What Surprises Foreigners About the USA? PART 10

UMNToday is Thursday, September 19, 2013.

Foreigners have a lot to say about American culture, or the lack thereof.

True Culture

The greatest American contributions to what I would term “true culture” are our great public libraries and our universities.  The United States also has a rich musical tradition, with jazz and blues styles originating in this country.

Pop Culture

For a long time, television dominated the pop culture scene, setting trends for music and entertainment, fashion, and behavior in general.  When watching TV, foreigners comment on the fact that shows are interrupted every 10 minutes for the same ad again and again, and they also comment on the length of the prescription drug ads, with each drug’s many side effects – including death – listed in detail.  Apparently, no other country in the world advertises prescription drugs on TV.   Those ads that come on late at night that seem to go on and on, come in for some derision.  (“But wait… that’s not all!  If you order in the next 15 minutes, you will also get a free…”)  Another thing that surprises foreigners is the way some ads actually mention their competition by name, even exposing the flaws in their competitors’ products or services.   In the U.S. we have ads for doctors, lawyers, and liquor.  At least the liquor ads have to be at night, when at least 70% of the audience is estimated to be above the legal drinking age.  At least cigarette ads have been banned since 1970, although we do have ads for smoking ce

Someone mentioned the fact that we have no one “national” broadcast station.  We do have several TV networks that have national news broadcasts, but it’s true we don’t have one station that reports “official” news.  As an American, I would say that’s a good thing, because as long as the media distorts things, you might as well be allowed to choose which distorted version you want.

Night Life

From the movies, you might suspect that the United States has a pretty healthy night life, and we certainly do have a lot of things to do in the big cities, but foreigners, especially Europeans, bemoan the fact that American night clubs close around 1 or 2 am, and that people are often seen leaving for home at 8 or 9 p.m. Apparently, people don’t even go out until nearly midnight, and the clubs stay open all night.

On weekdays, especially in small towns and in the suburbs of big cities, stores, malls, and restaurants tend to close no later than 10 p.m., and all-night restaurants are rare.   Truly, we do seem to have an “early to bed” culture here.

Throw-away Culture

So many foreigners have commented on how much food we waste and how much stuff we throw away.  In other countries, you make do with an item until it doesn’t work anymore, and then you try to fix it first.  Not here.   Others have commented that, while there are a number of stores that sell secondhand clothing and items in all the big cities, and many smaller ones, Americans just don’t seem to be that interested in using someone else’s cast-offs.   Actually that seems to be an attitude shared by my own generation of baby-boomers.  Younger people have a different attitude.

Going to second-hand sales seems to be something that young adults are getting into, and now you can list items on Internet sites such as eBay and Craigslist individually, without saving them up to have a huge sale in your yard.  Many smaller communities, such as my own, set aside specific weekends for people to have sales.   In some areas of the U.S. they are called “yard sales.”  In others, they go by the term “garage sales.”   In my particular area, they are called “rummage sales.”

iphone-5-pressTechnology in the U.S.

The U.S. leads the world in the speed at which new technology is adopted.  Computers, digital cameras, smart phones, tablets, and digital music players were all born of American creativity and ingenuity, and Internet phenomena such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter are also uniquely American in origin.   There are still vast areas of the U.S. where technology doesn’t work so well, however.  It’s a big country.

A common feature of businesses in the United States these days is that nearly all of them have a website  Apparently, that is not quite as common in other countries, although I think that difference may be disappearing fast.


In the words of one immigrant, religion in America is “an actual thing.”  People actually do go to church here – or a temple, synagogue, or mosque.   There are prayer breakfasts at the White House.  Public gatherings often start with an invocation.   The sheer number and variety of places of worship astounds foreign visitors.   Even those who come from Christian countries remark on how many different protestant denominations there are in the U.S.A.

The downside of the fact that religion is a real force here is the presence of religious fanatics, people who are willing to stage protests or even gun down doctors who do abortions. The attitude of many fundamentalist fanatics seems to be at odds with the generally “progressive” or modern nature of life in this country.

One person commented that very little money collected from the churches actually goes to missions.  I can’t prove or disprove that statement, but I can at least say that this was her impression, and it would be interesting, indeed, to see what experiences led her to draw that conclusion.

A Muslim from India commented that his mosque congregation needed a building, so they bought a Christian church building and converted it into a mosque.  He commented that in India, that would have been front-page news, and the subject of community unrest.   Of course, depending on the region, it might have had the same result in this country, too.  I’m assuming that this fellow’s mosque was not located in Texas, for example, or Oklahoma.  🙂


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