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Shocking US Culture: 12 American Things I can’t wrap my head around

by Lisa Stentvedt
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Every time I travel to the US I get a new kind of culture shock. After spending weeks there this past summer, revelling in all the amazing things the nation has to offer (and trying not to cry at the more frustrating things), I felt like this post needed to be written. As you know, I used to live in Florida, and have previously written articles on the things I miss about living in the US (and the things I don’t). This post may overlap a little with the latter, but trust me, it’s more up to date and a lot more packed with aspects of US culture that I simply can’t wrap my mind around.

Before I get a bunch of angry Americans in my comment section, a little disclaimer is appropriate. Do take this piece with a grain of salt. As a European, I haven’t grown up with these traditions and values, and the point of this post is to let you know that I simply cannot understand them. My mind is blown with the number of American friends who have tried to explain tipping culture to me, for example, and all I can say is “but why don’t you just pay your workers fair wages?”

In my mind, the discussion is over then, as I genuinely cannot understand why this is so difficult for a country to manage.

But, this is not meant to start any fights, and I need to point out here that I love the US. I love walking down the streets feeling like I’m in a movie (everything looks like a movie in the USA). I love Panera Bread and Applebee’s (don’t hate, I wish we had both in Europe). I love how friendly everyone is (except in New York, where they act a lot more Norwegian). And I love the US because it’s the country that made some of my best friends. Finally, I love Hamilton. So there.

However, there are a few things that I don’t love. And that I don’t understand. These aspects of US culture are so strange to me, and I simply can’t wrap my head around them. I dare say that they are things unique to American culture, but if you are from another country and you guys have this too, please let me know.

US Culture shock, girl american flag red solo cup
US Culture Shock? Here’s from celebrating 4th of July in Boston in 2019!

Things that continue to shock me about US Culture

If you ask me to describe American culture, I’d say you can watch any movie or sitcom. Alas, that is not a fair description, so I’ll just say now that this post is not meant to help you understand American culture. It is meant to (hopefully) give you a laugh, and clarify which parts about American culture and traditions seem odd to the rest of the world. Let’s get to it.

Side note: there are always things that can shock you when you are travelling, but know that reverse culture shock is a thing too.

#1 Wearing shoes inside

When I was younger and watching TV (hello Gilmore Girls and Full House!), my friends and I would always comment on how no one takes their shoes off when they go inside. Naturally, this was on TV, so we just figured it was because they couldn’t have the awkwardness of taking your shoes off as part of a scene.

But then I travelled to the US and noticed that PEOPLE ACTUALLY LEAVE THEIR SHOES ON INSIDE (in many households)! I immediately called my friends back home and shared this revelation, and I have never watched a TV show with the same eyes again.

#2 What the hell do you put in your food?

Honestly, the first time I saw that milk could not expire for months, something started in my brain. Still, to this day, I do not understand what you put in normal food items to make them last that long. Surely, it’s not healthy and not supposed to be in your body?

This also goes for restaurants. I swear restaurant food has more calories in the US than in Europe, and was shocked when I went to Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans to find that my favourite dish (Twisted Mac, Chicken & Cheese, of course) had over 2000 calories in it! That’s what I eat in a day! I swear the European version of the same dish has around 1100-1300 calories (which is still a lot) in it, so what the hell did you put in it to make it so unhealthy?

#3 Doctors and nurses wearing their scrubs on the streets

I saw this over and over again whilst in Boston and Chicago this summer, and previously during one of my trips to Seattle. Nurses and doctors (and surgeons? I saw someone with one of those hats you tie in the back) walking outside, on the street, in their scrubs!

If you are American and work at a hospital, please tell me these are not the scrubs you wear while at work? Aren’t there regulations about germs and bacteria? I personally would not want to be treated by a doctor who just came out from the Central Line in London wearing their scrubs, so I don’t understand why my American friends thought this was normal.

american customs, red solo cup and american flag

#4 The lack of public transport

Speaking of the Central Line. The lack of proper public transportation (outside major cities) in the US is just appalling. Case in point; I recently visited Biloxi, MS, located about a 1,5-hour drive from New Orleans. During my research prior to the trip (and upon landing at the NOLA Airport), I realised that there were no buses or trains that could get me there, and I ended up catching an UBER for 1,5 hours to get there. That hurt both my wallet and the poor UBER driver who had to drive all the way back to New Orleans after dropping me off at midnight.

#5 The lack of pavements (sidewalks)

On a similar note. Have you ever walked along the pavement and found that it just ended in the middle of nowhere? With nowhere for you to continue to walk (other than back where you came from)? Well, I have. There is no place in the world (that I know of) that is so unfit for pedestrians as the US.

#6 Four Loco (RIP)

Seriously, what was in those?

#7 Tipping culture

I’ve already mentioned this in the intro, but I just don’t understand how everyone just accepts that you have to add 20% of your bill to any order, regardless of whether you got shitty service or not. I mean, servers are one thing, as I know that in some states they do not earn fair wages (just pay them, though?). But then having to tip workers at fast food places, taxi drivers, guides and whatnot in addition to this, simply because it has become expected infuriates me.

Don’t get me wrong, I do tip these people (i.e. I’m not an asshole). But I just don’t understand how it’s so hard to a) pay everyone fair wages, and then b) tip those truly exceeding when it comes to service.

#8 Trump

There was no way I could write this list and not mention this guy (and I’ll probably be blacklisted from entering the country now). But DOES ANYONE ACTUALLY TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY? (i.e. is he serious?)

The whole thing about buying Greenland; was that a joke? It didn’t seem like it, but then I can’t imagine anyone being so stupid as to genuinely not understand how self-governed states work? That’s like asking England to buy Australia from them. I’m still so shocked about that whole debacle, and can’t wrap my mind around whether people actually take him seriously or not.

#9 Customs/Immigration at airports

During my last two trips to the US I have gone through an insane ordeal to get into the country. 4 different queues, meeting 3 different officers and 1 computer, answering the same questions and showing different forms and receipts every time. Is this really necessary? Upon arriving in Boston this summer it took me an hour to get through it all, and all I could think was “guys, your biggest threat isn’t coming from abroad“.. In my opinion, the biggest threat to America is already there. #guns

Additionally; in Europe, we manage with a computerised system scanning your passport, photo and fingerprints, and one (ONE!) person taking your customs form and stamping your passport (when applicable). Works like a charm.

#10 Taxes not being on the price tag

I still struggle with this, and always show up to the register with a $5 note to take advantage of the “2 for $4.99” offer I found, only to be disappointed when I learn that it actually costs $5.68 or something. How do you know how much everything costs? Are all Americans math geniuses? And how do you remember the different tax rates? And finally; why can’t you just put the final price on the tag like in the rest of the world?

#11 The Healthcare System

I won’t go on about this for too long, because I don’t want to start any riots in the comment section (I fear mentioning President PAB was enough), but I am so sad about the state of the healthcare system in the US that I could cry for my friends living there.

One of my best friends, who has a great job, and good health insurance, in a very liberal state, still had to pay $4000 after a stint in the hospital! I was in shock, and asked her if that was the total before insurance covered it. Sadly, that was not the case, and the $4000 was her part of the hospital bill, after her insurance had covered most of it.

I mean, you guys know that it doesn’t actually cost thousands of dollars to stay in a hospital or get medicine, right? The prices are so inflated it hurts me to think of it, and I’ll leave you with a quote from a friend of mine who passed out on a bus in Orlando. She was offered to be driven to the hospital and quickly turned them down saying “I earn minimum wage, I can’t afford that”.

Now I have heard that there has been some positive things done as far as health insurance goes. Obamacare or more specifically, the Affordable Care Act, has made insurance more affordable for lower-income families by offering subsidies. It seems as though nothing more is needed to take advantage of these subsidies than proof of income. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m sure there are tax implications that go a long with it, but I’m sure it’s nothing that a few tax tools won’t take care of.

#12 Why do you insist that you aren’t American?

Okay, last one, I promise! More often than I can count, I have met Americans (both abroad, in Norway and in the US) who (upon hearing that I am from Norway) exclaim “I’m Norwegian too!”

The conversation usually goes like this:

Me (having heard this a thousand times before): Seriøst? Kor i Norge er du frå? So kjekt!
Them (not actually being Norwegian, nor understanding anything I say): Sorry, I don’t speak Norwegian.
Me: Oh, I was just asking where in Norway you are from.
Them: Well, I’m from Wisconsin, but my great grandfather is from Norway!
Me: Cool! Where was he from?
Them: Uhm, I don’t really know. Somewhere outside Oslo.
Me: ….

I just don’t understand this fixation with not wanting to be American (well, re-reading the list above, I kind of do). My great grandfather was Swedish, but you don’t find me walking around Sweden telling them I am too. Personally, this conversation would have gone a lot different if it had started with “I have Norwegian heritage” or “my family is from Norway”.

Well, there you have some of the aspects of United States culture that I struggle to understand. Again, I want to stress that I do love travelling to the US, and I love so many things about the country (the Kardashians, road trips, Disney, etc). The things on this list are simply parts of America that I struggle to understand, and that no one can seem to explain to me in a way that makes me accept them. If you’re American and want to give it a go, please leave a comment below! But seriously, #hate will be deleted. This post was meant as a fun, tongue-in-chic outsider’s look at the United States, and not as anything else.

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