About calling an oldest woman mom, in my region, we do that simply to show respect to that woman. Because in our culture, we respect our mothers so much that we extend the same respect to any woman who is older than us. We even respect all elderly.

    Regarding the social class boundaries, my granddad told me that at the colonisation time, they couldn’t call the teacher in the locality by his name. The gap was so deep that they could not even dare. So when the country got independent, the Black people who took the power decided to simply take the place left by the colons and simply do the same thing they did. If you read the book “Black skin white mask” from Frantz Fanon, you will understand that.

    Those things took so much roots that they are still in the next generation’s mind too.

    • Thanks for your comments. I want to stress that I am not saying that your way of doing things is wrong or that I don’t understand your customs. I’m only describing what is surprising to foreigners about American culture. I think more Americans need to know what it is about our country and customs that is different, so that Americans can better understand people who come here from other countries. – Linda

  2. Thank you Linda. Yes I understood you exactly the same way. I was only explaining why we call other women mom in my own region. Just additional thing coz Africa = 54 countries.

    I like when you share those things. To be honest with you, I have learned lots of things there myself too. Thanks

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