The United States might be the home of the free and the land of the brave, but it’s also incredibly confusing to travelers who come here from the rest of the world! While some things are the same everywhere, and others have become mainstream thanks to the export of US pop culture, there are plenty of things that seem totally normal to natives, yet utterly bizarre to everyone else. And of course, it works both ways. US travelers in the rest of the world are often surprised when something that they do automatically at home is looked at as strange - or even insulting.
From the money to the food, schooling to home layouts, and of course - the sheer size of everything in the US, these twenty-five things are part of day to day life in the United States - but are sure to leave visitors raising their eyebrows in confusion! Some of these everyday customs are even starting to be questioned at home, as people realize that maybe the way that the rest of the world deals with something actually makes more sense.
Have you ever noticed that some of these things are unique to the USA when you’ve been traveling abroad?
25 Single Colored Currency
The US definitely has unique currency - and travelers are often confused when it comes to finding the right bill, because they are all the same size and color. In many other countries, different denominations are different shades (and even sizes), making it much simpler to pull the right bill out of a wallet without having to peer at the numbers on it.
Other countries are also making the move (or have already switched) to dollar coins and plastic money that is longer-lasting and harder to copy, while phasing out of the penny. These are all things the US could definitely adopt.
24 Sales Tax
Speaking of money, most people around the world expect the price they see on the tag to be the price they pay at the till, with the possible exception of Canada, our neighbor to the North.
The idea of having sales tax added on top of the price tag is utterly bizarre - and visitors often wonder how people budget properly when shopping if they have to guess what the actual total will be, or end up stymied at the till, digging around for a little extra cash to take care of the tax that they simply forgot about.
23 All You Can Eat
Food is definitely something that the US does differently, and this is far from the only entry on this list that will be talking about the way that USA folk eat… and eat, and eat, and eat!
The option for ‘All You Can Eat’ dining is one that you won’t find in most other places, where cuisine is seen as something to be enjoyed in smaller portions, not shoveled in until you think you might burst!
The idea of paying a set price and simply eating until you physically can’t have another bite is one that will alarm most visitors - especially those from foodie cultures (like France and Italy).
22 So Many Flags
We’re all for being proud of your country, but in the rest of the world, you just won’t see this manifested as flags on everything. Flags on bumper stickers. Flags hanging outside residential homes. Flags on clothes, windows, keychains, souvenirs… ok, perhaps you’ll see them on tourist trinkets elsewhere! But the rest are pretty unusual, although people in America often don’t realize that nowhere else in the world has such a prevalence of flags. It can be surprising to a visitor to show up and see the stars and stripes hanging around every corner.
21 Drive Through Everything
When it comes to cars, the United States does quite a bit differently. The sheer size of the cars (and the roads) is one thing, but the really surprising part is just how much time people spend in them. It’s possible to spend hours driving and not even leave the state (a shock for Europeans, who would pass through four countries in that time!), but more than that, it’s possible to do your banking, eating, and shopping all without ever leaving the car, thanks to the drive-through.
This may be the norm for fast food in many countries, but drive through pharmacies and ATMs? That’s truly unique!
20 The Portion Sizes are out of control
Time to head back to food - and to the enormous portions that are pretty much everywhere in the US. Fine dining restaurants may serve much smaller plates, but going to any major restaurant is going to involve getting several times more food than you would elsewhere.
Many visitors actively choose to always order ‘small’ as a size and share entrees with a friend (or two) in order to eat the kind of portions that they are used to… but the volume of a large soda or a side order of fries is still pretty alarming for most people.
19 The ‘World’ Series
The world tends to have a chuckle at this one… a ‘world’ series that involves no teams from outside the United States! This national championship series of Major League Baseball is an annual event, and a major one for fans of one of America’s national sports, but visitors may be confused about the title.
Unlike other sporting events with ‘world’ in the title (like the World Cup), the World Series isn’t divided into countries, but Major League teams, and almost no non-US teams compete (occasionally a Canadian team may make an appearance). Not very global, for a ‘world’ event.
18 Degrees Equal Debt
This is one of those things that locals are becoming increasingly frustrated with themselves: studying at university can leave people hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. A visitor chatting with a new friend might ask about studies or career paths, and be shocked to learn that it’s the norm in the US to be paying off student debt for decades to come. By comparison, in most other countries, university is either affordable, heavily subsidized, both, or even completely free. Thankfully, the more that people become frustrated with this USA way of doing things, the more likely it is that this could change.
17 Free Refills
As if the portion sizes weren’t already big enough, most soft drinks in restaurants in the US come with free refills - something that is pretty much unheard of in the rest of the world. If you order a soda, or a coffee, you get one soda or coffee… not an unlimited amount. What makes this extra confusing for visitors is that it isn’t universal. You might get free coffee refills at a restaurant and a diner, but not a cafe or coffee shop. As for soda, does anyone really need an unlimited amount of this sugary stuff in the first place?
16 Over-Attentive Servers
More restaurant-related confusion, as visitors from other countries are routinely baffled by how attentive the servers are in restaurants. In many countries, servers try to be as unobtrusive as possible, simply taking orders, bringing food, and making themselves available for questions or concerns. In the US, however, it’s normal for a server to swing by the table repeatedly, join in conversations, and chat freely while reeling off a list of specials that takes five minutes at a time.
People visiting can find this abrasive and annoying. Locals, however, find it rude if a server isn’t constantly at their elbow, chatting away.
15 Doggie Bags
Perhaps this is because of the portion sizes, but in most places, it’s not customary to ask for a doggie bag when leaving a restaurant. The idea of eating out is to order what you want, eat it all there, and then leave - not to take half your food home in a styrofoam container.
It makes some sense, of course, and is better than simply wasting food that goes uneaten, but for those who are used to more reasonable portion sizes in the first place, asking for a to-go box can be a little bit surprising.
14 Writing The Date
Writing the date on forms in the US can be a minefield for anyone not born and raised here, because the US system inverts the day and month. Elsewhere in the world, it’s common to write in the format day/month/year - which makes sense! This method goes from the smallest unit of time to the largest.
In the US, however, the convention is month/day/year, which is particularly problematic in the first twelve days of the month, when it’s not immediately apparent which way around things are meant to go.
13 Driving… Everywhere
In the US, driving is everything - and pretty much everyone has a car. Their car might not be a brand new one, or even a nice one, but even teens end up buying beaters in order to get around… and with good reason.
The public transit system in most places just isn’t set up efficiently, even in some of the bigger cities, and there aren’t many pedestrian zones outside of city centers. Getting around means having to drive - which can be a shock to tourists who are used to taking the bus (or train) absolutely everywhere.
Tailgating is a uniquely USA way to party - and one that can be extremely odd to visitors. The idea of heading to an event hours early, and then hanging out in the parking lot to drink beer and grill meat next to your car - it just doesn’t make sense. Why not celebrate before the event at home? Or at a nearby bar/restaurant? Or just show up on time for the event itself?
It can be an incredibly fun way to spend an afternoon, soaking up the atmosphere and camaraderie, but it definitely sounds strange the first time you hear it.
11 Credit Card Culture
It’s not just the cash that confuses visitors, but the way that Americans deal with credit and debit cards. Elsewhere, cash is used far more (in the US, many people will be surprised at anyone wanting to use something other than plastic), and when cards are used, the security is much tighter.
You won’t see someone simply handing their card off in a restaurant, to be brought back later, or signing a paper receipt. Instead, chip-and-pin is the norm, and credit cards rarely leave the owner’s sight. It’s much more secure, which can make this one particularly worrying for tourists.
10 Tipping Culture
Anyone in the service industry knows that when tourists come in, the possibility of getting a decent tip is slim to none - because the rest of the world just doesn’t have the tip culture that the US does. In most countries, a tip is a very small amount given for a job well done, and isn’t expected at all. It’s also only for sit-down restaurants - tipping at a coffee shop or for take out just isn’t done. But in the US, where servers are paid less and expected to rely on their tips for the bulk of their income, 15 or 20% as a tip is the norm - way too much anywhere else in the world.
9 Red Solo Cups
These little plastic cups are ubiquitous at parties - whether it’s for playing flip cup, pong, or just (gasp) drinking from them. However, these are a uniquely US thing, and in the rest of the world, you won’t find people drinking from them. Parties may involve disposable cups, but they are usually just clear plastic, and it may surprise visitors to walk into a party (or go tailgating) and see that absolutely everyone has a red solo cup in hand.
What's even more surprising is that these are such a big deal that they have even been reproduced in miniature as shot glasses and keychains.
8 Medical Adverts
Turn on the TV in the States, and there is a solid chance that within a few minutes, you’ll be watching an ad for medication. Usually, it’s someone running through a sunny field or playing with a puppy, or something equally unrelated to an actual illness, and it’s followed by a laundry list of effects and an exhortation to ‘ask your doctor if this is right for you’!
Background noise, for most people, but something new and strange for people from other countries, where medicine isn’t advertised. At all.
7 And Legal Ads
Another common advert that will be seen all over the US, but rarely elsewhere, are ads for lawyers or legal firms. In much of the rest of the world, legal advertising is either frowned upon or flat-out illegal.
The idea is that a) advertising is damaging to the image of a serious profession, and b) advertising can be unethical, giving those trained in persuasion the ability to bring in clients purely for the cash, and not because they are the best choice of counsel. Legal advertising is becoming less regulated elsewhere, but it’s still not quite the same as it in the US.
6 24 Hour Everything
In many other countries of the world, if you want to pick up a prescription or a snack at 3am, you are going to be out of luck, and in some places, you may be out of luck during lunch times, siesta times, early evenings, or Sundays.
In the US, however, the country is liberally sprinkled with 24 hour options; diners, coffee shops, pharmacies, supermarkets, big box stores, everything. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing - it’s actually incredibly convenient to be able to get pretty much anything you want, anytime you want it.
5 Ice And Straws
Just one more moment of surprise in a restaurant to cover: the moment when a visitor orders a glass of water, and it comes in a glass filled with ice, and at least one straw.
In most of the world, ordering a glass of water means just that - a glass filled with water. If you want it with ice, you would have to ask for ‘ice water’. But in the US, cups and glasses are filled to the brim with ice before drinks are added, and straws are everywhere. Although this may start to change, as straw-bans become more and more common.
Just like writing the date, the way that America measures things can be extremely confusing for the rest of the world. Most countries have long since switched to the metric system, neatly and easily divisible by ten, making it simpler to use.
In the US, however, the British Imperial System is still used (even though the Brits themselves got rid of it decades ago). Feet, pounds, inches and miles can be extremely confusing to visitors who don’t quite understand what they mean… or why ‘pounds’ is shortened to ‘lbs’!
3 Privacy In Public Restrooms
This one is definitely a surprise for people visiting, who go to a public washroom and may think that there’s something wrong with the doors… because what are those huge gaps on either side for?
Public washrooms in the US certainly don’t offer a lot of privacy (at least, not if they are stalls), and that can be extremely disconcerting for people used to being a little more hidden from view.
It’s not just the sides, either. The doors themselves are significantly shorter than they are elsewhere, and it’s certainly not something that makes tourists feel comfortable.
2 Toilet Water
While we’re on the subject of bathrooms… the standard US toilets fill up to a much higher level than the ones in the rest of the world - so much so that it’s not unusual for a visitor to think that there’s a plumbing issue, or that the toilet is going to flood!
Elsewhere, there is only a small amount of water in the very bottom, not a half-full bowl - and with different shapes and flush options to boot, bathrooms can be a particularly confusing part of any US vacation.
1 Laundry Rooms
Finally, let’s move out of the bathroom and into the laundry room - something that the majority of other countries don’t really have! In much of the world, if you are lucky enough to have a washer and dryer in the house, you’ll find them in the kitchen (or occasionally the bathroom), where there are water hookups. Many people also don’t tumble-dry clothing, using drying racks (indoor or outdoor), and even if they do have a machine, it’s a whole lot smaller.
The pristine laundry rooms with giant machines may seem like something that belongs in a hotel to your out-of-town guests.