10 surprising things that Americans do

While each region of the United States has its own quirks and identity, there are certain practices that Americans across the country seem to follow. While these ten practices may seem perfectly normal to Americans, you may find them a bit strange as a newcomer to the United States. 

1. Treat their pets like family

Seventy percent of US households, or about 90.5 million families, own a pet, according to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). While owning a dog or a cat is not uncommon in other countries, Americans are known to go above and beyond to make sure their pet is treated like a part of the family. In the past ten years, American pet spending has more than doubled. Forty-five percent of American pet owners spend the same amount of money or more on their pets’ healthcare as they do on their own.

In addition to putting their pet’s health above their own, ninety percent of Americans treat their pets like family, providing their furry companions with fluffy beds, fancy sweaters, and an abundance of treats and accessories. It’s not unusual for an American family to share their couches, beds, and meals with their pets, providing them with all the same comforts as a cherished family member. 

2. Watch prescription drug commercials on TV

The United States is the only country, besides New Zealand, that legally permits “direct-to-consumer” pharmaceutical advertising. This means that when you turn on the TV in America, you may see ads for the latest prescription drug offering for whatever could be ailing you. Americans don’t find it strange to recommend a prescription drug to their doctors. But this wasn’t always the case. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising for prescription drugs started mostly in print during the 1980s and moved to TV advertising in the late 1990s. 

According to the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “no federal law has ever banned DTC advertising. Until the mid-1980s, drug companies only gave prescription drug information to doctors and pharmacists. Then, when these professionals thought it appropriate, they gave that information to their patients. However, during the 1980s, some drug companies started to give the general public more direct access to this information through DTC ads.”

3. Go to school in yellow school buses

School bus yellow is a color that was specifically formulated for use on school buses in North America in 1939. Prior to 1939, American children were riding to school in trucks and buses of all different colors and even horse-drawn wagons. The uniformization of school buses would solve two problems while simultaneously revolutionizing how they are manufactured. One, uniformity would make bus travel safer. Two, manufacturers would be able to mass-produce them at lower costs.

Although many other forms of transportation have changed dramatically over the years, America’s yellow school buses have endured. That’s due, in large part, to the school bus’s astonishing record on safety. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “the school bus transportation system is the largest mass transit system in the United States, yet school buses account for less than one percent of traffic fatalities each year. Students on school buses are 70 times safer than those who travel to school by car “because [school buses] are the most regulated vehicles on the road; they are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles.”

4. Prefer wide personal spaces

Personal space varies from culture to culture. According to researchers, the world is sorted into “contact cultures” and “non-contact” cultures. Non-contact cultures like Northern Europe, North America, and Asia expect people to stand further away from each other and touch less. In comparison, people in contact cultures like South America, the Middle East, and Southern Europe are no strangers to standing close to one another. Anthropologist Edward Hall, who coined the term “proxemics” to describe how humans use space, found that Americans reserve space up to 18 inches away from themselves for intimate contact. From 18 inches to 4 feet away is most appropriate for good friends and family members. General public distance for strangers is about 10 feet. 

A good rule of thumb is to take cues from the American you are conversing with. If they back up as you speak, it may mean they feel uncomfortable with the proximity. Avoid physical contact while speaking, as it could lead to discomfort. In America, touching is a bit too intimate for casual acquaintances. Don’t put your arm around their shoulder, touch their face, or hold their hand. It is acceptable to shake hands when you first meet or part, but only briefly.

5. Fill in the silence

Americans often feel uncomfortable with long periods of silence and communicate primarily through verbal interactions. In the United States, many acts of silence are social, such as a moment of silence as a sign of respect during a public prayer or theatrical performance. Asian and Nordic countries have listening cultures where silence denotes careful thought. Listening cultures prefer pauses in a conversation to keep the interchange calm. In some cases, silence can be a way to allow everyone to save face. On the other hand, Americans may translate silence in conversations as indifference, disagreement, or a lack of understanding. In these cases, some Americans may rush to fill the silence with further explanation or a change of subject. 

Some researchers speculate that fear of silence has much to do with how an individual was raised as a child. For example, Bruce Fell, a Charles Sturt University lecturer, explained that, throughout a six-year period, he observed the behavior of his 580 American undergraduate students and came to the conclusion that the “struggle with silence is a learned behavior,” as all of the students, except for one, grew up in households where the TV, or some other kind of background noise, was constantly playing.

6. Value being busy

Americans value time and convenience. Their busy and fast-paced lives welcome the need for drive-through food options, same-day deliveries, ordering food “to-go,” and taking their coffees with them on their daily commutes. As a result, many Americans believe that faster is better and busyness and lack of leisure should be celebrated. One theory suggests that when Americans express they are busy and working all the time, they implicitly suggest that they are sought after, enhancing their perceived status.

7. Believe bigger is better

“Getting more for your money” is a common phrase in the United States as most Americans try to maximize the value of their money. The American culture of bigness is unlike any other in the world. When you arrive in the United States, you’ll notice that food portions are larger, stores are bigger with more variety, and American cars and homes are expansive. Americans assume bigger is always better and consider size a measure of excellence. 

In a Time magazine article, author Sarah Z. Wexler explains that Americans may be obsessed with big things based on “the history of our country and the idea that we had so much space to spread out. The idea of manifest destiny was that we were destined to expand westward until we hit another ocean. But since there isn’t that kind of space for exploration or expansion in our country anymore, [this is how] we stake out our claim. And some of it is just tied to an American sensibility and tied in with machismo. We coined the term “Go big or go home.”

8. Have a preference for sweeter-tasting bread

According to the American Heart Association, American adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day, more than three times the recommended amount for women. Much of American processed food relies on high sugar content. Food companies in the United States began to remove fat from processed foods to promote them as healthy alternatives. Sugar was added to compensate for the loss of flavor in fat-free products.

As a newcomer to America, you’ll notice that the packaged loaves of bread in the grocery store may taste much sweeter than most European bread. The main difference is that American bread comes with more preservatives and additives like high glucose corn syrup, making the loaves stay fresher on grocery store shelves longer. This has even become a legal issue in parts of Europe. For example, in Ireland, a court judge ruled that the bread at Subway, an American fast-food chain that primarily sells submarine sandwiches, was legally not bread at all. The reasoning for this is because of the high quantities of added sugars. In Ireland, Subway bread is legally seen as a confection, similar to cake.

9. Require air conditioning

Air conditioning is very much a way of life for Americans. From East Coast to West Coast and everywhere you turn, you’ll never be far away from the constant humming of air conditioners in the summer months. Nearly 90 percent of American households now have some form of air-conditioning, more than any other country except Japan. In a nation with 318 million people accounting for just 4.5% of the world’s population, the United States consumes more energy for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined. It uses more electricity for cooling than Africa, a population of 1.1 billion, uses for everything.

Cooled air is an essential economic and social technology for some Americans despite its excessive energy consumption. Extreme natural heat kills an average of 618 Americans yearly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to thousands a century ago. It also cuts absenteeism and raises productivity. In a 1957 survey, 90% of US firms named cooled air as the single biggest boost to their productivity.

10. Share a deep love of peanut butter

When many Americans recall childhood meals and school lunches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are almost always part of the nostalgia. This creamy spread of sweet and salty peanuts has been an American food mainstay and pop icon for over a century. As a cheap and high-protein food, Americans have consumed peanuts since enslaved people first brought them to America, but peanut butter wasn’t developed until 1890 and wasn’t mass-produced until the 1920s. Then, the meat shortage caused by World War II made peanut butter an American icon.

During an interview with National Peanut Board, President and CEO Bob Parker reflect on how peanut butter has evolved from a primarily sandwich spread to a savory cooking ingredient. “While more traditional mothers might now be baking cookies or cakes, millennials are experimenting with international cuisines, and we’re seeing more use of peanut butter in savory dishes. It’s also gaining more traction as a tasty and versatile ingredient by food manufacturers. One example is the explosion of peanut butter ice creams that have come onto the market in the past year or so.”

Want to learn more about American culture and other uniquely American practices? Check out a few of our other articles:

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