Now that I am solidly into my second semester here, I’ve naturally been reflecting on my time in America thus far and have decided that now would be a good time to share some of the things that, six months into living here, I find (for lack of a better word) weird.
I realize that if you are an American reading this, these things may not have ever crossed your mind as being unique to this wonderful country, so I’ve taken it upon myself to try and bring these to your attention. And to any other internationals out there, maybe you’ll relate. I’m hoping I’m not the only one that still doesn’t quite understand American culture. Then again, if I am, I still have a good 3.5 more years to get the hang of it, so I think I’ll be alright.
This list is not meant to be offensive to America or Americans in any way. If anything it’s a reflection on my own lack of understanding, so please don’t take away my visa...
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top five weird things about America that I don’t understand (because who doesn’t love a good list).
Paying the bill at restaurants
I thought I would start off with something that I think even Americans realize is more than a bit bizarre, or at the very least, it’s inefficient and badly thought through. I’m going to talk you through paying the bill at a British restaurant just so you can compare. (I’m assuming everyone reading this article has, at some point, had the stressful experience of dining in an American restaurant.)
In the U.K., you ask for the bill, and your waiter will leave it on the table. They will then come over after you’ve struggled for a few minutes to make eye contact with them. They’ll bring a card machine, and everyone can pay exactly the price it said on the menu when they ordered, because we don’t have hidden tax. That means not having to work out how to split the tax when they give a group of people one bill. Similarly, we don’t pay tip unless service was above standard, and when you do, you tend to just leave cash on the table. You don’t add it to your bill when you pay by card. The whole tax-included thing also means that you can pay with cash and know you’re paying the right amount. I have not paid for a meal using cash once since I’ve been in America (and not just because I still don’t understand the coins, which I’m aware is kind of pathetic) because I am terrified of not paying enough or just messing it up. Tip is also confusing, because everyone has their own view on the correct percentage for bad/good/exceptional service. It’s an enigma I think even Americans only pretend to understand.
And I’m not even going to cover any of the other weirdness that goes down in American restaurants: Why do waiters clear plates before everyone’s finished eating? Why do you keep refilling my glass of water every time I take a sip? I know the answer to this one actually: It’s because there’s so much damn ice in your glass that there’s only room for one sip of water. Seriously though, just leave a jug on the table.
Greetings: “How are you?” just means “Hello”...?
I don’t think Americans realize this is weird to other people, and I still mess this up on a daily basis. Anytime a stranger, shop assistant, waitress, random person from your section last semester whose name you don’t remember asks you any variation of “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” they really are just saying hi and don’t expect a real response or for you to ask the question back. Or at least that’s what I think it means...
American money is confusing: Notes (bills?) all look the same!
To me, American money feels like Monopoly money. It’s all thin and flimsy, and they all look exactly the same. How could a blind person tell the difference between American bills? In the U.K., all our notes are different sizes and colors, so when you pay you don’t have to carefully check that you’ve got a $10 bill and not a $1 bill. And going back to my previous comment, I still don’t understand the coins here, and most people don’t seem to use them anyway.
The right on red
I’m going to reveal something about myself that is shocking to most Americans I meet: I don’t know how to drive a car. I don’t have my license, and I’ve never even sat in the driver’s seat before. However, I still know the rules of the road in the U.K. You cannot turn (what would be left) on a red light because, well, pedestrians. Every time I cross the street here, I’m worried that I might still get hit by a car, even if the walk sign is on. That, I know, will never be normal to me. Pedestrians also just always have right of way in the U.K.
The Imperial system and Fahrenheit
All I can say is thank god there are so many STEM majors here who understand Celsius and the metric system.