America for foreigners: cutting through the fiction

Every nationality has its perceptions of the United States, some of which have bases in fact. Some are overblown or false. Let us do away with the false ones, and explain the true ones.

Please do bear in mind that this guidance is based primarily upon visiting the U.S. It may not apply to Facebook conversations at a distance, for example.

Americans smile constantly. Not true. This is more a regional thing, even in the service industry. Wyoming, for example, is rather taciturn, same for Wisconsin or New York City. Here’s what you should take away: whether an American is smiling at you or not doesn’t mean much either way. In LA, it means she has a pulse (or she just had them bleached, capped, etc).

Americans are insincere. Partly true. It is partly true because Americans have a lot of pat questions and phrases into which we often don’t put a lot of thought. Some Americans, when they wish you a nice day, honestly mean that. Some won’t even remember having said it, and thought nothing of it at the time.

However, faulting us for these is wide of the mark. These are our social customs. Every culture has its social customs, and ours are no stupider than any other culture’s obligatory niceties (or abruptnesses, in some cases). To omit these here is as rude as patting a Thai on the head in Bangkok, or ignoring the shopkeeper in Rouen, or wearing your shoes into a Japanese home. If it’s okay to avoid waving with your left hand in the Middle East (even though waving hardly involves one’s behind), and not okay to make fun of that, then it is okay to wish some stranger a nice day, and not okay to ridicule that, either. That said, at times when we hint at a lasting connection, we don’t really mean it. You have a right not to take such hints at face value.

Americans are mostly very ignorant of the world. Mostly but not universally true. You might be surprised. One can get very far off course by making assumptions. What is more, life has taught me that the world is nearly as ignorant of us as we are of it. Most of what we–as in all people–learn of other places comes from the extreme and entertaining examples presented by media. Our media are fairly trashy, but other media can be even trashier. It helps to put their input aside.

Americans are mostly monolingual. Less true than it used to be, especially in larger cities or near universities. It’s not that we don’t study foreign languages; probably half of us took them in school. We may fairly be blamed for making no further effort after leaving school, but at least there is an effort made in the right direction. Most university students or graduates speak (or used to speak) at least one foreign language. A very few U.S. residents speak no English at all, but most of those aren’t here legally.

Americans are unreceptive to criticism of their country. True, at least while you are visiting us. We consider that as rude as if, say, you invited us over to dinner and our way of showing appreciation was to tell you that your food was lousy. We reason that anyone who doesn’t like us was not forced to come here, and is free to leave if it’s that bad. Our achilles heel here is that many of our own people don’t follow this ethic when they are the travelers. This may give other peoples the idea that insulting the local culture and customs is acceptable to Americans, so we have to take some responsibility for authoring this problem.

It is also true that some Americans think their country should never, ever be criticized by any foreigner at any time, because it is always right–because its actions define rightness. That is a smaller minority, but the viewpoint does exist. There’s nothing you or I can do about that. I’m in a position to break that hornets’ nest, but a visitor should probably avoid the subject.

Americans all walk around armed to the teeth. Untrue. Probably a majority of American homes own at least one firearm, but a very small percentage actually carry weapons on a regular basis. A rather smaller portion have fired at least one weapon in the past year, and I’d guess that 99% of the rounds fired were target practice, hunting or competitive shooting. Most of the parts of the country where people tend to carry weapons openly are very low in crime, so if this idea intimidates you, you’re thinking emotionally rather than logically.

Those individuals who carry firearms very rarely draw those weapons, partly because most are sane. While a carried weapon might attract no notice in some places, a drawn weapon would bring instant reactions, so that is very rare. Also, remember that in areas where a lot of people walk around armed, if someone draws a gun and does something stupid, there are a lot of people who could take corrective action. Ask yourself why no nation has launched a nuclear attack since 1945, and in macrocosm you will grasp the microcosm of why Wyoming and Alaska should not frighten you just because a lot of people go around strapped.

Americans have a terrible gang violence problem. Situational. There are parts of some cities that can be very dangerous, and if locals recommend that you avoid an area, I would take their advice. However, in a majority of the country, you will not encounter gang violence. Petty crime is another story, and is as endemic to our cities as it is to most of yours. By and large, the bigger the city, the smarter and more professional the criminals. Lock up your bike with a cheap cable in Boise? It’ll probably still be there when you return. Seattle? You didn’t really want that bike anyway, to go by how you secured it.

Americans are highly religious. Somewhat true, in that we are more religious than most peoples in the developed world. However, a lot of us are very independent in our application and practice of religion. Quite a few of us are casually religious, or not at all. The role of religion in our society is one of our hottest national debates. It wrecks friendships, divides families, and makes us hate random fellow American strangers. It might be our most divisive and crippling social problem–not religion itself, but the way it affects our behavior.

Americans are unhelpful to visitors. Occasionally true, but mostly not. This really depends a great deal upon the visitor and American in question. Some people are simply assholes (it has nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with personality), and won’t help anyone, ever, including their neighbors. Some people are impatient, ignorant or xenophobic, and won’t help people because of a heavy accent. Most of us are better than that, and respect your efforts to communicate. Quite a few of us will go well out of our way to help.

Let’s examine the part about foreign accents, because I can think of reasons for it. They are not excuses, but maybe they can help explain it. At least a small minority of Americans will not extend themselves to make life easier for someone with a heavy foreign accent. It’s unfair, of course, because someone’s just trying his or her best to communicate in the dominant national language. Wouldn’t good manners and common sense suggest that we value this, and meet them halfway as good hosts? Yeah, they would, and yeah, we should.

Problem #1: nearly every American has had this experience. One calls a company–a US-based company–with some issue. She needs technical support, or has a billing question, or needs to change her service. Bear in mind that she’s often frustrated when she calls. She struggles her way through the automated options, which are sometimes confusing and incomplete. When she finally gets through to a human being, she receives an overly long greeting read aloud to her in a very heavy foreign accent. It is hard for her to understand. All the responses are script-read answers, all of them prefaced with the time-wasting “I’ll be very happy to provide  you with excellent service on that matter…” or somesuch, over and over. This employee isn’t empowered to solve much of anything. Our caller knows damn well that the employee is in the Philippines, or India, or somewhere else she can’t drive to. She doesn’t hate the employee, but a part of her does resent that the job was farmed out overseas. That’s not unnatural, even if she should properly take out her frustrations on the company rather than the hapless employee just trying to make a living in Hyderabad or Quezon.

All she wants is someone to solve her problem in a helpful manner without being obtuse or repeating the same stupid scripts over and over. Most of the time, our caller hits a brick wall and hangs up even more frustrated than she was when she phoned. And after a few dozen such experiences, she starts to lose some of her patience and good manners when confronted with heavy foreign accents in any American context. It’s not right, but perhaps it’s understandable.

Problem #2: right or wrong, a great many Americans see and resent the evident movement toward a bilingual nation. They don’t like to see businesses pandering to non-Anglophone markets with bilingual signage, and they resent having to press a button to interact in English. They consider this divisive on several levels, one of the chiefest being that it affects the ability to make a living. If one has to be bilingual in order to get a job–and this is the reality in some places–the advantage goes to the bilingual. Myself, I love being multilingual, but in my opinion a bilingual requirement is the wrong approach to the problem. A fairer approach is to expect new residents (legal or not) to take it upon themselves to learn the predominant language of business and government. That’s more reasonable than demanding that those who were born here should now learn another language, all to accommodate people who in some cases didn’t even follow the legal procedure, and in some cases now feel entitled to demand amnesty and access to benefits.

The same rejoinder is in play: then all the more reason to be helpful to those who are here legally, who took the time to learn English before arriving, and are now valiantly making their best efforts! I agree 100%, and that’s why I delight in surprising visitors by speaking to them in their own language–and helping them, if I can. But our national language controversy has had its impact, and it has caused some Americans to dig in. And while you and I might agree that this is misplaced and lamentable, we can see that it had a genesis other than “people being xenophobic douchebags.” As before: it’s not right–in fact, let’s not mince words, it’s foolish and counterproductive–but it’s somewhat understandable.

I don’t like situations where the innocent suffer for the faults of the guilty, and this is one. But at least now you are equipped to understand why it might be. And if you were inclined to dismiss this as simple xenophobia or bigotry, perhaps now you will see that it is not so simple, nor did it start from a position of fundamental hostility. Because I can tell you this with confidence: if service representatives on the phone spoke clearer English, and had more power to resolve problems, and if new residents of the country stopped wanting services in languages other than English, and if they were more willing to learn it on their own initiative, this situation would change for the better. For all of us.

Americans tip everybody. An exaggeration. Skycaps (people who carry your bags on an airport cart), bellmen, restaurant waitresses, taxi drivers, most barbers and massage therapists expect tips. The people most deserving of tips are waitresses, since in most cases they are paid well below minimum.

There are surely good books on tipping in America, but were I a visitor unfamiliar with the terrain, I would tip a cab driver 15% if he refrained from padding the bill by taking a roundabout route. I would tip your typical waitress 15% unless she (not the kitchen) did a lousy job, but more if she did a very good job–they work hard. I’d give your bellman $3-5 per bag–if you don’t, they will take revenge you won’t like. If you stay more than one night, might leave $2-5 for the maid per night, unless she does a bad job. (Her job is miserable to begin with, but no point rewarding her for doing it lousy.)

It’s not really tipping-related, but never, ever, ever try to bribe an American police officer. The odds of success are dismal. The odds of arrest are very high. And if you’re wealthy with a fancy rental car, don’t imagine that will give you a better chance of bribe acceptance. Some of our police are corrupt, some are brutal, and a few are purely evil, but when you offer one a bribe, you insult his or her integrity–and even more so if you seem rich, since most police do not make piles of money, nor do they hail from wealthy backgrounds. Even most of the assholes are honest assholes. The only people in a position to offer the police bribes without being arrested are those who are already too rich or famous or well-connected for the police to dare bother unless they just shot someone, or rammed a carload of nurses, or exposed themselves to the governor’s wife. Or had weed. One of our national pastimes is jailing people for years and years for possessing an herb.

New Yorkers are rude, Southerners are polite, southern Californians are phony, xxx are xxx. Mostly false. Regional stereotypes exist, have bases in fact, and if you seek examples of them, you can find both the positive and negative stereotypes confirmed. My wife has found New Yorkers very helpful. I’ve met appallingly rude Southerners. I was born in southern California: am I phony? Would I be less phony if my parents had driven to Arizona when my mom went into labor? The reality is that we differ less from region to region than we seem to, yet have the habit of highlighting those differences rather than our commonalities. Because there is a sense that…

Americans are deeply divided by region against one another. Sometimes true, depending on the individual. Those who feel most divided, though, tend to be most vocal. They get much more media focus, so the extent is well overblown. It was not always like this. I remember a time when even our firebrands still hated perceived external enemies more than they hated their fellow Americans for disagreeing with them.

Americans waste a lot. It’s true, especially plastic and paper. However, we do not waste nearly as much as we once did. We are gradually adopting the recycling concept. The degree of recycling is often connected to a region’s politics, which is just brain-crushingly stupid, since politics have zero to do with the need to reduce garbage.

American public schools are broken. True of many. You can while away whole afternoons listening to us argue about whether to fix them or destroy them, and whose fault this is, if that interests you. However, realize that your typical American high school graduate has a far poorer education than his or her counterpart in most of the developed world.

Americans are fat. True, but the world is catching up, so the elephant in our room is soon coming to yours unless you do something. Laughing at us isn’t burning that many calories.

Americans by and large lack social services. Mostly untrue. However, ours are very decentralized. Most states run their own, as do some counties and municipalities; some are better, some worse, some atrocious. Many are run by charities, and an enormous percentage of Americans regularly do volunteer work–this is one aspect of our lives of which the world knows nearly nothing. What we do not have is a monolithic national government that is responsible for everything.

This decentralization of services stems from the debate, which began even before we finished winning the Revolutionary War, over how much power the Federal government should have. Many Europeans take for granted the idea of government as a kindly uncle who protects and helps them. Well, we’ve never really had that kind of Federal government, which is why some of us are suspicious of it gaining or asserting more power. To understand Americans, you have to imagine European standards of living mixed with a government that often colludes against the public interest. Should it be that way? Of course not. Is that the reality you will experience? Yes. So if it feels like Argentina or Tanzania, where the government is best avoided when you can, that’s why. Experience has taught many of us to distrust it. Our government has a very callous streak and style that shows up in letters we get, proclamations, even in how-to manuals. It rarely speaks in a tone that invites willing cooperation, or speaks to our best interests. It speaks in authoritarian language, and many of us perceive it as authoritarian. The main ‘best interest’ it usually speaks to is: ‘it’s in your best interest to obey, so we don’t punish you.’ So we may well obey, but you can see why some of us don’t walk away feeling cared for and protected.

American police are dangerous and should be avoided. Some truth to this. I would strongly advise visitors to work hard not to come to the official attention of the police, especially in rural areas. We have no national uniformed police force out among the public, so most police departments are city, county or state-operated and will reflect the local culture. (Our primary national police agency, the FBI, is more of a counterintelligence and counterinsurgency force, and has had a political policing role since inception.)

There are parts of the Northeast where some police are little better than the criminals. There are cities where some police are very casual about obeying their own rules. There are counties where the police are only moderately literate. There are regions where the main role of police is to raise tax money by writing tickets to people who can’t contest them in court unless they want to travel back to the location, which is rarely productive. If you have to deal with American police, don’t get an attitude. Be polite, don’t answer questions they didn’t ask, and if you didn’t know the law, apologize for not knowing it. That will help in most cases.

The good news is that if you obey traffic laws, don’t park in stupid places like sidewalks and no-parking zones, and don’t bother them, most of the police won’t bother you. Use your turn signals, stay within 3 mph of the speed limit, stop at the red lights and octagonal signs, don’t weave around like a drunk, and you will be of little interest to the police. And most especially, don’t park in a disabled spot without a permit. Ever. Not even for three minutes just to dash in. Someone will see you, dial her cell phone, and you will return to find a police officer writing you a well-deserved ticket.

America is deeply racist. True, but that doesn’t mean that all Americans are, nor that we are comfortable with it, nor that it is always overt, nor that racism equals racial hatred. We have many social attitudes that are holdovers from more racist past eras, and that’s why I say ‘deeply’–I did not mean ‘very.’ I mean that many bits of racism are deep enough in our social fabric that we are still learning to understand their impact. Piece by piece, many of us are trying to work our society away from those holdovers.

In any case, in most of the country, overt displays of racism are unwelcome, as are racial slurs. In many cases, those will get you a lot of bad reactions, and not necessarily from the members of the slurred group. Most of us have friends, and often relatives, from all walks of society. We tend to stick up for them.

Never discuss politics or religion with Americans. True, with modification: I’d say never discuss them with random Americans you don’t know, unless you’re feeling adventuresome. The problem here is a combination of passion and half-baked attitudes: a lot of Americans who are passionate about their religion and politics haven’t thought either one through, so you may embarrass them. That probably will not end well, because no one likes to feel stupid. For example, something like a majority of Americans believe that ‘socialism’ equals ‘anything government does.’ If you try to define the word for them, you’ll just annoy them. Just skip it. Sometimes it’s a choice between winning arguments or having a good time.

Compared to Europe, gasoline in the US is almost free. True, considering the relative price difference. Only our large cities have respectable public transportation; bus and train service between cities is rudimentary. American travel is largely motor travel, unless you want to fly. Try not to laugh at us when we complain that $3.50 per gallon is exorbitant. Most Americans don’t know that where you come from, it costs double.

Americans truly believe theirs is the world’s greatest country. Generally true. In fact, questioning this bromide will get a person (American or otherwise) nothing but hassle. Don’t get into the argument; it’s pointless, especially since there is no objective standard for ‘great.’ It’ll just deteriorate into people saying things they can’t take back.

All of the US works on the English measurement system. No, actually not all of it. Our military is almost totally metric. Nearly every packaged food at the grocery store has measurements in English and metric. It is true, though, that your average American doesn’t know the metric system well. Millimeters are best known, since a lot of gun calibers come in mm. Kilograms (2.2 pounds) are not well known, nor are meters (about 1.1 yards) or liters (about 1.05 quarts). Most rental cars will have speed indicators in kph, but the speed limit signs will be in mph. If you stick around and become a carpenter, yeah, you’ll need to learn the English system. If that’s not part of your travel plans, you’ll be okay. Seriously: you don’t need a thermometer to tell you it’s hot or cold.

American road etiquette is less prevalent than Europe. True in some ways, but it’s fairer to say that our etiquette is different (and in some ways, a lot kinder and more tolerant). In some places on earth, it’s a mortal sin not to move right to let someone past, grounds for outrage. Americans don’t like it either, but Americans also mostly don’t regard bullying as something to tolerate. Therefore, if you roar up on an American’s bumper and expect her to move right in response to your dominance, she may just slow down to piss you off. (And before you jump out to confront her at the next stoppage, do bear in mind that she might own a pistol and know how to use it.)

In many places, Americans will adjust their driving to help you out, such as changing lanes to let you merge onto the freeway. Cities and big macho pickup trucks are normally the rudest, taken on average; rural areas and passenger cars are typically kindest. Americans also expect people to keep right unless passing, though, so you can’t go wrong doing that (most of us observe this custom). Just don’t expect to bully people into it by tailgating them, figuring that they are afraid or ashamed to make you mad. They do not care if you get mad, unless you seem dangerous. Which, if you are tailgating, you are.

Americans dress like slobs with no fashion sense. Often true. Why should we let other people’s views (foreign or domestic) decide for us what we think of ourselves? Outside fashionable cities and the work environment, many of us have grasped the truth that the clothes you can afford are a lousy measure of what kind of person you are. We still have fashionistas and fashion-conscious regions, and a lot of people would be fashionistas if they could afford it, but many of us look at clothes as superficial–something to look past, and see the real person.

Americans are prudish. More so than some peoples, less so than others, and it varies by region and the age of the individual. Today’s twentysomething hellraiser may well be a stuffy prude by his sixties. However, it’s a bad idea to swear in front of old people, women or children, and most Americans wouldn’t approve of their kids watching porn. (Not that it’s easy to prevent that, and not that the parents usually succeed.)

Differences in law between states can trip you up. Only minimally true. Those matter more for residency than visiting. Maximum speed limits and alcohol sales restrictions will affect some visitors, but the major differences are in taxation methods, land use laws, and other stuff that hardly matters to you.

America is just a scary place. False. It is a friendly, if undereducated and sometimes backward place, and most of it is very safe. You can explore it at your own pace, and that is the best way to know it. It is also a vast place with many regional climates and cultures. Most Americans have not seen it all.

America has awe-inspiring scenery. Very true. This is a land of extremes. It is a large country of diverse climates and terrain. It has cities that mesmerize at night, enormous canyons, great rivers, vast swamps, beautiful beaches, wheat farms the size of Liechtenstein, cattle ranches bigger than Luxembourg, snowy peaks, wild forests, mighty winds, mighty storms, lethal heat, brutal cold, baseball-sized hail (and larger), monsoon downpours, blizzards, floods, volcanoes.

We have animals. The road signs warning you not to hit a deer are not there just to make you nervous. Moose come into Anchorage in winter. Alligators turn up on Florida golf courses. In Yellowstone, the way it works is that Mr. and Mrs. Bison decide where they want to be, and everyone else arranges to get out of the way. Our national symbol has been known to dive on, capture and eat people’s chihuahuas.

Our scenery and climate have majesty. They kick our butts. If they kick yours, therefore, don’t feel bad. The butt-kicking just makes you fit in better, especially if you do as we do: get up, try to laugh, and move on.

Just like your country, the best way is to come see it for yourself.

(Comments are closed because it’s almost inevitable that this will set off political squirreliness, which doesn’t interest me. What people might say about my article doesn’t concern me; it is the nanny-nanny-naa-naa of commenter to commenter that I don’t want to have to police. My apologies to all civilized readers for this measure’s necessity.)