Top 8 Prejudices about Americans

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When traveling abroad it is difficult to go with an open mind. Despite our best efforts we bring with us an excess of prejudice shaped by our own culture and view of the destination country. So to it was for me when I visited the United States. When coming back, people at home are very insistent that you play into their prejudice regarding where you’ve been as well, perhaps as a means of reinforcing their own identity.

Let’s look at some of the top prejudices about Americans, and see whether they have truth in them. I must emphasize that I have been mostly around the Pittsburgh area, and my observations may or may not extend to the rest of the United States.

#1 Americans are very friendly, but it’s “fake”
This is one of the most often heard things about Americans: that they are ‘fake’. What most people refer to when they say this is that they are friendly, but they don’t really mean it. This is not entirely true though: from their perspective they probably do mean it. It’s not that they are putting up an act, it is simply a different social etiquette.

I believe the initial friendliness of Americans, which contrasts somewhat with northern Europeans, has evolved as a means to deal with the high economic mobility in the country. This is probably inherited from the frontier days when the United States was still forming, but even today it is common for people to move around quite a bit in order to find jobs: economic mobility. An open and friendly attitude towards strangers, and a quick means that facilitates social assimilation into groups is a necessity in such an environment.

#2 Americans are superficial
This is related to #1, but at a slightly later state in interactions. Americans are more open to banter than the average Dutch person for sure. Striking up a conversation and getting an interaction going is easier in the United States. People familiar with the east of the Netherlands will find it similar in some respect to the difference with the more densely populated west of the country: conversation are faster and their content more fleeting. However, if you actually get to know a person you can take the conversation as deep as you want, just as about anywhere else in the world.

#3 Americans are materialistic
It is true that Americans have a lot of `stuff’ and like to show what they have. This desire may not be specific to Americans by definition. However, showing your wealth prominently through materialism is more accepted in the USA than in other societies. One plausible reason for this is that the United States was founded as a place where status was not to be acquired by being born into a particular social class, but rather by working hard to distinguish oneself. Hence, the only way to actually measure the status of others in such a system is through observing their acquired wealth.

This is not a bad thing per se. But there are few mechanism to curb the excesses, which leads to a rather larger divide between poor and rich people. Additionally, I have been told repeatedly that the American Dream, a large part of which revolves around wealth and independence, is no longer reachable for many young Americans.

#4 Americans are nationalistic
One of the things that is pretty much true. Although national pride is nothing new, America is one of the few western countries that infuse their kids with a strong sense of national identity. Their proudness can be viewed as a positive thing since it keeps them together. However, I think it mostly works against them, as it strongly affects international relations and is also an often used argument in debate: when Americans criticize their own country their patriotism is often questioned. Something which seems irrelevant to me.

#5 Americans are overweight
I believe about one in three Americans is significantly overweight. This was also roughly true where I was. It’s a sad thing, but as I have reported before, there’s little incentive to eat healthy or stay physically fit. If you want that, it has to come from you, as the country’s regulatory authorities and commercial parties hardly provide any incentive for living a healthy life.

#6 Americans are conservative
This is certainly true for a part of the population. However, this is not specific to the United States. The two-party political system polarizes people into either being a republican (conservative) or a democrat (liberal). This forced binary option makes the political orientation of people very visible. It seems somewhat awkward for a country based on market economics to have so little choice in its political system.

#7 Americans are not knowledgeable about the rest of the world
This strongly depends on where you are. In a university setting they are probably no less knowledgeable, and interested, in the world outside of their country. However, that’s a very narrow part of the demographic.

The truth is that Americans don’t have a lot of reason to travel outside their own country, since their huge land covers many climates, and has many beautiful sights. You can enjoy yourself there for a lifetime without having to ever travel outside of the country. That’s not to say that Americans don’t like to travel abroad: they certainly do. However, it’s probably true to some extent that their limited direct exposure to other cultures in terms of customs and language does not make them as aware of the world outside their country as the citizens of smaller countries in Europe.

#8 Americans are hard workers
As I understand it this depends a bit on where you are in the United States. The people in the southern states having an apparently more relaxed and laid back attitude. However, in Pittsburgh life is fairly rushed. People frequently complain about the long hours they have to put in. There’s a fair amount of shops open the whole day, every day, or something close to that.

It seems like they are good at what I call “making each other crazy” with few vacation hours and long working days. Whether that is actually beneficial overall is fairly doubtful. The increase in working hours is probably offset by a decline in productivity during those hours. Americans work a lot, that doesn’t make them hard workers.

Conclusion
Overall there is some element of truth in all of the items mentioned. However, the reality is less black and white and has many more shades of grey than many people are willing to believe. This isn’t helped by the vast amount of documentaries that serve only to reinforce the common stereotypes. Americans also, in part, owe this to themselves, as they seem more than happy to reinforce their image in media. When you visit the United States yourself, I would recommend trying to keep an open mind, even if that may be difficult sometimes.

A Brief Guide for the Dutch

Since I’ve spent some time in the United States, what follows are some ideas for shopping and eating that could save fellow traveling Dutchmen some time. Some of these may be specific to the Pittsburgh area, but others may also generalize to other parts of the country, particularly medium to large sized cities. Use to your advantage.

  • Cheese: there’s a lot of cheese around: different kinds from different countries. This large selection reduces the number of cheeses per country, so most Dutch cheese that you’ll find is Gouda “goo-dah”. Most of that is not Dutch import, but produced elsewhere in the US. Cheeses are notably less salty, but certainly no less fat. I recommend trying Pepper Jack if you’ve never had it and like spicy stuff.
  • Sprinkles: these are available in small packages for decorating cakes. Hence, putting this on your daily slices of bread will quickly turn into an expensive hobby. However, if you scout around you may find a local chocolate shop that imports Dutch products from de Ruijter “de-ruter”.
  • Potato Chips: I’ve found only the plainly salted potato chips to be comparable to their Dutch counterparts. You will find many familiar brands: Lays, Cheetos, etcetera. However, this is a deception, since most of these have a different ‘taste’ and texture. Bell pepper “paprika” potato chips are nowhere to be found, but there are a lot of oddly spiced chips if you’re into experimenting.
  • McDonald’s: if you’re looking for the typical yellow ‘mad sauce’ you won’t find it in the United States. Strangely it is marketed in Dutch supermarkets as an “American” sauce. Fries are generally served with ketchup and mayonnaise is available on request.
  • Big American Pizzas: thick crusted pizzas are not popular in the United States as far as I could tell. Yet another marketing ploy …
  • Teeth: if you want to keep them buy a good, preferably electrical, toothbrush as they will have to endure a sugar overload.
  • Tipping: unlike in the Netherlands this is expected in the United States: not tipping is considered rude. However, tipping is not expected if there’s a tipping box on the counter. As a rough guideline to what you will be signaling with your tipping amount: ten percent is bad service, fifteen percent okay service and twenty percent is excellent service. Remember that barbers and taxi drivers also expect tips.
  • Brands: In grocery stores expect to find a wide range of unfamiliar brands. Notable exceptions to this are Unilever brands and a broad range of personal care products. It’s fairly obvious what most things are though, so don’t be afraid to experiment (within reason).
  • Rental Cars: try Hertz or Avis.

While you may be familiar with many large American (fast) food chains, there are fairly large competitors that do not operate in the Netherlands. For example most people will be familiar with Starbucks, but not with Caribou Coffee. Similarly, everyone knows the sandwich shop Subway, but not Quiznos. If you like Bagels & Beans in the Netherlands, you will also like Panera Bread in the United States. Looking for a burrito or taco? Try the Chipotle Mexican Grill. If you want any type of quickly prepared food: your options are virtually endless.

Here’s a list of companies found in the Netherlands with United States alternatives. This list is not exhaustive, and it’s certainly not exact as many stores in the United States offer a wider range of products in a wider range of categories (and of course: Wal Mart really has everything, hence it’s not included).

  • V&D, Bijenkorf: Macy’s
  • Blokker, Hema: Target
  • Albert Heijn “To Go”: Seven Eleven, CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid
  • Albert Heijn: Whole Foods, Trader Joe
  • C1000: Giant Eagle (East-US Regional)
  • Makro: Costco
  • Ice cream!: Ben&Jerry’s, Baskin-Robbins, Frozen Yoghurt
  • Wolff, PathΓ©: AMC Theatres
  • Mediamarkt: BestBuy
  • Ikea: Ikea πŸ™‚

In general I recommend just walking around and going in and out of shops to get a feel for what is different. You will probably quickly get the ‘hang’ of it.

Update: a pointer from a friend for those interested in purchasing Dutch products in the United States: www.hollandsbest.com.

10 Kilometers

… or roughly 32 000 feet above the ground, that’s where I am now, as you are reading this. In about six hours I will land at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands, back where I started hundred and twenty-three days ago. It doesn’t seem that long when you are at the end of it, but that’s still a good third of a year.

It’s been a mostly fun and rewarding experience, but I have to say it was also frustrating at times. Nevertheless, I’ve quite gotten used to being able to drop in at the Starbucks around the corner, biking down Squirrel Hill into Oakland, having all kinds of conversations with Americans, hanging out with film club people, going to Pitt games with my landlord, et cetera. So, although I am quite excited to go home, there will definitely by things that I’ll miss.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my stay in Pittsburgh, and there will be some final US related articles coming up in this category as well. Keep reading πŸ™‚

Young Folks

During my stay in the Pittsburgh I’ve had lots of interesting conversations with all kinds of people. However, what stands out for me in particular is those with young Americans in their early twenties. They represent what America will look like tomorrow, and many of them are not very happy about what it looks like today. What follows are anonymized excerpts of various conversations, not exclusively, but predominantly with young adults, some of these have been slightly altered for the sake of readability.

Pride
I was standing near the front of a fairly crowded bus. We were waiting for it to depart: several people still needed to pay before exiting the vehicle.
“That’s taking a while,” I murmured.
“Damn, I just want to go home you know”, a middle-aged man standing next to me said. “They can just have their cash ready when they want to exit. They’re delaying all these people this way.”
“It’s not a very efficient system: paying cash, where I come from we use cards for that.”
“Where do you come from?”
“The Netherlands.”
“Oh wow, a friend of mine lived there for sometime, in Amsterdam I think.”
“Cool, then he probably knows the public transport infrastructure is better over there.”
“Sure, sure, better then here. There’s lots of things that could be improved in the United States.” He hesitated and continued: “but don’t misunderstand me: I am a proud American. It’s not a perfect country, but people keep coming here: just like you came to Pittsburgh, so we must be doing something right, right?”
I nodded in silent agreement.

Shame
“So, I’ve noticed that in the United States the gap between rich and poor is large,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right,” she replied.
“So, in Western Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, that gap tends to be a lot smaller: people are in some sense more equal, certainly in terms of purchasing power. We say `the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden'”
“Right, that’s the way it is supposed to work here. However, it really doesn’t work that way since rich people get huge tax cuts. I mean: Warren Buffet even suggested imposing more tax on his own socio-economic group: the rich.”
“But, the American economic system does encourage more risk-taking and appears to yield more innovation then the European one, right?”
“Right, but I still prefer a welfare state, like those in Europe or Canada.”

Rich
I was having a conversation with a group of people.
“So, I am trying to understand how it works here: are conservatives mostly older people and liberals mostly younger people?”
“More or less, the people in the bigger cities: the densely populated areas near the coasts, are generally more liberal, and most young people that are conservative are rich kids,” a girl replied.
“Rich kids?”
“Yes, like: kids with very rich parents, if one thing is true in America it’s that being rich will make you richer,” a boy added.
“That seems perverse. So, how does it work with tuition, that’s supposedly high here, right?”, I continued.
“For Carnegie Mellon it is about forty-three thousand dollars per year, but it varies depending on the school.”
“What, seriously?”, I wasn’t really expecting it to be that high.
“So, what is it in the Netherlands?”
“If I’d tell you that you’d go crazy”, I smiled.

History
“So, then, what was the American fight for independence really about?”, I asked.
“Well, don’t misunderstand: the American revolution was about a bunch of rich white guys on one side of the ocean that were unhappy about the unfair levied taxes imposed on them by some rich white guys on the other side of that same ocean: the British.”

Heritage
“One of the things I’ve found quite disappointing here in the United States is the emphasis on a person’s ethnic heritage.” I paused and pondered if I should broach the subject further, “statistics presented in the media are often about race: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and all combinations thereof. I mean: I personally don’t think that should matter at all.”
She smiled, “race shouldn’t matter: I agree, but it is an historically very sensitive issue here in the United States.”
I continued: “As an example, I’ve seen a lot of non-white people working menial jobs. Is my observation incorrect or is this really true?”
“It’s true, it’s true. It’s not just race though, it’s more socio-cultural,” she paused and frowned. “And you know what’s even worse? Say someone manages to get out of that situation, for example: a black female, she then gets stereotyped as the ‘strong black woman'”
“Positive discrimination?”
“Exactly.”

Occupation (1)
“So, what do you think occupy Wall Street is all about?”, I asked.
“I think what it boils down to is getting money out of politics.”
“Money?”
“Yes, in the United States when you run for president you need money: lots of money.” He paused briefly, then continued: “so, most of that money is provided by companies. They basically throw their weight behind any candidate who best serves their interest.”
“And you also have a two party system, right?”
“Right, you can run either for the democrats or republicans, there’s really no other practical way to win an election.”
“So, to recap: would you say it’s basically about reducing the indirect political power and influence of large and rich corporations?”
“That’s exactly it.”

Occupation (2)
“Have you followed the occupy Wall Street movement?”, he asked.
“Yes, somewhat, someone told me about it, but enlighten me: what is your view on what that’s really about?”, I replied.
“That’s indeed somewhat unclear to many people. So, there are a lot of important issues that the occupy movement raised, like: the greed of wall street, the influence of corporations, etcetera.” he said.
“However”, continuing, “there’s one issue at the center of it all.”
“And what might that be?”, I asked.
“Young versus old”, he replied with confidence. “Look: the young generation is tired of the older generation trying to dominate and regulate everything in this country.”
He hesitated for a second. “Don’t misunderstand me, I think this is a great nation.”
“I’ve heard that before: that belief seems like a very common American trait”, I interrupted. “Where does that actually come from?”
“I think we’re instilled with it from a young age onwards,” he looked briefly up at a friend for confirmation while rubbing his hands to battle the cold breeze.
“Many people think ‘frak it’ and then ‘flee’ to Canada or Europe,” he continued. “But if everyone with progressive ideas does that: only the conservative ones will remain. There’s already too much emphasis on tradition and that’ll only make it worse”
“You should come to Europe”, I said, “Just for a while to see what it’s like, I mean: it’s not perfect over there, but it would give you a better feeling of the differences.”
“No system is perfect.” He smiled.

Differences

Many of the differences between the United States and the Netherlands are surprisingly small. After all: both are “western” nations. However, careful observation does reveal a number of them both small and large. Here’s a handful which are true at least in the Pittsburgh area and some of which likely extend to the rest of the United States.

Eating Habits
I’ve already discussed some food aspects at length. However, let’s take a look at habitual differences with respect to eating. When given a meal Dutch people usually wait till everyone has a plate and only then start eating: there’s a ‘synchronization’ point. In contrast: Americans start eating as soon as something is put in front of them. Furthermore, Americans generally eat with only one utensil: spoon or fork, unless they are cutting, and rest their other hand in their lap, something which is considered rude in Dutch culture. People in the Netherlands commonly use both knife and fork while eating and keep both of their hands above the table at all times.

Conveyor-belt Style Food
The American contribution to the world cuisine is “fast food”. It is amazing, but also depressing to see how many fast food chains there actually are, many more than in continental Europe, it’s truly a Fast Food Nation. Most of these fast food restaurants transform traditional cooking into a conveyor-belt style chain where either each person completes some part of the task of preparing the final meal, or where one person prepares your food item while moving along bins with ingredients.

Recycling
Pittsburgh has a curb-side recycling program and encourages its citizens to split their waste in non-recyclable and recyclable stuff. The latter includes everything that can be recycled, including leaf waste for which we have a separate bin in the Netherlands. There is no separation of different types of waste in public waste bins as is common in for example Germany. However, on the University terrain bins of this type can be found in some places.

You can get money back for recycling plastic bottles. However, I’ve not yet come across the automated bottle processing systems prolific in the Netherlands. Furthermore, there’s a lot of plastic waste being generated as a result of coated cups, take-out cutlery and bags. While many systems are in place which enable recycling. It’s not consistent and overall Americans don’t really seem to care about recycling at all. If you’re European: there’s certainly no need to feel environmentally guilty compared to what is happening here in the United States.

Banking
You probably won’t find cheques in the Netherlands unless you are at an archaeological excavation, but they are one of the primary means of payment here after cash and credit card. Interestingly, even debit cards are made so that you can use them as a credit card. Internet banking is available and works fairly well. However, an “on-line” bank transfer boils down to the bank mailing a cheque to the recipient on your behalf. Again: the American banking system doesn’t exactly sparkle modernity.

Buses and Public Transport
The bus system in Pittsburgh is decent, although not exactly reliable or punctual. Unless you have a pass, you pay cash to the driver and you have to pay exact. There’s a machine that collects your bills and coins in front of the bus. Although I am not a big proponent of the OV Chip Card, the cash payment system here is inefficient and cumbersome. People enter and exit buses using the front door, rarely does the back door get used. This doesn’t really make sense to me either. Many of the buses are also equipped with bike carrying racks, located at the front of the bus, on which one or two bikes can be mounted. Although this is a nice service, I would not quickly put my bike at the front of a bus.

Trains are not a very popular mode of transport, since they take very long to get anywhere. The reason being that passenger trains don’t have a high priority on the rail network in contrast to freight trains. Most people resort to either airplanes or cars for any type of travel. Car usage has historically been heavily promoted, since a large part of the American economy used to rely on it.

Streets and Cars
The streets are somewhat wider, but that’s also because there are no separate parking bays: cars are almost always parked on both sides of the road on nearly all streets. Whilst this occurs in the Netherlands too, parking bays are probably more common.

Traffic lights in the United States are consistently on the opposite side of the street, while in most of Europe they are more commonly on the same side. I feel that opposite placement is actually better since this makes the light easier to see when it’s high up.

The cars are bigger: you will not see many compact cars driving around here. This is also caused by the fact that the driving distances are generally longer and the fact that gasoline is somewhere between two and two-and-a-half times cheaper here compared to the Netherlands. As far as I could find there’s no vehicle excise tax based on the weight or pollution of vehicles which would also explain why Americans prefer large cars: there’s no disincentive for owning one. However, there’s a road and fuel tax system.

As far as brand names are concerned, it seems French cars are not popular. There are very few cars that carry the Peugot or Citroen brand: I haven’t actually seen any. However, German and Japanese cars are prolific: BMW, Volkswagen, Audi, Honda, Toyota, and of course American car brands like Chevrolet, GMC, Ford and Jeep. Of these American brands only Ford is popular in Europe.

Bikes
Bikes are not very common: I have had people take pictures of me because I was riding a bike. Nevertheless, I have been told that their popularity is rising. Many bikers are of the “sports” kind and not of the “commute” kind. Bikes are a bit more common among the student population, but nowhere near as common as in the Netherlands. Furthermore, there are no separate traffic lights for bikes and there are only occasional bike lanes. On some streets it is certainly safer to use the sidewalk for biking, even if it sometimes annoys pedestrians πŸ™‚

Finally, they do not have Saint Nicholas here. I guess the United States is just a bit too far from Spain. Can’t have it all.