What Surprises Foreigners About the USA? PART 11

gavelToday is Friday, September 20, 2013.

Foreigners have something to say about how Americans deal with rules and regulations.

Following the Rules

Many years ago, a Taiwanese university exchange student told me of his experiences and insights when he attended a parade in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.  There were a lot of people there, and he was amazed at how calm and orderly the crowd was.  In his country, he said, that would not necessarily be the case, because in large crowds, where nobody knows your name, people feel that they can get away with behavior that is normally unacceptable.  I found this to be true in Japan, as well, when I lived there.

It’s true that, occasionally, people misbehave in crowds here in the U.S., too, but in the main, the student was right.  We do generally tend to follow the rules.  We stay in line, we stop our cars for pedestrians, we follow the traffic signals, and we don’t jaywalk, even if there are no cars coming.  That’s in general, though, and there are always exceptions.  Still, here in the United States, foreigners notice that we know how to behave in public.   We don’t talk loudly in the movie theater, we don’t cut in front of the line, and we don’t ask someone to vacate their seat just because we are a woman, or just because we are older.

These days, it’s not necessary for men to hold the door for women, but people still hold the door for each other.  The older I get, the more I seem to have the door held for me, even if people have to wait a few seconds for me to get there.  I know that’s not the case in other countries.  In Japan, for example, I remember being slightly shocked when a group of Japanese business men crowded into the elevator ahead of me.  In the States, the men would have waited for a woman to get on first.

One person commented, “Americans are very fortunate to live in a place where the rules are clear, corruption is constrained, and business is not seen as a bad thing.”   It’s true that we have a lot of legal regulations in place, many of which protect citizens and consumers from fraud and malpractice.  It’s also true that we don’t have as many “unwritten rules” as there are in some other countries, where it often takes a bribe to get something accomplished.

officer1Law Enforcement and Firefighters

Foreigners are often amazed at how quickly police officers and firefighters respond to a 911 call.  (I can attest that police in Japan also respond quickly to a call, so the United States is not the only country where this is so.)

One person said he was surprised that “narcs” are real, and not just a made-up role in TV and movie dramas.  Police actually do go undercover to catch drug dealers in high schools.  However, the person who made the comment also said, “That Americans would pay police officers to go undercover at a high school for months at a time in order to bust a couple of kids smoking pot – unbelievable!”  I think the man has a point: our police often seem to spend more time arresting people for petty violations and ignoring more serious crime activity.

zero-liabilityLegal Issues and Liability

Of course, each state has its own legal age limits for drinking, smoking, and driving, but some of these limits do seem a little unrealistic or out of order.  One person commented that, where he was, you couldn’t purchase alcohol until you were 21, but you could buy a semi-automatic assault rifle at age 18.  In some countries there is no set legal age for drinking, and that’s not the only thing that surprises people from these countries; they are also surprised by how strictly the rules are enforced here.

One of the hallmarks of American life, well-known outside of our borders, is the fact that ordinary citizens are allowed to possess firearms.  It’s right there in the Constitution. Many foreign visitors seem to have the impression that Americans are “obsessed” with guns.  I would submit that what we are really obsessed with is what we think of as our individual “rights.”  People do comment on how easy it is to obtain weapons here, and how emotional some Americans can get on both sides of the “gun control” issue.  One Canadian commented that in this country, sales of cold medicine are more strictly controlled than sales of sniper rifles, and I agree, that does seem strange.

Many foreigners remark on how often issues are settled in a court of law.  People bring suit at the drop of a hat here, and social issues such as equal pay for both sexes, racial discrimination, and acceptance of gays are decided legally first.  Social acceptance follows the legal decision, albeit very slowly.

The American idea of “legal liability,” and specifically “personal liability,”is a puzzle for many foreigners. Sure, they understand what the concept of liability means; what puzzles them is how this idea is applied in daily life.  For example, public experts are reluctant to offer advice because of liability.  One member of a mosque expressed sadness that leftover food from a feast could not be donated to the poor – as it would have been in his country – because of liability concerns.  International businesses that operate in the United States have to pass every decision they make through the lens of American liability laws, whether there is a similar law in their home country or not.  Families who own private swimming pools in their backyard have to be careful whom they invite to use their pool, for reasons of liability.

As far as violent crime goes, although the news media make it seem that violence is a way of life in this country, foreign visitors comment that it seems fairly safe here, especially in the smaller cities and towns.  The idea that a shooter can go to a public place that is normally very safe, such as a mall, a movie theater, an office building, a high school, an elementary school, or a college campus, and kill people indiscriminately, simply because he’s emotionally unbalanced, is scary, and not just to foreigners, but to American citizens, as well.

Americans are safety-conscious in other ways, too.  Our products that don’t meet safety standards are routinely recalled, especially where products for children are concerned.  Often, unfortunately, it’s not true concern for safety that is the key factor: rather, it’s concern for legal liability that is important.  🙂


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