- Mark Abadi
- The US tends to spark questions and misconceptions in many people in other countries.
- I’ve been to 25 countries and have noticed there are ones that come up time and time again.
- They include questions about tipping, patriotism, and the worst American stereotypes.
If you live outside the United States, the impression you get of the country could be vastly different than reality.
Many Americans who have traveled abroad have found themselves fielding questions from non-Americans about life in the US and clearing up misconceptions they may have.
I’ve noticed certain topics come up in conversation time and time again in the years I’ve been traveling, throughout 25 different countries. I’ve heard them in places from Amsterdam to Mumbai, and even far-flung locations like Tierra del Fuego and rural Malaysia.
Read on to see the questions non-Americans had about the United States, and the misconceptions I encountered all around the world.
Why do Americans tip everywhere?
- Kevork Djansezian/Shutterstock
One of the most confusing aspects of American culture is the tipping system.
Americans are used to tipping a wide variety of service professionals, from bartenders and waiters to hairstylists and airport-shuttle drivers. On top of that, Americans tend to tip in greater amounts than people in other countries, where a 10% tip or simply rounding up to the nearest dollar amount may be more commonplace.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of countries where people don’t tip at all. It’s usually people from those places who have the most questions and criticisms of the US system.
Why are the food portions so big?
- Olive Garden/Facebook
Any traveler who’s been to a US restaurant has probably encountered the infamous American portion size. The massive dishes sold at most eateries come as a shock to most non-Americans, especially if they come from countries where taking home your leftovers isn’t the norm.
Why do Americans eat so early?
Many Americans eat dinner around 6:20 p.m., and anything between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. is usually considered a standard mealtime.
Why is sales tax not included?
- Kena Betancur/Getty Images
One quirk that always makes an impression on non-Americans is how in the US sales tax is not factored into prices and instead added at the cash register.
There are plenty of theories of why the US differs from the rest of the world in this respect, and the issue was a favorite to discuss among non-Americans I met.
Why do so many people drive cars?
- Scott Olson/Getty Images
The US has more cars per capita than just about every other country – only San Marino has more – with more than 900 cars per 1,000 Americans.
Why is everyone so patriotic?
- Justin Setterfield / Getty
Americans have a reputation abroad for being patriotic – sometimes to an obnoxious degree.
That’s not to say people around the world don’t love their countries. But I did encounter plenty of curiosity about the American tendency to display flags and proclaim the US the greatest country on earth.
Why are guns so popular in the US?
- John Sommers II/Reuters
American gun culture is surprising and difficult to comprehend for people in practically every country I traveled to.
The US easily leads the world in both gun ownership and gun-related deaths, and gun control became a frequent topic of conversation in countries where accessing a firearm is virtually impossible.
Why are so many people in jail in the US?
- Thomson Reuters
The US jails a greater percentage of its population than any other country – about 700 out of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
That’s about five times greater than the rate in most other countries, and it’s not easy to provide a good explanation to people who ask why.
On top of the questions I was asked about the US, I also heard some pretty glaring misconceptions about my home country. For example, a lot of people seem to think that all Americans are rich.
- Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Veuve Clicquot
One of the most common misconceptions I encountered abroad is that all Americans are wealthy, and some people assume that the typical American has several cars and a big house.
It’s true that the average American’s income is higher than the global average, and the US has more billionaires than any other country. But many people abroad were surprised to learn that wealth wasn’t the norm for most Americans, and that the US suffers from income inequality and poverty too.
Americans party all the time.
- Agung Parameswara/Getty Images
For many people around the world, the only exposure they get to the US is through Hollywood movies. That often leads to a warped perception of American life in which young people are wholly devoted to drinking and partying.
I must have let them down when I told them most people I know in the US are focused on work, paying rent, and getting enough sleep.
American food is bad.
- Flickr/Jun Seita
American food gets a bad rap in other countries – mostly, I suspect, because of widespread American exports like McDonald’s and KFC.
Some people I encountered abroad disputed the idea that aside from those fast-food offerings, there was even such a thing as “American food” to begin with.
My typical response was to rattle off examples of regional US favorites, such as Southern barbecue, New England clam chowder, or Cajun gumbo.
And the beer is terrible, too.
- Pabak Sarkar/flickr
American beer has the same reputation abroad as American food – terrible.
But just like with food, non-Americans may be forming their opinions of American beer solely off the country’s mass-produced exports. Nearly half of all Budweiser sales are made outside the US.
Those attitudes may be changing as American craft beers are becoming increasingly popular in Europe and other beer-loving regions.
Americans can’t speak more than one language.
Americans are known for being some of the most monolingual people in the world.
In reality, the stereotype doesn’t hold up: Americans, and especially young ones, are becoming increasingly able to communicate in languages besides English. (Part of the reason Americans are known as monolingual is that the government isn’t asking the right questions about our language use.)
It may come as an even bigger surprise that 10% of working-age Americans – that’s 19 million people – don’t speak fluent English.
Many non-Americans were unaware of how huge the US is.
- Shutterstock/Billion Photos
The US is the third-largest country in the world by area, but it’s sometimes hard to comprehend how geographically imposing America is until you get here.
Whenever the subject came up, I was ready with some fun facts to illustrate the vastness of the US. Like how it takes more than 30 hours of nonstop driving to traverse the entire East Coast, or how a flight from Seattle to Miami takes upwards of seven hours. And how the largest US state, Alaska, is big enough to be the 17th-largest country in the world.
And they were surprised by the diversity of the US.
- Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Another thing that surprises some non-Americans about the US is its diversity. Between TV, movies, and the news, it is easy for someone abroad to get the impression that the US is uniformly white and Christian, so it can come as a surprise that this group represents less than half the country, according to a recent survey.
The relationship between the government and the 50 states was confusing.
A big source of confusion I came across was the relationship between the 50 states and the US government.
Many non-Americans were surprised to learn how much autonomy each state has, like when it comes to setting its minimum driving age, selling alcohol, or legalizing marijuana.
Not every American supports the president.
- Drew Angerer/Getty Images
It’s natural for people to associate the US with its leader, but many non-Americans assume that the president is loved and supported by the majority of the country. At this point, it would be harder to find someone who does support him, according to recent polls.