To truly understand US culture, don’t ask an American, ask a visitor. The ways we eat, talk, and live are so natural to us, only an outside observer notices them. We asked international students studying in the US what surprised them about the culture. Here’s what they told us:
Portions are exceptionally large, enough for multiple meals. Bread is incredibly sweet. Excesses of food often end up in the trash. Overall, the US’s unique relationship with food is a defining characteristic of the culture.
People don’t brag about high grades or career success. Nor do they complain about low grades or professional failure. There are exceptions but Americans tend to be quiet about these matters.
The concept of tipping itself is strange and the somewhat arbitrary amounts are even stranger. The fact that people who are not wealthy pay up to 25% extra for meals is shocking in most countries outside of the US.
“How are you?” is not an invitation to discuss your personal well-being in detail. It just means “hello.” This also relates to the earlier point about privacy—many Americans don’t share these details with their closest family and friends.
Students are not very competitive with each other; they tend to collaborate. Students study in groups and talk through concepts collectively to help each other understand. This is mostly related to college coursework and not contexts that are explicitly competitive.
Rich people are generally thinner. Poor people are generally overweight. In Indian culture, the opposite is often true. Heavier body types are looked down upon as lazy and poorly maintained. Thinness is associated with success and health.
Strange pricing structures that do not reflect value are quite common. One can of soda is $1 but 6 cans of soda are $4. A full meal at a chain fast food restaurant is cheaper than a bag of fresh fruit or vegetables. Soda is cheaper than water. There’s no consistency or pattern.
The US prefers bigger vehicles overall, regardless of need for the extra space. Preponderance of trucks and SUVs for personal, city driving. Massive amounts of unused space in general, in home and vehicles.
Real live women are not nearly as promiscuous as pop culture has led some to believe. And the LGBT community is significantly more vocal, open, and supported than in more conservative cultures such as India’s.
While issues of class have not been fully eliminated in the US, they are far less dramatic than in other countries. Everyone has access to food and water. Almost anyone from manual laborers to CEOs possess the means to own or lease a smartphone.