Culture Shock, Quirky

“You Might Be An American If…”: 18 Traits All Americans Share

I asked my European roommates the other day for a list of traits they felt were uniquely American and one of the things they said was that Americans use the filler word ‘like’ a lot during conversations. I laughed because that so, like, describes me you have, like, no idea.

Ha. I’m so bad about using that word that I used to catch myself using it all the time when I lived in Germany. And even while I was speaking German! I’d be in the middle of a conversation about my plans for the evening, for instance, and I’d pause to search for a word or think of the best way to phrase something and out would pop, “like” and not the German word for like (wie) but the English one. As in, “Ich möchte, like, ins Kino gehen.”

Sometimes I’d catch myself and blush and then apologize to whomever I was talking to, which would then result in a lengthy explanation of what the word meant and why I used it so much. But more often than not, because the word is so deeply ingrained into my speech patterns, I wouldn’t notice I’d said anything out of the ordinary and would just continue on talking to the bafflement of my roommates, professors or random schniztel vendors.

I never used it in Japan though and haven’t caught myself saying it when I speak Spanish, but I think that’s because I don’t speak those languages very fluently. I still spend a good portion of each conversation I have in Spanish, carefully choosing my words and translating everything in my head before I say it out loud. Spanish hasn’t become automatic enough yet.

But anyway, some of the other traits my roommates offered up were that Americans are optimistic, enthusiastic, friendly and enjoy talking about themselves a lot.

After our conversation, I was curious as to how much of what they said was true, so I did a little research and decided to make a list of characteristics that are unique of American culture. Some of them are ones I found off of this site and some were from my own observations. It’s in no way a thorough summary of American culture though and I tried to avoid most of the more obvious ones (like “fat” or “loud”, for example), but take a look and let me know what you think.

Are there any I should add?

1. The First Amendment (the right to free speech) is something you strongly support.

No matter where you fall on the political line, if you’re American, chances are you’re a big believer in freedom of expression. This belief is not held in all cultures, especially in countries where government censorship is not only normal, but supported.

2. Dogs are friends, not food. That goes the same for cats, guinea pigs and monkeys.

People eat dog in the Philippines and in parts of China. Guinea pig is considered a cheaper alternative to beef in Peru. Not true in the US.

3. Of course airlines are privately run. That’s normal.

You can’t imagine things otherwise. The telephone system, auto manufacturers, and power companies are also privatized. The government has no business being in charge of those.

That isn’t true of many countries. Ever hear of Singapore Airlines or India Air? Those are nationalized air carriers, owned and operated by their governments.

4. You’re used to going into a supermarket and choosing from a wide variety of brands. Having many product choices is normal.

In cultures where large supermarket chains are a rarity, mom and pop shops reign supreme. You only have one or two types of milk to choose from, one brand of eggs and only a few flavors of ice cream. Although it’s limiting, having less choices does make grocery shopping quicker and easier.

5. You stop at red lights or stop signs even if it’s in the middle of the night, there are no cameras and there’s not a single car or pedestrian in sight.

Although Americans aren’t the most rule-following culture on the planet (that title might go to the Germans), Americans will tend to follow traffic laws, even when no one else is looking. This isn’t true in China, where drivers will run red lights if it’s deemed safe to do so.

6. Being heavier than average does not improve a woman’s looks.

In the Tonga islands, Samoa and some African cultures, plumpness and even obesity is thought to improve a woman’s attractiveness, not detract from it. While there are a wide variety of preferences in the US, in general, excessive weight is not considered a favorable physical characteristic.

7. The biggest meal of the day is eaten in the evening.

In Spain, the biggest meal of the day is lunch. In Japan, it’s often breakfast.

8. You consider tardiness to be rude and unacceptable, especially in business situations

In the US, if you’re five minutes late meeting someone, you’ll feel the need to provide an excuse. If you’re 10 or 15 minutes late, you’ll feel embarrassed and will apologize profusely. If you’re an hour late, well, that rarely happens because that would be inexcusable.

In countries like Brazil, being 10 to 15 minutes late, even to a business meeting, is considered normal. Even 30 minutes late is nothing unusual.

9. You’re uncomfortable when people get in your “personal space”. To you, personal space is about two feet or less.

While this may seem like an international standard, the concept of personal space differs between cultures. In some crowded Asian or Middle Eastern cultures, invading peoples’ personal space is normal and necessary. It is not unusual for someone to bump into a person on a subway or crowded city street and not apologize.

10. Haggling over costs of goods or services is something you rarely do. The only items you bargain for are houses, cars or used goods at a flea market or yard sale.

In countries like India, for example, you haggle for everything…Your taxi fare, your hotel stay, the cost of a gallon of milk. No price is set in stone.

11. You believe it’s rude to show up unannounced at someone’s house. You’d only come over if invited and would never stay for a meal unless you were asked.

In Guatemala and Mexico, stopping by a neighbor or friend’s house without calling beforehand is acceptable behavior. In the US, this is generally considered rude unless you’re very good friends or family members.

12. The job title “teacher” sounds low-status to you.

In many countries, like China, Singapore and Turkey, for example, teaching is a prestigious and highly respected profession. Not true in the US, where many argue that teachers are overpaid.

13.  When meat is served for dinner, it’s usually the main dish.

This isn’t true for many Asian countries. There, rice is the main dish and meat is a side dish.

14. It’s expected that you’ll want to eat something different for dinner each night. “I don’t want spaghetti, I had that last night…” is considered a completely valid excuse.

This isn’t true in cultures where there are far less options or varieties in dining options.

15. Eating a snack while walking down the street is not considered rude behavior; it’s fairly typical.

This is considered rude in Japan, where high regard is placed on taking the time to savor your meals. Eating, grooming or putting on makeup while walking, waiting for the bus or riding the subway is simply not done.

16. In general, you don’t know how much money your friends make. It’d be considered rude to ask unless you know the person very well.

In Russia, for example, inquiring about friends’ personal finances isn’t as frowned upon.

17. Politics and religion are not issues you discuss with people you’ve just met.

In other cultures, these topics are considered fair game and a part of polite cocktail party conversations, even with perfect strangers.

18. You think nothing of smiling at strangers on the street or making small talk with people in line at the grocery store or post office

Many visitors to the US find Americans’ “stranger friendliness” interesting yet somewhat perplexing. The “How are you? I’m fine.” auto response is often confusing. “Why do people lie and say they’re ‘fine’ when they are not?” is a question many unfamiliar with American culture have. This is not something that is done in other cultures. In most European cultures, for example, people will only smile or talk to strangers if they have a real reason to do so.

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10 thoughts on ““You Might Be An American If…”: 18 Traits All Americans Share

  1. Sounds fun, let me think. 20. When you say/think tea you mean sweetened ice tea. 21. You treat Europe like it’s one country.

  2. I think the use of “like” and “oh my god” is mainly a west coast thing. I haven’t heard it used to the same extent elsewhere. Highly annoying.

  3. One of my Facebook friends, by the way, suggested that I incorporate one about how when Americans go to Italian or Chinese restaurants, they tend to order individually instead of ordering a few entres and then splitting them. They do that in Japan too (everyone shares their food) and that definitely took some getting used to when I first moved there. I never wanted to share!

  4. @ Jason – I find it annoying when I hear others use it, too. But alas, it’s a really tough habit to break! : ) Although it originated in San Fernando Valley in California, I don’t think it’s just a West coast thing since I use it and I’m from Hawaii.

    Where are you from?

  5. I grew up in the Midwest and New England and never heard it there. When I moved to San Francisco, I really noticed it.

  6. Hmm, I’d have to disagree with the comment about the average American thinking Europe is a country. I mean, there are some rare cases, but I think you’ll find many more people who don’t get the distinctions between Latin American and African countries. I think it’s super common to find Americans who’ll go all over Europe and maybe throw in Japan or Australia but will never set food in a poor Asian, African or Latin American country (with the exception of resorts) and have no clue about the countries in those regions.

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  8. Great list! I’d add horse to the list of animals we don’t eat in #2. In France, you can find horse meat in grocery stores from time to time and I steer clear!

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