Since I came to the USA, I have been asked several times by friends and relatives about the differences between my culture and the USA. I am getting this question more and more as I am returning soon.
So I decided to try and sum it up according to my own point of view.
• Measurements and date: Americans, or more accurately, US citizen, still use the Old Imperial System and not the metric system, like the rest of the world (except England), which regularly requires a little mental gymnastics to evaluate distances, weights, temperatures.. After 18 months I still need to get my phone to convert any measurement!
Moreover, stores’ prices are not given for 1 kg but for a pound (lb), which corresponds to 454 grams (or about 1/2 kg). That got me very confused the first couple of times I did my groceries.
Even the date is inverted: in the USA, this is the format used: mm/dd/yy. It’s going to be interesting to figure out the date then I am going to read my notes later.
• The plugs are different; You cannot use the same one you can use in the rest of the world, you need adapters. I spent my very first day looking for a Best Buy to buy adapters for my phone and laptop!
Plus the voltage is 110v instead of 220v!
• Cars: I have seen a lot of big cars, here the 4×4 and the pick-up are kings! It seems size matters in the States!
Also, US citizen have a strong preference for automatic cars, we see very few manual ones.
• The food and drinks portions are massive. The first time I ordered a shake, I told them you got me a bigger order but they confirmed it was indeed a medium size!
• Tips and taxes: Whenever you have a bill, you will find the amount different from the price displayed (except groceries). There are taxes in stores, in WA it’s an additional 10% tax that will be added at the final transaction. For example, let’s say you want to buy a jacket, the price tag says it’s $50, but you should not forget that this is the price before taxes, so you are going to pay $55 at the cashier.
Then, there is the (in)famous tip (10% up to 25% of the bill), when you go to restaurants. Not tipping (waiters, cab drivers, etc.) is considered very rude in the U.S., many of them rely on tips to survive.
• Drive-thru: The drive system is present everywhere in any imaginable or unimaginable place. Very often it’s very useful, especially with COVID
• Languages: US citizen generally speak only English (+ their mother tongue for immigrants) because they don’t need more. I often got a wow reaction when people hear that I speak 3 languages, when for me it’s not that much.
• Social customs: Thanksgiving, Halloween, Baby Showers, Bachelor Parties, etc. We only see them in movies, all of them have their origins in the United State. Also, USA marketing strategies have created some nationwide phenomena such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Just more reasons to buy and consume more things we don’t need!
• Greeting: US citizen make big hugs in the street but no cheek kissing nor hand shaking unless it’s the first time you meet.
• Security: In the USA, especially in WA, I have nothing to complain about from a security point of view: I feel safe, street harassment is almost non-existent, no pickpocketing in the street, the packages are often deposited on the porches in full confidence for a whole day or even more, no need to be extremely vigilant with your stuff, you can leave a phone on a table without any risk of seeing someone running away with it. Of course, some neighborhoods are a little more at risk than others.
There are some racial incidents though.
• The health care system is crazy expensive and there is no free public care. To live in the USA is to have to give an arm and a kidney to get treated!
• Education: Schools and universities are free in most countries, while US citizen often have to save for years to send their children to college.
Both health and education being super expensive in a very rich country like USA is very confusing for ma, as we have free education and public health in my country Morocco which is way less rich than USA.
• Politically correct: You will notice that US citizen talk in a certain way trying hard to avoid offense, because of their great ethnic and religious diversity, so they have developed a greater sense of political correctness in an attempt to reduce friction between different groups. It needs some adjusting at the beginning but then you will appreciate it.
• Sports: In the United States, the most popular sports is not football (soccer), it’s baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and American soccer that attract crowds and make money.
• The banking system: what is called a credit card is actually a debit card. In the USA, they use both, but not for the same thing: to withdraw money, we use the debit card. To have (in the long run) a credit score, you have to use a credit card, which, as its name indicates, works on a credit system, i.e. money that you regularly have to think about paying back (by making transfers from your bank account to your card, as if it were another account or a passbook). These credit cards are often affiliated with a cash rewards system (something Americans really like), which allows you to get small discounts on everyday expenses (like food).
What’s the point, you may ask? I ask the same question as well, but in the USA the credit score is indispensable for certain actions like renting an apartment for example.
• Religion: US citizen are much more religious than I would have thought. Church attendance is very popular in the United States (depending on the state as well). It is considered an indispensable means of socializing. God is often mentioned by US politicians, although mixing religion and politics is taboo in many countries because of the stricter separation of state and religion. Also, a majority of US citizen would find it offensive if someone openly stated that they do not believe in God.
• Patriotism: US citizen put a lot of emphasis on patriotism. Being a patriot is a way of life in the U.S. Many US citizen find rational criticism of their country’s government offensive or disrespectful (especially from non-citizen). Some go as far as to view criticism of their government as personal attacks (although attitudes are changing).
• Politics: Democracy is representative, which means that when citizens vote they choose representatives to exercise power on their behalf. So when US citizen voted for Trump or Biden, they were actually voting only for the representative of their chosen party in their state. So in practice, it is possible that this representative votes differently from the majority of his state’s votes, but apparently this does not happen. At least this is as far as I was able to understand it!
Adjusting to a new culture is not always easy, it takes some time, especially if you are in a very different country culturally from yours. One tip I can give you is to try and socialize with locals as much as you can so you can get a better sense of what it is like.